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AUSTIN, Texas – “We just needed a few more laps, Lewis.”
Pete Bonnington had a spring and a lift in his voice as Lewis Hamilton crossed the line to take second place in the United States Grand Prix.
For a driver and engineer who has won more than 80 Formula 1 races since 2013, P2 is not a place to celebrate with much enthusiasm or passion.
Hamilton’s late pursuit of Verstappen ended in a 2.2-second defeat, as the Red Bull driver claimed his 15th grand prix win of the season and the 50th of his career.
Hamilton’s performance powerhouse would later be stripped of its monetary value when his car failed post-race technical inspection. The wood panel beneath the body of the Mercedes W14 was thinner than the minimum thickness requirement of 9mm, leading to the disqualification. Charles Leclerc was disqualified for the same violation, losing sixth place.
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It was a bitter end to the most encouraging weekend of the season for Hamilton and Mercedes. The pace wasn’t there just to compete at the front. Hamilton could have won.
“This is definitely the most positive I’ve felt this year,” Hamilton said, before the news his car had failed a technical inspection and lost second place.
A step up in performance and confidence
The signs were there when Hamilton led his first lap of testing on Friday at Circuit of the Americas. An updated floor has been fitted to the cars of Hamilton and teammate George Russell as Mercedes’ last major upgrade for the season. Mercedes was hoping not only to improve performance, but to help guide its development next year.
Second place was Hamilton’s best result since the Spanish Grand Prix in early June, making the performance clear. It was on merit. “It’s a powerful moment,” he said. “It’s not just about second place, it was a strong second.”
Perhaps more important was the improved feeling Hamilton felt in the Mercedes W14. He could throw the car into corners knowing it would hold thanks to the more comfortable balance, which gave him more confidence – something he lacked at some points this year.
“It was only a tenth of a second promotion, for example, but there is at least a tenth of the confidence it gave me,” Hamilton explained. “So it’s interesting what you see when you have a dual effect.”
It was a necessary achievement for Hamilton and Mercedes. As Hamilton put it, 2023 “wasn’t a terrible year”, but it was well below the team’s expectations. The pain of 2022, the first winless campaign in Hamilton’s 16-season Formula 1 career, motivated Mercedes to right the wrongs of last year’s car – only for this year’s first qualifying in Bahrain to make it clear that its efforts had failed.
Although Mercedes has brought a series of updates to the car over the course of this year, most notably ditching the slim-side concept at Monaco, Hamilton said Austin was “the first weekend where I really feel like the upgrades are working.”
“I know how hard everyone works at the factory,” he added. “But it’s nice to finally start seeing and feeling the fruits of their hard work in the car too.”
How could Hamilton have won?
Being eliminated from second place would hurt Hamilton and Mercedes. However, they could have lost their first victory in nearly two years due to corrosion of the shingles – certainly a much harsher and harsher scenario.
Hamilton passed Ferrari drivers Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc to take second place after six laps, with the gap between him and leader Lando Norris about three seconds. Towards the end of the stint, he built up a lead over the McLaren, cutting the gap to 1.6 seconds before Norris pitted at the end of lap 17. This was in response to Verstappen, who came in at the end of lap 16 to try and got the pit stop while struggling with a brake problem. .
Instead of putting Hamilton on the same lap as Norris to cover Verstappen – who was four seconds behind Hamilton before the stop – Mercedes decided to hold him out a few laps longer. Red Bull has told Verstappen that it believes Hamilton may try a one-stop strategy, extending the period.
Mercedes thought about it, but when the pit wall saw Hamilton’s time drop significantly, she had to bring him in at the end of lap 20. A slow pit stop didn’t help matters.
The four-lap tire offset created by staying out a little longer was intended to help Hamilton attack Norris. But staying out allowed Verstappen to gain track position after he completed a series of fast laps on his new tyres. Hamilton went from four seconds ahead of Verstappen to six seconds behind, leaving him at a loss for strategy.
“We wasted a lot of time in the extension and really fell into the abyss in performance,” Hamilton explained. “Then, when I got out, those guys were miles down the road. When Max pulled into the pits, he wasn’t even close to me.”
Had Mercedes gone on the same lap as Norris, it would have kept Hamilton ahead of Verstappen on the track and put him in a direct struggle, car versus car, driver versus driver. Instead, his compensation strategy sparked a late media attack in which he passed Norris and then fell a few laps short of reaching Verstappen at the finish line.
If the first pit stop had been made a few laps earlier, could Hamilton have won?
“Yes, I think we would have been in a fighting position to fight with Max,” Hamilton said. “I think we made our lives a lot harder today than it should have been.”
Optimism about exclusion
It’s hard for Hamilton and Mercedes to lose second place like that. There was no force majeure or other circumstances they could argue. The team accepted the FIA’s ruling, and said that the wear on the lower plank was due to the bumpy track and reduced time within the weekend format for pre-race car preparation and inspection. Running the car closer to the ground can help improve downforce, which is why the FIA sets a minimum sheet thickness and checks it after the race.
The 18 points lost have a huge impact on both Hamilton and Mercedes. In the struggle for second place in the Drivers’ Championship, Hamilton narrowed the gap with Sergio Perez to 19 points. Now it’s 37. Mercedes’ 31-point lead over Ferrari for second place in the Constructors’ Championship has been reduced to 21 points.
But in the long run, the weekend was full of positives. The journey that Hamilton and Mercedes are currently on is not about second place. It’s about a return to the title-winning juggernaut that ruled Formula 1 with six titles in seven years between 2014 and 2020. Sunday’s race showed that the team is on the right track.
“There are a lot of things we can improve on operations, all of us,” Hamilton said. “I definitely think we’re going in the right direction.”
Hamilton has four more races to end his drought of victories, which extends for more than two seasons. Although beating Verstappen and Red Bull will still be very difficult, Austin has given Hamilton hope that everything is falling into place – and that a win before the end of 2023 could happen.
“Maybe we would be in a situation like this and get the strategy right and get the pit stop right,” Hamilton said. “Maybe we’ll be aware of their tails and look at some good racing. So, I’m excited.
(Main photo by Lewis Hamilton: Song Haiyuan/MB Media/Getty Images)
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