Nico Rosberg is playing the “long game” while Carlos Sainz may have lost out in the Fernando Alonso tussle but could yet have the last laugh.
Playing the long game
Venus Williams was one of the high-profile figures in the Mercedes paddock this weekend and the US Grand Prix, although not a classic, was befitting of a match at Flushing Meadows as F1’s big boys probed and pushed their opponents on the track.
The strategic battle between Mercedes, Red Bull, and Ferrari made for compelling viewing, while some drivers literally pushed their rivals around – here’s looking at you Daniil Kvyat while Fernando Alonso’s light ‘kiss’ on former team-mate Felipe Massa also stands out.
Lewis Hamilton may have trimmed Nico Rosberg’s lead to 26 points but as the German said repeatedly on team radio, what matters is the “long game”.
Rosberg does not need to take any risks and made it clear in Austin that he will be playing the percentages in Mexico, Brazil, and Abu Dhabi.
Reliability notwithstanding, it is clearly Rosberg’s title to lose.
How to measure greatness
While it might be too much to suggest that Hamilton’s was a pyrrhic victory, the big points’ deficit to Rosberg will have erased some of the sweetness from winning in America.
But the triple world champion did notch up a remarkable milestone in winning in Austin as he claimed his 50th grand prix – only Michael Schumacher and Alain Prost have won more.
Hamilton’s desire to equal Prost’s four titles is under threat from Rosberg, who, it is worth noting, has won almost as many races as the likes of Nelson Piquet, Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, and Niki Lauda.
Unlike this illustrious company Rosberg has not won a title, but his race start to win ratio of 11.3% is marginally better than Piquet (11.2%) and not far off Lauda’s 14.6%.
Alonso’s Texas moment, but will Sainz have the last laugh?
The late duel between the Spaniards was arguably the highlight of the grand prix. Fernando Alonso expressed his delight by yelling “yee-haw” on radio when he overtook Carlos Sainz for 5th.
But sixth is a fine return for Sainz, especially considering the machinery at his disposal and his team-mate Kvyat’s relative nightmare of a race.
Confirmed at Toro Rosso for 2017, unlike Kvyat, the young Spanish star might see another season with the team as a disappointment.
Although Max Verstappen outqualified and outscored Sainz in 2015, he hardly put him in the shade, and a run of four straight DNFs hampered Sainz’s campaign.
With all of this evidence in mind, a contract at a top team beckons for Sainz, though he could learn a lot from Alonso’s troubles since leaving Renault. Making the correct career moves are just as important as pure speed and race craft.
Danny Ric rolls on
As this column has pointed out before, the Red Bull star has been in an exceptional run of form since the summer. After overtaking Rosberg through T2 on the opening lap, Daniel Ricciardo drove another assured race to claim his seventh podium of the year.
The Australian believes that the virtual safety car, ironically deployed when his team-mate Verstappen retired on lap 31, cost him second.
“We seemed to be, at that stage, able to hold on to second,” said Ricciardo. “With the VSC, we lost 10 seconds to Nico.”
Since the German Grand Prix Ricciardo has bagged an impressive 128 points and only the Mercedes duo have scored more (Rosberg – 145 and Hamilton – 128).
No luck for Max and Kimi
Verstappen again made his mark with a bold overtaking move on Kimi Raikkonen, although later in the race he dove into the pits to find that his crew were not ready for him.
The teenager to the blame for the rookie error, though it became a moot point a few laps later when a transmission problem forced him into retirement.
Raikkonen, meanwhile, underscored his resurgence with a storming drive that was facilitated by an aggressive strategy of undercuts from Ferrari. While the Finn lacked the pace to compete for a place on the rostrum, he was ahead of Sebastian Vettel when his pitstop went awry, also forcing him into retirement
The team-mates wars among the Bulls and at the Prancing Horse are one of the key narratives going into 2017.
Raikkonen has rehabilitated his reputation after a tough few seasons, while Vettel has struggled by his standards and has been on the podium just once in the last 10 races.
As for Red Bull, many analysts would agree that Verstappen and Ricciardo is the most exciting line-up in F1. And don’t forget a certain Carlos Sainz nipping at their heels.
Richard F Rose