Unqualified but energetic: Hamilton and Mercedes take hope from US GP.

Unqualified but energetic: Hamilton and Mercedes take hope from US GP.

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AUSTIN, TX – “Lewis, we need two more rounds.

Pete Bonnington had a springy and uplifting voice as Lewis Hamilton finished second in the United States Grand Prix.

For a driver and engineer combination that has won more than 80 Formula One races since 2013, P2 is not a place to celebrate with much emotion or passion.

The Red Bull driver claimed his 15th grand prix win of the season and 50th of his career as Hamilton’s late pursuit of Verstappen ended with a narrow 2.2 second defeat.

The strength of Hamilton’s performance would later be stripped of material value when the car failed post-race technical inspection. The Mercedes W14’s bottom plank was 9mm thinner than the required minimum thickness and was therefore rejected. Charles Leclerc was disqualified for the same infraction, losing his sixth place.

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Hamilton’s and Mercedes’ most promising weekend was bittersweet. The pace wasn’t just for racing at the front. Hamilton could have won.

“Definitely this is the most positive feeling I’ve had this year,” Hamilton said before the news that his car had failed technical inspection and lost second place.

Performance and confidence levels

The signs were there as Hamilton drove the first lap of practice at the Circuit of the Americas on Friday. The updated surface was Mercedes’ last major upgrade of the season for Hamilton and teammate George Russell’s cars. Mercedes hopes not only to improve its performance, but also to help its growth trajectory for next year.

Second place was Hamilton’s best result since the Spanish Grand Prix in early June, making his performance clear. And it was on merit. “It’s a strong second,” he said. “It’s not just ‘second’ – it was a strong second.”

Perhaps more important was the improved feel Hamilton had in the Mercedes W14. He can throw the car into the corners and learn to give thanks to the comfortable balance, which gives him more confidence – something he has lacked in the points this year.

“For example, the improvement was only one-tenth (of a second) but it gave me at least one-tenth of confidence,” Hamilton said.

It was just the breakthrough Hamilton and Mercedes needed. 2023 was “not a terrible year” in Hamilton’s words, but the team fell short of expectations. The 2022 ailment, the first winless campaign of Hamilton’s 16-season F1 career, has prompted Mercedes to right the wrongs of last year’s car – only to make its debut in Bahrain to make the effort clear.

Although Mercedes has brought a stream of updates to the car this year, most notably abandoning the sleek Gunpod concept in Monaco, Hamilton’s Austin said: “This is the first weekend where I feel the updates work.”

“I know how hard everyone works in the factory,” he added. But it’s nice to finally be able to see the results of their hard work and feel it in the car.

How did Hamilton win?

Relegation from second place will hurt Hamilton and Mercedes. However, they could have lost their first win in two years because of Plank’s suit – certainly a crueler and more tragic scenario.

Hamilton overtook the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc to take P2 after six laps, with the gap to early leader Lando Norris hovering around three seconds. Late in the race, he made a move on the McLaren and cut the gap to 1.6 seconds before Norris gave way at the end of lap 17. And cut under as he struggled with brake problems.

Austin, Tx - October 22: Mercedes Amg Petronas F1 Team Driver Lewis Hamilton (44) Of England Sprints During Turn 1 And Fans At The Formula 1 Lenovo United States Grand Prix At Circuit Of The Americas On October 22, 2023 In Austin, Texas.  (Photo By David Buono/Icon Sports Via Getty Images)

“That’s definitely the most positive I’ve ever felt this year,” Hamilton said. (David Buono/ICON Sportswear via Getty Images)

Instead of pitting Hamilton on the same lap as Norris to cover Verstappen – who was four seconds clear of Hamilton before stopping – Mercedes decided to hold out a few laps longer. Red Bull has told Verstappen that he thinks Hamilton may be trying a one-stop strategy.

Mercedes had taken that into account, but had to bring it in at the end of lap 20, when the pit wall began to drop Hamilton’s time significantly. A slow pit stop didn’t help.

A four-lap tire offset created by staying slightly longer was intended to help Hamilton attack Norris. But as Verstappen completed a series of fast laps on his new tyre, his layoff allowed him to gain track position. Hamilton went from a four-second lead to six behind Verstappen, leaving him confused about his strategy.

“We lost a lot of time on extension and fell off a cliff in performance,” Hamilton explained. “When I got out of there, these people were miles away on the road. When Max got into the hole he wasn’t even close to me.

Had Mercedes run the same lap as Norris, it would have put Hamilton on the track ahead of Verstappen and put him in a straight battle, car to car, driver to driver. Instead, his compensating strategy set up a late charge on the intermediates as he overtook Norris and Verstappen dropped a few laps to reach the line.

Had that first pit stop been made a few laps earlier, could Hamilton have won?

“Yeah, I think we would have been in a fight with Max,” Hamilton said. I think we have made life more difficult than it needs to be today.

Optimism in incompetence

It would be a tough break for Hamilton and Mercedes to lose P2 in this fashion. There was no force majeure or anything else to argue about. The team accepted the FIA’s decision, and said that the wear on the lower body to prepare and test the car before the race was reduced due to the track and sprint weekend format. Running a car closer to the ground helps improve downforce, which is why the FIA ​​sets a minimum thickness for the boards and inspects them after the race.

The 18 points lost has a huge impact on Hamilton and Mercedes. Hamilton has closed the gap on Sergio Perez to 19 points in the fight for second place in the drivers’ championship. Now 37. Mercedes’ 31-point lead over Ferrari for P2 has dropped to 21 points in the constructors’ standings.

But in the long run, the weekend was full of positives. The journey Hamilton and Mercedes are on now is second to none. In the year It’s a return to form as the serial title-winning juggernaut that dominated F1 with six titles in the seven years between 2014 and 2020. Sunday’s race showed that the team is headed in the right direction.

“There are a lot of things that we can improve on in terms of process, we’re all in it,” Hamilton said. “I believe we are definitely going in the right direction.”

Hamilton has four more races to end his win drought of more than two seasons. Despite Verstappen and Red Bull’s impressive run to victory, Austin gave Hamilton hope that everything is falling into place – and a victory could happen before the end of 2023.

“Maybe we’ll be in a position like that and we’ll get the strategy right, and we’ll get the pit stop right,” Hamilton said. “Maybe we’re on their tail and we’re seeing some good racing. So I’m excited.”

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(Lewis Hamilton lead image: Song Haiyuan/MB Media/Getty Images)