Unqualified but excited: Hamilton and Mercedes take confidence from US GP

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Austin, TX – “We need two more rounds, Lewis.”

Pete Bonnington had a spring in his voice when Lewis Hamilton finished second in the United States Grand Prix.

For the driver and engineer duo who have won more than 80 Formula One races since 2013, P2 was not a stage to celebrate with much enthusiasm or enthusiasm.

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

The strength of Hamilton’s performance was later stripped of its material value when his car failed post-race technical inspection. The bottom plank of the Mercedes W14 was thinner than the required minimum thickness of 9mm, resulting in disqualification. Charles Leclerc was disqualified for the same offence, losing his sixth place.

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It was a bitter end to what was arguably the most encouraging weekend of the season for Hamilton and Mercedes. Not just the speed to compete at the front. Hamilton might have won.

“It’s definitely the most positive I’ve felt this year,” said Hamilton, who, ahead of the news, had failed a technical test and lost second place.

A step forward in performance and confidence

The signs were there when Hamilton drove his first lap in practice at the Circuit of the Americas on Friday. Mercedes’ last major upgrade of the season saw Hamilton and teammate George Russell’s cars fitted with an updated platform. Mercedes hopes that it will not only improve performance but also help it move in its growth direction next year.

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

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Perhaps most important was the improved feeling Hamilton had in the Mercedes W14. He could toss the car into corners and know that it would handle thanks to a comfortable balance that gave him more confidence – something he lacked in the points this year.

“For example, it’s only a one-tenth (of a second) improvement, but at least one-tenth of the confidence it gave me,” Hamilton explained. “So it’s very interesting what you see when you have a double knock-on effect.”

It’s a much-needed breakthrough for Hamilton and Mercedes. 2023 was, in Hamilton’s words, “not a terrible year,” but it fell short of the team’s expectations. The pain of 2022, the first winless campaign of Hamilton’s 16-season F1 career, has prompted Mercedes to fix last year’s car’s faults – only to see its efforts fall short in the first qualifying round of the year in Bahrain.

Although Mercedes has brought updates to the car throughout the year, notably ditching the slimmed-down sidepod concept in Monaco, Hamilton said Austin was “the first weekend I felt the upgrades work”.

“I know how hard everyone works at the factory,” he added. “But it’s nice to finally start seeing the rewards of their hard work and feel it in the car.”

How could Hamilton have won?

Disqualification from second place will hurt Hamilton and Mercedes. Nevertheless, they may have lost their first win in almost two years due to board wear – surely a cruel, very bad situation.

Hamilton passed the Ferraris of Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc to take P2 after six laps, a gap of three seconds to early leader Lando Norris. At the end of the stint, he entered the McLaren, closing the gap to 1.6 seconds before Norris pitted at the end of lap 17. This was answered by Verstappen, who was about to try at the end of lap 16. He struggled with brake issues to get the undercut.

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

Instead of pitting Hamilton on the same lap as Norris to cover Verstappen, who was four seconds behind Hamilton before stopping, Mercedes decided to keep him out for a few laps. Red Bull told Verstappen he thought Hamilton might try a one-stop strategy.

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Mercedes considered it, but when it saw Hamilton’s times start to drop drastically, it had to bring him to the end of lap 20. A slow pit stop didn’t help matters.

A four-lap tire offset created by being out for a while was intended to help Hamilton attack Norris. But Verstappen allowed track position as he completed a series of fast laps on his new tyres. Hamilton went from a four-second lead to six behind Verstappen, confounding him with strategy.

“We lost a lot of time in the stretch and fell off a cliff in performance,” Hamilton explained. “Then, when I came out, these guys were miles down the road. When Max came into the pit, he wasn’t even near me.

Had Mercedes contested the same lap as Norris, it would have put Hamilton ahead of Verstappen and pitted him against car against car, driver against driver. Instead, his offset strategy set up a late charge in the media where he passed Norris, then fell a few laps short to overtake Verstappen.

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

“Yes, I think we would have been in a position to fight with Max,” Hamilton said. “I think we’ve made our lives more difficult today than they should be.”

Belief in disqualification

It was a tough gap for Hamilton and Mercedes to lose P2 in this fashion. There was no coercion or any other circumstance that they could argue. The team accepted the FIA’s ruling, and under the sprint weekend format to set up and check the car before the race, there was wear and tear on the undercarriage. Running the car closer to the ground can help improve downforce, which is why the FIA ​​sets a minimum thickness for the boards and inspects them after the race.

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Losing 18 points has a big impact on both Hamilton and Mercedes. In the second race of the drivers’ championship, Hamilton closed the gap on Sergio Perez to 19 points. Now it’s 37. Mercedes’ 31-point advantage over Ferrari shrinks to 21 points for constructors’ P2.

But in the long run, the weekend was full of positives. Hamilton and Mercedes’ current journey is not about second place. It is all about regaining status as a serial title-winning juggernaut that ruled F1 with six titles in the seven years between 2014 and 2020. Sunday’s race showed the team is on the right track.

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

Hamilton has four races left to extend his win drought beyond two seasons. While Verstappen and Red Bull will find it incredibly difficult to beat, Austin has given Hamilton hope that everything is in place – and a victory could happen before the end of 2023.

“Maybe we’ll be in a position like this and we’ll get the strategy right and we’ll get the pit stop right,” Hamilton said. “Maybe we’ll be right on their tails and see some good races. So, I’m excited.

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

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