Anguish in Austin is an unknown emotion for Lewis Hamilton, but Mercedes team manager Toto Wolff fears engine problems could thwart the British driver’s title hopes.
It’s generally a productive circuit for Hamilton, who has won five of the eight competitions held here and often cites it as one of his favorite races. Still, Mercedes’ reliability concerns cast a shadow over preparation for the United States Grand Prix on Sunday on an unusually difficult day of training.
The rivalry between Hamilton and Max Verstappen threatened to spill over when the two faced off in the second practice session on Friday, prompting Verstappen to give Hamilton the middle finger and exclaim over the radio: “Stupid idiot ! “
It was a sign of the tension between them after the world champion was overtaken at the top of the table by Verstappen in Turkey two weeks ago. Hamilton’s Mercedes dropped 10 grid spots as punishment for a fourth engine change of the season and he while Verstappen was second. This result means the Red Bull driver holds a six point lead over Hamilton with six races to go.
Mercedes dominated the first practice session in Texas, with Valtteri Bottas the fastest and Hamilton the next, while Verstappen was almost a second slower. But Wolff’s joy at the top speed of his riders in a straight line was tempered by anxiety over technical issues. Bottas – third in the standings and winner in Turkey – was given a five-grid handicap on Friday for using a sixth internal combustion engine this year – three more than the regulations allow. This is the Finn’s third penalty in four races.
“I think you see we are suffering from reliability this year,” Wolff said. “This year it really touched us. He declined to go into the details of the specific problem. Two other drivers with Mercedes engines – Williams’ George Russell and Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel – are also penalized this weekend for using spare parts. Verstappen started the Russian Grand Prix last month from the back of the grid after exceeding his season’s allowance by several parts, including a Honda engine.
“We’re trying to get over the issues, and we didn’t get it right,” Wolff said. “We try to push the performance every year and this year we got to a point where it cost us points, but over the last 10 or eight years that mindset has allowed us to win races and championships. “
Technical issues present a dilemma for Mercedes with the well-prepared title race. Replace Hamilton’s engine again and they risk a repeat of Istanbul, with a further penalty likely to deny him a podium and give Verstappen the opportunity to extend his lead.
But in the worst-case scenario, a foul forcing Hamilton to give up as Verstappen wins and records the fastest lap, the resulting 26-point gain for the Dutchman would be potentially disastrous for Hamilton’s prospects of a fifth world title. consecutive. “Obviously, the risk is still there. What is difficult is, do you want to anticipate the situation and take another penalty, take the hit, or do you want to execute it and then possibly risk a DNF? It’s an unfolding discussion, ”Wolff said.
The Circuit of the Americas offers plenty of passing opportunities allowing for progression from the back of the grid, but the next race, Mexico City on November 7, is at high altitude, putting extra strain on the engines. Verstappen has won there twice.
The early years of his Formula 1 career were marred by frequent collisions and accusations of being overly aggressive. Former Red Bull Verstappen teammate Daniel Ricciardo believes the 24-year-old has matured, although clashes with Hamilton this year at Silverstone and Monza – the latter seen as Verstappen’s fault – have rekindled talks over a belligerent style that his Friday demeanor seemed to exemplify. . “There was that stage in, I would say, Max’s young career, when he had the speed but there were still a few – call it mistakes, or a little anxiety or impatience,” said Ricciardo, who now drives for McLaren. “2018 was really that year where he kind of learned from that and then the second half of his season was really strong. You might see that click in maturity on track. And the last few seasons for him have been pretty huge.