Lewis Hamilton fastest in US Grand Prix practice as Sebastian Vettel is punished

Lewis Hamilton fastest in US Grand Prix practice as Sebastian Vettel is punished
Lewis Hamilton tops US GP practice as Sebastian Vettel given penalty
Ferraris Sebastian Vettel has been handed a three-place grid penalty at the United States Grand Prix.

The decision, for not slowing sufficiently for a red flag in practice, increases the chances of Lewis Hamilton clinching his fifth world title in the race on Sunday.

Wolff may be spared having to make any difficult decisions, however, following a dominant display by Hamilton during the rain-hit Friday running at the Circuit of The Americas. Over in Vettels camp, meanwhile, an already difficult task for the Ferrari driver was made harder after he was handed a three-place grid penalty for failing to slow down sufficiently under red flags in FP1.

Vettels offence came after the first session was stopped because Saubers Charles Leclerc, who will be Vettels team-mate at Ferrari next year, had strewn gravel on the track at Turn Nine when rejoining after a spin in wet conditions.

Hamilton needs to outscore Vettel by eight points in Austin to claim the fifth title of his career, meaning that, if he finishes first and Vettel is third or lower, the championship is his. But Hamilton finishing second will leave Vettel only having to finish fifth to keep the championship fight bubbling along until at least Mexico.

Stewards ruled that Vettel had gone faster than the minimum time permitted in that area of the track.

The racer in him might not like it – but when pushed over whether hed move Valtteri Bottas aside in Sundays United States Grand Prix if it meant securing Lewis Hamilton the title, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff admitted that he would likely go against his racing instincts and make the call for the Finn to give way.

The decision means Vettel cannot start the race higher than fourth, even if he takes pole position on Saturday, when the wet conditions of Friday are expected to continue.

Its difficult because there was a decision that I thought was a bit harsh against Esteban [Ocon] last weekend [in Suzuka] and it sets a precedent, said Wolff. For the championship, obviously its not good if Sebastian would get a penalty, wed rather have him there and put on a great show.

Ill probably go for the points – Wolff ready to implement team orders to give Hamilton title in US

Mercedes have been quicker than Ferrari in the wet so far this season. If Vettel qualifies third, he will start the race sixth, and his chances of finishing second will be small.

Vettel was ahead in the drivers championship at one point, but in the last month it has all seemingly fallen apart. Photo by Motorsport Images-LAT

They were very specific saying I took 27.7secs to slow down. I saw the red flag, I slowed down, had a look around where the car was potentially stuck in the wall or if there was one around Turns Nine and 10, and then slowed down significantly to comply with the rules. They felt it took too long.

Should Sebastian Vettel have attempted the move on Max Verstappen at Suzuka that left him having to claw his way back to sixth place rather than fighting Lewis Hamilton for the win? It was an issue that was still buzzing around Vettel like an annoying fly in the run up to the United States Grand Prix. But as the German driver pointed out, with a 67-point deficit to Hamilton in the drivers standings, and only 100 left on the table, its risks he needs to be taking if hes to stay in the hunt for the 2018 title.

F1: I need to take risks to stay in championship fight says Vettel

“There should be common sense with the rules we have. Lining out 27.7secs precisely as an act of not complying with the rules is wrong.

With Hamilton needing to outscore Vettel by just eight points at the United States Grand Prix to claim his fifth world title, Vettel knows that he and Ferrari need to be firing on all cylinders in Austin to keep his championship hopes alive. And ahead of the weekend, the German was still holding out hope that he and his team might re-find the form that, at times in 2018, succeeded in dumbfounding Mercedes – even if, on recent evidence, they might struggle…

“The rules are clear, so we know, but it is the first time we had it in the wet and in the wet the target is a lot slower, so literally I have to stop to 30, 40, 50 km/h to bring down the delta (time in that sector of the lap).

Vettel tried the move on Verstappen on lap eight of the Japanese Grand Prix, attempting to squeeze down the inside of the Dutchmans Red Bull into Spoon corner. But Verstappen refused to budge, and when the pair collided, Vettel was spun into the run-off area, and forced to spend the afternoon climbing back up the order. It looked a little something like this…

“In my opinion it is not the right thing. If there is a car behind you it might run into you, but it is more important you dont get a penalty.”

US F1 Grand Prix: Lewis Hamilton chases championship win, Michael Schumacher, Juan Manuel Fangio

It is the latest in a series of errors committed by either the driver or his team that have badly affected their championship chances this season.

Mansell: Hamilton will equal Schumachers title record in next few years

Hamilton headed Toro Rossos Pierre Gasly by 1.012 seconds in the second session after beating Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas by 1.3secs in the first.

Fernando Alonso, who raced with a rookie Hamilton at McLaren in 2007 – a fractious combination which contributed to the double world champion quitting the British team after just one year – believes his former rival must be considered among the sport’s elite.

Vettel was only 11th fastest in the second session, 5.6secs off the pace. He was fifth and nearly two seconds behind Hamilton in the first.

Ferrari have brought an aerodynamic upgrade this weekend in the hope of closing the gap to Mercedes, which has opened up dramatically in the last three races.

The conditions made both sessions unrepresentative and Vettel was running on much older intermediate tyres than Hamilton in the second session.

Allison, a Cambridge graduate and son of Air Chief Marshall Sir John Allison, mainly deals with Hamilton the driver, rather than the humanitarian. And he has no doubts about Lewiss nerveless preparations for this weekends tilt at winning the eight points more than Sebastian Vettel that he needs to equal Juan Manuel Fangio on five titles, a feat that would raise him on to the top plinth of British practitioners in the history of organised sport.

Sebastian Vettel: I should have done better

“Not many quality laps,” he said, “but I think its clear that when its wet we were not quick enough today.”

Vettel: Stewards were wrong to penalise me

In the second session, Red Bulls Max Verstappen was third fastest on used tyres, ahead of McLarens Fernando Alonso fourth ahead of Renaults Nico Hulkenberg. Toro Rossos Brendon Hartley, using new tyres like his team-mate.

Hamilton expecting Ferrari to punch back in Austin

Four drivers did not run at all in the session – Bottas, Red Bulls Daniel Ricciardo and both Haas cars.

Ill probably go for the points – Wolff ready to implement team orders to give Hamilton title in US

Ferrari brings major F1 floor upgrade to United States Grand Prix

After heavy overnight rain, it was a very damp Circuit of The Americas that greeted the F1 drivers for opening practice on Friday morning. That didnt put off Lewis Hamilton, who led the session by a comfortable 1.3s from Mercedes team mate Valtteri Bottas.

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Alonso puts Hamilton among F1s top-5 all-time greats

The Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo were hot on the heels of the second Silver Arrow, while Hamiltons title rival Sebastian Vettel took fifth for Ferrari, almost two seconds off the championship leaders pace, and just ahead of team mate Kimi Raikkonen.

Why Lewis Hamiltons late-season march to the title is no surprise

Completing the top 10 were Renaults Carlos Sainz, the Haas of Romain Grosjean, and Sauber team mates Charles Leclerc and Marcus Ericsson.

“Fangio is the Godfather of the sport for us,” Hamilton said. “He’s one of the greats from the beginning. It’s crazy for me to think that l am embarking on a similar number of championships that he had.”

After initial exploratory laps from most drivers on full wet tyres, Renaults Nico Hulkenberg was the first to switch to intermediates 12 minutes in, and that remained the rubber of choice for the remainder of the 90 minutes.

Eleven of those 90 were lost to a red flag period to allow stones to be cleared from the track after Leclerc survived a spin at Turn 9. Several others had off-track moments – Vettel and Verstappen among them – but arguably the only other real moment of drama came when Esteban Ocon misjudged a pit stop, forcing his Force India crew to take evasive action.

Lewis Hamilton: Great respect for Sebastian Vettel

There were two Friday drivers in action. Briton Lando Norris got more track time with McLaren in preparation for his 2019 race debut with the team, taking Stoffel Vandoornes car to a very creditable 12th place, just two-tenths off Fernando Alonso.

And at Toro Rosso, Brendon Hartley stepped aside to give Indonesian F2 racer Sean Gelael his first FP1 outing of the year. The 21-year-old, who participated in four Friday sessions for the team last year, ended up 20th.

That put him seven places behind team mate Pierre Gasly, though both Toro Rossos are already expected to start Sundays race from the rear of the grid thanks to Hondas decision to give them updated power units here.

Will the weather improve for FP2? Forecasts suggest any major change is unlikely – and in fact the teams are unlikely to see much in the way of sunshine before Sunday. Plenty of work to do before then, mind…