Lewis Hamilton will surely seal a sixth world crown in Sundays US Grand Prix even if he did fail to win from pole in Texas a year ago when he was stunned by Kimi Rikknen
The Mexico and US Grands Prix swapped places in Formula Ones calendar this year but Lewis Hamilton remains on his usual schedule. The Briton won his fifth title in the 19th race of the 2018 season and it will take a miracle to deny him No 6 at the same stage on Sunday.
Though the Circuit of the Americas is often the setting for some of the most exciting racing on the calendar, dramatic does not necessarily imply unpredictable. Hamiltons seven previous races in Austin have brought him five victories.
He does not need to win, or even come within a wheels width of a podium finish, to guarantee yet more glory. Hamilton is 74 points ahead of his Mercedes teammate, Valtteri Bottas, with only races in Brazil and Abu Dhabi to come after this one. That Grand Canyon-sized fissure in the standings means that to delay the inevitable Bottas must finish first on Sunday with Hamilton outside the top eight (or the top nine, should he win the bonus point for the fastest lap). Hamiltons worst result in Austin is fourth, in 2013. In six seasons, driving for Williams and Mercedes, the Finn has not placed higher than fifth here.
In other words the question to be answered is not if, or even when, Hamilton will rise to second all-time in the title rankings, one ahead of Juan Manuel Fangio and one behind Michael Schumacher; it is how. With aplomb, underlining his superiority over the pack with a win, as in Mexico last week? Or with the mildly underwhelming sensation of taking the crown despite an under-par performance at one of his favourite circuits, in one of his favourite countries?
Shock-seekers could point to the eyebrow-raising outcome here last year, when Hamilton entered the weekend set to secure the title, only for his streak of successive wins in Texas to be ended at four by another Finn: the improbable figure of Kimi Rikknen, then with Ferrari, tasted victory in a grand prix for the first time since 2013.
Hamilton, who had started in pole, finished in third after a dramatic race in which Mercedes waited too long to make a second pit stop. His coronation was delayed until the following week in Mexico when he did enough to end the dim hopes of his closest challenger, Ferraris Sebastian Vettel.
Hamiltons dominance does not mean there are no on-track tensions, however. There was some verbal jousting in the buildup to this race, with Hamilton telling reporters he steers well wide of Max Verstappen because of the risk of being torpedoed by the Red Bull driver, who is fifth in this years standings. They tangled at the start in Mexico last Sunday, though Hamilton recovered to win for the 10th time this season.
Verstappen responded by calling Hamilton disrespectful on Thursday, adding that, when others denigrate him, it only shows I am in their heads and I guess that is a good thing.
Mindful of the bottom line, especially given that the financial viability of this race is a regular debate topic, circuit bigwigs in Austin are probably more concerned with a different sort of clash: the altered date this year means that Formula One is going head-to-head with a Nascar race weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, a three-hour drive north of Austin in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. As in recent years, organisers in Austin have sought to boost crowds by staging pop concerts by big names in the evening (this year, Imagine Dragons and Pink).
They probably do not have much to worry about. Though tickets are far cheaper at the Nascar venue and its capacity is 180,000, some 60,000 places more than the Circuit of the Americas, Nascar and Formula One also shared the same date in the Lone Star State in 2014 and the main lesson was that there appears to be minimal overlap between fanbases, sponsors and media.
Given that Mercedes have won six straight constructors championships, including this year, and Hamilton is about to make it six drivers titles in a row for the team, it is no surprise that thoughts are already turning to how that might change in the future.
Formula One this week revealed its rules overhaul that will go into effect in 2021. The new cars will be heavier, up to three seconds a lap slower, and there will be a racing budget cap of $175m (135m) per team to give smaller outfits more of a chance to compete with Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, who presently spend about twice as much.
Hamilton indicated he will still be with Mercedes in 2021, the year he will turn 36. I love a challenge. This team has shown they are better prepared and in best position to react to changes. Its going to be an interesting time.Im planning to be here. Sometime next year my mindset will switch into 2021 and wanting to be a pioneer in that era, he said.
I dont particularly see myself going anywhere else, he added. I love being part of Mercedes. I love being part of the brand. I love being part of the history.
In chilly but sunny conditions the air temperature was around 10C Hamilton, who seemed to prioritise testing next years tyres, was eighth-fastest in the first practice session on Friday, 1.382 seconds behind the pace set by Verstappen. This is the bumpiest track in the world, Hamilton said on the team radio.
Things were smoother for him in the second session. He warmed up along with the weather, posting the quickest lap ahead of Ferraris Charles Leclerc, with Bottas down in fifth, an unpromising 0.8 seconds behind his teammate.