Martin Brundle recaps a thrilling United States Grand Prix in which Max Verstappen chases down Lewis Hamilton for victory.
Some races, I have a natural desire to applaud loudly as the checkered flag drops, only to quickly remember that I'm still commentating live on TV.
It was one of those moments on Sunday, when Sebastian Vettel charged around the outside of an equally determined Kevin Magnussen on the final lap of a breathless race.
With outstanding speed and skill, close racing, incidents, scary accidents, safety car restarts, lightning and tardy pit stops, varying race strategies, and plenty of controversy, the sell-out crowd was treated to the best action F1 has to offer right now.
The rise of F1 in America is fascinating to watch, not least at this 62nd US Grand Prix and 10th at the Circuit of the Americas. Given that most F1 drivers used to enjoy coming to America because they could move around largely unnoticed, the entire sport is now at fever pitch.
Russell's Sainz error set the tone for the rest of the game.
The event, of course, took place under the shadow of Red Bull's cost cap breach, which should be resolved this week, presumably with some pain for the team to overcome in 2023.
There was drama from the beginning of the track action. Max Verstappen had less wheelspin on the short journey from the front row to the first corner than pole-sitter Carlos Sainz, despite frustrating grid penalties, not least for Charles Leclerc's Ferrari.
Carlos was unable to tuck in behind Max and then take the inside line, so he swung back to the right, hoping to take the normal racing line into the very tight left hand hairpin at the top of the hill, hoping to take advantage on the exit.
Max's line was compromised to the left, and he was slower through the apex, no doubt positioning himself for a clean exit. Sainz had to pause on the throttle behind Verstappen as the two Mercedes drivers, Lewis Hamilton and George Russell, arrived jockeying for position. George's front wheels locked up, which is when a car can't turn properly, and he slammed into the side of the Ferrari.
It was entirely his fault, and he fully admitted it before going to apologize to Sainz after the race. George received a five-second penalty and minor front wing damage, but Sainz failed to complete a lap of racing for the fourth time this season.
Perhaps he should have run wide around the outside, leaving plenty of room on the inside, and settled for second. What Carlos did was perfectly legal in a one-on-one fight, but it exposed him at the start of a race to exactly what happened. To be fair, he had completed the corner and was right to be disappointed that serious front runners behind him were unable to maintain control of their vehicles.
Fernando Alonso, his fellow countryman, is the master of spatial awareness, with a major mirror scan going on at all times and seemingly all radars on full power for the first lap. More on him in a moment.
The first lap featured some stock-car racing tactics and outside passes, including a broken front wing for Sergio Perez, a saga that would continue long after the race.
The Safety Car revs up the race... and causes a massive crash.
The race settled down, with Verstappen establishing a respectable lead over Hamilton, who had expertly navigated the first corner dramas. Then, at the unsighted and high-speed turn 19, Valtteri Bottas had a relatively harmless but beached spin into the gravel, necessitating a Safety Car. This was very useful for a cheap pit stop for Leclerc to get some fresh tyres and save valuable time while the others were crawling around on track.
It's not quite as common in F1, but there's a general saying in motorsport that'safety cars create safety cars,' in that everyone left in the race gathers and then sets off with likely cool tyres and brakes, but still eager to grab some opportunity in the melee. That's exactly what happened on lap 22.
Alonso's Alpine was closing in on Lance Stroll's Aston Martin down the back straight, using all the slipstream he could muster before attempting the overtake. It could be argued that Alonso got a little too close to the back of the Aston, but it can also be argued that Stroll moved quickly over at the last moment, for which he'll accept a three-place grid drop in Mexico.
He spun around in the middle of the pack, and Alonso flew skyward before crashing into the barrier, narrowly missing a service road opening. He then drove the Alpine back to the pits, received service, and continued for the restart. A huge compliment to both the car's integrity and the "never give up" attitude of the grid's oldest driver. Amazing.
The rest of the race was filled with stunning out-braking overtakes, side-by-side action, intense battles, and drivers being warned a total of 30 times about track limits, which were occasionally inaccurate - particularly in qualifying. Pressure pads on the exit kerbs with digital feedback to race control would be a better solution, but they would have to withstand a weekend of F1 grip and torque, which would be difficult.
Slow pit stops, particularly for Verstappen and Vettel, were another feature of the race, which only served to provide a couple of great comeback drives. Of course, Max would win, and Seb would finish seventh. For the time being, anyway.
Was Alonso's post-race penalty too severe?
My rear view mirrors occasionally came loose and turned, fell off, or the glass cracked during the 158 F1 races I attended, but in almost all of them, the glass was eventually covered in water, grime, or oil, or a combination of all three. At which point you began using various parts of your gloves to try to clean them, and eventually began listening and looking around for your competitors attempting to pass you.
Cars no longer spew oil, and you can't look around, but after Alonso's short flight and heavy impact, his right mirror, or more precisely his right aerodynamic device, which includes a mirror, eventually made a bid for freedom and lay just off the racing line for the duration. His team was informing him of cars behind him, and he had one more mirror left, and who dares to overtake Alonso when he's angry?
On a more serious note, debris on the track is obviously dangerous for track personnel, spectators, and other drivers, but we restarted after the Alonso/Stroll collision with plenty of debris lying around. However, it is undeniable that a significant amount of carbon fiber fell off the Alpine.
The front wing upright also fell off Sergio Perez's Red Bull, but the team was able to justify continuing the race without this piece intact by sending images and details to the FIA scrutineer during the race.
What is the point of all of this? Well, Kevin Magnussen has been forced to pit three times this season by race control in Canada, Hungary, and Singapore to have the nose changed when his front wing upright was damaged and flailing but remained on the car. His team Haas was outraged at the time, and even more so when they saw Perez's residual wing and Alonso's flailing mirror continue, and they protested to the FIA both during and after the race.
I don't blame them; they wanted consistency and clarity, as well as to maximize their championship points for Magnussen. Following the race, it was decided to maintain the protest against Alonso's car but not against Perez's car. As a result of his exploits and bravery, Alonso was given a 30-second penalty and dropped from seventh to fifteenth place, which hurts Alpine in their battle with McLaren.
This reminds me of Fernando performing admirably with a damaged car after a puncture in qualifying at Monza in 2006. He was controversially penalized five grid positions for 'blocking' Felipe Massa's distant Ferrari, prompting him to angrily declare that he no longer considered F1 to be a sport. He obviously still does sixteen years later, but the injustice feels about the same to me.
Rules are rules, and while I agree that they should be enforced more strictly, they also require some common sense from racers. I would have thought that deciding which front wing is safe when partially broken and which isn't is rather subjective, and Felipe Massa, for example, knows what it's like to be hit by discarded parts.
Alpine has filed a counter-protest against this decision, which will be heard in Mexico on Thursday.
Verstappen pursues Hamilton for an emotional victory
Through it all, we had an exciting finale, with Verstappen chasing down Leclerc and then Hamilton for a fine victory to pay tribute to team owner Dietrich Mateschitz, who died on Saturday just before qualifying.
He lived to see Max win his second championship, but not to see his team win their fifth Constructors' Championship. It was no doubt exactly what Dietrich would have wanted, with no black armbands in the team, blue jeans instead of team trousers in honor of Dietrich's trademark style, and celebratory applause instead of silence. Congratulations to the entire Red Bull team.