Lewis Hamilton could hardly believe his luck. With just two races left in his McLaren career, a win at the US Grand Prix was well within his grasp.
Ten years ago, Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas held its first Formula 1 grand prix. At the time, there was just one DRS zone around the lap (rather than the two that the track has now), which made passing rather difficult. Ahead of leader Sebastian Vettel in the Red Bull, Lewis could see back-marker Narain Karthikeyan growing larger with each lap.
Opportunity was knocking.
It’s difficult to imagine now, but Hamilton’s Formula 1 career was once in the doldrums. Many recall his stellar 2007 season, when he nearly won the world title as a rookie. And who could forget his first title in 2008?
By 2012, things were less than ideal for the young driver and his McLaren-Mercedes was largely to blame. When the open wheel circus arrived at COTA for the 19th—and penultimate—race of the year, Lewis was fifth in the championship standings. (Fun fact: 2012’s 20-race slate is tied for the most grand prix in a single season)
That year, Hammmer Time won three races. He even led the title race after seven rounds. But just as the business end of the season approached, his challenge wilted. It prompted a lot of soul searching, and by the end of September, Hamilton decided to cut ties with McLaren to join Mercedes. Though, Hamilton and mighty McLaren were hardly lame ducks. The 117,000 fans that packed COTA’s aluminum grandstands watched as Hamilton nipped at the Vettel’s tail.
The 2012 season was tightly contested among a stacked field. Seven different winners over the first seven races. Then, Fernando Alonso became the first driver to win two races. Still, the championship looked wide open, at least until Vettel went on a four-race winning streak.
By the time they rolled into Texas, Hamilton was not in the title fight, having failed to finish four races that season. The championship was between Vettel and Alonso.
If Vettel won, Alonso would have to finish fourth or higher to remain in contention. The German could afford to finish second, knowing Alonso had to be eighth or higher to still have a shot at the championship in the final round.
In Alonso’s mind it was simple: he just had to go for it. Ferrari had already done its bit. During qualifying, drivers and teams had discovered that off the racing line, the track was slippery, as if it was wet.
Alonso had qualified a disappointing ninth, but his starting position on the grid was in the tacky portion of the track.
Not so fast. When fourth-fastest Romain Grosjean took a five-place penalty for a gearbox change, Alonso was elevated to eighth, and on the slippery side of the track. His engineers calculated that he might lose two places at the start—disastrous for his title hopes. The only remaining card the title hopeful had was his teammate.
Felipe Massa played wingman for the majority of his eight-year Ferrari career. Whether for Michael Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen or Alonso, he had always been a faithful servant for the Italian squad. And so, with some sorrow in their hearts for this uncomplicated and unashamedly nice guy, Massa’s mechanics broke the seal on his gearbox. Boom, a five-place penalty.
Massa dropped to 11th on the grid and Fernando’s eighth became seventh, and—more importantly—back in the tack. By the first corner he was into fourth, with half the field caught out on the slippery side.
Hamilton was on the slippery side of the track, losing his second place to Mark Webber’s Red Bull. It took the Brit just four laps to pass his Aussie rival.
Lewis, then, set off after leader Vettel. Following their first—and only—pit stops, Vettel’s lead was a scant three seconds.
That changed when the leaders caught up with a back-marker. As they approached Turn 11, before the back straight, Vettel hesitated for an instant behind the slower car. That tiny loss of momentum was sufficient for Lewis to get closer than ever. The two leaders rushed into the DRS zone. Hamilton felt the boost in acceleration as the flap in his rear wing opened.
Hamilton stormed to the lead.
Vettel remained close behind but he didn’t have the speed to pass Hamilton back. The gap was less than a second at the flag. “Lewis had one chance and he took it. After that I tried to stay with him but there wasn’t much between us,” Vettel said after the race. Second place was sufficient for the German as Red Bull Racing clinched its third constructor titles.
But the celebrations for Vettel’s third drivers’ championship were on ice. Alonso finished third. “Today was not possible to keep pace with these two guys,” he said. “This podium is like a victory for us.”
Astonishingly, this US GP was the first time Hamilton, Vettel, and Alonso had ever stood on an F1 podium together. Quite a feat bearing in mind the three had been F1’s preeminent stars since 2010.
More importantly, Alonso was still in the battle for the championship. The 2012 World Championship would come down to the final round in Brazil.
The Texas date has become an annual stop for Formula 1. Fans still flock to Austin for a weekend under the Southwest sun (and the racing groove has widened, too). The race marked Hamilton’s final grand prix win for McLaren. Since then, he’s won four more grand prix at COTA and added six more titles to his hall-of-fame resumé.
His rivals probably wish that he had stayed at McLaren.