By Andrew Benson-Chief F1 writer in Austin
Lewis Hamilton passed rival Sebastian Vettel to take a dominant victory in the United States Grand Prix but will have to wait at least one more race if he is to win a fourth world title.
The Mercedes driver is 66 points clear of Vettel, who finished second, with 75 available in the remaining three races.
It means Hamilton is almost certain to win the title in Mexico next weekend.
Vettel has to make up 17 points on Hamilton in Mexico City to take the fight to the next race in Brazil.
That is the equivalent of the German winning the race with Hamilton finishing sixth or lower.
Given Hamilton’s rich run of form of five wins and a second place in the last six races, that seems very unlikely, unless the Mercedes has a technical failure, which the Briton’s car has not had all season in a race.
Hamilton’s drivers’ title will make a fourth consecutive championship double for Mercedes, who clinched the constructors’ title on Sunday in Austin.
Battler Hamilton not prepared to play percentage game
Hamilton had to fight for his win – at least at the beginning, after losing the lead to Vettel at the start.
He did not have to chase Vettel down to maintain a strong lead in the championship, but he tracked the Ferrari closely for the next five laps and then passed him for the lead at Turn 12 on lap six.
After taking the lead, Hamilton did not look back, clearly with a speed advantage, controlling his pace and doing just enough to manage the race to the end.
He questioned his team’s decision in leaving him out for another three laps after Vettel made his first pit stop on lap 16, meaning the German had closed a 4.5-second deficit to nothing by the time Hamilton emerged from the pits.
But he soon pulled away again and drove off to his ninth victory in 17 races this season.
Ferrari not helping themselves. Again
As the race moved past half distance, Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas, with the second Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen right behind, was closing on Vettel, and Ferrari decided to pit their lead driver to give him fresh tyres for an attack at the end of the race.
The decision reflected a recognition that Hamilton was out of reach, and also the pace of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who was driving beautifully after starting 16th and threatening Vettel, Bottas and Raikkonen.
Verstappen made a pit stop for fresh tyres on lap 37, meaning he would be closing rapidly in the closing laps, and Ferrari mirrored the move a lap later, ensuring Vettel stayed ahead of the Red Bull and could attack himself.
Vettel dropped down to fourth place, just 1.4 seconds ahead of Verstappen, but on his fresh super-soft tyres the German began to pull away and close on Bottas and Raikkonen ahead.
The fight between the four enlivened the closing stages of what had been a relatively uneventful race.
Raikkonen passed Bottas for second on lap 42, Vettel passed the Mercedes on lap 51 and Verstappen did the same a lap later.
As expected, Raikkonen moved over to give second place to Vettel at the start of lap 52 and then Verstappen set about attacking Raikkonen.
The Red Bull dived past Raikkonen on the inside of Turn 16 on the final lap to take third, but was then penalised five seconds for going off track and gaining an advantage, a decision criticised by Red Bull team boss Christian Horner as “not right”.
Gentlemen, switch off your engines
Verstappen’s team-mate Daniel Ricciardo had cruel luck. He had a terrific battle with Bottas in the opening laps, just failing to pass the Mercedes, which he then found himself stuck behind until he retired with an engine failure on lap 15.
The same fate befell McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, whose Honda engine failed just before half distance when the Spaniard was on course for around seventh or eighth place.
Alonso’s loss was a gain for his friend and compatriot Carlos Sainz, who drove exceptionally well on his debut for Renault and took seventh, splitting the Force Indias of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez.
New Zealander Brendon Hartley had a difficult debut for Toro Rosso, coming home 13th, three places behind team-mate Daniil Kvyat, whose pace he was not able to match.
What happens next?
F1 moves south to Mexico City next weekend, where Ferrari are tipped to have a performance advantage. But it will take more than that to stop Hamilton clinching a well deserved fourth world title.
What they said
Race-winner Lewis Hamilton: “I feel amazing. Look at this crowd. These guys have been amazing. Since 2012 the crowd has been growing year on year. I think this track is now my favourite track.
“A big congratulations to the team. They work so hard back at the factory and here.
“I feel great. It is a dream job. Many people would love to drive an F1 car and I can tell you it is the best experience in the world.”
Second-placed Sebastian Vettel: “At the start it was looking good, we got past Lewis, but we had to realise we couldn’t go at his pace.
“We were then in no-man’s land and were not quite sure what to do. We decided to pit again, with a fresh set of tyres and it was a bit more exciting but overall it was not the result we needed.
“They were quicker than us and we have to admit that.”
Kimi Raikkonen on his elevation to third place: “Obviously I was disappointed just after the race when I finished fourth but there was some issue with Max. It was a great race. My car was very good all the way. I just had to fuel-save a bit at the end.”