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The Kimi Räikkönen Way - Reliving the 2018 US Grand Prix

Written by Vyas Ponnuri, Edited by Simran Kanthi

Image credits - Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Formula One heads to the United States, and what better way would it be to relive the legacy of the Circuit of The Americas (COTA) by looking back down memory lane and relishing the 2018 United States Grand Prix where the Iceman, Kimi Räikkönen won his 21st and final victory in the sport. It was a fine way to end his five-year stint with Scuderia Ferrari, and how fitting that his last victory came for the team with which he tasted glory 11 years earlier.

The path to victory wasn't the easiest though, as Lewis Hamilton and then Max Verstappen pressured Räikkönen all the way. However, the Iceman kept it cool under pressure and took his first victory in five years, and the first since he returned to the Italian outfit in 2014. All in all, it had been 113 races since his last win at the Australian Grand Prix, way back in 2013, when he drove for the iconic black-and-gold Lotus-Renault team.

You must be curiously wondering how the path opened up for Kimi to take the spoils at Austin. To begin with, let us cast our minds back to Formula One in 2018. Ferrari had two former World Champions Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen in their line-up. Lewis Hamilton was on the cusp of a fifth World Championship, which would put him among the elites of the sport. Max Verstappen was still on a steep learning curve, having had an up-and-down season for Red Bull, who were powered by Renault back then. Charles Leclerc, Ferrari's current star, was in his rookie season, driving for Alfa Romeo. George Russell was on his way to winning a Formula 2 title.

Austin had traditionally been a Mercedes' track, and Lewis Hamilton had experienced immense success around the 5.513 km (3.426 mi) anti-clockwise circuit. Mercedes had won the previous four Grands Prix at Austin, all through Hamilton who had also won the inaugural race at COTA in 2012 for McLaren. The circuit required a combination of good engine power down the long back straight and enough downforce for the Esses in the first sector, and the tricky, slow corners in the third sector. Mercedes' strong power unit, coupled with a good downforce set-up on their cars, were always class of the field at Austin.

This trend continued into Friday's practice with Hamilton topping both sessions, albeit held in the wet. The then four-time Champion demonstrated his skills in the wet weather and the Austin circuit, to outpace the field on a day with lesser running than usual. While Hamilton soared, Vettel's slim championship hopes took another hit. He was deemed to have been speeding under red flag conditions in FP1 (Free Practice 1) and was slapped with a three-place grid penalty for the main race. This would prove to be crucial come Sunday's race.

Saturday's Free Practice 3 session was held under overcast skies but thankfully for the drivers, on a dry track. All the drivers were keen to get some crucial mileage on the dry track and thus, jostled with each other for the best of the track. Hamilton and his teammate Valtteri Bottas were involved in battles with Vettel and Fernando Alonso during the session. Vettel topped the session from his teammate Räikkönen, with Hamilton not far off in third. Qualifying was set to be an exciting affair.

The qualifying definitely did live up to the hype and expectations. There was a big shock when Max Verstappen was eliminated in Q2 after damaging his driveshaft, having run over a yellow sausage kerb in the previous session, Q1. The final Q3 session saw a three-way battle for pole position but it was Hamilton who prevailed to get pole with a great lap of 1:32.237. Vettel and Räikkönen set quick lap times but were 0.061 and 0.070 seconds off Hamilton's lap time. With Vettel taking a three-place grid drop, he would start fifth on the grid. This promoted his teammate Räikkönen onto the front row alongside Hamilton. Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo would start third and fourth respectively.

An exciting race start at Austin; Image credits - Charles Coates/Getty Images

Race day dawned, and there was little threat of rain, with blue skies over Austin. Hamilton was set to start the race on the super-soft tyres, whereas Räikkönen was set to start on the quicker, ultra-soft tyres. As the five red lights went out, this tyre advantage proved to be crucial as Räikkönen was alongside Hamilton into turn one and took the lead of the race with an inch-perfect overtake. Vettel too passed Ricciardo on the back straight but out-braked at the end of the straight. As he tried to fend off the Red Bull driver, the two made contact in the next corner, spinning Vettel around. This was the fourth time Vettel was spun around in a race in the season.

As Vettel was making a comeback, the battle at the front was between Räikkönen and Hamilton, with the gap hovering around the 1.5-second mark. The race took a turn on lap nine when a Virtual Safety Car (VSC) was called due to Ricciardo's Red Bull pulled over by the side of the back straight. During the VSC, Hamilton was given the message on lap 11 to "Box opposite Räikkönen". The Finn tried to dummy Hamilton, attempting a last-minute dash into the pits, but Hamilton didn't take the bait. He came into the pits, switching to the soft tyres. He rejoined in third only eight seconds behind Räikkönen and steadily made up time after the VSC ended. He was right behind Räikkönen on lap 21 and harried the Finn in the final sector. Fortunately for Hamilton, Räikkönen came into the pits at the end of the lap. He too put on a set of soft compound tyres, rejoining behind his teammate Vettel who was now in the top five.

The mid-stages of the race saw Räikkönen and Verstappen narrow the gap to Hamilton at the front. The Finn, who was 17 seconds behind after making his pit stop, was now steadily closing the gap on ten-lap younger soft tyres. He closed the gap to around seven seconds by lap 38 when Mercedes called Hamilton in for a set of soft tyres. He rejoined in fourth, about nine seconds behind now-second-placed Verstappen. If Hamilton finished second and Vettel fifth, he would win the title. However, there was still some chasing to do. The Briton set fastest laps as he closed the gap to the top two after he was let past his teammate, Bottas. At the same time, Vettel was chasing down Bottas for fourth. Hamilton caught the top two by lap 54. Verstappen ahead got a poor exit off turn 12 which gave the Briton an opportunity to get second. The two duelled in the slow corners of the third sector and Hamilton went wide as he tried to overtake the Dutchman into the sweeping Turn 18. Meanwhile, Vettel made it past Bottas to fourth, thus keeping the championship battle alive until the next round in Mexico.

Räikkönen maintained his cool under pressure; Image credits - Clive Mason/Getty Images

However, his teammate Räikkönen was unstoppable. The Finn strengthened his lead as Hamilton and Verstappen battled, and withstood late pressure from Verstappen to win the US Grand Prix by 1.2 seconds. It was a brilliant drive and Räikkönen was delighted to have finally taken a win after a staggering 113 races. The win moved him up to third in the standings ahead of Bottas and 55 points behind his teammate Vettel. The Iceman would go on to finish third in the standings in 2018, despite not finishing in the season finale at Abu Dhabi.

This race also saw Ferrari take their first win in the United States since 2006 when Michael Schumacher won for the team at Indianapolis, and it remains their only win at the COTA to date. Will Ferrari take another win at Austin in the upcoming 2022 United States Grand Prix? We'll have to wait till Sunday to know.


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