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Lewis Hamilton has won the United States Grand Prix for the second time, beating Sebastian Vettel in a straight fight at the new Circuit of the Americas. Fernando Alonso kept his championship chances open by finishing on the podium. Mark Webber retired, but Red Bull still did enough to claim a third consecutive Constructors’ Championship.
On the run-up to the one o’clock start, the huge fear amongst those setting off from the dirty side of the grid (with even-numbered starting positions) was that they would suffer zero grip as the red lights went out, with the Texan venue being completely new. This included title challenger Alonso, who was the beneficiary as Ferrari deliberately broke the seal on Felipe Massa’s gearbox in order to incur a five-place penalty and elevate the Spaniard.
To the surprise of many, there was no chaos at the start as the 24-car field headed uphill and neatly made its way through the first corner. Kimi Räikkönen ran wide through the second bend, but Alonso was fourth thanks to a lightning getaway. In his 100th Formula 1 race start, Vettel led the pack from Webber, Hamilton, Alonso and Michael Schumacher. A dreadful launch for Jenson Button saw him plummet from 12th on the grid to 16th on Lap 1, but starting on the Hard compound tyre allowed the 2009 Champion to rise up the order.
Drama in the midfield saw Romain Grosjean fall well down the order following a spin at Turn 19; over the next handful of laps, the Frenchman had been overhauled by Massa, Schumacher, Sergio Pérez and Button. The Lotus was first to pit on only Lap 9 of 56. After a two-lap scrap with Webber, Hamilton overtook the Australian in a strong move on the fourth tour, immediately charging up to Vettel as Webber retired with alternator failure. Jean-Éric Vergne was the only other man to drop out, with broken suspension on his Toro Rosso.
Following the demise of Webber, Hamilton caught Vettel as the gap between the duo continued to fluctuate. A strong pass eventually came some time after their pit-stops, on Lap 42, as the McLaren shot through in the DRS zone. Vettel was irritated by the move, which saw the two cars come perilously close to contact, which could have punctured the championship leader’s right-rear tyre. The on-track change means Vettel’s championship lead, instead of being 20 points, is now back to the pre-Abu Dhabi margin of 13. Felipe Massa demonstrated impressive pace all afternoon-long, passing Räikkönen for fourth in the final third of the race - the Brazilian proving that he had podium capabilities after qualifying seventh yesterday. Button also made the most of the Finn, reaping the rewards of his alternative strategy; the Englishman was not able to catch Massa, though, as he was stuck behind Räikkönen for too long.
Grosjean recovered to seventh as Nico Hülkenberg, Pastor Maldonado and Bruno Senna completed the top ten; it was a second consecutive double points finish for Williams, with Maldonado having made light contact with his team-mate in a late-race pass at Turn 1. Daniel Ricciardo, who ran as high as fifth before pitting, was 12th as Nico Rosberg – the only driver other than Button to start on the Hard tyre – struggled to 13th on yet another non-scoring afternoon for Mercedes; although Schumacher was inside the top five early on, he pitted twice because of major tyre problems.
Lewis Hamilton’s 21st career victory moves him ahead of former double title winner Mika Häkkinen and one behind 1996 Champion Damon Hill; he has now leapfrogged Webber for fourth place in the standings. At the top, Vettel is on course to become the sport’s ninth triple World Champion but next week’s setting is known for its unusual races. Regardless of what happens in Brazil, Red Bull is only the third outfit to win three teams’ titles in a row and makes history by becoming the first to clinch its maiden three in back-to-back fashion.
The 2012 Formula 1 world drivers’ title will be decided in Brazil next weekend, where rain is expected to affect proceedings at Interlagos
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