Kimi Raikkonen secured his first Formula One win since 2013 to take maximum points in a thrilling United States Grand Prix and ensure that the title battle will continue in Mexico.
Raikkonen overcame pole sitter Lewis Hamilton heading into the first corner and resisted a late charge from Max Verstappen to seal his first victory in his second spell at Ferrari.
Championship leader Hamilton could only achieve a 3rd place finish as rival Sebastian Vettel recovered from a lap one incident to take 4th, meaning the German can still mathematically beat Hamilton with 75 points still up for grabs.
Driver of the day Verstappen produced a stunning drive to finish second after starting 18th and claim his third podium in the last four races. The Red Bull driver even withheld a late charge from Hamilton to deny the Mercedes driver from claiming the world championship.
It looked to have been the dream start for Ferrari as Raikkonen made a great launch to place his prancing horse up the inside of Hamilton’s Mercedes and take the race lead coming out of turn one.
Further back, a cautious Vettel navigated the opening sector unharmed, and the German looked to have the better of Daniel Ricciardo heading down the long-back straight.
However, the Aussie refused to be beaten and launched himself down the inside into T12. The pair accelerated down to T13 side-by-side and with Ricciardo on the outside, Vettel struggled with understeer and collided with the Red Bull, causing the Ferrari to spin – much like his championship ambitions, his rear tyres had gone up in smoke.
Down the field, there were retirements for Fernando Alonso and Romain Grosjean on the opening lap, with the former being on the receiving end of a foolish shunt from Lance Stroll through the first sector chicane - the Canadian being punished with a drive-through penalty.
Grosjean meanwhile was the victim of his own downfall, with the Frenchmen locking up into turn 12 and spinning the Sauber of Charles Leclerc. Should the stewards conclude Grosjean’s guilt and award him three licence penalty points, the Haas driver will face an automatic one-race ban.
Strategy is key
With Friday practice proving to be a washout, every team entered the 308.4km sprint with a limited understanding of car and tyre performance. Early alarms of tyre degradation were raised by the race leader Raikkonen, with the Finn maintaining a manageable two-second lead over Hamilton.
The race entered lap 11 when Ricciardo’s Red Bull came to a premature halt, and the future-Renault driver was left frustrated after suffering his seventh retirement of the season.
As a result, the virtual safety car was deployed and a tactical melee unraveled; were Ferrari and Mercedes going to pit? The Italian manufacturers kept the Iceman out on track, and Hamilton was able to call Raikkonen’s bluff on entry to the pit-lane and box on lap 12.
The result? A consistent repetition of purple sector times from the championship leader, and Hamilton had made significant gains on the Ferrari.
The Mercedes eased up behind the rear of Raikkonen, but the Finn wasn’t to roll over and if anything, he rolled back the years. Hamilton sized up a move down into T13 on a number of laps, but Raikkonen defended admirably, and with the benefit of a more competitive Ferrari package, was able to hold the Englishmen behind and enable his team-mate Vettel to gain a few seconds as he made his patient charge.
Vettel, with Verstappen lurking in his rear-view mirrors, opted to pit on lap 26 with the intention of seeing out the rest of the race on a set of soft option tyres. As a result, the German rejoined in fifth with clean air ahead, allowing the title challenger to pump in impressive 1:38’s – all the more revealing when compared to Hamilton’s 1:40’s.
Meanwhile, Leclerc, recovering from his first lap incident with Grosjean, was forced to retire on lap 32 as his Sauber looked to have bore the brunt from it’s Haas shunt.
With the Englishman losing pace and his rear-tyres severely blistering, Mercedes made the call on lap 38 to pit Hamilton onto a set of sorts. Hamilton’s race engineer Bonno radioed in, asking for Lewis to give “everything he has got.” Hammer time was officially in motion.
Charging through the pack, Hamilton passed his team-mate Valtteri Bottas and went onto chase after Verstappen, who lurked a further seven seconds ahead with 15 laps to go.
With just under two seconds separating the top three with less than seven laps remaining, Hamilton attempted to make a pass on the Red Bull driver down into T13. Similarly to Raikkonen, a superb battle culminated as Verstappen defended valiantly, causing the Mercedes driver to run wide round turn 18 and leave Hamilton awaiting his title coronation for another week.
Just moments later, Vettel finally made his move past Bottas at the hairpin to limit his points deficit to Hamilton, ensuring the title fight will continue.
Renault gain advantage
Further down the field, Renault produced a significant result in their aim to finish fourth in the constructors championship as Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz claimed 6th and 7th respectively.
Esteban Ocon, Kevin Magnussen and Sergio Perez rounded-up the points finishers, enabling a finely poised midfield constructor battle to take another twist with Mexico City on the horizon.
Brendon Hartley, who began the race at the back of the grid, climbed to 11th ahead of Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson in 12th.
Stoffel Vandoorne finished yet another disappointing weekend for McLaren down in 13th ahead of Pierre Gasly and the Williams duo of Sergey Sirotkin and Lance Stroll.