It was around mid-season when many members of the Formula 1 paddock started to try and work out when – not if – Lewis Hamilton would wrap up his sixth world championship, and if it would come any earlier than in recent years.

Valtteri Bottas’ dip in form towards the end of the summer break led many to bring their projections forward, with most thinking that Japan or Mexico – for a third straight year, albeit one round earlier this time – were the most likely rounds for Hamilton to clinch the title. The more ambitious even thought he would do it in Russia.

But a mixture of Ferrari’s resurgence, thus taking points off Hamilton, plus a return to the ‘Bottas 2.0’ that we saw in the early part of the season has led to the coronation festivities being delayed. Hamilton even conceded himself after the race in Mexico that it felt like the title was taking a while to wrap up.

And although the points are so overwhelmingly in his favour that, barring a dramatic turnaround in his own form, Sunday will be the day, qualifying for the United States Grand Prix offered yet another final stand from Bottas, proving the Finn is not rolling over even when the contest is over bar the shouting.

The cold conditions on Friday left many still unsure of where they really stood heading into Saturday’s somewhat warmer sessions, but the signs of a tight three-team fight proved to be correct. Just as in FP2, the top three in qualifying featured one driver from each of the leading teams, with fine margins separating them through much of the session.

Less than three-tenths of a second covered the top five in Q3, with only two drivers – Max Verstappen in P3 and Charles Leclerc in P4 – making improvements on their final lap. Leclerc reported a loss of grip in the final sector towards the end of the session that made things more difficult, while pole-man Bottas was grateful no-one else had made gains after losing time through Sector 1.

Bottas made good steps through qualifying, growing in confidence and gaining around 1.7 seconds across the course of the three sessions. But knowing the grunt of the Ferrari engine along the back straight, he always seemed to be the underdog going into qualifying – not to mention the fact his teammate had three straight poles at the Circuit of The Americas coming into the weekend.

Having said on Friday that the car was feeling “fairly decent”, Hamilton took a big step backwards on Saturday in qualifying – and took the blame squarely on his shoulders. “It was nothing to do with the car, it was just me,” he admitted. “I just didn’t pull the laps together today. Clearly the car had the capability to be on the front row and I just didn’t do it today. It was my fault, but I will try and rectify it tomorrow.”

0.292 seconds to your teammate is not a big margin, yet it was enough to resign Hamilton to fifth, his worst qualifying result – barring any technical issues out of his control – since the 2017 Brazilian Grand Prix when he crashed out in Q1.

Bottas had a real spring in his step after qualifying, sounding surprised when his engineer informed him of pole over the radio on the in-lap. Friday had not been the easiest day for Bottas, yet he was able to make some big changes overnight that helped hook the car up better for the tricky and bumpy COTA circuit.

“We found quite a few things in the car that weren’t quite right. There was a little bit with the setup, I think I started to go a little bit in the wrong direction on tyre pressures and temperatures,” Bottas explained.

“We found some reasons for that quite big straight-line speed difference, which made quite an impact on the pace in Sector 2. So when I started today, in FP3, it was like a different car and it felt normal, so I was happy again.

“I knew since the first run this morning that this could be a good day if we got everything right.”

There has been a necessity for Bottas to get “everything right” this weekend. Only a victory will give him any chance of keeping the title race alive to Brazil, and even then, Hamilton needs just four points over the final three races to wrap it up regardless of what Bottas does. But so far, so good. P1 plays P5.

Of Hamilton’s five titles to date, three of them have been clinched without him even finishing on the podium (2008, 2017, 2018). He’s at risk of making it four out of six tomorrow unless he can make a breakthrough tomorrow.

But Bottas did not dwell on how his teammate will be approaching the title picture tomorrow. “I think it would be better if you’d ask him, because I don’t know what is mindset is right now,” Bottas said, before painting the picture of Lewis Hamilton we all know too well.

“From what I know from him, he’s going to be fighting hard. He always hates to lose and wants to win, like all of us,” Bottas said.

“He’s leading the championship with a big margin, doesn’t need many points, so he would like to win the championship in a nice way, if and when it happens.

“Obviously I try to delay it as much as possible, but I can only focus on my own race, try to focus on winning the race, rather than in anyone else’s opinions or mindsets.”

The inward-facing approach that served Bottas so, so well over the winter and in the early part of the season is there for everyone to see once again. And while it is realistically too late for the title race, this is nevertheless a refreshing final stand.

Bottas is not rolling over in this title race. And although it is incredibly unlikely to have any meaningful impact on the fight for this year’s crown, it will serve him well for the future.

It’s a final stand that should be recognised and respected.

 

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