Formula Spy's Thomas Maher looks ahead to an unhapopy Hamilton's trip to the United States
Formula 1 heads off to the land of the free, home of the brave for Round 18 of this year's championship, and it's the perfect venue for Lewis Hamilton to arrest the momentum of Nico Rosberg as the business end of this year's title hunt heaves into view.
Hamilton heads to the United States an unhappy figure, having spent much of the Japanese Grand Prix under a cloud. Starting off his Suzuka weekend by getting himself embroiled in a silly argument with the media by using Snapchat during a press event which resulted in him refusing to field journalist's questions in Mercedes debriefs, he found himself completely overshadowed by Rosberg throughout the event.
The German driver was faster in every session, taking a confident pole position and an imperious win to extend his championship points lead. By contrast, Hamilton fell down the order after yet another poor start and, despite recovering strongly to finish P3, seemed to be starting to let his head drop as another weekend went abegging. While Hamilton's press conference antics were getting him in all sorts of off-track controversy, Rosberg kept his head down and quietly went about his business of winning, almost unnoticed.
It was therefore funny to see Hamilton summoned before the same journalists for the FIA Press Conference again in Austin, a second consecutive event which is somewhat unusual. His attempts to rock the boat and get the 'stagnant' and 'sterile' press conference format highlighted as that of a bygone era don't seem to have been appreciated, resulting in him being called up to face the same distraction again. His answers in the press conference were ones of exaggerated politeness, thanking the journalists for their attendance and their line of questioning. He even chose not to rise to one journalist baiting him with an inane question that had been posed on Twitter, something Hamilton had said should form part of the format of the press conference. All of this nonsense is serving as nothing but a distraction for the reigning Champion, a battle of wits with unimportant adversaries at a time when Nico Rosberg is romping to victory after victory.
Hamilton made headlines in Japan for his being on his phone during a press conference. Image: Eugene Hoshiko / AP/Press Association Images
Despite this, this weekend serves as a golden opportunity for Hamilton to strike back. The United States Grand Prix has become a festival-type event at the popular and challenging Circuit of the Americas in Texas. It's a fun circuit - fast, with good overtaking opportunities and steep elevation changes. It's a relatively recent addition to the calendar, having made its debut in 2012.
Of the four races held there so far, three have been won by Hamilton, including the thrilling 2014 race that saw him catch and pass Rosberg to take the win. Last year, Rosberg was leading in the closing stages after fighting back against a boisterous Lewis when the German was blown off track by wind in stormy conditions. He thus had to settle for P2 and the ridiculing that came as a result of his reason for the race defining error. This season, by comparison, Rosberg is driving to his highest ever level and this could result in one of the most closely fought battles of the year, provided no mistakes or mechanical maladies occur for either man. FP1 suggests this will certainly be the case, as Hamilton pipped his teammate to take top spot in the opening session of the weekend.
The continuing battle of Red Bull Racing vs. Ferrari continues right behind Mercedes. Ferrari appear to be doing their living best to squander every opportunity they get, with Sebastian Vettel losing out on a podium spot in Japan after a slightly panicky strategy from Ferrari saw them give up track position to the recovering Lewis Hamilton in a vain attempt to fight back on a different tyre strategy.
Nico Rosberg is enjoying life with Mercedes. Image: Image: Tony Gutierrez / AP/Press Association Images
It was doomed to fail, and so it did. Compared to the steady, confident pressure applied to Nico Rosberg by Red Bull's Max Verstappen, Ferrari appeared unorganised despite their strongly performing car. Some insight into this has been offered by former Ferrari F1 Communications manager Luca Baldisseri, who claimed last week that Ferrari employees are operating in a culture of fear, where any threat of failure results in dismissal. With Ferrari clearing out the stable in 2015 with mass firings, including that of then team boss Marco Mattiaci, Baldisseri's comments might have some resonance that explain why their progress over the last 12 months appears to have completely stalled.
Comments from team boss Maurizio Arrivabene appear to be upping the pressure on Sebastian Vettel, saying that he needs to earn his spot past 2017, the end of his contract. The German's form has slipped this year, with Kimi Raikkonen on the verge of becoming the driver in superior form. With F1 returning to a much faster and visceral formula in 2017, it wouldn't be altogether surprising to see the 37 year old recapture the form he had a decade ago when F1 was at its fastest. Vettel's immediate future is no longer quite as assured as it may have been. A strong weekend is needed from the Scuderia to steady the ship, particularly as Red Bull continue to have taken over as the sport's second best team.
There's pressure on some other drivers too, in the wake of recent driver announcements. Williams are yet to announce their driver line-up, while Force India and Renault both have yet to finalise theirs. Nico Hulkenberg, having been contracted to continue with Force India, has departed for Renault, meaning Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer are fighting over the remaining seat. With drivers like Esteban Ocon, Pascal Wehrlein, Alex Lynn, Lance Stroll, Carlos Sainz, Daniil Kvyat, Pierre Gasly and Antonio Giovanazzi all highly skilled and free agents for 2017, Someone is going to lose out, and the most likely candidate to lose his seat is Jolyon Palmer. He has begun to speak out about how he feels Renault are not appreciative of the work himself and Magnussen have put in this year, which appear to be the words of a man whose contract negotiations aren't going 100% to plan.
The Driver's World Championship could be all but decided this weekend. Nico Rosberg is in a privileged position of not needing to beat Lewis Hamilton again this year - his lead is big enough to finish P2 to Lewis in all four races and still claim the title. Assuming predictable races and reliability, it's Rosberg's title to lose. Should he beat Lewis again at one of Hamilton's established stomping grounds, only a catastrophic series of events will stop him from claiming his first world title. Let's see if he rises to the occasion again this weekend.