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What Austin Taught Us About The Brilliance Of F1's Old Guard

What Austin Taught Us About The Brilliance Of F1's Old Guard
By Eoin Harrington Updated
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Ten years ago, at the very first F1 race at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, a 27-year-old Lewis Hamilton won with world championship contenders Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso completing the podium places.

If you were to pick any F1 world championship at random since its inception in 1950, there is a roughly 18% chance that it was won by one of those three drivers. Which is why it is so remarkable that that 2012 United States Grand Prix was the first time the three had ever finished on the podium together - and it has only happened twice since.

All three are now in the twilight of their careers. Fernando Alonso, still putting in impressive performances in the midfield Alpine, is 41. Vettel will retire come the end of this season, at the age of 35, after three consecutive winless seasons. Meanwhile, Hamilton looks set to endure his first ever winless season, at 37 in the once-dominant Mercedes.

It's now looking more than likely that 2022 will be the first season since 2004 in which none of this iconic trio will take home a race win. It has been a year of dramatic change, with the younger generation coming to the fore at last in the form of Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, George Russell, and Lando Norris' brilliance.

Sunday, at the United States Grand Prix, was a rare and brilliant day in which F1's old guard starred, and rolled back the years, on a day where each man deserved more than they got.

US F1 GP: Hamilton, Vettel, and Alonso roll back the years in Texas

When Max Verstappen took the fight to Lewis Hamilton for last year's world championship - and won - it was the first sign that F1's new generation were ready to take over. The 24-year-old Dutchman was the first new world champion in five years, and regulation changes have dramatically altered the landscape of F1 for this year.

Nowadays, it is an impressive race for Hamilton if we see him on the podium - a stark change from previous years, in which he fought for wins week in, week out.

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Vettel and Alonso have one podium each from the past two seasons. Kimi Raikkonen has retired, and the other greats of that generation (Jenson Button, Nico Rosberg, et al) are long gone.

Which is why, amid the chaos of a brilliant race at COTA on Sunday, it was thoroughly enjoyable to see this "Holy Trinity" of sorts strutting their stuff and standing out from the rest.

Let's start with Hamilton, who came the closest he has yet this year to taking that elusive F1 race win for 2022. He was helped by a slow pitstop for Max Verstappen, but he executed a brilliant alternate strategy, and came within five laps of taking the win.

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READ HERE: Conor Sketches Has Brilliant Run-In With Daniel Ricciardo

This season has been anything but plain sailing for the Mercedes man, whose struggles at the beginning of the year had him physically ailing, and miles off his young teammate in the championship. As the car has improved over the course of the year, however, the brilliance of the seven-times world champion has returned in flashes, and he will feel that there may still be a race win on the table for him this year, if he can play his cards right again.

It was also terrific to see last year's world championship contenders fighting it out for a race win on the track once more. Verstappen has had things far easier this year, but the fact that a 37-year-old Lewis Hamilton still took the fight to him in a weaker car - and nearly came out on top - is a testament to his brilliance.

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The oldest of this trio, Fernando Alonso, was another in fine form on Sunday afternoon. His dramatic crash with Lance Stroll came with both running comfortably in the top ten and, though Alonso diplomatically shared the blame in his post-race interviews, the late move across the track from Stroll was easy to see in the replays.

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Alonso was briefly airborne, and it was a miracle that not only he was not hurt, but that the car was able to return to the pitlane and, ultimately, to the track. The FIA ruled post-race that Alonso's car had, in fact, been unsafe to return to the track, and slammed the Spaniard with a 30-second time penalty - egregious, considering George Russell's penalty for a clumsy turn one crash with Carlos Sainz was only a five second drop.

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Nonetheless, his on track performance was vintage Alonso. His is a curious case compared to Hamilton and Vettel's - he only has two championships to his rivals' shared 11, and it feels as though poor career moves have left him scrapping for results throughout his career. Which is why Sunday was a perfect "Alonso race" - showing the fighting spirit that has endeared him to so many over the years.

He would recover from the crash damage and coming out at the back of the field to finish an astonishing P6 at the chequered flag - which ultimately became P15 after his penalty was applied. He would say at the end of the race that he was shaken throughout the race after the terrifying impact with Stroll, making his performance even more impressive.

And then we come to Sebastian Vettel. There have been hints in recent weeks that the German is struggling to come to terms with the impending end to his F1 career, and he gave another example of his brilliance in Austin on Sunday.

The chaos at turn 1 allowed Vettel to work his way up to sixth place and, working an alternate strategy, he briefly led the race - bringing his career total of laps led past 3,500. Already a brilliant performance in an underperforming Aston Martin, Vettel truly showed his brilliance with his final stint.

A poor pit stop dropped Vettel from P2 all the way out of the points. Putting his foot down, he managed to fight up to P9, before making a sensational last lap pass on the Haas of Kevin Magnussen for eighth - which became P7 after Alonso was penalised.

Vettel's excitement at the chequered flag was a reminder that, even if he will be departing the sport in just under a month, his passion for F1 burns on.

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A strange day. The "fairytale" ending would have seen Hamilton take that first race win of the year, with Vettel leading Alonso home for sixth and seventh. Each driver deserved more, on a day where they reminded us all of their brilliance.

And yet, there was something strangely poignant about this race. The undoubted greats of their generation all putting in vintage performances on the same evening in Texas felt like a final hurrah for that era.

There is every chance that Hamilton and Mercedes could fight back with a vengeance in 2023, and fight for another championship. Alonso feels like he may have another podium or, perhaps, win in him before he draws his time in F1 to a close. Vettel, though intent on retiring, has hinted he would be open to brief returns in the future.

That being said, the new era of F1 is well underway. It is unfair to say that they have surpassed Hamilton, Alonso, or Vettel, but this is Max Verstappen's time. This is Charles Leclerc's. Lando Norris, Carlos Sainz, it goes on. The youngsters are here to stay, and fans will hope that they can create a shared legacy even close to that which Lewis, Seb, and Fernando will leave behind.

For one night in Texas, we got to see the "golden oldies" roll back the years in tandem. And it was bloody brilliant.

Wrapping up from the US Grand Prix

Position Driver Team Points Race wins
1st Max Verstappen Red Bull Racing-RBPT 391 13 (+2 sprint wins)
2nd Charles Leclerc Scuderia Ferrari 267 3
3rd Sergio Perez Red Bull Racing-RBPT 265 2
4th George Russell Mercedes AMG F1 218 0
5th Carlos Sainz Jr Scuderia Ferrari 202 1
  • Driver of the day: This was a toss up between two, but the sheer determination involved in Fernando Alonso's recovery after a terrifying crash, with damage on his car, to finish in sixth on the road, was a superhuman feat at 41. Yet again, for the third race in a row, Sebastian Vettel is unlucky to miss out after another terrific drive to the points in the Aston Martin.
  • Day to forget: For the second time in three races, this regrettably must go to George Russell. The Mercedes driver who was so impressive in the first half of the season seems to have lost his way, and his clumsy T1 crash with Carlos Sainz was a sign of his poor form.
  • The big question ahead of round #20: Will Max Verstappen break one of F1's greatest records? He is one win away from surpassing Sebastian Vettel and Michael Schumacher's shared record for the most wins in a single season (13). He won in Mexico City last year, and with his current form you wouldn't bet against him.

SEE ALSO: The Frantic And Turbulent History Of F1 Racing In The United States

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