AUSTIN, Texas — Lewis Hamilton usually feels at ease in the U.S. And why not? It’s pretty easy to be happy when he’s usually finishing first.
Yet despite his commanding lead over Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel in the chase for the Formula One championship, the Mercedes driver barely cracked a smile Thursday as he dismissed scenarios that he could clinch the title with a win and another Vettel collapse. Hamilton also fended off speculation that he might take the knee when the American national anthem is played before Sunday’s race.
Hamilton, the only black driver in Formula One, said he supports the demonstration that began as a protest over treatment of minorities by police that has roiled the National Football League and drawn heavy criticism from President Donald Trump.
But when asked if he would kneel on Sunday, the British driver said “I don’t have any plans” and was concentrating on the race.
“I know black and white people that live here in America, so I get quite a view of what’s happening here in the States,” Hamilton said, calling the protest movement “awesome.”
“I’m very much in support of it. But I’m here to win and that’s the top of my priorities at the moment and I’m not really focused on anything else.”
Hamilton dismissed the notion of winning the championship in Texas as “silly.” He would clinch his fourth F1 season title Sunday if he finishes 16 points ahead of Vettel. For example, if Hamilton again wins a race which he’s won four of the last five years, Vettel would have to finish sixth or lower to give the title to Hamilton. Outside of the two races he didn’t finish, Vettel has finished lower than fourth just once.
“Sebastian, you cannot expect him to have a difficult weekend, they are going to be quick,” Hamilton said. “He has been strong all year. He has had a few technical issues, but the car is as good as it has always been … I have to continue to keep the pressure on.”
Yet the Circuit of the Americas would seem Vettel’s last realistic chance to keep the title chase alive. He’s had some success here, winning in 2013 as part of a dominant season with Red Bull when he won nine consecutive races. He finished second in 2012 when he lost a duel with Hamilton’s McLaren.
Hamilton has made the Austin race something of a personal playground. He cruised to wins in 2014 and 2016 and his rain-soaked victory in 2015 clinched the season championship with three races left on the schedule. Hamilton won from pole last year and from P2 in 2012, 2014 and 2015.
The Briton’s American success dates back to 2007 when he won the U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis.
And he’s gotten stronger through the second half of this season. Hamilton has four victories and one second-place finish over the last five races as his lead over Vettel has ballooned to 59 points.
“The championship, as long as it is done in the last four races that is my focus. I honestly don’t care if it is here or the last race, as long as it is done,” Hamilton said.
Vettel’s problems struck late in the season. After two wins in the first three races, many hoped for an epic title fight after years of dominance by Mercedes. But Vettel’s season has been hit by car troubles and a crash in recent weeks.
In Singapore, Vettel started on pole but a first-turn crash with teammate Kimi Raikkonen and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen knocked out all three. In Japan, he was foiled by the smallest of engine parts — a spark plug — that again knocked him out on the first lap.
Even when he finished a brilliant drive in Malaysia, coming from the back to finish fourth, he lost ground to Hamilton.
Ferrari team principle Maurizio Arrivabene has pledged the team will fight “right up to the last corner of the last grand prix.”
The U.S. Grand Prix will be the Formula One debut of Toro Rosso driver Brendon Hartley, who will be the first New Zealander on the grid since Mike Thackwell at the 1984 Canadian Grand Prix. Hartley is a former World Endurance Championship winner in 2015 and a winner of this year’s 24 hours at Le Mans.
Hartley said the call from Toro Rosso and the trip to Austin happened so fast he’s hardly had time to meet his team.
“Obviously I want to do the best I can. I’m trying not to put too many expectations on it,” Hartley said.