(CNN)Lewis Hamilton was left to rue his Mercedes team’s tactics at the US Grand Prix, which forced the British driver to keep his champagne on ice for another week at least.
Hamilton could have clinched his fifth world title Sunday at the Circuit of the Americas in Texas, but a costly decision to pit twice
Hamilton needed to beat his now distant championship rival Sebastian Vettel by eight points, but the German overtook Mercedes’ other driver Valtteri Bottas on the penultimate lap to take fourth place and keep the title race alive heading into this weekend’s Mexico Grand Prix.
Although Hamilton’s celebrations were postponed, a title triumph for the British driver looks like a forgone conclusion.
Even if Vettel wins at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez, Hamilton can seal the championship by finishing as low as seventh.
“As a team we didn’t perform that great today and that’s not something we usually do — so we’ll go back to the drawing board, we’ll regroup. We’ve had some incredible performances, really good and consistent,” he told reporters.
“The key was that I at least finished ahead of Seb and for me it doesn’t matter when you win the championship as long as you get it done.
“Ultimately we wanted to win the race today and I think going backwards two steps is not a good result but … you can’t win them all, you can’t always get them perfect. For us, this was like a double bogey.”
Hamilton had begun the day in a record-extending 81st pole position but was overtaken on the first corner by Kimi Raikkonen, who made the most of his softer tires with more grip.
With the virtual safety car called on lap nine as Daniel Ricciardo’s stricken Red Bull was being recovered, Mercedes made the decision two laps later to call Hamilton into the pits for a tire change.
However, the decision backfired as the tires blistered late on, requiring Hamilton to pit for a second time.
Though he was making time on Max Verstappen and Raikkonen ahead of him, engaging in a thrilling tussle with the Dutch driver two laps from the end, it proved to be too little, too late.
“Honestly I was trying to win the race but you look at the two guys next to me, they’re not fighting for a championship so I had to be very, very careful how I navigated around them,” Hamilton said.
“Championships are not won by fighting and making silly mistakes.
“I gave him (Verstappen) way too much space just to be sure that I didn’t get clipped, for example, didn’t get taken out because I didn’t know if you would understeer into me or could be aggressive.”
If Vettel is to maintain the miniscule chance he has of winning the title, he’ll need to win the three remaining races in Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi.
With only three races of his Formula One career remaining, two-time champion Fernando Alonso has criticized the standard of drivers in the sport.
The Spaniard’s race in Texas was ended after just one lap following a collision on turn three with Lance Stroll, who was later given a drive-through penalty for the crash.
After the race, Alonso said the level of drivers in F1 was “lower” than that of those in the World Endurance Championship (WEC) where he races for Toyota.
“I’m not upset, just disappointed because I am nine days here in the US to do a race and I do 600 meters of the race and they push you off,” Alonso said.
“So that is the way it is, a little bit unlucky. But it is more a problem for the FIA if they keep allowing this type of driving.
“I say because I drive in other series with amateur drivers and … there never is a problem. So, there are more amateurs here than in other series.
“The level is lower. I race in other series, in WEC, and they are very aggressive as well and we have three different categories there, some amateur drivers, and no one crashes into each other. It is another mentality.”