Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Circuit of the Americas, 2021

COTA throws up challenges for all teams but Mercedes have reliability fears too

2021 United States GP Friday practice analysis

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Having not raced at the Circuit of the Americas last year, changes in the track’s surface during that time have caused Formula 1 teams to revise their expectations after the first day of running.

A bumpy track and higher than expected tyre degradation look set to characterise this weekend’s action. And with three drivers already facing penalties for exceeding their supply of power unit parts, reliability is clearly a concern too – for some more than others.

Bumps in the road

The bumps at COTA have been there for years. But drivers have commented that this year its surface is significantly worse than they even expected.

Esteban Ocon, who hadn’t driven at the Texan course since 2018, found he “had to rediscover the track pretty much.”

“It’s a very different challenge,” said the Alpine driver. “There’s a lot more bumps, it was a lot more slippery, track grip was a lot less.”

A mixture of resurfacing and “milling” to ease the bumps has taken place since F1’s last visit to the track two years ago. This has made grip levels inconsistent at the circuit, as newcomer Mick Schumacher observed.

“We had a few patches that were very, very grippy for some reason [and] some which weren’t,” the Haas driver explained. Several drivers were caught out by the variations in grip and spun, including 2018 race winner Kimi Raikkonen.

Tyre degradation

Drivers are “fighting” their cars, says Ricciardo
The US Grand Prix is set for some of the highest track temperatures seen this season. By the start of second practice the track was close to 40C and degradation was, as a consequence, very high – especially on soft tyres.

McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo ran only soft tyres during second practice, indicating they aren’t intending to save any for the race. “Everyone was, I won’t say struggling, but fighting the car a bit. It was hot. The grip was pretty low, the tyres dropped off quite a lot already after a lap.”

Managing the degradation and coping with the bumps is “fun”, said Ricciardo. “But the aim this weekend is to struggle less than everyone else, and I think we’ll be in a good position.”

By the end of Friday’s running McLaren had both cars in the top five. That was a considerable improvement after the opening session, where only Lando Norris made it into the top 10. Big performance swings between the two hours of running were a theme for several teams.

The turn of pace Mercedes revealed in the first practice session at the Circuit of the Americas looked ominous for their rivals’ chances in the United States Grand Prix.

That advantage seemed to fade in the afternoon. The track temperature was much higher during second practice, jumping by almost 10C, and the nearly a second of pace that Mercedes had seemed to hold over other teams disappeared.

Traffic and track limits

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Circuit of the Americas, 2021
Hamilton’s car looks quick, but will it last?
However the second session was also tricky to read as drivers encountered traffic or had lap times deleted for track limits infringements. They included Lewis Hamilton, who had beaten Sergio Perez’s session-topping time until it was scratched for his off-track moment at turn 19.

Traffic was also a concern and is likely to be so again in Q1. No one wants to follow another car closely through the sinuous opening sector at this track, and drivers were backing up at the final corner before they started their hot laps. It even contributed to what Red Bull team principal Christian Horner called a “playground” squabble between Hamilton and Verstappen.

Verstappen was so frustrated by further traffic later in the session he abandoned his performance run. It therefore remains to be seen whether he would have beaten Perez’s time, or Hamilton’s deleted effort. But Mercedes’ immediate pace in the opening practice session suggests they are keeping something in reserve for qualifying.

Reliability is more of a concern for Mercedes than its pace this weekend. Three Mercedes-powered drivers are set to take grid penalties for power unit part replacements.

Sebastian Vettel and George Russell will go all the way to the back of the grid, while Valtteri Bottas will take drop five places after Mercedes fit his sixth internal combustion engine. Hamilton played down fears over his power unit, after a new example was fitted at the last round. But Bottas’ engine was only one race older than his, so it has to be a concern for the championship contender.

Quotes: Dieter Rencken

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Combined practice times

PosDriverCarFP1FP2Total laps
1Valtteri BottasMercedes1’34.8741’35.36041
2Lewis HamiltonMercedes1’34.9191’35.31040
3Sergio PerezRed Bull-Honda1’36.7981’34.94644
4Lando NorrisMcLaren-Mercedes1’36.8551’35.20331
5Daniel RicciardoMcLaren-Mercedes1’37.4581’35.45739
6Lance StrollAston Martin-Mercedes1’36.9721’35.56145
7Charles LeclercFerrari1’36.3341’35.57241
8Max VerstappenRed Bull-Honda1’35.8061’35.82439
9Carlos Sainz JnrFerrari1’36.5081’35.91944
10Antonio GiovinazziAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’36.8741’36.13844
11Esteban OconAlpine-Renault1’36.9701’36.15845
12Pierre GaslyAlphaTauri-Honda1’36.6111’36.24243
13Fernando AlonsoAlpine-Renault1’37.0681’36.37630
14Kimi RaikkonenAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’36.8761’36.55843
15Sebastian VettelAston Martin-Mercedes1’36.9821’36.71850
16George RussellWilliams-Mercedes1’36.9661’37.49040
17Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauri-Honda1’37.9541’36.98346
18Mick SchumacherHaas-Ferrari1’38.8661’37.04141
19Nicholas LatifiWilliams-Mercedes1’37.4631’37.25445
20Nikita MazepinHaas-Ferrari1’42.2391’38.02642

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2021 United States Grand Prix

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Author information

Hazel Southwell
Hazel is a freelance journalist who roams the paddocks of Formula E, covering the technical and emotional elements of electric racing. Usually found at...

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3 comments on “COTA throws up challenges for all teams but Mercedes have reliability fears too”

  1. The reduced penalty for Bottas’ sixth engine vs the fifth seems regressive; I would think the penalty should increase with increased engine usage.

    1. They discussed this on Sky commentary too. My take is that maybe they felt that at some point you’re just kicking someone when they’re down. Nobody would intentionally take three or more extra engines if they didn’t have a reliability issue, so maybe they decided that allowing a little more leniency at that stage would make sense. They might have written this regulation around the time of Honda’s early struggles, not expecting that sometime it might actually affect the championship contenders.

    2. At this point it’s absolutely worth it to take a penalty every race, 5 places are not a lot unless you’re in a monaco-like track and bottas seems to perform better when he has a new engine.

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