Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Circuit of the Americas, 2021

Hamilton’s advantageous grid spot may be his only hope in Verstappen fight

2021 United States Grand Prix pre-race analysis

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Max Verstappen took pole position but Lewis Hamilton was able to join him on the front row, splitting the two Red Bulls.

But with the Mercedes driver’s team mate languishing back in ninth after another engine change and penalty, can Hamilton overcome the rapid Red Bulls single-handedly?

With drivers expected to need to pit twice due to tyre degradation in the warm conditions, we could see more variety in teams’ tactics than usual. But however the cards fall for the title contenders, Red Bull head into the race in strong shape.

Championship rivals

The absence of Valtteri Bottas from the sharp end of the grid leaves Mercedes short of strategic options. Even if Hamilton manages to use his starting position on the inside to prise the lead out of Verstappen’s hands, Red Bull will have the advantage of two cars able to pre-empt or respond to his race plan.

Start, Zandvoort, 2021
The title rivals last shared the front row at Zandvoort
But the difficult task Mercedes face, following their strong showing on Friday morning at Circuit of the Americas, is that Red Bull have a slight advantage on pace. “If you look at the pure performance picture, both Red Bulls look very strong and probably, on paper, the cars that are ahead,” he said. “But we’ve seen many Sundays that took a very different direction because of the start scenario or DNFs.”

With neither of the championship contenders taking grid penalties for engine changes, Verstappen and Hamilton share the front row of the grid for the first time since the Dutch Grand Prix. They avoided a repeat of the British Grand Prix collision on that occasion, but did at the next round in Italy. Having already had one skirmish in practice this weekend, the pair inevitably faced questions over the possibility of a repeat in the race, which they were quick to dismiss.

As Hamilton knows well, his best chance of passing Verstappen will come at the start. If Red Bull are as quick as Wolff suspects, it may be his only hope. Second on the grid at COTA offers Hamilton cause to feel optimistic about his chances of being in the lead by turn two: The driver who has started there has ended lap one in the lead in three of the last five races at this track.

Start, Circuit of the Americas, 2018
Raikkonen took the lead from second on the grid in 2018
On two of those occasions Hamilton was the pole-winner who lost out. On the other, in 2015, he elbowed Nico Rosberg onto the run-off area, leaving his team mate fifth by the end of the first lap. Verstappen can expect similar treatment tomorrow if Hamilton gets the chance.

The geometry of the run to turn one helps the driver who starts second more than at other venues. The corner widens significantly on approach, making it harder for the pole-winner to keep a rival behind. There’s ample run-off at the exit, so if Hamilton can start well enough a lunge for the lead becomes a realistic possibility. The key question is how good the grip is off-line at this track. It’s been poor in the past: Charles Leclerc expressed some disappointment at moving up the grid one place to an off-line starting position.

As the last race in Turkey showed, the stewards are taking a tougher line on first corner incidents this year, and both title contenders will be anxious to steer clear of penalties. But the stakes are high for Hamilton, and with Bottas lining up further back the start offers a vital opportunity to disrupt Verstappen’s day.

Reliability risks

Before qualifying, Red Bull had to change the rear wing on Verstappen’s car due to concerns over possible cracks. The bumps and kerbs at Austin deal out considerable punishment to the cars.

Carlos Sainz Jnr, Ferrari, Circuit of the Americas, 2021
The rough surface is a concern for all the teams
Although Alfa Romeo boss Frederic Vasseur said he had found the effect was less severe than expected, Toto Wolff said Mercedes had taken steps to prevent damage, even at the cost of pace.

“The car was bottoming out quite heavily and that breaks the car, so we took some mitigating steps to not break it or massacre it that hard in order to survive the race,” Wolff said. “It’s definitely a compromise for going fast around the track, but maybe a necessity to actually finish.”

Although W Series cars are smaller and generate much lower aerodynamic loads than F1 cars, two suffered suspension failures already this weekend: Miki Koyama during the all-female series’ qualifying session and Abbie Eaton during the first race. Since COTA’s surface began to deteriorate in 2015 such failures have become slightly more commonplace in F1.

Tyre strategies

Vettel won an unusual Q2 contest
Tyre strategy decisions begin in Q2 for drivers who qualify in the top 10 – but not usually for those at the back of the grid. For three drivers there was a very specific objective in the session – beat each other but don’t place higher than 11th, in order to get the best start from the back and keep free tyre choice.

Sebastian Vettel beat Fernando Alonso and George Russell, meaning he’ll be the first of the grid-penalty-stricken starters. “In Q2, we were backing off”, he explained, “we didn’t want to go through to the top 10.” As a consequence, we may well not know the Aston Martin’s true pace – which had looked better in free practice. For all three penalised drivers, however, their team mates failed to progress further than they did.

In the top 10, two drivers will start on soft tyres – Yuki Tsunoda and Carlos Sainz Jnr. The Ferrari driver seems to have tested a long run on the soft tyres, putting in a 12 lap stint during second practice. Across the laps, Sainz drove consistently around a 1’42 lap, which should be plenty competitive at high fuel, on the race start.

Mario Isola, Pirelli’s head of F1 and car racing, said that the medium and hard compounds were still favourable, however. “The medium tyre was favoured by the majority of the top 10 on the grid, as starting on this compound allows more flexibility in terms of strategy. Managing the softs to avoid overheating ­– especially at the rear – is crucial in these warm conditions, and this makes the medium and the hard the key choices for the race.”

In terms of pit stops, Pirelli expects it won’t be the usual one-stop race. “A two-stop strategy is the more likely, with the high speeds and abrasive surfaces here taking a lot out of the tyres,” said Isola. “At the same time, the relatively low pit stop time loss and number of overtaking opportunities mitigate the advantages of a one-stopper.”

However, Isola said that different combinations of tyre compounds “closely match” across a two-stop strategy, so drivers outside the top 10 could still try a soft starting tyre to make early gains.

Weather check

Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Circuit of the Americas, 2021
Report: Perez says rain cost him time on final run after losing pole to Verstappen
There are two potential changes in the weather that could affect drivers during the race. Firstly, the wind is expected to slightly change direction from a south-easterly to due south direction – although that might still be beneficial.

George Russell said the switch from Friday, when wind was coming from the north, to Saturday’s weather, had dramatically improved Williams’ car balance. “The wind changed today to be a bit more headwind though that really tight, twisty section, which really brought the car towards us, whereas yesterday it just wasn’t really reacting very well in those sectors,” he explained.

However a recurrence of the rain which fell at the end of Q3 does not appear to be on the cards, with the official weather forecast giving a 0% chance of precipitation during the race.

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Quotes: Dieter Rencken

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Qualifying times in full

DriverCarQ1

Q2 (vs Q1)

Q3 (vs Q2)
1Max VerstappenRed Bull1’34.3521’33.464 (-0.888)1’32.910 (-0.554)
2Lewis HamiltonMercedes1’34.5791’33.797 (-0.782)1’33.119 (-0.678)
3Sergio PerezRed Bull1’34.3691’34.178 (-0.191)1’33.134 (-1.044)
4Valtteri BottasMercedes1’34.5901’33.959 (-0.631)1’33.475 (-0.484)
5Charles LeclercFerrari1’34.1531’33.928 (-0.225)1’33.606 (-0.322)
6Carlos Sainz JnrFerrari1’34.5581’34.126 (-0.432)1’33.792 (-0.334)
7Daniel RicciardoMcLaren1’34.4071’34.643 (+0.236)1’33.808 (-0.835)
8Lando NorrisMcLaren1’34.5511’33.880 (-0.671)1’33.887 (+0.007)
9Pierre GaslyAlphaTauri1’34.5671’34.583 (+0.016)1’34.118 (-0.465)
10Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauri1’35.3601’35.137 (-0.223)1’34.918 (-0.219)
11Esteban OconAlpine1’35.7471’35.377 (-0.370)
12Sebastian VettelAston Martin1’35.2811’35.500 (+0.219)
13George RussellWilliams1’35.7461’35.730 (-0.016)
14Antonio GiovinazziAlfa Romeo1’35.9201’35.794 (-0.126)
15Fernando AlonsoAlpine1’35.7561’44.549 (+8.793)
16Lance StrollAston Martin1’35.983
17Nicholas LatifiWilliams1’35.995
18Kimi RaikkonenAlfa Romeo1’36.311
19Mick SchumacherHaas1’36.499
20Nikita MazepinHaas1’36.796

Sector times

DriverSector 1Sector 2Sector 3
Max Verstappen24.897 (1)37.341 (3)30.646 (2)
Lewis Hamilton25.013 (3)37.180 (1)30.742 (3)
Sergio Perez24.939 (2)37.392 (4)30.644 (1)
Valtteri Bottas25.165 (7)37.299 (2)31.011 (8)
Charles Leclerc25.191 (8)37.486 (5)30.882 (4)
Carlos Sainz Jnr25.162 (6)37.520 (6)30.974 (7)
Daniel Ricciardo25.118 (5)37.694 (8)30.960 (6)
Lando Norris25.083 (4)37.595 (7)30.933 (5)
Pierre Gasly25.192 (9)37.696 (9)31.087 (9)
Yuki Tsunoda25.576 (11)37.920 (10)31.388 (10)
Esteban Ocon25.720 (13)38.050 (12)31.472 (11)
Sebastian Vettel25.736 (15)38.046 (11)31.497 (13)
George Russell25.527 (10)38.357 (14)31.747 (19)
Antonio Giovinazzi25.825 (17)38.158 (13)31.671 (16)
Fernando Alonso25.805 (16)38.456 (15)31.495 (12)
Lance Stroll25.908 (20)38.484 (16)31.591 (15)
Nicholas Latifi25.600 (12)38.624 (19)31.579 (14)
Kimi Raikkonen25.733 (14)38.496 (17)31.742 (18)
Mick Schumacher25.898 (19)38.533 (18)31.729 (17)
Nikita Mazepin25.856 (18)38.712 (20)32.228 (20)

Speed trap

PosDriverCarEngineSpeed (kph/mph)Gap
1Esteban OconAlpineRenault332.9 (206.9)
2Antonio GiovinazziAlfa RomeoFerrari324.5 (201.6)-8.4
3Kimi RaikkonenAlfa RomeoFerrari324.1 (201.4)-8.8
4Lewis HamiltonMercedesMercedes323.3 (200.9)-9.6
5Daniel RicciardoMcLarenMercedes323.1 (200.8)-9.8
6Valtteri BottasMercedesMercedes322.8 (200.6)-10.1
7Carlos Sainz JnrFerrariFerrari322.5 (200.4)-10.4
8Charles LeclercFerrariFerrari322.3 (200.3)-10.6
9Lando NorrisMcLarenMercedes322.3 (200.3)-10.6
10Pierre GaslyAlphaTauriHonda322.0 (200.1)-10.9
11Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauriHonda321.6 (199.8)-11.3
12George RussellWilliamsMercedes321.1 (199.5)-11.8
13Nicholas LatifiWilliamsMercedes320.1 (198.9)-12.8
14Sebastian VettelAston MartinMercedes319.0 (198.2)-13.9
15Mick SchumacherHaasFerrari318.8 (198.1)-14.1
16Nikita MazepinHaasFerrari318.7 (198.0)-14.2
17Sergio PerezRed BullHonda318.4 (197.8)-14.5
18Max VerstappenRed BullHonda318.3 (197.8)-14.6
19Lance StrollAston MartinMercedes315.9 (196.3)-17.0
20Fernando AlonsoAlpineRenault315.3 (195.9)-17.6

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Over to you

Will the title contenders keep it clean today? Can Ferrari keep their McLaren rivals behind? Share your views on the United States Grand Prix in the comments.

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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19 comments on “Hamilton’s advantageous grid spot may be his only hope in Verstappen fight”

  1. Expect a 2 stop here, and could be anyone’s race. People say this is a Mercedes track, but look at qualifying. In the last 3 years, the pole position was decided by less than 3 tenths of a second. Yes, this looks like a track like Suzuka where no matter techniques, the laptimes are closer than expected, and it is difficult to find time.

  2. AJ (@asleepatthewheel)
    24th October 2021, 11:58

    I am expecting another coming together between Hamilton and Verstappen at the front. Lewis is known for taking a wide line out of T1 at COTA, and I doubt Max will yield.

    1. @asleepatthewheel I could also see this coming if Lewis gets alongside. He might attempt something similar to 2015.

    2. If Max has the opportunity he should push Hamilton as far to the inside as he can. That would leave the door open to Perez going round the outside, but it would also force Hamilton to brake earlier to have any hope of making the corner. Max usually brakes early so it would be less of an issue for him maybe and if Lewis goes straight he could cut back behind Lewis to exit the corner faster. And i think there will be strategy talks with Max and Perez to attack Lewis. So I wouldn’t even be surprised if they try to get Perez in front for the first part to pressure Lewis into an undercut that would leave the track wide open for Max going for an overcut when Perez covers Lewis the next lap or vice versa.

  3. Not sure about the doom & gloom coming from Mercedes. I’ll be shocked if Hamilton doesn’t end lap 1 in the lead. He’ll do the same thing he did with Rosberg and just elbow Verstappen off – the question is whether Verstappen survives the inevitable pass or they collide.

    1. That all depends on the start they get @rocketpanda. I’m not sure personally I’ll be ‘shocked’ if Hamilton doesn’t end up in the lead, given that his starts have been a little tardy this year and the prospect of Checo also right behind him, he must be a little cautious. But I can see you’ve got this sorted out in your mind :)

    2. Also to note is the car they have, in 2017 & 2018 Ferrari had better grip to the nature of car, and by 2015 Hamilton usually has better starts and had the same car as Rosberg.

      This year with RB usually better in higher downforce circuits, it’s not a given than HAM will take in turn 1

  4. Start & T1 will be interesting with WDC contenders on the front row for a change, as will strategies.

  5. I can see them crashing in to the first corner, and if they come out side by side, there is always second corner…

    But if they don’t crash on lap 1.. The leading car will be hard to stop.

    They both know that, and both need to stay ahead, making crash even more likeley.

    And if that happens I hope they both get 10p grid drop for next race.

  6. BLS (@brightlampshade)
    24th October 2021, 13:43

    With the way Verstappen has been getting off the line this year I can’t see Hamilton being anywhere near him come turn 1, and he’s unlikely to lunge from way back, it’s not his style anymore.

  7. I’m really curious on how setup will inflict a more had degradation on tyres.

    Mercedes subtle redirection on setup was a way to preserve its tyes, mainly on the sector 1.

    Red Bull came very aggressive and that will be a strategic factor in race.

    There’s still hope to Mercedes.

  8. I recon Lewis will switch to 1stop if he cant pass Max in the initial laps, risky but better than status quo.

  9. Andy (@andyfromsandy)
    24th October 2021, 14:39

    Depending on position of the cars should they touch is what happened to Gasly last time out. Stewards ruling is if it is obvious in a two car tussle then a penalty will be awarded even on the first lap.

  10. Not sure T1 is going to mean that much if I’m honest as long as both keep clean. Tyres are going to be the talking point of the race, I’m guessing Merc’s ability to keep them cooler might prove an important factor. Secondly, there is still the chance of some rain at the start of the race, I wouldn’t discount that being a factor and if not water itself, a drop in temperature and/or change in temperature. Given the fine balance of each car, the weather conditions are for me going to be the deciding factor as long as the racing is clean on lap 1.

  11. Andy (@andyfromsandy)
    24th October 2021, 15:14

    Wait for the cars to fall apart!

  12. So the story is what Hamilton can do to win? ;) And why would the only hope be at the start as is the angle when there’s nothing to suggest that Red Bull has any race pace advantage, rather the opposite. Even the top speed and tyre wear is advantage Hamilton, so he will have all the chances after the first corner too.

  13. Hamilton qualifying as Pole and winning isn’t nearly as big a story , as Hamilton coming from behind to win.
    but we shall see…

    I’m betting the first time Hamilton gets DRS he’ll be blowing by Max, with Max doing everything to stop him.

  14. From what I remember, the left hand side of the grid on this track especially has really poor grip for starts with it being off the racing line and uphill. It might not be as close between Max and Lewis at turn 1 as many are thinking.

    1. I also don’t think p2 is advantageous at all (@lejimster82), we just have to remember 2012: Ferrari gave Massa a penalti to move Alonso from 8th to 7th and start on the clean side.

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