Verstappen resists Hamilton’s charge to win with “courageous” strategy

2021 United States Grand Prix review

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Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton gave the very best of themselves in a tense and absorbing United States Grand Prix, played out before a rammed audience at the Circuit of the Americas.

The Red Bull driver prevailed, but only narrowly, Hamilton chasing him home, poised to strike throughout the final laps had Verstappen made the slightest error.

None came, and the world championship leader increased his points lead by executing his team’s bold strategic choice to perfection.

Hamilton hits the front

In three of the previous five races at the Austin circuit, the driver who lined up second had taken the lead. The wide, inviting, tight first corner means whoever starts second only needs to make a slightly better start than the pole-winner to have a decent shot at passing.

Hamilton did exactly that. Verstappen moved to cover him off, but wisely elected not to force the issue. The pair have clashed twice already this year, and nearly did again in Friday practice, but this time they avoided each other.

Hamilton took the lead, but he couldn’t hold on to it
Hamilton eased Verstappen wide onto the run-off, just as he had done six years earlier to his then-team mate Nico Rosberg. Verstappen had cause to thank the FIA’s pre-race decision to remove the sausage kerbs from the exit of the corner, which would have cost him more time and potentially vital places. Behind him Sergio Perez, playing a perfect rear-gunner role, backed out of passing his championship-contending team mate.

Mercedes expected they wouldn’t be competitive on the medium compound rubber at the start of the race, and so it proved. Hamilton seldom drew more than a second clear of Verstappen. Perez drifted slowly out of contact, while the gap to the midfield opened up more rapidly.

However Mercedes were wary of pitting early, dropping into traffic, and having to run long stints later in the race. Red Bull pounced, bringing Verstappen in on lap 10.

In the eyes of Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, this was a “courageous move, because it was very early.” It meant bringing him out behind Daniel Ricciardo, but he caught his former team mate on the back straight and lost little time. Mercedes immediately saw that bringing Hamilton in would doom him to falling behind Verstappen, and so decided to press on.

After three more laps, Hamilton came in. By this stage he was losing two seconds per lap to Verstappen, plus Perez had pitted as well, and Mercedes could not afford to risk another place. After a swift stop Hamilton was back on his way with a set of hard tyres.

The Mercedes has usually been happier on harder rubber, and so it proved. With slightly fresher tyres, Hamilton began to take half a second per lap, and more, out of Verstappen. By lap 26 he’d cut Verstappen’s lead from 6.7 seconds to less than three.

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Perez was by not out of the picture. He came into the race with one fewer set of hard tyres and therefore had to run his middle stint on mediums. That plus the growing burden of racing a physically punishing track on a warm day with a broken drinks system meant his lap times were creeping up.

Verstappen kept Hamilton within range for the first 10 laps
Red Bull therefore had to bring Verstappen in pre-emptively to avoid Mercedes returning the favour from the first round of stops and getting Hamilton ahead by pitting him first. He was in for fresh rubber again on lap 30.

Hamilton stayed out until the 38th tour, and by the time he’d pitted and resumed in second, the pair were separated by 8.8 seconds. But Hamilton’s tyres were eight laps newer, and after gently coaxing them up to speed, he let rip with the fastest lap of the race so far, and took 3.3 seconds out of Verstappen in two laps.

Verstappen responded by increasing his own pace, but still Hamilton continued to draw in. With half-a-dozen laps to go there was just one-and-a-half seconds between them. Now Hamilton encountered the familiar buffer of turbulence and his lap times briefly rose. Verstappen enjoyed brief respite, for two laps, until his tyres began to show signs of fading.

Hamilton was growing larger in his mirrors yet falling tantalising short of the Red Bull driver’s DRS zone. Traffic complicated Verstappen’s life further. Yuki Tsunoda seemed unco-operative for a driver who two weeks ago said he wanted Verstappen the win the title, but Mick Schumacher proved a greater obstacle. Verstappen unhelpfully caught the Haas in the sweeping turns 16, 17 and 18, losing three-tenths of a second.

But that also meant Verstappen passed through the DRS detection point approaching turn 19 within a second of the Haas. That allowed him to use DRS, while the chasing Hamilton wasn’t close enough to gain the benefit. Verstappen eked out his lead by half a second on the final lap, and took the flag just 1.3 seconds ahead of his rival.

The wheel-to-wheel fight between the title contenders which over 140,000 Americans turned up to see never materialised. But it was a showcase of driving excellence by the pair of them, either of which could have won. The ailing Perez arrived home over 40 seconds after his team mate.

Leclerc storms to fourth

Leclerc drove away from the McLarens
The second Red Bull came in just 10 seconds ahead of the first of the Ferraris. Ominously for McLaren and their hopes of holding on to third in the constructors’ championship, Charles Leclerc was 24 seconds ahead of Daniel Ricciardo in the first of the McLarens. The other Ferrari of Carlos Sainz Jnr would surely have been higher up had he not started the race on the unfancied soft rubber and lost time in his second pit stop.

Sainz therefore came in behind Valtteri Bottas, who struggled to make progress from ninth on the grid in his Mercedes. He lost a place to Tsunoda at the start and was ruled to have illegally gained a place from Pierre Gasly, who he was advised to let by. Bottas ran a longer first stint than his team mate but a shorter middle stint, and was able to pass Sainz for sixth.

An unhappy Norris was the last driver on the lead lap in eighth place. He seemed hard done by on the first lap, where he went down the inside of Sainz at turn 12 with Ricciardo on the outside of the pair of them. While the two McLaren drivers kept within the track boundaries, Sainz ran off and rejoined in front of both.

Nonetheless the stewards were then content for him to let just one, Ricciardo, past, and a later instruction to allow Norris by as well was not heeded. It was one of many doubtful calls relating to track limits which occured during the afternoon.

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Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri, Circuit of the Americas, 2021
Tsunoda ended a six-race point-less run
Tsunoda scored his first points since the Hungarian Grand Prix in ninth after a solid afternoon’s work. He infuriated his team mate early in the race by holding him up while his soft tyres faded, though Pierre Gasly’s race came to an end soon afterwards anyway with suspension failure.

Sebastian Vettel claimed the final point having started 18th due to a power unit change penalty. He was 15th by the end of lap one, and went against the grain by selecting mediums tyres for his first two stints, before passing both Alfa Romeos in his final stint on mediums. The last of those, Kimi Raikkonen, allowed Vettel by when he spun off.

Fernando Alonso, who started one race behind Vettel having also changed power units, gave his team some pre-race encouragement on the radio in what was proving a difficult weekend for Alpine: “Not a good weekend so far but let’s do a perfect race, see what result we can get.”

But there was less motivation and more indignation on Alonso radio once the race began and he became involved in a series of contentious disputes with the Alfa Romeo drivers. Having seen Raikkonen pass him after going off at turn one, a fuming Alonso used the run-off at turn 12 to pass Raikkonen’s team mate and was later told to relinquish the position. He eventually did, then the process was reversed when Alonso passed Giovinazzi again and the Alfa Romeo driver went off to stay ahead. He, too, was told to give up the place.

In many respects the Circuit of the Americas is an ideal example of what a modern permanent racing circuit should look like. Probably the only way it could be improved is if some of the generous asphalt run-offs which regularly cause track limits disputes were replaced with grass or gravel.

Verstappen takes a 12-point lead

Verstappen heads to Brazil Mexico with a larger lead
Two weeks ago in Turkey, Verstappen re-took the championship lead but also recorded his third consecutive win-less finish, the first time that had happened all year. Mercedes had won back-to-back races, lending weight to the sense the championship fight was trending in their direction.

In Austin, Verstappen demonstrated they are very much in the title fight. Their performance advantage was fractional, and Hamilton’s slightly better start forced them to take a risk on strategy which paid off.

It was a race either driver could have won, and it was Verstappen who won it. The United States Grand Prix therefore looked like a significant moment in the championship fight. But with just 12 points between them and five races still to run, it’s not going to be over soon.

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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35 comments on “Verstappen resists Hamilton’s charge to win with “courageous” strategy”

  1. RedEaredRabbit
    25th October 2021, 7:25

    This looks ominous for Mercedes. If they can’t win here, the rest of the season could be painful. The final margin of victory was small but that was more because of RB prioritising track position.

    Still, it was exciting to see where those two, absolutely in a class of their own, would finally end up.

    1. On the contrary. Mercedes new suspension trick is a game changer. With the top speed advantage, just being on the same pace means they will get in front, and likewise make them stay in front.

      Also they can generally use more downforce which means better cornering and tyre wear as well.

      1. @balue Hmmm, I don’t know. My admittedly basic understanding of Merc’s innovation is that they lower the car and at a certain speed stall out the diffuser thus reducing drag and promoting straight-line speed. But it seems that was much less effective at COTA, and I speculate that is because they couldn’t lower the car enough due to the bumps. I just wonder if there are other reasons why it might not be as effective at some of the remaining tracks too, and I’m thinking mainly of perhaps lengths of straights or what have you.

        For some reason(s) Horner has implied Merc’s innovation wouldn’t be as effective at all tracks and the Sky commentary confirmed that too. I guess we’ll see, and we do know that RBR had strong feelings that COTA was going to favour Mercedes and it didn’t quite. I’m sure RBR knows exactly what Mercedes is doing and have things up their sleeves too even if they haven’t time or the car type to duplicate what Mercedes is doing. I don’t think the science is new to Newey and again purely speculating I suspect they can’t do what Merc is doing due to their high rake car, but obviously they have reasons to have stuck with high rake all along that has it’s own virtues that they will continue to tweak.

  2. Good Race and good win for Verstappen and Red Bull. Gamble paid off but it could have easily gone the other way around. Not over yet though! Great year for F1.

  3. Heroic victory for Sir Verstappen, being able to destroy the Merc rocketship once again through natural talent and skill was a thing of beauty.

    Jammy Ham better get his head in gear for next year because George is coming and they’ll be no more places to hide in the luxury of a dominant car.

    1. @Nandy Nothing impressive about Max’s win. COTA is known for being hard to overtake, hence the faster Red Bull couldn’t overtake Hamilton and Crashtappen was destroying his tyres in the process and was forced to pit which resulted in a lucky undercut, any other wide track Lewis would have overtaken your maxi with ease. Russell is a very good driver yes, better than all teammates Max had who all are sub par drivers aka nobodies except Ricciardo who owned Max despite Red Bull wanted Max to win.

      1. Its getting very funny..

        COTA is known for being hard to overtake

        It widely seen as one of the best overtaking ciruits on the calender.. do not believe me, but take of from a F1 driver: https://f1i.com/news/29288-cota-the-best-overtaking-circuit-ricciardo.html

  4. I really think until the last few corners of the last lap it was far too close to call. Got to admit in practice the Mercedes looked better but Verstappen got pole. In the first phase of the race the Red Bull looked by far the fastest car on track but by the end the Mercedes looked in a class of its own and the Red Bull looked wounded. Enormously tense as it really could have gone one way or another.

    1. Davethechicken
      25th October 2021, 19:28

      “Got to admit in practice the Mercedes looked better”
      Red Bull and Ferrari were faster in practice than Mercedes. Check the time sheets.

      1. He was probably referring to FP1 only where Mercedes was clearly faster than the field. Also Ver didnt get a good run without traffic in FP1. Lastly, Mercedes have admitted they were running their engines high in FP1, probably to test reliability. FP1 really meant nothing. People really shouldn’t take much from practice, let alone FP1.

  5. “Fernando Alonso, who started one race behind Vettel”.
    – these grid penalties have gotten out of control

    1. Ahah, true!

    2. 300 km behind, that is an insurmontable gap!

  6. While I enjoyed the fight at the front, it wasn’t something I got too excited about during the race. It just seemed that the performance delta between Hamilton and Verstappen was never just quite enough for either of them to get by on track. On the first stint, Verstappen was faster but stuck in the dirty air, and the same happened when Hamilton caught him near the end of the race.

    1. I thought the same. When I saw that Ham had 5laps with about 4secs to claw back…i thought no way is he passing him following so closely for so long with that delta. He gave it his all though hoping max might have a pressure moment but it never happened. Well done to max. not a fan of the guy but credit as usual where credit is due. superb drive and strategy.

    2. Hopefully 2022 will fix this or at least deliver improvement

    3. @kaiie Even the Sky commentary knew that the Mercedes would breeze by at the first DRS, and it was obvious to all. The top speed difference plus fresher tyre were ‘insurmountable’.

      1. Davethechicken
        25th October 2021, 19:26

        It has been apparent all season the Mercedes have great difficulty getting close enough to use Drs. It was very obvious Ham would struggle to get close enough to use it and so it proved.

        1. That’s a myth as we’ve seen in several races earlier in the season Mercedes follow Red Bull within DRS range for lap after lap (I believe at Paul Ricard for a third of the race).

          And it wasn’t proved here, as Hamilton ran out of laps and Verstappen had saved enough tyres to do purple first sector on the final lap and just avoid getting in DRS. A few more laps and it would have been inevitable.

  7. The article needs a revision, @keithcollantine as a latter one mentions that Sainz indeed let Norris through although he passed him again on same lap. This should be revised because of the words regarding Norris being “hard done” and about the stewards.

    1. @bakano No that was Ricciardo

      1. @balue, he also give the position back to Norris but that was not seen on the live feed nor was it shown in any reply as mentioned here:

  8. Hamilton needed 3 laps more to pass Verstappen. His second stop should have been 3 laps earlier. Hindsight helps a lot.

    1. Mmm, he would’ve had even less tyre delta compared to verstappen, not sure if that’d have worked.

  9. It was clear in the first part of the race, when Lewis couldn’t pull away from Ves in clean air, that strategie would be decisive. Both drivers are a match. Great season.

  10. In three of the previous five races at the Austin circuit, the driver who lined up second had taken the lead. The wide, inviting, tight first corner means whoever starts second only needs to make a slightly better start than the pole-winner to have a decent shot at passing.

    So why isn’t it changed to favor the pole sitter more?

    1. @balue maybe it’s the American way to make things (a bit artificially) exciting.

    2. So its best to qualify second in Austin. But how do you do that?

      1. Good point, it might’ve been possible some other seasons, but this season there were like 15 thousandths between hamilton and perez, it’s impossible to get inbetween them even if you have a good sense of time loss.

  11. Let’s face it, this result was always more likely with Bottas, aka wingman extrordinary, demoted down into oblivion with yet another engine upgrade…

    Why why why did he need yet another engine change? Its not as if that engine did him much good in the race, where overtaking should have been easier than on most other tracks. why?

    1. Was the engine change programmed before the quali? Because if it was, I suspect they were fearing Bottas 4.0 Alfa Romeo update was going to qualify in front of that guy who always needs these kinds of helps.

      1. I think it was before quali, yes, even before practice maybe, but it was announced early. THEN bottas qualifying 4th (worse than expected) made his weekend worse.

    2. Why why why did he need yet another engine change?

      It’s obviously something other than failing parts, so either they’re experimenting with things in order to see how that will help Hamilton avoid failure, or it’s an even more nefarious scheme where parts, or even parts within parts will miraculously end up on the other side of the garage.

  12. How was this new engine different or better than the engine he had… also does this mean Hamilton is likely to also need his engine changed again?

    So many unasked questions?

    1. The IC unit that was changed is not permitted to be materially different than what is supplied to McLaren, Aston M or Williams. At least that is what the rules say.
      To the “un asked questions …” Supposedly Merc is having some reliability issues that they can’t pinpoint. With an engine freeze around the corner, ya better fix it now rather than suffer through it later. Hence, take the no.2 man’s engine out for examination. That’s one theory. Add to it that they admitted to running a higher power mode in FP1. Not sure how that is done in the rules, but they coped to it.
      Second to the unasked, are there material differences in the IC unit that they are working into the full fleet of Power Units at the customer teams. This could fit with the desire to upgrade things and get ready for the freeze. Now would be the time to do it.
      Either way, exciting times and my bet … more to come.

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