In the Lone Star State, no sport is more deeply ingrained into the heart of Texan culture than American Football.
Formula 1 has more in common with American Football than you might think. They are both incredibly tactical sports, where endless data and analytics inform intricately planned strategies where teams must be prepared to make radical split-second decisions under intense pressure if they want to win. But even if you successfully execute the most carefully crafted strategy, it may not be enough to prevent a stronger, faster and more determined opponent from beating you to victory through sheer brute strength.
And that is exactly what Red Bull and Max Verstappen were able to do to their rivals at Circuit of the Americas.
Two days before grand prix Sunday, the newly-crowned world champion threw away pole position by running off-track by a slight margin. One which was rendered irrelevant for later sessions when the FIA repainted the white lines on the exit of turn 19. Instead of looking at a clear run up the hill to turn one, Verstappen would instead be sat in sixth place, with Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari on pole position.
Leclerc had almost got a run down the inside of Verstappen into the first corner of Saturday’s sprint race from second on the grid, only for his efforts to be robustly rebuffed by the Red Bull driver. But with the benefit of pole position and a car that was set up to be very fast down the multiple straights of the Austin circuit, Leclerc was perfectly placed to lead the field in the early laps. All he needed was to beat Lando Norris into turn one.
Norris had started from second on the grid twice before in 2023. The first time, at Silverstone, he had launched himself into the lead before the first corner and was eager to repeat that feat in Austin. Only 16 cars lined up on the grid at the end of the formation lap ready for the mad rush up the hill – all shod with medium compound tyres – while both Aston Martins of Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll as well as the Haas pair Kevin Magnussen and Nico Hulkenberg would join the race from the pit lane.
When the five red lights released the field, Norris did a superb job of emulating his Silverstone launch as he leapt out of the blocks and almost immediately drew alongside the Ferrari. Without much momentum, Leclerc could not even pull left to squeeze the McLaren the same way Verstappen did to him in the sprint race, but Lewis Hamilton attempted to throw a block on Carlos Sainz Jnr behind as the pair duelled for second place.
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Out of the tight left-hander, Norris led the field. The two Ferraris followed with Leclerc ahead of Sainz who had successfully passed Hamilton, while the Mercedes driver squeezed out Verstappen at the exit, forcing the champion to settle into fifth. George Russell’s mediocre start left him floundering with the Alpines and Oscar Piastri’s McLaren. Rounding turn two, Piastri and Esteban Ocon touched, and though it appeared at first glance to be a relatively harmless side-by-side clash, within 10 laps both drivers were be forced to retire as a result of the damage they had incurred.
Leclerc had lost the lead but he was close to losing second at the hands of team mate Sainz into turn 12. The two Ferraris both aimed their cars at the apex and had to take care to give each other room, and avoided a repeat of the Mercedes drivers’ embarrassment in Qatar. At the line, Norris held a surprisingly healthy lead of 1.7 seconds from the two Ferraris, with Hamilton fourth and Verstappen in fifth ahead of the doomed Piastri and Ocon.
With the first 18 drivers all running on medium tyres, but not necessarily on the same strategy, the early stint felt much like Saturday’s sprint race with the field all spread relatively evenly apart. Mercedes had introduced a new floor to their car in Austin and it had proved its worth in the sprint race, Hamilton finishing second behind Verstappen.
The seven-times world champion, winless for almost two years now, was also looking strong during the early laps of the grand prix. On lap four, Hamilton used the slipstream and DRS on Sainz and easily drove around the Ferrari driver before needing to hit the brakes for turn 12, moving up to third.
Verstappen was soon through on the Ferrari too, before Hamilton caught up to the back of Leclerc. Unlike his team mate, Leclerc at least offered a form of defence along the back straight. However, it was more a token gesture than anything as Hamilton swept by the outside into second, the pair of them visibly bouncing over the bumps as they hit the anchors into turn 12, scraping the underside of their cars on the uneven asphalt as they did.
Freed from the Ferraris, Hamilton set about chasing down the 3.4-second lead that Norris held over him. By the end of lap 10 the Mercedes driver had only chipped half a second out of the McLaren, but Verstappen was taking much more take out of third-placed Leclerc. On lap 11, the Red Bull dived inside the Ferrari at turn 12 to demote his rival to fourth. More positions lost for Leclerc, more punishment over the bumps for his car.
As the leaders approached the anticipated pit window, Norris began to struggle with the balance of his McLaren. But race engineer Will Joseph suspected the problem was less to do with the car and more the conditions.
“Lando, the wind is inconsistent,” Joseph warned his driver. “Might be what you’re feeling.”
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Hamilton closed to within two seconds of Norris with Verstappen sitting six seconds back in third. Red Bull played their hand by pitting Verstappen first at the end of lap 16, but fitted a second set of the medium compound tyres onto his car. When Norris stopped out of the lead two laps later, he was given a set of hards, handing Verstappen a theoretical pace advantage through the second stint. Norris emerged ahead of the world champion with Pierre Gasly’s Alpine acting as a buffer between them.
Mercedes were not looking to just be passive in their pursuit of victory. Instead, they looked to try and do something different to their two closest rivals.
“Lewis, do you think you have another five laps on this tyre?,” race engineer Peter Bonnington enquired. “Do you reckon you could handle it?”
“I’m not sure, man. It’s pretty tough,” Hamilton confessed, before proving himself right by locking up into turn 11 and running slightly wide, allowing Verstappen to fall within his pit window in the process.
When Mercedes eventually pitted the leader on lap 20 for hard tyres, he rejoined the track just in time to watch Verstappen disappear over the crest of the hill in front of him. Norris and Hamilton were now on hard tyres and did not have to necessarily stop again, while Verstappen was locked into a two-stop on his mediums. Norris was asked to consider ‘plan B’, voicing his approval before he inherited the lead back at the end of lap 23 from the pitting Leclerc, who had committed to changes tyres just once.
Norris had the lead but he did not have the pace of Verstappen. A mistake at turn 11 saw the leader miss the apex of the left-hander by more than a car’s width, which was like blood in the water for Verstappen behind him. The Red Bull closed up quickly to the McLaren but knew he could afford to be patient as he looked to take the lead from him.
But patience is something Verstappen has rarely practiced throughout his career. Despite being six tenths behind Norris exiting turn 11 onto the long back straight on lap 28, his enormous top speed advantage of 25kph over the McLaren allowed him to lunge from an almost laughable distance back and move into the lead for the first time in the race.
Despite now sitting out front, Verstappen did not break away from Norris until lap 32, when the McLaren’s lap times began to grow rapidly. Norris fell from a second away from the Red Bull to almost four seconds. Any hope of making a one-stop work was disappearing in front of McLaren’s eyes and so Norris was brought in at the end of lap 34 to fit a second set of medium tyres.
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Red Bull now had a simple path to victory for Verstappen and could react to McLaren’s stop and bring the leader in at the end of the next lap for hard tyres. But despite a slow change on his left-rear wheel, resulting in a tardy 3.3 second pit stop, Verstappen still had plenty of time in hand to rejoin the circuit around a second-and-a-half ahead of the former race leader.
Hamilton cycled through into the lead with Leclerc in second, Ferrari’s one-stop strategy looking increasingly ill-advised with every passing lap. Just as Hamilton pitted at the end of lap 38 to take mediums for the final 18 laps, Verstappen caught Leclerc and easily slipped by him on the run up the hill to turn one, reclaiming the lead in the process.
The Red Bull driver was now in the dominant position he likely would have expected to be had it not been for his Friday qualifying error. But the race was by no means over, with Hamilton emerging from the pit lane just under eight seconds from the race leader. For Hamilton to win, he needed to pass Leclerc, Norris then take just over four tenths of a second per lap out of Verstappen in order to catch the leader, and pass him before the chequered flag. Simple.
Hamilton achieved the first element of his mission easily enough, taking six seconds out of Leclerc over four laps before overtaking the Ferrari along the back straight into turn 12 for a second time in the race. Norris, however, proved more of a challenge. When Hamilton caught the McLaren on lap 48 with just eight laps remaining, Norris protected his position more jealously than Leclerc had. A look to the inside of turn one on lap 49 was aggressively defended by Norris, but Hamilton had enough traction and momentum out of the corner to sweep around the outside of turn two and into second place.
“Nice work, Lewis,” Bonnington told his driver. “We’ve got Verstappen ahead, five seconds.”
Despite sitting out front, Verstappen had spent a large part of the second half of the race complaining about the performance of his brakes, which he characteristically described as “shit”. But even with such complaints, Verstappen was maintaining his typical metronomic pace and offering little to Hamilton in pursuit behind.
Hamilton’s tyre advantage was working for him, however, and allowed the Mercedes to take four seconds out of the leader over five laps to bring him tantalisingly close to the magic one second gap he would need to achieve DRS. The problem was, Hamilton was running out of laps.
It had been a relentless sprint of a race with no Safety Cars or Virtual Safety Car interventions to break it up, but just as many of his rivals had predicted on Friday, Verstappen had successfully navigated his way past the five cars ahead of him on the grid and into the lead long before the chequered flag. Race win number 15 of the season and 50 of his career was confirmed at the end of lap 56, when Verstappen crossed the line to complete his charge to victory having been made to work harder than most rounds in 2023.
“In general today the pace was a lot closer than maybe some other races,” Verstappen admitted after the race. “Naturally that does make it more exciting. You need to be really on top of things.
“But then at the same time I was not entirely happy because I was struggling myself with the brakes, so then your confidence is not that fantastic.”
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Verstappen took his third win in a row in Austin, each of which heave come under pressure from Hamilton, beginning with the Red Bull driver’s virtuoso performance in the 2021 race when the pair were fighting for the title.
Hamilton got within 1.7 seconds of the leader on the final lap before having to settle for second. But after stretching out his opening stint and not following Verstappen onto the hard tyres at his first stop, Hamilton was left wishing things had panned out differently during the race.
“I think we made our life a lot harder today than it probably needed to be,” Hamilton said of his strategy. “I do think we would have been in a position to fight with Max.
“There’s lots of areas where we could have been better, but the positives are that we were at points matching them for pace and to be only two seconds back afterwards at the end of the race I think is a good sign.”
Norris was eight seconds further back in third. But despite leading 21 laps of the race, Norris had to admit McLaren lacked the performance to truly battle for victory at COTA.
“I felt like I was always in the vulnerable position, the one defending,” he said. “I just clearly didn’t have the pace at the end of any of the stints today. Our tyre degradation was just not on par with these two guys.”
Sainz was within five seconds of Norris in fourth having deviated from Ferrari’s one-stop strategy by pushing his tyres too hard in the early stages, leading to a switch in tactics. Sergio Perez took fifth ahead of poor Leclerc, who was left a sitting duck out on a one-stop strategy.Lance Stroll recovered from a difficult start of the weekend and a pit lane start to secure his first points since Spa in ninth, while Yuki Tsunoda gave AlphaTauri plenty to cheer about by taking the final point and the bonus point for fastest lap in tenth.
Another NFL stadium-sized crowd had witnessed an enthralling strategic battle worthy of the gridiron over the course of the 56 laps. Even if the winner had been no surprise, at least the American fans had seen him forced to work for it.
But US sports fans are unfamiliar with seeing the results of sporting contest change after the players have left the field of play. However, just before 5.30pm as over 100,000 fans filed out from the facility, the FIA posted an ominous bulletin to the paddock.
Both Hamilton and Leclerc’s cars had both failed an inspection on their plank wear levels. Suddenly, the result was thrown into serious doubt. Although both Mercedes and Ferrari pointed their fingers at the notorious bumps that both their cars had been seen bouncing over during their early race skirmish, that was no grounds to excuse them from a clear infringement of the technical regulations.
All Hamilton’s efforts to chase down Verstappen in his final stint, and all the work Leclerc had put into trying to keep his tyres alive over his one-stop race, had been in vain. The stewards took the only course of action available to them and formally disqualified both drivers from the final results.
Norris was handed second place as a result, while Sainz was promoted onto the podium with Perez gaining fourth. Leclerc’s removal allowed Russell to jump up to fifth, with Gasly’s four points doubling as a result. Stroll was awarded seventh place and Tsunoda eighth. But the greatest beneficiary was Williams, as both Alexander Albon and Logan Sargeant were moved into the points – the latter finally securing his first top ten finish of his rookie season, and doing it in his home grand prix to boot, at a critical time for his ambitions to remain on the grid for 2024.
But none of it affected the most important result – the winner. Already a three-times world champion, Verstappen had now joined an exclusive club of just five drivers with a half-century of race wins – Hamilton, Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel, Alain Prost and himself.
With four rounds remaining, it’s hard to see him not growing that number even further before the 2023 season ends.
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2023 United States Grand Prix
- US GP was Mercedes’ best race of 2023 despite disqualification – Wolff
- Singapore and Austin retirements cost me top 10 championship place – Ocon
- United States Grand Prix result unchanged as FIA rejects Haas’ call for review
- Sargeant admits he’s ‘struggled to use all the downforce at times’ in F1
- Mercedes’ Brazilian GP set-up was “conservative” after US GP disqualification
F1 race reviews
- Mission complete for Verstappen as Ferrari fall short of their final objective
- Verstappen denies Leclerc as F1’s Las Vegas spectacular lives up to its billing
- Verstappen on song with Sao Paulo win as Alonso prevails in podium photo-finish
- Perez breaks hearts, Verstappen breaks record in Mexico
- Victory is no sweat for champion Verstappen as McLaren turn up the heat in Qatar