With its steep rise towards a hairpin left turn, the first corner at the Circuit of the Americas is an open-throttled test of nerve. An aggressive approach initially paid off for Lewis Hamilton as he overtook Max Verstappen at the start of this race. Hamilton dived for the inside and surged into the lead on the first turn, forcing Verstappen’s Red Bull wide after he was unable to cut off the Mercedes.
Fireworks were anticipated after collisions between the pair this season at Silverstone and Monza and the tension is obvious as the season reaches its climax. Verstappen called Hamilton a “stupid idiot” and directed a middle finger at his rival when their cars almost made contact during a practice session on Friday.
Yet after the early action the contest turned into more of a chess match than a slugfest, a matter of team strategy and tyre stability, increments not incidents, on a hot afternoon in Texas, with Hamilton staying out on his tyres longer than Verstappen.
In the end, though, as Hamilton played catch-up and got agonisingly close, the Red Bull driver finished 1.3 seconds ahead of the Mercedes. The win means Verstappen extended his advantage at the top of the standings.
Verstappen had entered the weekend with a six-point lead over Hamilton with six races remaining. By the seventh lap of 56 a large gap had opened up between Hamilton, Verstappen, Sergio Perez and the rest, with Hamilton nearly12 seconds ahead of the Ferrari of fourth-placed Charles Leclerc. However, Verstappen was breathing down his neck. “He’s quicker than me right now,” Hamilton said on the team radio.
That wasn’t the case for long as morning drizzle in central Texas gave way to hotter temperatures under partly cloudy skies, with a track temperature of over 38C putting tyres under stress.
While Hamilton was hopeful before the race that Mercedes would be superior on the straights, this circuit, its design inspired by celebrated sections of other tracks around the world, has 20 corners.
“Tyres are really hot and I don’t think we are particularly quick,” Verstappen alerted his team as he pitted on lap 11, emerging in fifth nearly 20 seconds adrift of the leader.
Hamilton entered the pits three laps later, and when he rejoined traffic, Verstappen had taken a six-second lead. But the British seven-time world champion slowly ate away at the 24-year-old’s advantage, reducing it to about three seconds halfway through the race.
After 30 laps, Verstappen came in for his second stop, adding hard tyres, allowing Hamilton to regain first place. Hamilton did not pit again until lap 37. That left him with a nine-second deficit to erode, but he was now clearly faster than his opponent.
A late showdown seemed inevitable. With five laps to go, Hamilton was less than two seconds behind Verstappen, but the Red Bull responded and held him off – just. “Yes, guys!” Verstappen told his team. “Unbelievable.”
Next up is Mexico City, on 7 November. The high altitude there is predicted to favour Red Bull, which added to the pressure on Hamilton to bank maximum points from one of his favourite events.
A sold-out crowd of an estimated 140,000 spectators underlines F1’s growing popularity in the US ahead of a second American race appearing on the calendar next year, when Miami makes its debut.
While McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo can affect the most convincing Texan twang among the drivers – in addition to the accent, he sported a cowboy hat and the burnt-orange basketball shirt of the local Texas Longhorns team during the parade lap – Austin is Hamilton country.
The 36-year-old arrived seeking his sixth US Grand Prix victory in the ninth edition of the race at this circuit, and his first since 2017. He finished second here in 2019, which was enough to seal his sixth world title. He also clinched his third championship in Texas in 2015. The race was cancelled last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The outcome here means that every F1 race at the track since it opened in 2012 has been won by a front-row driver.
Hamilton and Verstappen were at the front of the grid for the sixth time this season, the Dutchman sneaking ahead of Hamilton by 0.2 seconds on the last lap of a thrilling qualifying session. It marked the first time since the start of the turbo hybrid era in 2014 that a Mercedes was not on pole position in Austin.
Perez started in third, while Hamilton’s teammate, Valtteri Bottas, qualified in fourth but dropped to ninth on the grid as the penalty for an engine change. With Hamilton sandwiched between the Red Bulls and Bottas distant, there was a potential on-track advantage for Verstappen. But Perez was far off the pace of the two leaders and Hamilton sounded confident.
“Lewis, you are racing for the win,” the Mercedes team boss, Toto Wolff, told him over the radio before his second pit stop. “Leave me to it, bro,” he replied. “Thanks.” But his efforts were not quite enough.