Max Verstappen will start the United States Grand Prix from pole position, and despite lining up alongside title rival Lewis Hamilton, he does so from a position of strength.
In deeply unfamiliar scenes, Red Bull Racing has the numerical strategic advantage in Austin. Sergio Perez will line up third after failing to pull off a bid for his first career pole, while Valtteri Bottas, fourth fastest in qualifying, has been demoted to ninth with yet another engine penalty.
In what’s expected to be a two-top race, the Austrian-owned squad is well placed to limit the cards available to Hamilton in his bid to overturn his six-point deficit.
It was a thrilling chapter in an unpredictable weekend to date. The Bulls were badly adrift of Mercedes’s single-lap pace during Friday practice, but overnight changes made with the help of Sebastien Buemi in the Milton Keynes simulator proved decisive in hitting the car’s sweet spot.
The question is: has it come at the expense of race pace? Red Bull Racing was thereabouts on Friday despite its one-lap deficit; it remains to be seen whether the changes have compromised the team’s long-run performance in what is likely to be a difficult race for the tyres.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
Distance: 5.513 kilometres
Lap record: 1:36.169 (Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, 2019)
Track record: 1:32.029 (Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 2019)
Lateral load: high
Tyre stress: high
Asphalt grip: medium
Asphalt abrasion: high
Safety car probability: 20 per cent
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 414 metres
Pit lane time loss: 17.3 seconds
Fuel consumption: high
Tyres: C2 (hard), C3 (medium), C4 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.5 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.7 seconds
SETTING THE SCENE
The combination of high temperatures — forecast in the low 30s Celsius — and an abrasive track surface has put tyre management at a premium, in particular the rears, which are prone to overheating through the circuit’s several traction zones.
It’s why the soft tyre has been so readily discarded by several teams throughout practice, thereby conserving the more flexible medium compound. Eight of the top-10 drivers also qualified with the medium tyre in Q2, setting it as their starting compound to avoid using the red-walled rubber completely.
ONE STOP vs TWO
This race is typically balanced between one and two stops, but the unexpected warmth has pushed it further into two-stop territory for all but the most ambitious gamblers.
Instead expect the two-stop strategy to be commonplace, particularly given the ease of overtaking and the short pit-stop time at the Circuit of the Americas.
The two-stop strategy requires two sets of the hard compound to cover around three-quarters of the race between them, with a medium tyre best suited to making up the remainder of the race. Starting on the softs will give a grip advantage off the line — keep an eye on Carlos Sainz and Yuki Tsunoda for evidence — but thereafter keeping it cool in early traffic and with full tanks will be a challenge. Nonetheless, Pirelli estimates a soft–hard–hard strategy to be roughly as quick as a medium–hard–hard, but I suspect the soft variation is more likely in the inverted form for those starting on hards.
The soft tire is incompatible with a one-stop strategy, but a hard–medium strategy would give a driver their best chance of pulling it off. Expect at least some of those starting out of position — Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and George Russell at the back of the grid — to give it a go, using those starting on mediums as a reference for when to make their sole stop.
THE BATTLE AT THE FRONT
Short of Valtteri Bottas making a sizzling start and gaining five places on the first lap, Lewis Hamilton will likely be without the strategic assistance of a nearby teammate at the pit stop windows, while Red Bull Racing will enjoy a two-on-one advantage.
Assuming starting positions remain as they are, Red Bull Racing will be able to play interference with Sergio Perez, using the undercut as a threat to force Hamilton into the pits on its own terms rather than allowing him to run his own race.
How Mercedes responds to such a threat will be telling of how it views its victory chances. While a win is obviously the priority, finishing third will be far more costly in the title race than securing second.
If the Bulls are using up their tyres more than expected, then the race could swing towards Mercedes, and here we could see Hamilton deploy his small but potentially crucial straight-line speed advantage down the long back straight.
Keeping the pressure up on Verstappen could hand him an undercut trigger, which he could pull aggressively, especially at the second tyre change, with an early stop. Verstappen would then be forced to either run a longer final stint than ideal for his wear rate or stick it out and hope he can make up the time later in the race — by which point Bottas may be back in his pit stop window.
This is likely to be the maximum of Bottas’s role short of a sizzling first lap, but it could be decisive, and don’t be surprised to see Mercedes play with the timing of his stops to maximise his chances of being in the way of either Red Bull Racing car stopping at their preferred time once he’s in range, including potentially stopping only once.