Max Verstappen scored an impressive victory over Lewis Hamilton in a thrilling United States Grand Prix, and with five rounds to go and a handy points lead, it could have been a championship defining race too.
The United States Grand Prix was almost a microcosm of the season to date. Form swung wildly between Mercedes and Red Bull Racing from first practice to the chequered flag, and in the end there was practically nothing between Verstappen and Hamilton on track. Either could have walked away a worthy winner.
But tiny percentage called got the job done for the challengers to put Verstappen in a strong position atop the title table, and Red Bull Racing closed its deficit to Mercedes in the constructors stakes to re-enliven its hops of a title double.
Around a month ago the Circuit of the Americas would have been considered a neutral venue for the two leading teams, favouring neither over the other. Two weeks ago it had moved into the Mercedes column thanks to the German marque’s performance at Istanbul Park, a track that makes similar demands of the car.
After first practice those more recent predictions appeared sure to come true. Mercedes led Red Bull Racing by almost a second, its car looking substantially more at ease through the high-speed corners in particular.
But the unexpected heat of the weekend, above 30°C, and the bumpiness of the track meant major changes were required for both cars overnight.
Mercedes had to raise its ride height so as to not risk floor damage, particularly on full tanks, while Red Bull Racing had Sebastien Buemi spend the night in the simulator at Milton Keynes to identify superior set-ups.
When the cards were put on the table on Saturday it was RBR and Verstappen who emerged with the better package.
But there was uncertainty around how these changes would affect race pace, particularly on the hard tyre. Knowing early that the hard compound would be key to a likely two-stop race, few drivers sampled the white-walled tyre, saving them instead for Sunday at the expense of understanding its longevity.
THE RACE-WINNING MOVE
For a moment it seemed Verstappen’s race would be undone in a moment, with Hamilton acing his start to take the lead at the first turn, but it quickly became clear that the W12 was no match for the RB16B on the medium tyre. Verstappen could easily follow Hamilton, even noting how much the Briton was sliding around on his overheating rubber.
But rather than try to launch a move or hang back and let Hamilton chew his tyres, Verstappen was handed the aggressive option of an early pit stop, coming in for the hard tyre on lap 10.
Mercedes was forced to make a decision: cover the early stop or stick it out on the ailing medium tyres. Without the benefit of having run the hards in practice, the team assumed they’d be similarly as delicate as the medium and that therefore splitting 46 laps between a pair of them would be too much to ask of the rubber.
So the Briton stayed out — but Red Bull Racing, sensing it might have the champion on the ropes, wasn’t content to let him wait it out. Sergio Perez, having shadowed the frontrunning pair and now promoted to second, was called in on lap 12.
Having seen Verstappen’s blistering pace since his stop, Mercedes couldn’t risk being jumped by Perez. It brought Hamilton in on lap 13.
These were the critical laps for Hamilton’s victory quest, and in retrospect the delay was costly. From the second stint it was clear Hamilton could squeeze more pace and run longer with the hard tyre — covering Verstappen, or perhaps even a super-aggressive pre-emptive stop on lap nine, would have kept him in touch through the middle of the race.
Instead Hamilton took until lap 25 to get within speculative undercut range of the lead, so when Verstappen made his tyre change on lap 29 to fend off the undercut and hold track position, he had a decent chance of making it to the end with tyres left to defend.
Admittedly the Red Bull Racing pit wall saw it as a much bigger risk at the time, with Verstappen having chewed through his first set of hards with alarming speed. But it was a sign of just how well Verstappen managed this race that he learnt from his first set to perfectly stretch the life of his second to make it to the end.
HAMILTON’S MISSED OPPORTUNITY
Mercedes fundamentally misunderstood two things on Sunday in Austin: that track position was more important than usual thanks to the hot track exacerbating tyre overheating in dirty air and that the hard tyre was substantially more competitive than the medium.
Ironically snatching the lead at the start set Hamilton up for failure, giving Verstappen an opportunity to pull the surprise undercut — though Hamilton likely would’ve suffered the same pressure from Perez while the Dutchman cruised up the road given the Mercedes’s pace on mediums was undeniable uncompetitive.
Had the team known its car was so much better suited to the hard tyre, would it have stopped earlier in the first window and covered Verstappen? The gap would have been smaller than the 6.5 second sit was at the start of the second stint, which means Hamilton would have applied more pressure to the Dutchman and forced him into an earlier second stop and thereby compromised his final stint, potentially paving a smoother path to victory by giving himself an undercut at the second window.
It’s all hypothetical of course, but it’s clear Mercedes didn’t have as much information as it would have liked given the way practice had panned out.
There was one other weapon missing in Hamilton’s armoury: Valtteri Bottas. The Finn started the race ninth with an engine penalty — another weakness in Mercedes’s campaign — and made slow progress early, even dropping to 10 in the opening stanza of the race.
Had the Finn been allowed to start fourth or made faster progress towards the front, he may have been able to put himself in Verstappen’s pit window and neutralised the aggressive stop options available to Red Bull Racing. Instead the Bulls were able gamble as they pleased with race strategy.
Instead Hamilton was forced into his first top — albeit too late anyway — by Perez stopping behind him, underlining how having a numerical advantage can force a race onto your own terms.
MIXED BAGS FOR FERRARI AND McLAREN
Ferrari’s recent progress with its car and power unit package has put it right back in the hunt for third in the standings, and in Austin again the team was quicker than McLaren, albeit not by as much as in Turkey.
Both red cars qualified ahead of the orange ones, but a fierce lap-one battle got Daniel Ricciardo ahead of Carlos Sainz, and the Australian held fifth through the race.
Sainz harried him, particularly at the end of the second stint and the middle of the third, and he was close enough to try the undercut on lap 29, when Ferrari brought him in for his final tyre change — but the stop was slow, gifting McLaren an easy cover on the following tour. The team even double stacked to try have Norris capitalise on the slow Ferrari team, though he wasn’t close enough to take the chance.
It was a mistake more costly than just losing a place to Ricciardo. Having to spend the third stint battling with the McLaren left him vulnerable to the recovering Bottas with tyres five laps fresher, and he was dropped to seventh by the Finn near the end of the race.
THE FINAL POINT
Sebastian Vettel executed a strong recovery from 18th on the grid with a power unit penalty to 10th to take his first point since the Belgian Grand Prix — or since the Styrian Grand Prix if you exclude the non-event at Spa. In many respects this was a vintage Vettel drive, managing two used sets of the unfancied medium tyres at the start of the race. Before switching to the hards on lap 38, making steady progress throughout.
He beat the similarly penalised Fernando Alonso, starting 19th, to place partly by virtue of a better start but also because Alonso let himself get sucked into a battle with the Alfa Romeo drivers — and the stewards — over track limits, which cost him too much time to make a final assault with a novel three-stop strategy. In the end a rear wing failure ended his race anyway.