Words by Lucy Evans

Coming back to the US, the scene was set for the 17th round of this year’s Formula 1 World Championship. After a year off for Covid, the F1 circus was back at the Circuit of the Americas, better known as COTA, on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. 

Coming into the race, only 6 points separated the championship contenders- Mercedes’s Lewis Hamilton, and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, with Verstappen having the lead. Prior to the race, it was anticipated that with the recent upgrades, Mercedes would be the leading car coming into Austin, with Red Bull struggling with straight-line speeds, thus expected to struggle on the long straights and smooth, flat out corners that the circuit entails. Additionally, Mercedes are traditionally victorious at the track, winning all of the races since 2014, except the 2018 race won by Kimi Raikkonen for Ferrari, with Lewis having won 5 races at COTA- the 2012 race for McLaren, and 4 in a row from 2014-17 all with Mercedes.

The three practice sessions weren’t too telling- Verstappen was nearly a second off the pace in Friday’s first session, however his Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez lead the second and third sessions, with Verstappen only 0.211 seconds off his teammate’s pace in the final practice session before qualifying.

Come qualifying, Max Verstappen finished 2nd in the first qualifying session, behind Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, with Hamilton safely through in 8th. Verstappen then led the second qualifying session, with Hamilton following closely behind in 2nd. The final qualifying session went the same way- Verstappen benefitting from some rain slowing down his teammate’s lap to take pole, ahead of Hamilton in 2nd, and his teammate Sergio Perez in 3rd.

Come race day, it was unclear who would be able to come out on top. Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas started 8th, having taken a new engine and accompanying grid penalty, thus it was two versus one in Red Bull’s favour. 

Heading off the line and into the first corner, Hamilton took the lead, with Verstappen following closely behind. After only 10 laps, Red Bull took a risky move, and made an early pit stop for Verstappen, attempting the undercut, a strategy in where the driver attempts to get a headstart on fresh and quicker tyres. Hamilton pitted 3 laps later, coming out behind Verstappen, who then led until he pitted again on Lap 30, with Hamilton again following suit on Lap 37. It became a cat and mouse game, with Verstappen the victor, winning by a margin of 1.333 seconds, with Sergio Perez a further 40 seconds behind the pair. Lewis Hamilton had the small consolation of a bonus point for picking up the fastest lap, taking this on lap 41 of 56.

Following this, there are only 5 races to go (Mexico, Brazil, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Abu Dhabi), with the two title rivals now separated by 12 points- the most since Austria, back at the beginning of July. Could it be argued that Max now has the upper hand?

Given the fact that in the following races, two are totally new to the calendar, and thus unknown (Qatar and Saudi Arabia), it’s hard to tell who is likely to come out on top. Mexico is potentially seen as more of a Red Bull track, especially so now that the aforementioned Sergio Perez, who hails from Guadalajara, Mexico, races for the team, and thus will have the roaring support of the home crowd. Lewis Hamilton is a two-time winner in Brazil, with Mercedes or Red Bull having won every race bar one (2017) in Sao Paolo since 2013, – Mercedes being victorious in 2014, 15, 16 and 18, with Red Bull winning in 2013 and 2019 (the latter with Max at the wheel). Abu Dhabi, the final race of the season, was won every year from 2014 to 2019 by Mercedes (including 4 times by Lewis, who also won there in 2011 with McLaren), with Max winning the 2020 race with Red Bull.

It’s hard to know what will happen. But with Verstappen, winning the US Grand Prix, a traditional Lewis and Mercedes stalemate, the ball surely has to be in his court, for now.

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