Red Bull’s Max Verstappen blunted Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton’s brilliant comeback to win at the 2021 United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, extending his lead of the drivers’ championship to 12 points with a superb drive of his own.
After five years, Max Verstappen finally found the secret of Austin. In a breathtaking head-to-head battle, Mercedes determined Lewis Hamilton could stay out longer than the Dutchman after each of the two pit stops, thereby banking on fresh rubber to overcome the deficit on the stopwatch.
They were wrong.
From 8.2s away, seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton got to within 1.333 sec at the finish but stalled. The continuously strengthening Dutchman took a brilliant victory when he had to – his eighth win of the season. Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez took third.
Of equal excitement, the Grand Prix held a real sense of returning to pre-Covid days in Texas, with crowds numbering well over 100,000 each day.
Seemingly with speed always at hand, Verstappen took pole by 0.2s ahead of Hamilton, with Brit lining up second on the
grid alongside the man he trails by six points in what continues to be an enthralling drivers’ championship.
To the crowd’s delight, Mexico’s Sergio Perez produced an excellent qualifying performance to start third for Red Bull.
Nor can Hamilton expect team-mate Valtteri Bottas to do much to help – at least initially – with the Finn dropping from fourth on the grid to ninth thanks to his engine change on Friday.
Mercedes expected to have a slight edge at the Circuit of the Americas, and they indeed began the weekend with a dominant showing in first practice.
But Red Bull recovered to the point where Verstappen seemed to have an infinite speed in reserve while Hamilton never looked genuinely comfortable in qualifying while the Dutchman cruised.
Still, Hamilton was upbeat.
“The start is definitely an opportunity bit it’s a long race. With the heat that we have, said Hamilton. It’s quite good having this cloud cover. Keeping up with the Red Bull is going to be a challenge.”
“At the moment I think we’re stronger on the straights… but there’s a lot of corners here. The tyre management is going to be key today. And going the distance. They have a better choice of strategy but we’ll try and make it work.”
Hamilton made a stunning start. In the middle of a Red Bull sandwich and with Bottas no help due to a grid penalty, the seven-time world champion knew he had to get away well, and he did just that, beating Verstappen off the line and moving up on the Dutchman’s inside.
Hamilton and Verstappen had already collided on two occasions this season – at Silverstone and Monza – and the uphill race to the first turn, the most expansive opening bend of the year, could have provided further fireworks.
Perez ran alongside his teammate and thought about taking second but backed out in the esses. McLaren/Ferrari waged giant wheel to wheel attacks between fourth and sixth, with Daniel Ricciardo eventually passing Sainz for fifth.
Verstappen tried his best to squeeze Hamilton off track, then tried to go around the outside of him in Turn 1, but only succeeded in exceeding the track limits himself as Hamilton surged into an early lead.
It was not to last. Having kept Hamilton honest, hovering around one second behind him for the first ten laps of the race, Verstappen’s brain trust had him dive into the pits in an attempt to undercut the Brit.
Risky, but it worked perfectly.
Hamilton stayed out for another three laps but lost a significant amount of ground in that time, emerging in second place, over six seconds behind Verstappen.
Hamilton pushed to recover track position when Verstappen came in for a second time at the end of Lap 29.
Would Hamilton follow suit a little quicker this time or choose to stay out again? “Target plus six,” came the answer.
Team Mercedes was banking on fresher rubber towards the finish of the race. They felt more confident about their immediate strategy, too, with team principal Toto Wolff even informing Hamilton he was “racing for the win”.
Hamilton came back with a concise response. “Leave it to me, bro. Thanks.”
The reigning world champion finally came in on Lap 37 of 56, emerging 8.5sec behind Verstappen. He had 20 laps in which to pass the Dutchman on his fresher set of hard tyres.
At that moment, it seemed game over.
As expected, Hamilton slowly but surely hunted down the Dutchman. By Lap 42 of 56, the gap was down to six seconds as Hamilton took big bites out of Verstappen’s advantage.
With three laps to go and with Verstappen bogged down in traffic, the gap had dropped to just 1.1s. Could Hamilton get within DRS range?
It was Verstappen who had been holding a bit back. When Hamilton got to within one second, the Brit began struggling in the turbulent air behind the Red Bull. The Dutchman reengaged, holding the gap rock steady.
In the end, Red Bull had the better car this weekend, but it took Verstappen to drive an extremely bold race to institute a winning plan. And then the Dutchman had to hold on.
And he did. Here are Verstappen’s thoughts.
“Of course we lost out in the start so we had to try and do something else. The tyre wear is quite high around this track. We did go aggressive and I was not sure it was going to work but the last few laps were fun. Super happy to hang on.”
Leave it to Christian Horner to explain it best.
“The way he Verstappen managed that tyre through the last stint… it was about getting out of it [turn 11] at the end of the race. Lewis, you know the end of the race he’s so strong. He’s
gone long, he’s bought himself an advantage. To lose one here would have been really painful. Max just held on, he did a great job. He managed the race really smartly.”
The remainder of the field saw Charles Leclerc take fourth for Ferrari, ahead of McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo and Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas. Sainz took seventh for Ferrari, with McLaren’s Lando Norris finishing a disappointing eighth, ahead of Scuderia AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda and Aston Martin’s Sebastien Vettel.