AUSTIN, Texas — Compared to the 18 other drivers taking part in the U.S. Grand Prix, Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton were in a league of their own.
Pushing each other to the limit until the final lap, the two title rivals finished 40 seconds clear of the next car on the road — Verstappen’s Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez — and crossed the line with just 1.333s separating them.
Either driver could have won the race, but when it came down to it Verstappen just had the edge. And with five more rounds to go, it’s looking increasingly likely that a similarly small margin will decide the championship in his favour by the end of the year.
A big win for Verstappen
Make no mistake, Verstappen’s victory on Sunday was one of the best of his career. It showed a level of maturity, patience and class that was occasionally lacking in his earlier career but has now become a staple of his performances each race weekend.
The win, Verstappen’s eighth from 17 races this year, saw him double his lead from six points to 12 in the standings with five races remaining. It was a body blow to Hamilton’s campaign as the championship heads to two circuits, Mexico and Brazil, where Red Bull is expected to have a significant advantage.
It means that by the time F1 heads to the Middle East for the final three races in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, there is a very real chance Verstappen will have one hand firmly on the world championship trophy.
By contrast, the Circuit of the Americas was supposed to be a track that favoured Mercedes. Prior to this weekend, the reigning champions had been on pole position every year since 2014 in Texas and won five of the six races in the same period.
Yet somewhere between first practice on Friday, when Mercedes looked like it had the stronger car, and qualifying on Saturday, Red Bull stole a march on its rivals and Hamilton and Mercedes were left with no response.
“This is a big one because it has been such a stronghold of Lewis and Mercedes,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said on Sunday evening after celebrating the victory. “To get the pole was a landmark moment for us yesterday, and then to convert it into a win even though we weren’t leading at the end of the first lap.
“So it was a great team performance because on Friday in first practice we were on the back foot and it looked like it would be a tough weekend, but the whole team worked very hard to turn it around.”
Mercedes has some idea of where the lap time went missing over the weekend. It ran a higher engine mode than its rivals in first practice and the combination of the heat and high winds in rural Texas exposed some of the season-long weaknesses its car has struggled with.
But after two strong race weekends in Russia and Turkey before this weekend’s race in the U.S.A., Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff was keen to keep things in perspective and roll with the punches.
“I think we have to be careful in the team that we are not always swinging between mania and depression, but instead eke forward with our understanding of the car,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said.
“There was never a point where I thought we were not going to make this, but also it was important not to get ahead of ourselves after Friday.
“The general feedback on Friday was that Mercedes are dominating and what is Red Bull going to do about it? But fastforward 24 hours and it’s gone the opposite way.
“So I think it is about really exploiting the product, with the car as the product. How do we tune the product and deliver the performance? That is what is going to make the difference between losing and winning.”
While Mercedes struggled to get its car dialed in to the track over the weekend, Verstappen made quick progress in his Red Bull. But with the specter of reliability issues hanging over every team at this stage of the season, he too is unwilling to get carried away with Sunday’s result and hopes a steady and focused approach will ultimately pays dividends.
“This [result] doesn’t really change a lot because it’s all about the details,” he said. “I always say it, so a win doesn’t give me more confidence or whatever.
“We are all confident within the team that we can do a really good job, but we need to nail the details and we have to start over again in Mexico, to try to get the best out of our whole package.”
Did Mercedes miss an opportunity to win in Austin?
With Hamilton hunting down Verstappen in the final 10 laps, it felt like the result of the race could have gone either way. It’s easy to speculate that Hamilton would have won had the race run a couple of laps longer, but that does a huge disservice to the way Verstappen measured his tyre life to perfection over the 56 laps that made up the U.S. Grand Prix
Hamilton beat Verstappen to the first corner at the start of the race but then struggled to put clear air between himself and the his title rival, inviting Red Bull to pit Verstappen early on lap 10 to undercut the Mercedes. With fresh tyres on his car, Verstappen had enough pace on his out-lap from the pits to get into Hamilton’s pit window, meaning Hamilton would have conceded the lead even if he’d pitted at the end of the following lap.
It was an aggressive move by Red Bull that secured the lead of the race for the second stint and was repeated again on lap 29 to ultimately set up the victory. But in order for the plan to work, it required some measured driving from Verstappen.
The performance of his first set of hard compound tyres dropped off quickly in the second stint as he pushed hard on the opening laps to gain the undercut on Hamilton. With the lead secure and that lesson learned, he was far more careful in the final stint of the race and by knocking a few mph off his speed in the fastest corners, saved enough tyre life to keep Hamilton at bay when it mattered in the final few laps.
“You could see the different strategies [between the teams],” Wolff said after the race. “One went for the undercut out of necessity and it was a very courageous move, because it was very early [in the race for Verstappen to pit], and then the second time again [they pitted first] to their advantage.
“Max’s driving, particularly in the last stint, you saw that he had learned from the first stint not to damage the tyres too early.
“But Lewis also drove awesomely. He brought the tyre in, remained calm when he rejoined from the second stop with 8.5s to Max, brought it in, increased the pace, and at a certain stage there was a massive difference and it was brilliantly executed.
“It was not quite enough [to beat Verstappen] and I think that if we had maybe two laps more, who knows. But it is what it is and you have to congratulate Red Bull for their strategy.”
Although it looked like a masterclass from the outside, Horner admitted the team was having second thoughts about the strategy from the pit wall.
Asked if Verstappen always had the race under control, Horner said: “Well… no!
“We were considering a three-stop [at one stage] and we were looking at what that would look like and where it would put us at the end of the race. But we would have given away track position, so in the end we decided to stick with track position and save the tyres, which allowed Lewis to close up quickly and then he was in the dirty air, obviously.
“Max managed that incredibly well and there is a lot of pressure in a race like that.”
As it turned out, Mercedes was stronger than Red Bull on the hard compound tyre used by both drivers in the second and final stint of the race, but its struggles on the medium compound in the first stint meant it did not have the confidence to utilise that strength and try to beat Red Bull at its own game.
“Realistically, the option to win the race really boiled down to retaining the lead after the very good start that Lewis made by stopping earlier than Max,” Mercedes chief race engineer Andrew Shovlin said. “That would have meant maybe pitting as early as lap eight — but considering we were struggling on the mediums as much as we were on such a short stint, we would never have been brave enough to do that because it would have seemed like we were going to compromise the whole race.
“As it happened, it feels like we could have gone for an early stop and made the finish but it would have been a case of pulling the trigger early and hoping for the best to see if Lewis could keep Max at bay. That was the only real opportunity.”
Advantage Red Bull and Verstappen?
With five races to go and a 12-point lead in the championship, the U.S. Grand Prix could prove to be the crucial turning point in Verstappen’s championship success.
With the exception of the Dutch Grand Prix, which he dominated, Mercedes has been in the ascendancy since the Hungarian Grand Prix in August and Verstappen could consider himself lucky not to have conceded more points at the two rounds prior to Austin, in Russia and Turkey. But to come through those two races with a net advantage and then add a further six points to his lead in Austin, Verstappen has emerged as the clear winner from the last three rounds.
What’s more, the next two races in Mexico City and Brazil are held at high altitude, which is expected to favour the Honda engine in the Red Bull over the Mercedes power unit in Hamilton’s car.
The higher the altitude, the less oxygen in the air to burn in the engine’s combustion chamber, so the power unit’s turbocharger has to work harder to compensate. In recent years, Honda and Renault has seen less of a drop off at high altitude compared to Mercedes and Ferrari, which is believed to be down the intricacies of their turbo design. The theory goes that Honda especially can safely run its compressor at higher speeds than its rivals, forcing more air into the combustion chamber, which results in more power.
The advantage has been enough to help Red Bull (which used Renault engines between 2015 and 2018 and Honda in 2019) out-qualify Mercedes for the past three years in Mexico, despite having had a significant performance deficit at most other rounds. And in a year when the battle at the front is so tightly balanced, such an advantage could be even more prominent, with Mercedes privately expecting to be on the backfoot from the word go in Mexico.
But Red Bull, which won four back-to-back titles between 2010 and 2013, is no stranger to championship run-ins and Horner is determined to take nothing for granted.
“You’ve got to chuck the formbook away,” he said. “It’s very tight between the top two teams and I hope that Mexico is a good track for us, but it has been a good track for them as well [in the past].
“There are five races to go and there are still another 130 points on the table, and we have only got a 12-point lead [in the drivers’ standings]. It’s great to have extended it here, because with ten laps to go it looked like we might be leaving here level or two behind on points, so to have extended the lead is a great result and we have got some big races coming up.
“But 12 points is nothing and it can disappear very quickly as we have seen previously. So we have to keep attacking the race weekends as we have been and get the most out of it we can.
“With five to go, the pressure only gets bigger.”