One of the best title battles in years has come to a head. – .

One of the best title battles in years has come to a head. – .

Verstappen celebrates eighth win this season

The United States Grand Prix was a race that so far summed up the 2021 Formula 1 season – incredibly close, tense and captivating, decided by thin margins, and ending with Max Verstappen’s Red Bull at the top.

Verstappen’s eighth victory in 17 races was one of the best of his career. It was founded on a typically aggressive and dynamic Red Bull strategy.

And, by burying the impression that Mercedes was building a potential title advantage with his car, he reestablished Verstappen as the man with the strongest hand as one of the best title battles in years heads towards its peak.

At Mercedes, meanwhile, they wondered whether, after Lewis Hamilton took the lead at the start, they could have done anything to win the race.

If Hamilton had won, he would have regained the championship lead.

Instead, the crisp 14-point swing Verstappen got from fending off the seven-time champion in charge in a thrilling final secured the Dutchman a 12-point lead heading into the last five races and arguably re-established him as the favorite. to win his first world title.

How Red Bull pinched Mercedes

The head has changed hands twice. Red Bull have admitted to taking a gamble to reclaim a lost advantage when Hamilton took the lead over Verstappen at the start. They were able to hang on to it thanks to a mature and masterful performance by their pilot.

The decisive moment was Red Bull’s decision to pit at the start of the 10th lap to secure their position on the track.

Verstappen had an impressive pole position on Saturday, but Hamilton got off to a better start from inside the front row and managed to take the lead in the first corner despite Verstappen squeezing him hard on the inside.

Jumping Verstappen at the start was the only way Hamilton had a chance to win the race. If he hadn’t, Verstappen would have pulled away in the first stint and built a lead that Mercedes couldn’t have recovered from.

This is clear from how Verstappen was able to sit comfortably within a second of Hamilton in the opening laps, noticing how much the Mercedes was slipping, an indication that it was struggling with its tires.

Being able to sit so close for so long was a demonstration that the Red Bull was clearly the fastest car in the first stint, in which both drivers were on the ‘middle’ tires.

Both teams knew that whoever stopped first would take a de facto lead, due to the power of what is called the ‘undercut’, when a driver stops first to benefit from the extra grip. offered by the new tires to get ahead of a rival.

But seeing how Hamilton struggled with his tires, Mercedes didn’t think they could stop until lap 11 or 12. Seeing Hamilton’s problems on the medium tire, they thought they would face the same problems on the hard.

If they had stopped they knew Verstappen would just stay out and build a big, staggered tire that he could use to come back later in the race.

Instead, Red Bull took the early shutdown.

“We decided to take the bet and cash in on some fresh air,” said team boss Christian Horner. “It was going to put us under pressure in the end, because invariably they were going long. “

Red Bull’s next move was to force Hamilton into the pits sooner than Mercedes would have liked by pitting Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez two laps later. Mercedes had to react.

With the two leaders now on hard tires, Hamilton had to run longer than Verstappen in the second stint to build an offset tire, rest later and catch up on his rival in the final laps.

With Perez fading and out of the picture, that’s what Mercedes did, making Hamilton’s last stop eight laps later than Verstappen.

For a while victory was on the horizon. In the first stint, with a two-lap tire lag, Hamilton had reduced a delay from 6.7 seconds to 3.2 seconds in 15 laps before Verstappen’s final stop.

After his final stop, Hamilton emerged with an eight-lap tire lag and an 8.8-second gap to close. After a few laps loosening his tires, Hamilton started to take big chunks of Verstappen’s lead. But the Red Bull driver had learned the lessons of his first stint, when he pushed too much too soon on his tires.

Although it seemed for a while that Hamilton had a big advantage over the pace, what was actually happening was that Verstappen was measuring his pace so that when Hamilton came close at the end of the race , Verstappen was able to accelerate and hold the Mercedes. .

It was a race expertly managed by the driver and the team, and a well-deserved victory for Verstappen.

There have been stonkers among Verstappen’s 18 career wins. But, Horner was asked, was it the best?

“It’s up there,” he said. “He handled the race incredibly well. We didn’t get off to a good start but we were able to reclaim the victory, an aggressive strategy and we managed to make it work.

“Max did a fantastic job dealing with the degradation and having enough rear tires for the last five laps. A phenomenal performance from him today. A big victory for us on a circuit where Mercedes and Lewis were so strong in the hybrid era. ”

More than 140,000 watched the return of F1 to the United States for the first time since the pandemic

Could Hamilton have won?

The difficult task Mercedes faced in the race was underscored by the mixed messages they received afterwards.

When asked if there was a way to win the race Wolff said: “We could have won the race because we were in the lead but we had a really strong pace on the hard. [tyre]. You have to sort of retrace the weekend from Friday to Sunday.

“Where did we misjudge, where did we go wrong and what did we do right? There will be a lot of positive discussions about what to learn from this weekend. “

Was the Red Bull a faster car in Austin after three advantage races for Mercedes, Wolff was asked?

“I think the Red Bull was faster on the medium [tyre] and Mercedes was the fastest racing car on the hard, ”he said. Both drivers drove very well today. ”

Hamilton, however, was not so sure. He said: “I think the position on the track was key today. “

But he added: “They were faster all weekend, with all the tires today. Just in the heat, I think the real strength shone this weekend, much like other places – like Bahrain, this year. So, yeah, I did my best with what we had.

“The objective was to take the lead. I finally got off to a good start. I haven’t had such a good start in a long time and I was really happy with it.

“So it was about staying clean and gaining the advantage and hanging on to it. It was good back then, and I was like, ‘Hey, this is the first step’, but they were just too fast. “

The obvious question is whether Mercedes should have stopped before Red Bull in the first stint. This would have reversed the race, making Hamilton the lead pursued by Verstappen. But Mercedes didn’t think it would have worked.

“We were in the background,” said Mercedes boss Toto Wolff. “We couldn’t have stopped early because we didn’t think we could finish the race.

“Lewis drove wonderfully. He retracted the tire, remained calm, even though we were 6.5 seconds behind, then 8.5 seconds at the second stop.

“He picked up the pace and at one point it was a huge difference. It was brilliantly executed but [he was] just not close enough at the end. When you follow a car, you start to suffer a little. It is what it is and you have to congratulate Red Bull. “

There was only 1.3 seconds between the checkered flag duo

What does this mean for the break-in?

At first glance, this result is bad news for Mercedes. They gave up a lead and saw Verstappen double his points advantage. Verstappen has eight wins against five for Hamilton this season. And the teams are now heading to two races in Mexico and Brazil that have historically favored Red Bull.

Mexico, in particular, worries Mercedes engineers. The high altitude there – the track is 2,000 meters above sea level – is a problem for the Mercedes engine, for complicated technical reasons related to the way they run their turbo.

This means that Red Bull’s engine partner Honda is better able to compensate for the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere in Mexico City than Mercedes, so they should have a power advantage. It’s hard to see on paper how Mercedes can tackle this.

This is the same reason why Red Bull is strong – albeit to a lesser extent – compared to Mercedes in Austria, where the race track is 700 meters above sea level and Verstappen has won both races this year. And in Brazil, where Interlagos is 800 meters away, and where Verstappen beat Hamilton in the last race in Sao Paulo in 2019.

The official line of Red Bull and Mercedes is to minimize this.

Horner said: “This year has been so close between the two teams and there’s no reason to think it won’t be tight in the next two races. “

Wolff added: “I don’t believe there is one model of which is suitable for which track. ”

And Verstappen sticks to his mantra that he just needs to focus on each race at a time.

“It doesn’t really change much,” he said. “It’s all about the details. A victory for me does not give me more confidence. We’re all confident in the team that we can do a good job, but we have to work out the details and start over in Mexico to try and get the best of our whole package. “

Hamilton, however, suspects he has his back to the wall.

“The next two tracks are for sure very strong for Red Bull so it’s going to be tough,” he said.

“I’m not thinking about it yet – be happy with the job I did today and live in the moment.

“We weren’t fast enough today, but I’m going to look ahead and take one race at a time. We have no idea. There are two circuits that are strong for Red Bull so we’re just going to try to minimize how much they can compare to us and see if we can do a better job. “

Wolff said: “We have to be careful not to switch too much between mania and depression, but we have to continue to understand the car.

“There was never a point [this season] when I thought, ‘We’re not going to do this [championship].’

“The general return [before this race] was: “You are dominating now and what is Red Bull going to do?” “

“Fast forward 24 hours and it’s going in reverse. It’s about exploiting the product. I call the car the product. How do we deliver performance? And that’s what will make the difference between losing and winning. “

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