Max Verstappen leads Lewis Hamilton by six points but do Mercedes have momentum? Watch United States GP live only on Sky Sports F1 this weekend; later times in Texas, qualifying at 10pm on Saturday, race at 8pm on Sunday
Monday 18 October 2021 16:56, UK
Six points between them. Six races to go. Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton's title battle for the ages is set for a thrilling finale - starting at this weekend's United States GP in Texas, taking place amid ever-changing momentum in the 2021 championship.
The whole weekend from Austin's Circuit of the Americas is all live on Sky Sports F1, with qualifying at 10pm on Saturday and the race on 8pm on Sunday, when another Verstappen and Hamilton duel is predicted.
But while Verstappen is the title leader again, recent form has raised questions over whether the Dutchman is actually the driver on the back foot, and whether Mercedes have edged back ahead of Red Bull at a defining moment of the season.
"I do think we need to step it up a bit to be in the fight until the end of the season," admitted Verstappen after the last race in Turkey.
Verstappen's concerns come from the fact Mercedes head Stateside on the back of, although not necessarily replicated in the points, dominating Red Bull in consecutive races and, more specifically, appearing to have a faster car through the corners and on the straights right now.
Mercedes meanwhile have only been beaten at COTA, which returns to F1 this year after a 2020 absence, once in the six hybrid-era races, with Hamilton a five-time winner around a track he absolutely loves.
But as this season has provided evidence of already, it would be foolish to make predictions or install favourites.
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"Austin is a track we like and is another opportunity but I'm under no illusion this is very much going to go to the end in the championship," said Mercedes boss Toto Wolff.
Red Bull's Christian Horner defiantly added his team and Verstappen are "fighting at it and we're not giving up everything".
"To be at this stage of the championship leading the drivers and still in touch with the constructors, that's phenomenal," he said. "We're loving this fight, enjoying this scrap, and there's some tracks coming up where it could go either way."
In the battle between a driver chasing his first world title and a driver chasing a record eighth, the title lead has changed hands five times already this year. The form books suggest that could become six this weekend.
That's because Mercedes have been faster, often considerably so, than Red Bull in Monza, Russia and Turkey. Although the first two were somewhat expected, the domination in Turkey was not and would have raised alarm bells at Red Bull.
Verstappen and Horner specifically mentioned Mercedes' "phenomenal" straight-line speed.
Mercedes insist recent improvements come from understanding their car more and not any engine boost, while they also seem to be reaping the benefits from their last major upgrade back in July.
Solace for Red Bull is they did not lose too much ground to their rivals in those last three races. Verstappen and Hamilton crashed and scored both zero points on Sunday in Monza, Verstappen recovered from the back to finish second behind Hamilton in Sochi, while Hamilton was fifth to Verstappen's second to Turkey after a comeback drive of his own.
But with engine penalties now taken for both title protagonists and no more grid penalties expected, the battle now may come down to raw pace. The six remaining circuits differ in their characteristics and both teams will be confident about their chances at different times, but the United States GP is certainly a happy hunting ground for Mercedes and Hamilton.
"There are a lot of flat-out sections as well, and tyre wear is quite high," said Verstappen, wary of Merc's speed. "So there are a few things to look into.
"I think maybe at some other tracks we can maybe be a bit better, but it's never going to be very easy. The whole year already has been quite close, of course.
"Sometimes it looked like maybe we were a bit better but then sometimes also they were quite quick. I just hope that from the remaining races there are a few tracks, of course, or more than half, are better for us but we'll find out."
The Sky Sports F1 pundits still believe Red Bull have a very real chance this weekend.
"I would expect it to be a bit nip and tuck between the two teams," said Sky F1's Martin Brundle.
Paul Di Resta added: "It's going to be a head-to-head battle and you can't predict which way it's going to go.
"Max will want to relish it. If he can get on top of Lewis around there, that's another notch for him. But Lewis will go there full of confidence, he loves the US."
9pm: The F1 Show Live (Simulcast on Sky Sports Main Event)
11pm: Drivers' Press Conference
5pm: Practice One Live (session starts 5.30pm)
8.45pm: Practice Two Live (session starts 9pm)
6.45pm: Practice Three Live (session starts 7pm)
8.30pm: Special build-up show, Rivals: Hamilton vs Verstappen (Simulcast on Sky Sports Main Event)
9pm: Qualifying build-up live (Simulcast on Sky Sports Main Event)
10pm: United States GP Qualifying Live (Simulcast on Sky Sports Main Event)
6.30pm: Grand Prix Sunday: USA Live (Simulcast on Sky Sports Main Event)
8pm: THE UNITED STATES GRAND PRIX (Simulcast on Sky Sports Main Event)
10pm: Chequered Flag USA Live
11.30pm: United State GP Highlights