Martin Brundle: On US GP, Max Verstappen vs Lewis Hamilton and why latest F1 duel may be defining
"A great duel between two brilliant drivers at the top of their game"; Sky F1's Martin Brundle analyses a United States GP battle that could swing Max Verstappen-Lewis Hamilton title fight plus the other big stories from Austin as F1 enjoys epic USA return
Last Updated: 26/10/21 7:51pm
I have no doubt that Sunday's USA GP will be considered a significant pivot point when eventually looking back at this year's outstanding world championship.
A great duel between two brilliant drivers at the top of their game, it was effectively a 14-point swing for whoever won between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen.
- Winners and losers from the United States GP
- Lewis Hamilton explains 'tough' Max Verstappen challenge
The Circuit of The Americas was bursting at the seams with 140,000 enthusiastic fans on race day who were at the circuit very early in a way reminiscent of the likes of Silverstone and Spa, and clearly passionate about Formula One in a way I've personally never seen before in the USA. One fan told me at the airport that by Saturday Red Bull merchandise was sold out, and everything else was feverishly being bought up.
And what a cliffhanger of a race it turned out to be, the only thing missing was some wheel-to-wheel action in the last couple of laps.
Rejuvenated Red Bull hit back at Mercedes
After Friday first practice the classification sheet looked reminiscent of the early hybrid power unit days back in 2014 when Mercedes was in a league of its own. They appear to run higher power longer and harder than for example Red Bull in these sessions, but the car looked great too along with strong top speed down the back straight.
Christian Horner at Red Bull looked concerned but also said that he awaited the 'convergence' as they moved towards qualifying when it really mattered. And he was right.
Overnight Red Bull made significant set-up changes and it was immediately clear that they had improved on this delightfully bumpy surface which made cars and drivers alike work hard to keep within the track limits and pointing in the right direction.
Conversely it looked to me that Mercedes had to move to a more conservative set up and ride height to protect the integrity of the underneath of their car. You want them running as low as possible of course to seal the floor and venturis and generate a low pressure to create downward aero force. The Mercs were visibly less glued down and balanced in qualifying.
The big story of the weekend to that point had been how Mercedes were stalling out their floor at higher speeds which therefore dumps unnecessary downforce along with the associated drag. For decades teams have used all kind of systems to both generate and lose downforce in a controlled way in different parts of the track to improve lap time.
It does seem that the update aero fitted by Mercedes at Silverstone and finessed since along with a mechanism which can collapse the rear suspension down at higher aero loads has been very effective.
The system is less powerful with the DRS rear wing open because they need the download to collapse the system, and at the higher altitudes and associated thinner air coming up in Mexico and Brazil it may well be less effective.
This all led to a classic qualifying finale with lots of fastest laps after the final chequered flag dropped to give us punch and counter-punch action.
Verstappen pulled out a great lap to claim pole position despite light rain in the final corner. His team mate Sergio Perez had been threatening to take pole position for the first time in his career to present an all Red Bull front row, but running a little further down the road he was exposed to a more of the light rain.
Feisty battles on race day
For the seventh time this season Verstappen and Hamilton lined up on the 'front row', which is a misnomer because pole position is eight meters ahead of second place on a grid, and so on.
That didn't deter Lewis, lightening reactions and the perfect minimal wheelspin saw him gain all those eight meters. Max tried his best to squeeze his championship rival but had to yield. He was lucky that it was his team mate Perez in third otherwise he'd have lost another place.
Behind there was a fierce battle going on between the Ferrari and McLaren boys who are very much focused on each other now. On the opening lap at turn 12, only because Lando Norris took a sensible pill did all four not have a wipe out. Leclerc would eventually pull ten seconds clear for a fine 4th place, and Ricciardo's McLaren and Sainz's Ferrari would battle it out for the duration. There's just 3.5 points between these two great teams with five races to go.
Yuki Tsunoda was once again keeping a works Mercedes at bay this time driven by Valtteri Bottas, which delayed the Finn for a good chunk of the race such that he would start ninth after his engine penalty and finish 6th having overtaken Carlos Sainz on the last lap
All the way through the supporting acts had great battles such former world champions Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso in a bruising contest. This track really works for modern F1 cars.
Up front Red Bull decided to go racy and pit on lap 10 to regain track position. With so much tyre degradation and so many sweeping consecutive corners, the 'undercut' of pitting early and putting on fresh tyres of any compound was two to three seconds faster providing the stop was clean.
Mercedes stretched a further three laps out of Lewis's tyres and in the subsequent tense phase as Lewis closed to within that three second undercut window, on lap 29 Red Bull pitted very early for the second and final time. That left a lengthy 37 laps remaining and Mercedes immediately stretched Lewis a further eight laps before pitting.
The epic finale, what it means for title run-in - and that gridwalk!
When it all shook out Red Bull had an 8.8 second advantage. Mercedes had a fast car on significantly younger tyres with Lewis at the wheel, and surely now he was going to grab the lead in the closing stages? That's how I would have betted and Red Bull were very nervous too, no doubt remembering Barcelona earlier in the year.
The sinuous layout of particularly the first sector of this track seemed to make the lapped runners more impactful on the leaders than usual, but using some DRS scavenged from lapping Mick Schumacher's Haas going into the last lap Max somehow managed to tease enough grip out of his rear tyres to find enough traction in the critical turn 11 hairpin to win by 1.3 seconds. I feel privileged to be watching these two craftsmen at work.
They gapped the field by 40 seconds but that's a bit unfair on Sergio Perez because he wasn't feeling great and then his drink system failed going to the grid. It was a brutally physical race and passing 56 times under a bridge which said 'never drink and drive' probably didn't help is demeanour.
There are five races to go in six weekends and we expect Lewis may have to take another internal combustion engine which will attract a five-place grid drop. The next two are at altitude which tends to favour the Honda unit turbo architecture in the back of the Red Bull but let's wait and see. After that we have two new tracks in Qatar and a very high speed Saudi Arabia layout which may well suit the Mercedes. The final round is in Abu Dhabi, a well know venue of course and dominated by Red Bull last year, but the track has changed and is expected to be 10 seconds per lap faster.
I did chuckle on Monday. After all the blood, sweat, tears and broken bones, the glorious victories and dismal failures, the monstrous crashes, the quadruple stints on a treacherous rainy night in Le Mans, guiding a 1250 bhp flying bedsted through Monaco qualifying, along with 25 years of broadcasting, I've finally become mildly well known for being ignored by celebrities whilst simultaneously being swatted to one side by a man mountain and told off by a Malfoy lookalike doubtless attending his first F1 race.
My gridwalk return after two years was probably a bit too cheeky in Austin but nonetheless a lot of fun. Actually, my real claim to fame is that I once played snooker with Mark Knopfler, and what a lovely bloke he was too.