Austin maestros gear up for an intense round that’s too close to call.
Six races to go, six points between them. The battle for the 2021 world championship is delicately poised as Formula 1 heads this week to the Lone Star State for the United States Grand Prix in Austin.
Max Verstappen has the edge over Lewis Hamilton, at least in terms of points on the board. But in the previous three races (at Monza, Sochi and Istanbul Park), Mercedes-AMG appears to have clawed back a slight performance advantage over Red Bull-Honda, against the grain of form from the first half of the season. It’s fantastically close.
In Russia, Verstappen started from the back as Red Bull sacrificed the race to intentionally break the Dutchman’s season limits on powertrain components, giving it greater odds on reliability for the autumn run-in. Verstappen still finished second to Hamilton, in a perfect example of damage limitation. In Turkey, it was Hamilton’s turn to take a penalty, on this occasion 10 grid places because Mercedes chose only to take an extra engine rather than all the ancillaries. The damage limitation wasn’t quite so effective in persistently damp conditions.
So was Mercedes right in pitting Hamilton for that fresh set of Pirelli intermediates, or should it have allowed him to stick it out on the tyres he started on, as he wished? Had Hamilton over-ruled the pitwall and stayed out, would he have held on to third, slipped lower than the fifth he eventually took – or suffered a catastrophic tyre failure that might effectively have cost him an eighth world title?
Those are the stakes and fine margins both teams are playing to right now, moment to moment. It’s so easy to be wise after the event.
Texas ranger rides again
Hamilton has a phenomenal record in the US. He won at Indianapolis in his first season back in 2007, soundly defeating McLaren team- mate Fernando Alonso in what was only his seventh GP. He has subsequently won five more times in the US since the race switched to the Circuit of the Americas in 2012, four times in successive years. Of those five, the first one was particularly memorable and not just because it was Hamilton’s last victory in a McLaren. In a tense chase of Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull, Hamilton pounced for the lead when the German lost momentum behind Narain Karthikeyan’s makeweight HRT.
He will be living on his instincts once again on Sunday, against a rival who has yet to win in Texas. One slip at this stage and all could be lost. If it’s a driver error that makes the difference, that’s one thing, but a car failure would be hard to bear – and not only for the unlucky chap in the cockpit.
Here, then, is the delicious dichotomy of motor racing: in its purest moments, it’s a sport centred on brilliant, driven, selfish individuals – but who count for nothing without the dedication and expertise of every person on their team who stands behind them. The pressure right now within Red Bull and Honda’s Milton Keynes bases and at Mercedes in Brackley and Brixworth will be off the gauge – but it’s also what these people live for.
For so long F1 has been dominated by Mercedes, and now finally we have a proper duel between rival camps. The last time that was the case? The 2012 season, when Red Bull and Vettel faced down Ferrari and Alonso and Hamilton was reduced to the unwanted role of title disruptor. It feels like a hundred years ago. No wonder we’re excited.