With its steep rise towards a hairpin left turn, the first corner here is an open-throttled test of nerve. An aggressive approach initially paid off for Lewis Hamilton as he overtook Max Verstappen at the start. Hamilton dived for the inside and surged into the lead, forcing his title rival’s Red Bull wide after he was unable to cut off the Mercedes.
Yet after the early drama the contest segued into more of a chess match than a slugfest: a matter of team strategy and tyre stability, increments not incidents, on a hot afternoon in Texas, Hamilton staying out on his tyres longer than Verstappen.
It made for a tight finish. Hamilton, behind in the closing stages but faster on fresher tyres, hunted down his opponent and aimed to pass him in the last three laps. But Verstappen endured, coolly and stubbornly, and the British driver could not get close enough to try another bold overtaking manoeuvre that would have produced an ending as thrilling as the start.
“I don’t know what we could have done differently,” Hamilton said soberly after an outcome that damages his ambitions of an eighth title, perhaps grievously. “It was what we had.” Verstappen won by 1.3 seconds to double his championship lead to 12 points with five races remaining. It was his eighth victory of the season. “The last stint was very long, in this heat especially, and we managed to hang on in the end,” he said. “It wasn’t easy because the tyres were really finished.”
Next up is Mexico City on 7 November, where the high altitude is predicted to favour Red Bull – as well, perhaps, as heighten Mercedes’ engine reliability worries. Brazil follows a week later. “Two tracks which are very strong circuits for Red Bull, it’s going to be tough,” Hamilton said. He did at least pick up a bonus point for recording the fastest lap. Verstappen’s teammate, Sergio Pérez, was third.
Morning drizzle in central Texas gave way to warmer temperatures and a partly cloudy sky, with a track temperature of over 38C stressing tyres. Verstappen first pitted before lap 11, with Hamilton coming in for fresh tyres three laps later. When he rejoined traffic, Verstappen had taken a six-second lead. But the seven-time world champion ate away at the 24-year-old’s advantage, reducing it to about three seconds halfway through the race.
Verstappen came in for his second stop ahead of lap 30, allowing Hamilton to regain first place. Hamilton did not pit again until lap 37. That left him with a nine-second deficit to erode, but he was now clearly quicker than his opponent. A late showdown seemed inevitable. With five laps to go, Hamilton was less than two seconds behind Verstappen, but the Red Bull held him off – just. “Yes, guys!” Verstappen celebrated over the team radio. “Unbelievable.”
Fireworks were anticipated after collisions between the pair this season at Silverstone and Monza, while Verstappen called Hamilton a “stupid idiot” and directed a middle finger at his rival when their cars almost made contact during a practice session on Friday. But Hamilton was generous in his praise for the Dutchman after what was a controlled and mature performance. “Congratulations to Max, he did a great job today,” Hamilton said. “They just had the upper hand this weekend.”
The race was cancelled last year because of the pandemic but a sold-out Sunday crowd estimated at 140,000 spectators underlines F1’s growing popularity in the US with a second American race on the calendar in 2022, when Miami makes its debut. “I think this is definitely our acceptance into the US,” Hamilton said.
While McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo can affect the most convincing Texan twang among the drivers – in addition to the accent, he sported a cowboy hat and the burnt-orange basketball shirt of the local Texas Longhorns team during the parade lap – Austin is Hamilton country.
The 36-year-old has won five of the nine F1 races at this circuit. He also finished second here in 2019, in a markedly different context – the result sealed his sixth world title. He clinched his third championship in Texas in 2015.
Despite the track’s overtaking opportunities, every F1 race since it opened in 2012 has been won by a front-row driver. Hamilton and Verstappen were at the head of the grid for the sixth time this season, the Dutchman outdoing Hamilton by 0.2 seconds on the last lap of a thrilling qualifying session. It signalled the first time since the start of the turbo hybrid era in 2014 that a Mercedes was not on pole position in Austin, but Hamilton seemed confident.
“Lewis, you are racing for the win,” the Mercedes team boss, Toto Wolff, told Hamilton over the radio before his second pit stop. “Leave me to it, bro, thanks,” he replied. But his late charge was not quite good enough, and while the gap between the top two was minimal on the day, the distance in the standings is widening.