MEDIA RELEASE/McLaren Formula 1 Team - Main Photo: Supplied The McLaren Formula 1 team have…
Max Verstappen used the undercut and an aggressive race strategy to snatch the United States Grand Prix from Lewis Hamilton and Sergio Perez.
Two early stops for hard compound tyres went against expectation, but ultimately delivered enough of an advantage for the Red Bull Honda driver to hang on to the lead at the chequered flag.
The order at the head of the grid changed after qualifying as penalties were applied to those who had changed power train components. Valtteri Bottas dropped from 3th to 9th, while Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and George Russell fell to the rear of the grid.
5th placed Sainz and 10th placed Tsunoda were the only two drivers on the grid to start on the soft compound tyres, the medium the preferred option for the race. It meant little to team strategies with the race predicted to be a two stop affair under the blazing sun in Texas.
As the red lights faded it was Hamilton who had the slightly better start and moved alongside Verstappen. The Dutch driver responded by veering to the left which forced Hamilton onto the pit exit road as they climbed the hill towards Turn 1. Hamilton maintained his place and returned the favour to his title rival at the apex. Verstappen ran over the white line and into the run off area as Perez looked to dive inside the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 at the exit of the corner. Hamilton was briefly sandwiched between the Red Bull Hondas before taking a definitive lead through Turns 2 and 3.
Behind the leading trio a second battle raged. Charles Leclerc sat in 4th with teammate Carlos Sainz attempting to hold off the challenge from the McLarens of Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris. An elbows out approach from Sainz almost led to contact as first Ricciardo and then Sainz himself were forced wide to avoid contact. The jockeying between the pair allowed Norris to join as the papaya coloured cars made the Ferrari the meat in the sandwich. While Sainz blocked Ricciardo once more, Norris dived up the inside to snare 5th place. Ricciardo held the inside line for Turn 15 and scythed back past his teammate then rounded up Sainz through Turns 16 and 17.
At the end of a chaotic opening lap Hamilton led Verstappen, Perez, Leclerc, Ricciardo, Saniz, Norris, Tsunoda, Bottas and Gasly. The start whilst trouble free for most saw contact between Latifi and Stroll at Turn 1. The impact spun the Aston Martin driver and left Latifi with front wing damage with small pieces of carbon fibre littering the mid line of the turn. Ocon lasted barely 3 laps on his tyres before making a stop for the harder compound rubber having suffered some front wing damage after contact with an Alfa Romeo.
The battle at the front quickly developed into a tactical affair as driver caressed their tyres around the COTA tarmac in a bid to prolong their opening stint and maximise the speed from a two stop strategy. Hamilton held a narrow 0.5 second advantage over Verstappen while the pair had cleared away from the rest of the field. Perez was 3 seconds in arrears and Leclerc a further 7 seconds behind.
Sainz was told by his team to give 6th place to Norris in response to that first lap incident.
“No, no , no,” Sainz replied. “I did that to Ricciardo on purpose.”
The first round of regulation pit stops began on lap 10 as Tsunoda changed from his soft tyres for the hardest compound. Rather surprisingly he was joined by Verstappen and Norris one lap later. The Red Bull Honda driver dropped to 5th behind Ricciardo but was soon up a place with the benefit of DRS. Hamilton remained on track, though Verstappen was lapping up to 4 second faster than the race leader. Hamilton finally made his stop on lap 13.
The undercut had worked for Red Bull Honda as Verstappen sailed past the #44 as Hamilton rumbled past the garages on the pit lane limiter. The #33 enjoyed a 6 second advantage over his title at that point, but would that advantage swing back later.
“It’s like a game of chess this race,” Christian Horner told Sky Sports. “Let’s see how it plays out over the second half of the race.”
By lap 30 that gap had dropped to 2.5 seconds and Verstappen was called in for a second set of hard tyres. Mercedes AMG Petronas responded by running Hamilton longer with a ‘Plus 6’ message. sent to their driver as Verstappen returned to the track in 3rd place. Sainz also stopped on that same lap and dropped back to 8th.
“Okay Sainz had a slightly slow stop so push,” Ricciardo was told by his engineer. “We can box this lap and cover.”
Ricciardo and Norris stopped in near perfect synchronisation. As Ricciardo moved away from the pit bay Norris arrived with the crew ready for his second change. The McLaren pair sandwiched Sainz on their return to the track with Ricciardo indeed maintaining his advantage over the second Ferrari, while Norris had reduced his deficit to Sainz.
The Grand Prix effectively became a 20 lap dash to the finish when Lewis Hamilton completed his second stop on lap 38. Verstappen held a 7 second lead as the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 was brought up to speed. The rest of the field was an interesting mix of strategies and contests, with Leclerc in no man’s land; 10 seconds behind Perez and 8 seconds clear of Ricciardo. The Australian has the second Ferrari of Sainz 2 seconds behind, while Bottas had moved ahead of Norris in 7th. Old foes Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso had been involved in a race long duel that included tyre rubbing and the shedding of carbon fibre winglets, with the pair still less than a second apart.
Hamilton reduced that gap to just over a second as the end of the race approached. His fresher tyres gave an advantage, but not to the extent that the Mercedes AMG Petronas team had projected. The combination of lighter fuel loads, more rubber on the circuit and the slightly cooler conditions of the late afternoon all aided the leader.
Max Verstappen was well in the sights of Hamilton during those final laps, though not close enough for the British driver to mount any serious challenge. Max Verstappen claimed the win from Hamilton and Sergio Perez. It was a result that saw Red Bull claim a 200th Formula One podium , while Leclerc finished 4th from Ricciardo, Bottas, Sainz, Norris, Tsunoda and Vettel.
The win doubled Verstappen’s lead in the World Championship over Hamilton at a circuit many expected the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 to dominate.
“Of course we lost out at the start, so we had to try something else,” Verstappen told Sky Sports. “The tyre wear is quite high around this track so we went more aggressive. I was not sure it was going to work, but the last few laps were fun, a bit sideways through the high speed corners and super happy to hang on!”
“Firstly, congratulations to Max, he did a great job today,” Lewis Hamilton said to Sky Sports. “It was such a tough race. Got a good start, gave it absolutely everything, but at the end of the day they just had the upper hand this weekend.”
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