Max Verstappen never looked like a champion again

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AUSTIN, Texas – Compared to the 18 other drivers competing in the United States Grand Prix, Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton were in a league of their own.

Pushing each other to the limit until the last lap, the two title rivals finished 40 seconds ahead of the next car on the road – Verstappen’s Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez – and crossed the line with just 1.333s. separating them.

Any driver could have won the race, but in the end Verstappen just had the advantage. And with five more rounds to go, it looks increasingly likely that an equally small margin will decide the championship in its favor by the end of the year.

A big victory for Verstappen

Make no mistake, Verstappen’s victory on Sunday was one of the best of his career. He showed a level of maturity, patience and class that he sometimes lacked in his previous career, but which has now become a staple of his performance every racing weekend.

The victory, Verstappen’s eighth out of 17 races this year, allowed him to double his lead from six points to 12 in the standings with five races to go. It was a blow to Hamilton’s campaign as the championship heads to two circuits, Mexico and Brazil, where Red Bull is expected to have a significant advantage.

This means that by the time F1 travels to the Middle East for the last three races in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, there is a good chance that Verstappen will have a firm hand on the world championship trophy. .

In contrast, the Circuit of the Americas was supposed to be a track that favored Mercedes. Prior to this weekend, the reigning champions had been in pole position every year since 2014 in Texas and won five of six races in the same period.

Still, somewhere between the first practice on Friday, when Mercedes looked to have the most powerful car, and qualifying on Saturday, Red Bull stole a march over rivals and Hamilton and Mercedes went unanswered.

“It’s a big hit because it’s a stronghold of Lewis and Mercedes,” Red Bull team manager Christian Horner said Sunday evening after celebrating the victory. “Getting pole was a defining moment for us yesterday and then converting it to a win even though we weren’t in the lead at the end of the first lap.

“So it was a great team performance because on Friday in the first practice we were on the back foot and it seemed like a tough weekend, but the whole team worked really hard to turn things around.”

Mercedes has an idea of ​​where the lap time has gone over the weekend. It was running at a higher engine mode than its rivals in early testing and the combination of heat and high winds in rural Texas revealed some of the season’s weaknesses his car struggled with.

But after two strong racing weekends in Russia and Turkey ahead of this weekend’s race in the United States, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff was keen to keep things in perspective and play the punches. .

“I think we have to be careful within the team that we don’t always oscillate between mania and depression, but rather move forward with our understanding of the car,” said the team manager. Mercedes, Toto Wolff.

“There was never a time when I thought we weren’t going to get there, but it was also important not to get ahead after Friday.

“The general return on Friday was that Mercedes dominate and what will Red Bull do?

“So I think it’s really about leveraging the product, with the car as the product. How do you tune the product and deliver the performance? That’s what will make the difference between losing and winning.”

While Mercedes struggled to line up their car on the track this weekend, Verstappen quickly progressed in his Red Bull. But with the specter of reliability issues hanging over every team at this point in the season, he too doesn’t want to get carried away by Sunday’s result and is hopeful that a stable and focused approach will pay off in the end.

“This [result] doesn’t really change much because it’s all about the details, ”he said. “I always say it, so a win doesn’t give me more confidence or anything.

“We are all convinced on the team that we can do a really good job, but we have to work out the details and we have to start over in Mexico, to try to get the most out of our ensemble.”

Did Mercedes miss an opportunity to win in Austin?

As Hamilton stalked Verstappen in the last 10 laps, it looked like the outcome of the race could have been either way. It’s easy to assume that Hamilton would have won if the race had lasted a few more laps, but that does a huge disservice to the way Verstappen measured the life of his tires to perfection in the 56 laps that went on. constituted the United States Grand Prix.

Hamilton beat Verstappen in the first corner early in the race, but then struggled to put the air clear between himself and his title rival, prompting Red Bull to pit Verstappen at the start of lap 10 to undermine the Mercedes. With new tires on his car, Verstappen had enough pace in his pit exit lap to enter Hamilton’s pit window, meaning Hamilton would have conceded the lead even if he had pitted at the end. of the next round.

It was an aggressive move from Red Bull that secured the lead for the second stint and was repeated again on lap 29 to eventually clinch the victory. But for the plan to work, it took measured leadership from Verstappen.

The performance of his first set of hard-rubber tires quickly plummeted in the second stint as he pushed hard in the opening laps to gain clearance over Hamilton. With a secure head and this lesson learned, he was much more careful in the final stint of the race and by reducing his speed by a few mph in the quickest corners, he saved enough tires to keep Hamilton at bay when that happened. counted in the final. a few turns.

“You could see the different strategies [between the teams]”Wolff said after the race.” We opted for the clearance out of necessity and it was a very brave move because it was very early. [in the race for Verstappen to pit], and then the second time again [they pitted first] to their advantage.

“Behind the wheel of Max, especially in the last stint, you saw that he had learned from the first stint not to damage the tires too early.

“But Lewis also drove wonderfully. He put the tire on, was calm when he came back from the second stop with 8.5 seconds to Max, led him, picked up the pace, and at some point, there was a huge difference and it was brilliantly done.

“It was not enough [to beat Verstappen] and I think if we had maybe two more rounds, who knows. But that’s what it is and Red Bull is to be commended for its strategy. “

Although it looked like a masterclass from the outside, Horner admitted that the team had doubts about the pit wall strategy.

When asked if Verstappen still had the racing under control, Horner replied: “Well… no!

“We are considering a three-way stop [at one stage] and we were looking at what it would look like and where it would lead us at the end of the race. But we would have given up on the track position, so in the end we decided to stick to the track position and save the tires, which allowed Lewis to come close quickly and then he was in the lane. dirty look, obviously.

“Max handled it incredibly well and there is a lot of pressure in a race like this.”

In the end, Mercedes was stronger than Red Bull on the hard gum tire used by both drivers in the second and final stint of the race, but his struggles on the middle compound in the first stint meant he didn’t lacked the confidence to use that strength and try to beat Red Bull at his own game.

“In reality, the option to win the race really came down to keeping the lead after Lewis had a really strong start by stopping earlier than Max,” said Mercedes chief engineer Andrew Shovlin. “It would have meant maybe going to the pits as early as the eighth round – but given that we were struggling on the midrange as much as we were on such a short stint, we would never have been brave enough to do it because he would have looked like we were going to jeopardize the whole race.

“In this case it feels like we could have stopped early and made it to the finish, but we should have pulled the trigger early and hoped the best was to see if Lewis could keep Max at bay. It was the only real opportunity. “

Red Bull and Verstappen advantage?

With five races to go and a 12-point championship lead, the United States Grand Prix could prove to be the crucial turning point in Verstappen’s championship success.

With the exception of the Dutch Grand Prix which he dominated, Mercedes have been leading since the Hungarian Grand Prix in August and Verstappen could be lucky not to have conceded more points in the two rounds before Austin. , in Russia and Turkey. . But to end both races with a clear advantage and add another six points to his lead in Austin, Verstappen has emerged as the clear winner of the last three races.

Additionally, the next two races in Mexico City and Brazil are at high altitudes, which should favor the Honda engine of the Red Bull over the Mercedes powertrain of the Hamilton car.

The higher the altitude, the less oxygen in the air to be burned in the engine’s combustion chamber, so the powertrain turbocharger has to work harder to compensate. In recent years, Honda and Renault have experienced fewer high altitude crashes than Mercedes and Ferrari, which is believed to be due to the complexity of their turbo design. The theory is that Honda in particular can safely run its supercharger at higher speeds than its rivals, forcing more air into the combustion chamber, which translates to more horsepower.

The advantage has been enough to help Red Bull (which used Renault engines between 2015 and 2018 and Honda in 2019) to overqualify Mercedes for the past three years in Mexico, despite a significant performance deficit in most other rounds. . And in a year when the battle at the front is so tightly balanced, such an advantage could be even greater, with Mercedes privately expecting to be in the background in Mexico from the start.

But Red Bull, which won four straight titles between 2010 and 2013, is no stranger to championship racing and Horner is determined not to take anything for granted.

“You have to throw out the form,” he said. “It’s very close between the top two teams and I hope Mexico is a good track for us, but it was a good track for them too. [in the past].

“There are five races left and there are still 130 points at stake, and we are only 12 points ahead. [in the drivers’ standings]. It’s great to have extended it here, because with ten laps to go it looked like we were in danger of leaving level or two points, so increasing the lead is a great result and we have some great races ahead. .

“But 12 points is nothing and it can go away very quickly as we saw before. So we have to keep attacking race weekends like we did and make the most of it.

“With five to go, the pressure just increases.”


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