Max Verstappen bursts Mercedes' bubble to set up Texas duel: 2021 US Grand Prix qualifying report

F1

Mercedes set the pace in Austin — until qualifying where Lewis Hamilton found himself sandwiched between the Red Bulls, with Valtteri Bottas set to start ninth in the 2021 United States Grand Prix

Sparks fly from Red Bull of Max Verstappen at Circuit of the Americas

Max Verstappen claimed pole by more than 0.2sec

Dan Isitene/F1 via Getty Images

If ever concrete proof was needed that Netflix’s Drive to Survive series has vastly impacted F1’s popularity in the USA, you only needed note the 120,000-plus spectators who flocked into Circuit of the Americas – on qualifying day!

The session they saw perfectly set up round 17 of an epic season with the two championship contenders on the front row for the race. On Friday, it looked as if the Mercedes progress since its Silverstone upgrade was going to be decisive when Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton topped FP1 with Max Verstappen almost a full second away.

As chief technical officer James Allison admitted, however, from the high hopes of the opening day, the world champions struggled to evolve the car and returned to FP1 setting for qualifying, which was not quite enough to stop Verstappen impressively turning the situation around and stopping Mercedes from taking the Austin pole for the first time in the hybrid era.

Verstappen’s final Q3 run gave him a two tenths margin over Hamilton, who did beat Max’s first run time to force him to deliver once again.

“My first lap wasn’t amazing,” Verstappen admitted, “and on the second run there was drizzle in the final sector and I wasn’t sure I was going to hang onto my lap, but it was enough.”

Overhead shot of Max Verstappen at Circuit of the Americas

Weekend improvements helped Red Bull to overhaul Mercedes advantage

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

How had Red Bull managed to reverse a situation that looked insurmountable after the first session of practice?

“I think the set-up we arrived with was probably a bit out,” Christian Horner admitted, “and we did a good job overnight to improve the car’s traction and its performance over the bumps.”

“Checo has been on fire this weekend”

On Friday afternoon, Verstappen had lost his hot lap to traffic, Hamilton had his deleted for exceeding track limits, Bottas (who took a sixth engine here) concentrated on race-running due to his five-place penalty hit, and so it was Sergio Perez who topped the session. Had Hamilton’s time stood, however, it would only have beaten the Mexican by a tenth and so, for the first time since Imola, Sergio was in the pole fight on pure pace.

There were two key reasons. The abrasive asphalt and higher than usual track temperatures meant that a sharp front-end of the type Verstappen likes, was going to kill the rear tyres with degradation much higher than previously experienced in Austin.

Teams were having trouble making the soft tyre last long enough to perform effectively in the final sector of the lap and there are few more effective at managing tyres than Perez.

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“Checo has been on fire this weekend and I thought he was actually going to get his first pole after the first Q3 runs,” Horner smiled. Normally an average 0.4-0.5sec slower than Verstappen for qualifying pace, Perez was actually on provisional pole after the first Q3 runs but couldn’t quite hang on. “I’m happy, but on my last run I lost a bit of grip with the drizzle at the very end.”

He broke the timing beam just two-hundredths shy of Hamilton’s time but it is Red Bull that will have two cars at the front this time, not Mercedes, with Bottas starting ninth after his grid drop is applied.

Forgetting the drivers’ championship for a moment, Red Bull can see the opportunity to reduce its 36-point deficit to Mercedes in the constructors’ championship. Coincidentally, over the past four races, Bottas has outscored Perez by 32 points, showing just how important the performance of the ‘number 2s’ is going to be to the final outcome.

Sergio Perez with Max Verstappen with thumbs up

Verstappen and Perez both had pace for pole

Clive Mason/F1 via Getty Images

The Mercedes decision to take another fresh engine for Bottas for the second successive race is either a reflection of reliability concerns or a strategic decision to get another one into the pool for the championship run-in. And looking at the bigger picture, it may well signal the inevitability of another hit for Hamilton at some stage.

“My Q3 second run (which was 0.34sec from Perez but still good enough for fourth) was not great,” Bottas conceded, “I had some front locking and some understeer, but strategy is going to be key tomorrow.”

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Despite the entire top 10 apart from sixth-placed Carlos Sainz and 10th-placed Yuki Tsunoda using the medium compound Pirelli in Q2 and hence starting the race on it, the general consensus is that so high is the degradation that the race is a nailed-on two-stopper, unlike previous visits to COTA.

In his last seven starts from pole, Verstappen has won five times and collided with Hamilton twice. In the opening lap battles witnessed thus far – Barcelona springs chiefly to mind – it has been Verstappen taking a no-prisoners approach up the inside of the first turn, but tomorrow it will potentially be Hamilton trying to get down the inside up the 30m elevation to the blind apex Turn 1. And if they both emerge unscathed out of the other side, tyres and strategy will be key.

Hamilton is in no mood to accept second place. “My Q3 second run was pretty much all we had, but I’m going to give it my all tomorrow.” At a track at which he has won five times in eight visits, another mouth-watering scrap is in prospect.

Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton climb the hill to Turn 1 at Circuit of the Americas

Run up to Turn 1 could be crucial for Hamilton (shown behind Bottas) in the race

DPPI

The second great battle will be between McLaren and Ferrari, who are fighting for third place in the championship. Charles Leclerc qualified an excellent fifth, a couple of tenths quicker than team mate Sainz as both Maranello men were pleasantly surprised to end up quicker than the McLarens in Austin.

Sainz though, could have an uphill battle to stay in-touch as he goes to the grid on the softs, which will give him a much-reduced opening stint range.

“I feel really at home with the car,” he said, “but it’s a shame about the softs. That wasn’t the plan. For Q2 I had a set of softs and a set of mediums. I ran the softs first, thinking that I would go quicker on the medium as the track evolved, but the wind picked up and I couldn’t improve. You saw it with the guys who ran two sets of mediums: nobody went quicker on their second run, which is the opposite of what you normally expect.”

Huge crowds at Circuit of the Americas for the 2021 US Grand Prix

The Netflix effect in action

Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Daniel Ricciardo pipped Lando Norris by just 0.08sec to take the honours at McLaren with Lando admitting that he’d left something on the table by overdriving the final sector as the tyres went away.

As the animals went in two-by-two, the AlphaTauris of Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda rounded out the top 10.

Fernando Alonso, who will start from the back with a new Renault, plus ancillaries, plus a new exhaust, dutifully towed Esteban Ocon into 11th place in Q2. And emphasising those potential Mercedes reliability concerns, Sebastian Vettel and George Russell will both be coming from the back with new engines too.

Expect it to be nip and tuck, as ever, between Verstappen and Hamilton but, on an afternoon where degradation will be so important, what might Perez achieve?

 

2021 US Grand Prix qualifying results

Session results do not include grid penalties that will affect the starting order

Position Driver Team Time (Q3)
1 Max Verstappen Red Bull 1min 32.910sec
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1min 33.119sec
3 Sergio Perez Red Bull 1min 33.134sec
4 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1min 33.475sec
5 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1min 33.606sec
6 Carlos Sainz Ferrari 1min 33.792sec
7 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren 1min 33.808sec
8 Lando Norris McLaren 1min 33.887sec
9 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri 1min 34.118sec
10 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri 1min 34.918sec
Q2 times
11 Esteban Ocon Alpine 1min 35.377sec
12 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin 1min 35.500sec
13 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo 1min 35.794sec
14 Fernando Alonso Alpine 1min 44.549sec
15 George Russell Williams No time
Q1 times
16 Lance Stroll Aston Martin 1min 35.983sec
17 Nicholas Latifi Williams 1min 35.995sec
18 Kimi Räikkönen Alfa Romeo 1min 36.311sec
19 Mick Schumacher Haas 1min 36.499sec
20 Nikita Mazepin Red Bull 1min 36.796sec