The contact came three laps after Hamilton’s second pit stop, and for the first few laps of his final stint he didn’t look capable of closing the nine-second gap to Verstappen. But then a fastest lap some two seconds quicker than the leader ignited the race, with Hamilton regularly taking a second out of the Red Bull.
It was asking a lot of the tyres, and Verstappen was saving his, so when the gap was pegged with five laps to go it looked all over. Then Hamilton closed in again, and the leader came across Mick Schumacher in the final sector.
As Verstappen and Hamilton crossed the line to start their final lap, there was just 0.8sec between them. But the leader’s first sector crucially took him out of DRS range and allowed him to hold on.
“It was exciting,” Verstappen said. “The whole race, the pressure was on, not knowing how quick Lewis was going to get you.
“We managed to hang on at the end, just enough within the tyres to push. With two laps to go I had the Haas in front of me, going into the last sector he was in front, and especially with worn tyres it is not easy to follow. Of course luckily then he gave me that DRS so whatever I lost I think it stabilised a bit because of that DRS.
“The last lap was all about trying to have a good first sector and beginning of the second sector but it wasn’t easy as the tires were really finished, but yeah, incredible to win here.”
After falling just short, Hamilton – who picked up the fastest lap – was philosophical.
“It was a fun race,” Hamilton said. “We had a good start. Then he seemed to be quite close throughout on the medium tire and then obviously they stopped extremely early. Tried to offset myself after that and was hoping it would give us a chance for fighting late on but I think track position was key today.
“I think they were quicker all weekend and on all tyres today. Just in the heat, that’s their real strength has shone through this weekend, a bit like other places – Bahrain this year – I did the best I could with what we had.”
Perez was a distant third and exhausted after not being able to use his drink system after the first lap, while Leclerc ended up ten seconds behind the Mexican in fourth.
“The performance was just very, very good and I could see Sergio in front of me – only 10 seconds ahead – and actually in the last two stints I think we were a little bit quicker than them, so I was thinking about the podium but we just didn’t quite make it,” Leclerc said.
Ricciardo was 25 seconds further back in fifth, but at least held off Valtteri Bottas who recovered form ninth to take sixth from Sainz late on, while Norris, a solid drive from Yuki Tsunoda and Sebastian Vettel rounded out the points.
But it was the points that Verstappen took off Hamilton that were most significant. This was supposed to be a Mercedes track, one where Red Bull would try and limit the damage. Instead the gap is 12 points heading to two venues expected to suit the championship leader.
In front of a big crowd full of big stars, make no mistake, this was a big result.
2021 United States Grand Prix race results
|1||Max Verstappen||Red Bull||56 laps||25|
|3||Sergio Perez||Red Bull||+42.223sec||15|
|9||Yuki Tsunoda||AlphaTauri||+1 lap||2|
|10||Sebastian Vettel||Aston Martin||+1 lap||1|
|11||Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo||+1 lap|
|12||Lance Stroll||Aston Martin||+1 lap|
|13||Kimi Räikkönen||Alfa Romeo||+1 lap|
|14||George Russell||Williams||+1 lap|
|15||Nicholas Latifi||Williams||+1 lap|
|16||Mick Schumacher||Haas||+2 laps|
|17||Nikita Mazepin||Haas||+2 laps|
|18||Fernando Alonso||Alpine||+7 laps|
*Includes additional point for fastest lap