Max Verstappen won a spectacular duel with title rival Lewis Hamilton in the 2021 United States Grand Prix, with Red Bull gaining ground on Mercedes thanks to Perez’s podium finish – and the championship leader extending his lead to 12 points.
From second on the grid Hamilton enjoyed a stellar start off the line as the lights went out in Austin, and despite Verstappen squeezing him as far as possible down the inside to the run-up to Turn 1, the Briton gained P1 from the Dutchman to lead going into the esses. Perez, starting third, followed and began to lose hundredths, then tenths, to the leaders.
Red Bull championship hopeful Verstappen opened the pit window on Lap 11, pitting from medium tyres to hards, while Mercedes’ reigning champion Hamilton followed in on Lap 14 only to emerge second behind the under-cutting Red Bull driver. But there was another pit stop to come under the scorching Texas sun.
The second set of stops came when Verstappen came in on Lap 29 for another set of hards, his team mate Perez following – while Hamilton once again stayed out longer, holding a fragile 16-second lead over Verstappen. “We are racing for the win,” he was told by Team Principal Toto Wolff.
“Leave me to it, bro!” came Hamilton’s response. With an 11.5s lead, he pitted on Lap 37, stopped on his marks and was back out in second on new hard tyres – 8.8s behind Verstappen this time, for a chase to the chequered flag.
“It’s all about the last three laps,” Hamilton was told. And indeed, it was, as the gap to Verstappen didn’t start tumbling until Lap 41 of 56 when the leader encountered backmarkers. With five laps remaining, just 1.7s split the front two, and Hamilton had DRS on Verstappen on the very last lap. But the Dutchman found just enough pace on his worn, hard compounds, and took victory – by 1.3s – with what team boss Christian Horner called a “classy” display. Perez took the final podium spot.
Charles Leclerc drove brilliantly to P4 for Ferrari having held off Daniel Ricciardo of McLaren at the start, the Australian having made up one place at the expense of Carlos Sainz early on. That left Valtteri Bottas sixth for Mercedes ahead of Carlos Sainz, the Ferrari driver passed for the place late on by the Mercedes man who recovered from ninth on the grid.
Ricciardo’s team mate Lando Norris took eighth having lost a place to Bottas after the second set of pit stops. Behind Norris was Yuki Tsunoda in P9, the rookie having started 10th on soft tyres but handled the fragile compounds masterfully, gaining a place as AlphaTauri team mate Pierre Gasly retired with suspension issues.
In the final point-paying spot was Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel, who started 18th after a engine change penalty.
Esteban Ocon of Alpine was the next retiree, on Lap 42. His Alpine team mate Alonso followed into the pits from P14 with five laps remaining, citing a rear wing issue.
Turn 1 at Texas has all the ingredients for high drama: a wide run-in and a narrow run-off punctuated by a sharp apex. Add in Max Verstappen on pole position, Lewis Hamilton sharing the front row ahead of Sergio Perez and Charles Leclerc on row two, and we were always destined to witness an enthralling start to the 2021 United States Grand Prix.
So, after much fanfare, immaculate blue skies overlooking a sell-out crowd at Texas waving flags of every shade, five lights turned on; five lights went out. And it was Hamilton who got the better of Verstappen off the line, scything down the inside of Turn 1 and resisting his rival’s attempt to cut him off, while Verstappen went wide at the run-off area. The Dutchman came back onto the track next to team mate Perez, who duly let him back past for P2.
Meanwhile, the Ferraris and McLarens battled in a pack from Leclerc in P4 to Lando Norris in P7 on Lap 1. Norris made an ambitious run for fourth but locked up down the long back straight into Turn 12, leaving Leclerc in P4, Ricciardo fifth and Sainz, who briefly went wide at the corner, in P6. Norris’s former team mate Sainz was later forced to give the place back, did so, and regained sixth soon after.
The title protagonists led away while Perez dropped a couple of tenths every lap, the Mexican struggling to keep pace. Mercedes’ Bottas struggled from P9, where he started thanks to a five-place grid penalty, and was forced to give up P10 to Pierre Gasly after making an off-track pass on the Frenchman at the start.
“Tyres are really hot, and I don’t think we are particularly quick,” said Verstappen before pitting for hard compounds on Lap 11 to leave Hamilton vulnerable to the undercut. The Red Bull driver emerged fifth behind Ricciardo and made light work of P4, heading into P3 as Leclerc stopped with Perez – who went on a contrarian strategy, pitting for mediums rather than hards – on Lap 12.
The undercut worked; from the lead, Hamilton finally pitted on Lap 14 and emerged on hard tyres – but over six seconds behind Verstappen as the Dutchman retook P1 to huge cheers. But with the sun bearing down and the tyres screaming out, there was another pitstop in the works and Verstappen took his before Hamilton once again, pitting from the lead for hards on Lap 29.
Hamilton would continue on and only pit on Lap 37, his 11.5s lead turning into an 8.8s deficit when he emerged in second place. “It’s all about the last three laps,” he was told, but the gap to Verstappen began to shrink with 15 laps remaining when the Dutchman encountered backmarkers.
With 10 laps left, only three seconds split the leaders; with five laps left it was 1.7s. But Verstappen kept his cool, even as backmarkers tested his patience, and found a late turn of pace – eventually holding the defending champion off by 1.3 seconds at the chequered flag. His tyres told more of the story, blistered, burned, and battered. It was a display worthy of the championship lead.
Perez, 42.2s off Verstappen at the end, took the final podium place with a rapid second stint on medium tyres to give Red Bull valuable points against Mercedes in their hunt for the constructors’ championship.
In fourth was a rapid Leclerc, just 10 seconds behind Perez, as the Ferrari driver started in P4 and pitted almost in sequence with the Mexican albeit on a medium-hard-hard strategy, to head the midfield.
That left Ricciardo to round out the top five, the medium-shod Australian gaining from soft-tyred Carlos Sainz at the start of the race and resisting Sainz’s attempted Lap 29 undercut by pitting just after him. But it was a close call – the two banging wheels on Lap 43 to leave the frustrated Ferrari driver with damage.
Bottas finished sixth from ninth, his recovery drive held up by Yuki Tsunoda at the start, and Sainz at the end – but a decision to go longer than the Ferraris and McLarens saw him emerge ahead of Norris on Lap 34. He was within tenths of P6 at the end and duly passed Sainz (P7) for points that could well help Mercedes secure an eighth constructors’ championship.
Norris therefore finished eighth from seventh on the grid, ahead of AlphaTauri’s Tsunoda, who took P9 from P10 as team mate Pierre Gasly retired with a suspension issue on Lap 15. The Japanese driver started on softs, pitted on Lap 8 for hards and again on Lap 32, to take two points in a solid showing.
Kimi Raikkonen nearly took the final point thanks to a stellar start to the race but spun off the track at Turn 6 with three laps remaining, giving engine penalty-hit Sebastian Vettel an unlikely P10 for Aston Martin from P18 as he pulled off a medium-medium-hard strategy.
Antonio Giovinazzi was heading for P12 but took P11 thanks to his Alfa Romeo team mate’s late mistake, while Lance Stroll gained an unlikely place at the end too – after taking damage thanks to contact from Williams’ Nicholas Latifi at the start – and gained one place overall to finish 12th ahead of Raikkonen.
George Russell finished 14th ahead of Williams team mate Latifi, who hit his compatriot’s Aston Martin at Turn 1 on Lap 1, and finished 15th after a front wing change.
With Gasly (suspension), fellow Frenchman Esteban Ocon and his Alpine team mate Fernando Alonso (rear wing) the three retirees, Mick Schumacher took 16th ahead of Haas team mate Nikita Mazepin in P17 at their team’s home race.
“We lost out in the start so we had to try and do something else, but the tyre wear is quite high around this track so we did go aggressive and I was not sure it was going to work, but yes, the last few laps were fun. A bit sideways through the high-speed corners but super happy, of course, to hang on.
“They’ve [the fans have] been incredible and it’s amazing first of all to be here, and second to see so many of you around the track. Hopefully we can do this for many years to come.” – Max Verstappen, Red Bull.
Sergio Perez may have had a rapturous welcome here but there’s more in store as his home race, the Mexican Grand Prix follows – with Red Bull having gained their 200th podium and their 73rd Grand Prix win at COTA thanks to Max Verstappen. The Dutchman leads Lewis Hamliton by 12 points in the drivers’ championship heading to Mexico City.