Verstappen and title rival Lewis Hamilton locked out the front row of the grid to set up a Texas shootout at the Circuit of the Americas – but it turned into one of the most strategic and compelling races of the year.
Hamilton had muscled his way past Verstappen on the uphill run to Turn 1, meaning Red Bull could not make its medium tyre pace advantage pay off. It forced the team into pitting Verstappen far earlier than anyone expected in a risky – but ultimately rewarding – call.
So how did Verstappen and Red Bull pull off such a bold strategy, and why was Mercedes unable to respond?
Mercedes had been struggling with its rear tyres throughout the weekend at COTA, which is renowned for being tough on tyres due to its abrasive surface and high-speed corners. This leads to high levels of degradation, giving drivers a real challenge when it comes to tyre management.
It looked like Hamilton had done the tough part by overtaking Verstappen at the start, but it quickly became clear that Mercedes was struggling. Verstappen noticed Hamilton was sliding around a lot, and said he was much faster as he moved to within a second of Hamilton and got DRS.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B
Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images
But Red Bull wanted to take control of the race and gain track position by getting the undercut, which is very powerful in Austin because of the high tyre degradation. This prompted Red Bull to pit Verstappen on lap 10 and take a new set of hard tyres, leaving Hamilton alone in the lead.
Mercedes’ data suggested that it was still too early to come into the pits, meaning it did not respond immediately. Hamilton stayed out three laps longer than Verstappen to help open up a small tyre advantage – but when he returned to the track, the Red Bull was now ahead. Verstappen had been posting quick sector times to create an advantage, meaning his lead stood at over six seconds once Hamilton pitted at the end of lap 13.
The tyre delta began to help Hamilton, though. With slightly fresher tyres, his times gradually got quicker and the gap at the front came down, making up around half a second per lap as Verstappen also started to hit traffic.
When Hamilton moved to within three seconds of Verstappen, Red Bull sprung into action, believing that was the danger point for the undercut. Verstappen was called into the pits at the end of lap 29 to protect his lead. But it would mean he’d have to go 27 laps to the finish on a set of hards – a big ask that some on Red Bull pitwall even had doubts about making work after analysing the worn tyres that came off his car.
Mercedes committed to keeping Hamilton out, telling him to go six laps longer than planned to try and create another tyre delta. Hamilton eventually pitted at the end of lap 37, meaning his tyres would be eight laps fresher than Verstappen’s for the final charge to the chequered flag.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, 1st position, takes the chequered flag
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
Hamilton came out of the pits 8.8 seconds behind Verstappen, but quickly put the hammer down, taking out more than one second per lap at points thanks to his fresh rubber. As the gap fell to around two seconds, Verstappen was told to keep his rear tyres fresh enough to defend from Hamilton as Red Bull anticipated an attack.
But with five laps to go, the gap stabilised. Verstappen had managed to keep his tyres fresh enough to respond to Hamilton’s pace, even as he negotiated back markers. Hamilton lurked just over one second behind, but with a little help from the lapped Mick Schumacher, Verstappen managed to pick up DRS for the final lap and he held on to score a famous victory.
It was Red Bull’s first win in Austin since 2013, and means Verstappen now leads Hamilton by 12 points at the top of the championship. Come the end of the season, Red Bull’s bold strategy call in Austin could prove critical in deciding who becomes world champion.
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