How did Max Verstappen and Red Bull turn the 2021 US Grand Prix around?

27-10-2021 10:00

After Friday the United States Grand Prix looked like it would be a formality for the Mercedes team but it was anything but that when Max Verstappen crossed the line on Sunday. It was a huge win for Red Bull and one that gives Verstappen a firmer grip on the title race. But how exactly did Red Bull turn it around?

How Red Bull turned it around

The Circuit of the Americas, Austin, Texas famed for coyboys and BBQs but it also has a reputation for being a Mercedes fortress. Since the start of the turbo hybrid era, Mercedes have won all but one of the races at COTA. Lewis Hamilton with four of those victories, and he secured the title there two years ago, despite Valtteri Bottas winning the race. So all was setup for another Mercedes rout. History, their setup and form, after victories in Russia and Turkey, almost everything pointed to a Mercedes win. 

And after FP1 it looked like it would be even more emphatic. In fact Valtteri Bottas’ time of a 1:34.874 was almost a second faster than Verstappen and even Hamilton was over half a second clear. It looked like it was damage limitation for Red Bull. However, Perez gave the Bulls some hope in FP2 by topping the standings but Max was still in eighth. Perez was on song for most of the weekend and topped FP3 as well as Mercedes slipped to fifth and sixth. It's always difficult to take anything from practice sessions as the teams are normally holding something back, but Mercedes failed to break the 1:35 mark after FP1 whilst Red Bull made huge progress and crucially Verstappen improved by almost a second from first to last session, whilst Mercedes went backwards. Even more importantly the Mercedes never looked comfortable after FP1 either, and it was something Martin Brundle emphasised on the live broadcast all weekend. 

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Qualifying was huge for Red Bull, they knew if Verstappen could claim pole and Perez was up there, they’d have a numerical advantage with Bottas facing a grid penalty. However, Mercedes were probably still favourites, however, it was much tighter than before. After Mercedes looked so dominant on Friday, Red Bull had turned it around. Verstappen crucially claimed pole with Hamilton P2 and Perez P3, giving them the advantage they were after. Verstappen was the only man to go sub 1:33 in the process.

Race day and Red Bull’s plan was immediately thrown upside down as Hamilton soared down the inside at turn one, and had it been anyone other than Sergio Perez, Verstappen would have dropped to third, but he backed out. Red Bull brought Verstappen in for an early first pit stop on lap 10, leaving Hamilton and Mercedes with no choice but to try to go long and come back at Verstappen later in the race. In the final stint, Hamilton had eight lap fresher tyres but he managed his tyres early on to preserve them for the big push. And then he unleashed, closing from 8.4 to 3.9 seconds in just five laps and with six to go, it was just over a second. However, Hamilton only got within a second with two laps to go and Max held on for a famous and crucial win, helped by DRS when lapping Mick Schumacher with a lap to go. 

Why did Hamilton struggle to close the gap?

When I was sat watching the race, it felt like a matter of when not if for Hamilton to catch Verstappen but never materialised. For me it came down to a few factors. Firstly the Red Bull seemed to have found its pace and was naturally quicker on race pace, but what Hamilton lost out on there, he gained in fresher tyres. The second factor for me was the dirty air. The gap was under two seconds with six laps to go but Hamilton never really got much closer and this could have been because of the difficulties the Mercedes has following cars. Following cars in F1 is hard anyway but Mercedes have struggled at times to fight there way through the field, Bottas in particular a victim of this at times. Hamilton couldn’t get close enough to get within DRS range, he was effectively stuck in no mans land until he got under a second which ultimately came one lap to late. And finally with one lap to go, when it already looked like an uphill task, Verstappen benefitted from DRS as he lapped Mick Schumacher, Hamilton didn’t get in range of either cars and ultimately couldn’t make any attempt. Although the Red Bull team were pretty frustrated by the presence of the Haas, they might be pretty relieved he was there to help them out. 

Why Red Bull turn it around?

After FP1 Red Bull were worried, Max even admitted "I was thinking: 'That's quite a big gap.” but they turned it around and then beat Mercedes at their own game at a home from home for the Silver Arrows. Why well no one is really sure, the heat may have played a part though. Mercedes have always struggled with high temperatures, I think back to Austria a few years ago. However, even then Hamilton was befuddled with how they went backwards and the numbers didn’t lie. The Silver Arrows are normally harder on the tyres too, on an already intense circuit with temperatures higher than expected for the time of year, maybe the Red Bull could just manage it better and therefore that’s why they improved over the weekend. But you have to give Red Bull and the whole team some credit, they found some speed after being outpaced in Turkey and they deserve cudos for that. 

Whichever driver wins the World Championship, we should just enjoy the duals these two are serving up because it is just fantastic.

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