Circuit of the Americas, also known as COTA, played host to the 2021 United States Grand Prix. The race made a return to the F1 calendar after a hiatus of two years. The circuit, one of the few anti-clockwise tracks on the F1 calendar, boasts a 30.6m elevation change along with some fast flowing corners.
Leading up to the Grand Prix weekend, the F1 world was abuzz with a host of updates. The FOM announced a 23 race calendar for 2022, with the season opener in Bahrain followed by Saudi Arabia. F1 and NBA announced a "content and promotion partnership" for the US GP weekend. The tie-up was also to celebrate 75 years of NBA.
F3 racer Logan Sargeant joined the Williams Driver Acadamey as part of a long-term agreement.
Aston Martin and Williams decided to give Vettel and Russell a new engine unit. As a result, the duo would start the race from the back of the grid. Despite taking a 5th ICE, Mercedes deemed it necessary to opt for a 6th unit on Bottas' car, which resulted in a five-place grid drop for the race.
Mercedes had brought in upgrades and hoped to help Hamilton overturn the six points deficit to Verstappen. Likewise, Ferrari looked to jump McLaren in the standings. How did the teams and drivers fare at one of the most demanding circuits on the F1 calendar?
Time for a recap of the US GP weekend!
FP1 got underway, and Alonso's Alpine ground to a halt at turn 12. The session got Red Flagged briefly. Thankfully, the Spaniard returned in the latter half of the session. Leclerc lost the rear of his Ferrari through turn five and had a trip across the gravel. It was an eventful session for the Haas duo, with Mazepin suffering a spin at turn 19 and Schumacher banging wheels with Perez at 12. While Raikkonen suffered from a spin at turn 9, Giovinazzi had to pit for a helmet change. Track limits got enforced at turns 9 and 19, and there were several time deletions.
Bottas topped the timesheets, five-hundredths clear of Hamilton in P2. Verstappen was P3, followed by the Ferrari duo of Leclerc and Sainz. Gasly was P6 for Alpha Tauri, with Perez and Norris P7 and P8, respectively. The Alfa Romeos of Giovinazzi and Raikkonen completed the top 10.
Russell was P11 for Williams. The Aston Martins of Stroll and Vettel split the Alpines of Ocon and Alonso in P12 and P13. Ricciardo was P16 in the other McLaren, followed by Latifi and Tsunoda. The Haas duo of Schumacher and Mazepin brought up the rear of the field.
It was time for Free Practice 2, and the teams began their race simulation runs in full earnest. Hamilton and Verstappen went wheel-to-wheel at turn one, which compromised the latter's timed lap. Verstappen made his displeasure known over team radio. Norris had a troublesome FP2; the Briton had to pit to address an issue on the left-hand side of his cockpit. He then suffered a lock-up at turn 11, which flat-spotted his mediums. However, he recovered to set the 2nd quickest time! Alonso lost a portion of his rear wing endplate after suffering from a spin at turn 19. Hamilton, like several others, had his lap time deleted after exceeding the track limits at turn 19.
It was Perez who ended FP2 the quickest, from Norris and Hamilton. Bottas was P4 in the other Mercedes, followed by Ricciardo and Stroll. Verstappen split the Ferraris of Leclerc and Sainz in P8, while Giovinazzi completed the top 10 in his Alfa Romeo.
Gasly split the Alpines of Ocon and Alonso in P12, followed by Raikkonen, Vettel and Tsunoda. Schumacher was P17 for Haas, with the Williams of Latifi and Russell P18 and P19. Mazepin finished P20 at the back of the field.
COTA had never been a happy hunting ground for Red Bull, but the Milton-Keynes based outfit displayed competitive pace in the race simulations. As for Mercedes, both Hamilton and Bottas were consistent with their lap times. Ferrari seemed to have a better race pace than McLaren, but the latter edged them out on low fuel runs.
Alpine announced that Alonso would take his 4th Power Unit of the season, which sent him to the back of the grid for the Grand Prix.
The final Practice session ( FP3 ) got underway, and it was time to prepare for Qualifying. While Bottas suffered a spin at turn 7, Hamilton ran wide at turn 9, which resulted in his lap time getting deleted. Verstappen set the quickest time of FP3 but, like Hamilton, exceeded track limits at turn 19 and had his lap time deleted. A spin at turn 5 resulted in Russell flat-spotting his soft tyres.
Perez topped the timesheets again from Sainz and Verstappen. Norris was P4 for McLaren, followed by the Mercedes duo of Bottas and Hamilton and teammate Ricciardo. Gasly, Leclerc and Ocon completed the top 10.
Vettel was P11 for Aston Martin, while Raikkonen split the Williams of Russell and Latifi in P13. Giovinazzi was P14 in the other Alfa Romeo, followed by Stroll and Alonso. Tsunoda, Schumacher and Mazepin completed the rear of the field.
The track had gotten bumpier, and Red Bull discovered a hairline crack on the rear wing of Verstappen's car. The mechanics replaced it and got the car ready for Qualifying. There was a 40% chance of rain in the session, and the stands were full of fans waiting for the lights to go green for Qualifying.
Q1 got underway, and everyone chose the soft tyres for their first runs. Mazepin got his lap time deleted after exceeding the track limits at turn 19 and then ended up impeding Vettel on a quick lap, attracting the ire of the German. Mazepin was on the receiving end when Stroll got into his way on a flying lap. Both incidents got written off by the stewards. Meanwhile, Raikkonen and Stroll suffered lap deletions after exceeding the track limits at turn 19.
Ricciardo, Verstappen, Norris, Sainz, Perez and Bottas were the top 6 at the end of the first runs, with Alonso, Latifi, Schumacher, Raikkonen and Mazepin facing elimination.
Ricciardo, Norris and Sainz decided to stay put while the rest of the field headed out onto the track for their final runs of Q1. The Mercedes duo chose a used set of soft tyres for their second attempt. Giovinazzi got spun around after exiting turn one, which briefly brought out the yellow flags. The Alfa Romeo driver fell backwards and was on the cusp of elimination in P15. However, he made it into Q2. Stroll, Latifi, Raikkonen, Schumacher and Mazepin got eliminated, with Leclerc, Verstappen and Perez ending Q1 as the top 3.
The front runners had preserved their medium tyres for Q2. Both the drivers at Mercedes, McLaren and Red Bull chose the mediums while Ferrari split strategies by giving Sainz the soft tyres and Leclerc the mediums. While Tsunoda, Russell and Alonso chose a used set of soft tyres, Gasly and Ocon opted for the mediums. Vettel and Giovinazzi decided to stay put and planned a single attempt. With mixed tyres choices across the field, Q2 promised to be an exciting affair.
Ricciardo and Perez had their lap times deleted after exceeding the track limits at turn 9 and 19. Russell, too, suffered a similar fate. Halfway through the session, Verstappen, Hamilton, Norris, Leclerc, Bottas and Sainz were the top 6, while Perez, Ricciardo, Russell, Vettel and Giovinazzi were in the drop zone. Those in the drop zone were yet to set a representative lap.
Perez decided to head out early on a new set of medium tyres and managed only the 7th quickest time. Meanwhile, Verstappen, Hamilton, Leclerc and Bottas chose to not run again in Q2. The Alpha Tauri drivers and Vettel chose a fresh set of softs, Alonso the used while the others persisted with the mediums. Russell suffered from a lap time deletion after he exceeded track limits at turn 9.
The following drivers went through to Q3 - Verstappen, Hamilton, Norris, Leclerc, Bottas, Sainz, Perez, Gasly, Ricciardo and Tsunoda.
Ocon, Vettel, Giovinazzi, Alonso and Russell got eliminated.
It was time for the final shootout ( Q3 ), and the Alpha Tauri drivers chose a used set of softs for their first timed laps. At the end of the first runs, Perez was the quickest driver, a hundredth clear of Verstappen with Bottas and Hamilton in P3 and P4. Halfway through Q3, the classification was two-by-twos; first, the Red Bulls, followed by the Mercedes and the Ferraris and then the McLarens and the Alpha Tauris.
Everyone exited the pits on a new set of soft tyres. McLaren informed Norris that light rain would hit the circuit ( at turn 1 ) near the end of Qualifying. On their final attempts, Bottas failed to improve in sectors one and two. Hamilton went purple in sector two, Verstappen in one, while Perez set personal best sector times.
Verstappen bagged pole position from Hamilton! Hamilton finished in P2, two-tenths adrift of the Dutchman. Perez had excessive wheelspin at the end and had to settle for P3. Although Bottas set the 4th quickest time, his penalty dropped him down to P9. Leclerc inherited P4, with teammate Sainz in P5 for Ferrari. The McLarens of Ricciardo and Norris were P6 and P7, while Gasly took the other spot on row 4 in P8. Row 5 got occupied by Bottas and Tsunoda.
Red Bull finally found the sweet spot at COTA and seemed to have the measure of their rivals on Sunday. Verstappen produced a stellar lap and extracted the best out of his car. Although Hamilton was alongside him on the front row, Red Bull had Perez in P3 to play the perfect support role to his teammate. Perez had been strong all weekend, and P3 was a great starting position to launch a two vs one attack on Hamilton.
As for Hamilton and Mercedes, the Briton had struggled with grip levels throughout Qualifying. Hamilton cut a dejected figure as he made his way back to the pits and knew that he had to dig deep if he hoped to outdo Verstappen. He had been the most successful driver at COTA and had the experience to turn his fortunes come Sunday. Meanwhile, Bottas, down in P9, had his work cut out for race day. Thankfully, with the myriad overtaking opportunities on offer, recovering to a satisfactory result was possible for Bottas. Reliability, however, remained the biggest concern for Mercedes.
Ferrari continued their resurgence, outperforming McLaren on Saturday. However, Sainz was at a disadvantage after having set his best lap in Q2 on soft tyres. Tyre preservation in the first stint was paramount for his chances of a strong result. Ferrari needed to make the right strategic calls if they hoped to outscore and reduce the deficit to McLaren.
The McLaren duo of Ricciardo and Norris was right behind the Ferrari drivers on the grid. Both Ricciardo and Norris would start on the medium tyres, putting them at an advantage against Sainz ( if not Leclerc ). McLaren had had two humbling race weekends and needed to turn things around in the Championship to cement their hold on P3.
Alpha Tauri had reason to rejoice after seeing both its drivers in the top 10 again. Tsunoda had stepped up his performances and made another Q3 appearance, his second consecutive one. The consistency that Gasly had displayed throughout the season had given Alpha Tauri much encouragement. With Alpine and Aston Martin having one of their drivers at the back of the grid ( due to penalties ), COTA presented Alpha Tauri with a golden opportunity to outscore the rivals in their quest for P5 in the Constructors.
P11 was the best that Ocon could manage despite the tows provided by Alonso in both Q1 and Q2. Alonso, meanwhile, with his engine penalty, would start P19. Both drivers had the luxury of a free tyre choice, and Ocon was Alpine's best hope to score points on the weekend. As for Alonso, the Spaniard faced a long Sunday afternoon as he tried to charge through the back of the pack.
Aston Martin found themselves in a similar situation to Alpine. While Stroll managed a disappointing P13, Vettel would start P18 after his engine penalty. The team had produced commendable race strategies in the past, yet points finishes had eluded at least one driver. Aston Martin couldn't afford mediocrity on race day.
Giovinazzi won the intra-team battle in Qualifying against Raikkonen for 2021. However, the latter has been the more consistent of the two on race day. With the 2nd seat still up for grabs at Alfa Romeo, Giovinazzi will be aiming to get into the top 10 and add more points to his season tally. As for Raikkonen, he has all to do on Sunday from P15.
Williams will be hoping for a trouble-free weekend for both its drivers. Russell starts P20 after his engine penalty while Latifi is in P14. The Grove-based outfit will be hoping to capitalize on the slip-ups of those ahead to extract something fruitful from the weekend. As for Haas F1, P16 and P17 are good starting points, but the cars lack the pace to sustain a credible challenge. However, the team would be hoping for a decent showing at their home race.
Clear skies and hot weather greeted the drivers on race day. Alpha Tauri detected a sensor issue on Gasly's car, and the mechanics quickly replaced it on the grid.
C2, C3 and C4 were the tyre compounds available for the Grand Prix. Outside the top 10, Ocon and Vettel started the race on a used set of mediums while the others had fresh sets available.
The five red lights went out, and it was a clean getaway for both Verstappen and Hamilton. However, Hamilton had reacted slightly quicker to the lights and gained momentum into turn one. Verstappen tried to cut him off, but Hamilton refused to back out. Eventually, Hamilton took the lead of the race while Verstappen got pushed off into the runoff. The Dutchman rejoined the track and would have gotten relegated to P3, but Perez backed out of the challenge. Further down the field, Latifi clipped the back of Stroll's car, which sent the latter into a spin and left the duo at the back of the pack.
Sainz and Ricciardo went wheel-to-wheel in the battle for P5, and as the duo bickered, Norris tried to take advantage down the back straight. Sainz got boxed into a McLaren sandwich and had to cede position to Ricciardo. Meanwhile, the Alfa Romeo duo of Giovinazzi and Raikkonen was up to P11 and P12, respectively. Vettel and Alonso had moved up to P14 and P15.
Verstappen was the quickest man on track as he tried to maintain pressure on Hamilton. Meanwhile, Bottas tried to challenge Tsunoda for P8 but lost P9 to Gasly instead on lap 3. Ocon had suffered front wing endplate damage on the opening lap after contact with Giovinazzi and had to pit on lap 4. The Frenchman switched to hard tyres and rejoined in P20. Latifi also pitted for a new front wing and hard tyres on lap six and managed to stay ahead of Ocon after exiting from the pits.
Hamilton, Verstappen, Perez, Leclerc, Ricciardo, Sainz, Norris, Tsunoda, Gasly and Bottas were the top 10 at the end of lap 7.
Meanwhile, Alonso and Giovinazzi pitted on laps 8 and 9, Alonso switching to the hards while Giovinazzi opted for the mediums again. On the track, Vettel got past Russell for P12. Tsunoda and Russell pitted for hard tyres on lap 10, rejoining in P14 and P17. Verstappen, Norris and Gasly followed suit a lap later. Verstappen had built a considerable gap to the rest of the field and rejoined behind Ricciardo in P5. He then overtook Ricciardo and began to set blistering lap times. Further down the field, Tsnuoda overtook Gasly and Schumacher to bag P12.
Ricciardo and Sainz pitted for hard tyres on lap 12, rejoining in P7 and P9. Norris got past Stroll for P12, while Ocon overtook Schumacher for P18 on lap 12. Lap 13 saw Perez and Raikkonen pit for medium tyres and Leclerc for hards. Perez rejoined the race in P3, Leclerc in P5 and Raikkonen in P15. Meanwhile, Vettel got relegated to P9 by Sainz and Norris. Verstappen was now the fastest driver on the track as Hamilton got called in by Mercedes for a switch to the hard tyres. The Briton rejoined the race in P2, 6 seconds behind Verstappen.
Gasly reported a rear suspension issue and had to retire from the race on lap 15. Meanwhile, Mercedes asked Bottas to push as they prepared for his pit stop on lap 16. The Finn switched to hard tyres, rejoining in P11. Raikkonen got side-by-side with Alonso in the battle for P13, and the duo made contact at turn one. Raikkonen muscled past Alonso but suffered floor damage to his car. A livid Alonso alleged that Raikkonen had completed an overtake off the racing line, but the stewards saw the overtake as legitimate and refused to investigate further. Vettel pitted for the medium tyres on lap 18 and rejoined in P15.
Stroll lost two positions to Tsunoda and Bottas and pitted immediately after for a fresh set of mediums on lap 19. The Canadian rejoined behind his teammate Vettel in P15. Meanwhile, Raikkonen was lapping quicker than Giovinazzi, and the team ordered a position swap ( for P10 ) on lap 19. Bottas, after several attempts, finally got past Tsunoda for P8. Giovinazzi got relegated to P12 by Alonso on lap 21, but it was an illegal overtake as the latter drove off the track and gained an advantage. The stewards instructed Alonso to return the place to Giovinazzi, and he complied with their request on lap 24. Alonso returned for bout two, and this time, Giovinazzi took to the runoff while defending P11. It was his turn to receive instructions to cede P11 to Alonso.
Verstappen, Hamilton, Perez, Leclerc, Ricciardo, Sainz, Norris, Bottas, Tsunoda and Raikkonen were the top 10 at the end of lap 26.
Mazepin switched to the medium tyres on lap 26, while Vettel got past Russell for P13. Latifi and Giovinazzi pitted for hard tyres, while Ocon for the mediums, a lap later. The stewards decided to deploy the Virtual Safety Car as a marshall cleared debris off the track. The period was a brief one.
At the front, Hamilton was honing in on Verstappen and had reduced the deficit to 3 seconds ( lap 29 ). Ferrari informed Leclerc that the hard tyres were lasting longer than anticipated. Verstappen made the second stop of his race on lap 30, taking on a fresh set of hard tyres. Alonso did likewise and rejoined in P14. Sainz pitted next for new hard tyres but got held up due to a slow right rear swap. The Spaniard rejoined in P8. On the track, Verstappen got past teammate Perez for P2. McLaren, having seen Sainz's pit stop, instructed Ricciardo to push to effect the overcut. It was mission accomplished for McLaren and Ricciardo as he pitted on lap 31. However, Norris wasn't able to jump Sainz after the team opted to double-stack its drivers.
The second round of pit stops continued with Raikkonen and Russell pitting for hard tyres and rejoining in P12 and P16. Leclerc's switch to the hard tyres on lap 33 was perfect timing as the Monegasque rejoined in P4, just ahead of Bottas. Perez was the fastest man on track as Tsunoda pitted for hard tyres and had to fend off a challenge by Raikkonen for P11 after rejoining the race. Stroll fell back to P12 after getting overtaken by Tsunoda and Raikkonen and pitted for hard tyres on lap 36. Bottas, too, switched to a fresh set of hard tyres, rejoining in P7.
Mercedes tried to extend Hamilton's stint to give him fresher tyres near the end of the race. The Briton pitted for his 2nd stop on lap 38, rejoining almost 9 seconds adrift of Verstappen. Further down the field, Vettel and Alonso switched to the hards and the mediums on laps 39 and 40.
Hamilton was the quickest man on track and reduced the deficit to Verstappen to 6 seconds. A mechanical issue on Ocon's car led to his retirement on lap 42. Mazepin and Raikkonen got served Black and White flags for exceeding track limits during the race. Meanwhile, Alonso got past Stroll for P13.
Sainz had closed up on Ricciardo and began to pressure him for P5. On lap 42, the duo made contact, and Sainz suffered damage to the endplate of his front wing. The gap at the front was down to 1.9 seconds as Hamilton continued to lap faster than Verstappen.
Verstappen, Hamilton, Perez, Leclerc, Ricciardo, Sainz, Bottas, Norris, Tsunoda and Raikkonen were the top 10 at the end of lap 48.
Stroll got served a Black and White flag for exceeding track limits on lap 49, and Alonso had to retire his Alpine after discovering that his rear wing broke ( lap 51 ). Meanwhile, Vettel relegated Giovinazzi to P12 and now had Raikkonen in his sights. A rare error by Raikkonen sent his car into a spin and through the gravel. The Finn fell out of the points and down to P12 ( lap 53 ). The battle for P6 was hotting as Bottas closed in on Sainz. Despite a couple of failed attempts, the Finn finally got past on the penultimate lap. After his trip across the gravel on lap 53, Raikkonen's tyres got destroyed, and Stroll caught up to him and relegated him to P13.
At the front, Hamilton was within one second of Verstappen as he tried to make one last attempt for the race victory. Verstappen managed to maintain the gap and took the win at the US GP! Hamilton had to settle for 2nd. Perez finished the race in P3, completing a double podium for Red Bull. P4 was the best that Leclerc could manage in his Ferrari, followed by Ricciardo and Bottas in the other Mercedes. Sainz had to settle for P7, followed by Norris, Tsunoda and Vettel, who completed the top 10.
Stroll split the Alfa Romeos of Giovinazzi and Raikkonen in P12, with the Williams of Russell and Latifi in P14 and P15, respectively. Schumacher and Mazepin completed the 17 classified finishers.
It was another double podium finish for Red Bull and Honda's first victory on American soil! More importantly, Verstappen emerged victorious, extending his lead over Hamilton to 12 points in the Drivers Championship. Verstappen displayed stellar skills at tyre management, which helped him keep Hamilton at bay in the end. Perez finished a commendable P3, having completed the entire race without his drinks system in operation. It had been a challenging weekend, but Red Bull and Verstappen had broken Mercedes dominance at COTA. The aggressive strategy adopted by the team paid dividends. The team also managed to outscore Mercedes and reduce the deficit to 23 points in the Constructors.
Another tactical error by Mercedes cost Hamilton a shot at victory. While the team wanted to give Hamilton fresher tyres at the end, they pitted him too late. However, Hamilton managed to grab the point for the fastest lap in addition to the 18 from P2 in the race. Despite having the best straight-line speed, Bottas struggled with his overtakes, and P6 was the maximum that he could extract on race day. The Finn also saw his lead cut to 35 points in the fight for P3 in the Championship. Reliability remained Mercedes' Achilles heel.
Leclerc drove a lonely race in P4 but brought home a valuable points haul for Ferrari. Although Sainz had the pace to produce a better result, he had to settle for P7. Ferrari outscored McLaren by 4 points, reducing the deficit to 3.5 points. The Italian outfit was going through a resurgence and needed to carry the same momentum into the final five races.
P5 and P8 are what Ricciardo and Norris had to show for their efforts. Having started P6 and P7, the duo would have hoped to fare better. Norris lost P4 in the Championship to Perez, and his hopes of finishing third were slowly fading away. Ricciardo had newfound momentum since the summer break and was performing at comparable levels to Norris. His duel with Sainz allowed Leclerc to pull away. Nevertheless, McLaren got 14 valuable points from its drivers, still holding onto P3 in the Constructors, albeit by a mere 3.5 points. They needed to outperform their archrivals in the upcoming rounds.
Tsunoda produced a commendable drive in P9, bringing home 2 points for Alpha Tauri. The team was in contention for double points finish until Gasly's suspension failure. Despite the disappointment of a driver DNF, they managed to outscore Alpine, edging closer to the P5 spot in the standings. They now trailed Alpine by only 10 points.
Aston Martin would have left COTA without a point had it not been for Raikkonen's error on lap 53. Vettel, however, took full advantage and held on to P10 at the end to ensure that Aston Martin didn't leave empty-handed. Stroll's race got compromised at the first turn of the opening lap, and the Canadian had to fight for scraps at the end of the day. Aston Martin trails Alpha Tauri by 32 points and needs a miracle to overturn that deficit.
Mechanical failures put both Ocon and Alonso out of the race. It was a forgettable weekend for Alpine, and it was back to the drawing board for the Enstone-based outfit. They couldn't afford any more slip-ups, especially with Alpha Tauri now within striking distance.
It was a case of "so near yet so far" for Alfa Romeo. Raikkonen was on course for a P10 finish when an uncharacteristic error bumped him out of the points. Giovinazzi, despite his heroics on Saturday, had his race compromised after the early stop. The Italian finished a commendable P11, showcasing good defensive skills against the more experienced contenders. Alfa Romeo has suffered from missed opportunities in 2021, and with five races remaining, the possibility of catching Williams seems bleak.
Russell and Latifi finished P14 and P15, capping off another disappointing showing by Williams. The team's travails in race-spec seem unending. They still have a 16 point cushion to Alfa Romeo. Nevertheless, the car's issues need addressing at the earliest. The Haas duo of Schumacher and Mazepin managed to complete another race and add more miles to their racing CV. Haas remains the only team yet to score a point in 2021, and it would be prudent to shift focus to 2022.
Red Bull and Verstappen had broken Mercedes' streak of dominance at COTA. Verstappen produced a stellar drive, and Red Bull pulled off a masterstroke with their strategy calls. The team is purpose-driven to claim top honours in both the Drivers and the Constructors. Mercedes powered cars face difficulties with the lower temperatures seen in Mexico, the next race on the F1 calendar.
Will we see Verstappen and Co emerge victorious in Mexico, or will Hamilton hit back with purpose in the 2nd race on the American subcontinent? Time will reveal all!
Until then, kudos to Red Bull and Verstappen for yet another race day masterclass!