For the first time since 2019, Formula 1 is back in the United States. The United States Grand Prix was one of the 13 races axed from the 2020 schedule due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, but the sport’s great and good will visit Austin’s Circuit of the Americas this weekend with plenty on the line. Indeed, the drivers and constructors’ titles are still up for grabs.
With the finishing line of the 2021 season starting to come into sight, there is just six points between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton at the top of the drivers’ championship. F1’s most compelling title duel in years has delivered the goods and there is almost certainly more drama to come between the two rivals.
The contest between Hamilton and Verstappen, and Mercedes and Red Bull, has been tense throughout the season. The two drivers have collided more than once, most recently at the Italian Grand Prix when they eliminated each other from the race, while their respective teams have also clashed in public.
Verstappen 🆚 Hamilton
— Formula 1 (@F1) October 21, 2021
Verstappen’s second-place finish at Istanbul Park at the Turkish Grand Prix saw the Dutch driver regain control of the drivers’ championship. The 24-year-old has been accused of letting the emotion of the title duel get to him at times this year, but he demonstrated great composure by securing the points he needed on the day even if the victory evaded him.
Hamilton and Mercedes’ race strategy came under scrutiny after Istanbul Park with the seven-times champion unhappy at being pitted only a few laps from the end of the race. This saw Hamilton drop two places when he might have had the grip and pace to end up on the podium. A two-point difference in the championship became six points. This might well matter in the final tally.
Mercedes have made up the advantage Red Bull seemingly had over them in the early stage of the season, to the extent Red Bull have alleged a breach of rules by their closest rivals. After recent performances at the Circuit of the Americas — Mercedes have won five of the last six American GPs — the Silver Arrows are seen as early favourites for this weekend.
“Of course we’re trying to understand our car more and more and in the last race it was feeling great going into the weekend, and Valtteri [Bottas] did an amazing job to get maximum points for the team,” Hamilton explained, referencing his fifth-place finish at the Turkish GP for which he took a penalty for a new engine.
“But I think we’re coming here and over these next few races, it’s still going to be very tight and close between us all, so we’re just trying to focus on maximising what we have. We’ve not updated the car, we’re just trying to finesse it and extract the most from it. It’s important to win every race, somehow. Maximising our points, that’s our goal over these next six races.”
Good to be back in Austin. This place holds a special place in my heart pic.twitter.com/qOb0B31UYE
— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) October 21, 2021
Valtteri Bottas will be looking to continue his recent strong form. The Finn has finished in the top five in each of his last four races, reminding everyone of his ability even as he is preparing to leave Mercedes for Alfa Romeo next season. With his Mercedes car expected to be competitive again this weekend, Bottas could be in line for some serious points.
Sergio Perez proved himself as the perfect second driver by stopping Hamilton from making a charge on Verstappen at the Turkish Grand Prix. The Mexican has faltered at times this season, but a third-place finish and 15 points at Istanbul Park tightened his grip on fifth-place in the drivers’ championship.
Ferrari were surely satisfied with their performance in Turkey after Charles Leclerc finished fourth and Carlos Sainz, who started at the back of the pack after an engine change penalty, scored four points. The Scuderia are just 7.5 points behind McLaren in the fight to finish third in the constructors’ standings with this weekend set to produce another episode in the contest between the two rival teams.
McLaren can be pleased with the season they have enjoyed so far, with the Woking-based team claiming a one-two at the Italian Grand Prix last month. Another podium at the Circuit of the Americas this weekend would edge them closer to the third-place finish they targeted before the start of the 2021 season.
— McLaren (@McLarenF1) October 21, 2021
Sebastian Vettel needs a positive response after a series of disappointing races for the former world champion. 2021, as a whole, has been underwhelming for Aston Martin who have already shown signs of preparing for next season. The hype that came with Racing Point’s purchase by the classic British racing brand has yet to be justified. Better will be expected of them in 2022.
Aston Martin aren’t the only ones looking ahead to next year. Alfa Romeo have already a big move by luring Bottas from Mercedes for 2022, but they have still to make a decision on the future of Antonio Giovinazzi who has admitted to being unsettled by the recent speculation around his seat. At this point, every race is an audition for the Italian driver.
Haas and Williams are also racing with one eye on next year — it’s debatable whether Haas are even putting full effort into their 2021 races at this stage — and there is certainly anticipation across F1 ahead of a year which will see the sport implement fundamental changes designed to level the playing field between teams.
It is therefore ironic that as F1 prepares to alter the rulebook to make the sport less predictable, it’s least predictable season for a long time is coming to a close. There are storylines to follow all the way down the grid, but it’s the two drivers at the head of the pack who will provide the most compelling one, as they have all year long. The continuing duel between Hamilton and Verstappen is reason enough to watch.