Despite Sergio Perez and Max Verstappen’s blossoming partnership, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas remain confident, writes Mika Häkkinen.
What a weekend! The United States Grand Prix delivered in every way – a great race, massive crowd and a feeling Formula One is finally coming out of 18 difficult months caused by the global pandemic.
I was impressed to see how much Formula One is growing in America and the enthusiasm the fans have for our sport.
They were given a demonstration of why Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen are the title contenders at the moment. Both guys pushing hard all race, running different two-stop strategies, which meant tire usage was critical. Austin is hard on tires, even the hard compound tires need to be looked after, so the sensitivity of the driver is all-important.
If Max had pushed too hard after his second stop, Lewis would have had no problem catching him in the final laps, but the Red Bull driver has matured a lot and paced himself perfectly. It’s not easy to back off when you know the guy behind is catching you, but saving the tires was critical.
After lap 50, when Lewis closed the gap to almost one second, Max managed to push it back open for two or three laps. That was a key moment, and although Lewis kept pushing until the chequered flag, he realised Max had timed his strategy perfectly.
???? @LewisHamilton's brilliant getaway, to snatch first place at Turn 1…
— Formula 1 (@F1) October 25, 2021
It was so interesting to watch how the weekend developed. After first practice it looked like Mercedes had a good advantage over the Red Bull-Hondas, although the World Champions admitted their engines were turned up. As the track evolved and the effects of the bumpy circuit demanded some setup changes, the picture changed.
Max’s pole lap was a sign that he and his car did have the pace needed to beat Mercedes, but Lewis made such a great start that the pole advantage was lost into Turn 1. It’s just brilliant to see these two guys fighting wheel-to-wheel with incredibly tight margins involved.
It was also a strong weekend for Max’s team-mate Sergio Perez, who looked like he might take pole position. Although he started third, he was able to put enough pressure on Lewis to force him to make his first pitstop slightly earlier in order to avoid the undercut. Ultimately Sergio fell back, not helped by a drinks bottle that was not working – that made life difficult for him towards the end of the race. On a hot day, dehydration is not ideal when racing in F1!
Max now has a 12.5 point lead over Lewis with five races remaining. While that’s important, a single non-finish caused by an accident or mechanical failure could swing the World Championship one way or the other. This is far from over, and both teams and drivers know that.
MAX VERSTAPPEN IS BACK TO WINNING WAYS! ????
— Formula 1 (@F1) October 24, 2021
The fight between McLaren and Ferrari for third place in the World Championship for Constructors is even closer. Just 3.5 points separate them, and with Charles Leclerc finishing fourth ahead of Daniel Ricciardo, and Carlos Sainz seventh ahead of Lando Norris, Ferrari scored some important extra points on Sunday.
Ricciardo is in much better shape at this point of the season compared to early in the year when he was struggling a little. The win in Monza has made a difference and in Austin it was clear he has a lot more confidence in the car. The battle between him, Lando and the two Ferrari drivers is going to be incredibly close as we head into the final five Grands Prix.
Next stop is Mexico – a circuit that should suit Red Bull due to its configuration. It is also the home event for Sergio Perez and the Mexican fans are looking forward to seeing their hero in a race-winning car running at the front.
Sergio’s performance in this next race will again play an important strategic role for Max, but I know Lewis and Valtteri Bottas remain confident there will be more opportunities for victories this year. It’s a championship that has produced some major surprises and we will see some more before we reach Abu Dhabi in mid-December.