U.S. GP diary: Verstappen snubs Netflix, Hamilton gets locked in his room

AUSTIN, Texas — The U.S. Grand Prix is back this week at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas, one of the most popular venues on the current Formula One calendar.

With the 2020 event cancelled due to the pandemic, COTA has pulled out all the stops to make this year’s event a memorable one. The Austin race remains one of the drivers’ favourites, as an event and as a race venue.

So much happens in the days preceding a race weekend — here we will bring you the inside scoop from the paddock and shine a light on some of the smaller stories that might otherwise get drowned out throughout the build-up.

Leclerc’s travel exemption denied

Even F1 drivers run into travel issues occasionally, it turns out.

Charles Leclerc has been enjoying himself in America since arriving, taking in the opening game of the NBA season between the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets. On Thursday, the media day ahead of Sunday’s race, the Ferrari driver revealed his NBA trip was actually a spot of improvisation.

While trying to leave France’s Nice airport last week, Leclerc was stopped from boarding by an overzealous member of staff, who did not accept his National Interest Exemption (NIE) which everyone involved in F1 this weekend requires to travel to America. Leclerc saw the funny side at the time, posting to social media that he had ended up in New York after catching the wrong plane.

“It was just one guy at the airport of Nice that for some reason didn’t really know what an NIE was, and I got stuck there,” Leclerc said.

“He only realised one minute before closing the flight that the NIE was OK, but I didn’t have my passenger locator form, so I had to stay in Nice.

“But anyway, it’s no big deal. With the same papers I could take a plane to New York, which helped me visiting this city for the first time.”

Leclerc used the opportunity to take in the opening game of the NBA season.

“It was very cool, it wasn’t actually planned,” Leclerc said about his NBA trip.

“My NIE hadn’t been accepted at the airport, so I couldn’t take the original flight, so we changed the flight and went to New York last minute.

“I managed to spend one day in New York — which was my first time, which was incredible, what a city. I really, really enjoyed it.

“And then I went to Milwaukee for the first NBA match of the season, which was crazy with the ceremony of the rings too.

“Just an amazing experience.”

Verstappen’s Netflix snub

Netflix’s wildly popular Drive to Survive series faces the prospect of not having the insight of one of the two protagonists of the F1 title fight in its series on the 2021 Formula One season, with championship leader Max Verstappen opting not to give interviews to the show going forward.

Verstappen, who a survey of more than 167,000 fans published Thursday was named as F1’s most popular driver, believes the series has portrayed him as a villain in previous years and created false rivalries between drivers. He has previously complained about how it covered his collision with then-Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo at the 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

“I understand that it needs to be done to boost the popularity in America. But from my side as a driver, I don’t like being part of it,” Verstappen told the Associated Press ahead of the U.S. Grand Prix.

“They faked a few rivalries, which they don’t really exist. So I decided to not be a part of it and did not give any more interviews after that because then there is nothing you can show.

“I am not really a dramatic show kind of person, I just want facts and real things to happen.”

Hamilton gets locked in his room

Lewis Hamilton was late for his press conference appearance on Thursday in Austin, but came armed with a good excuse.

The Mercedes driver, who has won at the Circuit of the Americas five times, was getting ready for the press conference in Mercedes’ hospitality when the door to his room slammed shut and locked from the outside.

“It’s good to be back,” he said after taking his seat mid press conference. “Sorry I am late! I got locked in my room. I couldn’t get out. No joke.”

Once seated, Hamilton said he had been impressed by F1’s rise in the U.S.A. in recent years.

“I think we already knew from the beginning there was huge potential here. My first here in the US was 2007, but I’ve already been to a NASCAR race, seeing how it is, been to an NFL game, an NBA game, they’re crazy about sports over here and there’s never enough sports, they always want more, more action.

“The progress that I have seen over these years has been huge. Obviously, of course, in these past couple of years, it’s been the steepest rise. More and more people are talking about it, more and more people are engaging.

“The amount of emails and messages I get from people that I’ve known for years in the States but never knew what I was doing and are now hooked and can’t wait to come. I think a lot of them are coming this weekend. I think that’s only good, it’s a good thing and it’s great to see the response.”

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