AUSTIN, Texas — The race to the first corner at Sunday’s United States Grand Prix promises to be one of the most exciting moments of the 2021 Formula One season so far.
For just the sixth time this year, title rivals Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton will line up alongside each other on the front row of the grid and will face the biggest single-corner elevation change on the calendar as they bury the throttle on the run up towards Turn 1.
From their grid slots on the pit straight, the track rises over 100 feet to the apex of Turn 1 in a distance of just over 260 yards. As they launch themselves up the 13.5% incline, both drivers will keep the throttle pinned open, engaging one another in a high-speed game of chicken over who will brake first.
In 2015, COTA’s Turn 1 was the scene of a first-lap, wheel-banging moment between Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg as they fought for the title, but that battle was nowhere near as close as this one.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the outcome of the Turn 1 duel between Verstappen and Hamilton has the potential to pivot the championship battle this year, with just six points separating the two with six races remaining.
Of course, races are not always won on the first corner of the first lap and, as long as both drivers emerge on the exit of Turn 1 pointing in the right direction, Sunday’s grand prix has the potential to provide a full 56 laps of thrills and spills.
Tensions running high
Friday’s practice offered a tantalising dress rehearsal of what could come on Sunday as Hamilton and Verstappen scrapped for position during the second practice session. There was nothing to gain and plenty to lose in the noncompetitive hour of FP2, but neither driver was willing to back down as they emerged on the pit straight side by side and completed a thrilling — albeit entirely unnecessary — drag race to Turn 1.
Hamilton emerged as the victor by virtue of having the inside line, leaving Verstappen hung out to dry around the outside. The Red Bull driver was clearly unimpressed, calling Hamilton a “stupid idiot” over team radio and raising his middle finger at the Mercedes driver in frustration.
Max Verstappen is clearly not pleased with Lewis Hamilton and puts up his middle finger as Hamilton passes him by.
Verstappen shrugged the incident off after the session on Friday, while Hamilton, with his eyes smiling above his face mask, called it “fun and games”.
“Firstly, I didn’t run him wide, he decided to go around the outside and ended up going wide,” Hamilton said. “You can ask him, but we were battling into the last corner.
“It’s a silly thing. It’s all fun and games, we’ll have fun tomorrow, give it everything as you would expect, no real difference to any other part of the season.”
The practice incident was innocuous enough in isolation, but against the context of events this year it exposed the underlying tension between the two drivers.
Off-track relations remain cordial in news conferences and the paddock, but Verstappen and Hamilton have twice clashed on track this year at the British and Italian Grands Prix. At Silverstone, Hamilton was found to be predominantly to blame while at Monza, Verstappen was judged to be the guilty party.
After both accidents, the pair vowed to move on, but there’s a lingering feeling that this season could yet be decided by a third clash. Verstappen, however, sees no reason why it should come at COTA on the opening lap on Sunday.
“[We will approach Turn 1] like we always try, as professionals,” he said. “I don’t see why we have to keep bringing this up. It’s not like we are the only ones who have touched in the sport.
“These things happen, unfortunately. We are on the front row again and I think everyone is expecting a great race and that’s what we also expect as drivers and we just want to have a really good race.”
Hamilton, who will be at a disadvantage by starting on the unused side of the track, added: “I hope we make it through Turn 1 and have a good race. I don’t think it’s all decided at Turn 1.”
Two versus one
While Hamilton is right that the race will not hinge on the first corner, leading on lap one would certainly ease some of Mercedes’ concerns about strategy.
Starting from second, the seven-time world champion is sandwiched between two Red Bulls, with Verstappen’s teammate, Sergio Pérez, starting third. Hamilton’s teammate, Valtteri Bottas, would have started fourth but a penalty for an engine change has dropped him to ninth on the grid.
By having two cars in the fight, Red Bull has an advantage on tyre strategy, which is likely to be magnified on Sunday as most teams are expecting to pit twice rather than once.
“We know Checo [Perez] races well, and qualifying has been his struggle this year,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said. “But he’s right there, it’s the first time we’ve got two cars against one and it’s the first time in the hybrid era [since 2014] that a Mercedes hasn’t qualified on pole here, so it’s another milestone for us.
“It’s tough to follow here, so you definitely want to lead into Turn 1 — and it’s definitely going to be a grandstand start up to Turn 1 — but at least we’ve got two guys starting at the front of the field.
“If Max can see the yellow helmet of Sergio in his mirrors tomorrow, I think he’d be happier with that.”
Meanwhile, Mercedes is hoping Hamilton’s innate ability to eke life from his tyres over a race distance will help as all teams experienced overheating of the rear tyres in practice.
“This a rear-limited circuit, it’s a very rough asphalt and it is going to be very hard to keep the tyres in a happy window, because they are going to want to be on the hot side of happy,” Mercedes chief technical officer James Allison said.
“That will be the thing that will determine tomorrow’s race: the car that can keep the rear tyre intact in what will almost certainly be a nailed on two-stop race will be the car that prospers.
“The best protection [against the two Red Bulls] will be if we are swift. If we can gap the Red Bull behind, then we will get some strategic protection from that gap.
“But obviously, two against one is a better place to be, so we will have to rely on being swift.”
Sunday’s U.S. Grand Prix is live on ABC at 1.30 p.m. ET.