Verstappen vs Hamilton: A strategic insight to their US battle
In a close ending to the 2021 US Grand Prix, Max Verstappen was able to hold off Lewis Hamilton to claim his eighth win of the season.
The two championship protagonists remained in close quarters with each other both at the start of the race and towards the closing stages. In the end, the Dutchman was able to outscore his rival by six points to take his advantage up to twelve points.
Among this battle, there was also a strategic duel between Red Bull and Mercedes that contributed to a close finale in Austin. Let's break it down!
Before the race
Red Bull looked to be in a great position for the start of the race. Red Bull had their drivers starting first and third, with Hamilton sandwiched between them and Bottas down in ninth after his five-place penalty. This meant Red Bull had the ability to split their strategies with their two cars if needed to apply pressure onto Hamilton.
This would depend on two things, however. Firstly, Red Bull would needed to monitor how quickly Bottas could make his way through the field to catch up to the top three. Secondly, could Perez keep up with the inevitable pace of Verstappen and Hamilton throughout the race so that he could become a factor in this race.
The Start of the race
The start didn't work out as perfectly as Red Bull would have liked, as Hamilton was able to take the lead of the race from Verstappen heading into Turn 1. Perez had also looked to make a move on the championship leader but backed out and held third position as they approached turns three and four.
For Mercedes, this was the perfect start for them as by getting Hamilton into the lead, they would hope that the seven-time world champion could build a gap to the two cars behind to give them space to work with. Ultimately, this was not the case as Verstappen would remain within a second of Hamilton throughout the first half of the stint with Perez not too far behind either. From this, it looked like Verstappen and Red Bull had the upper hand on Mercedes in terms of race pace.
To add to Mercedes' troubles, Bottas had dropped down to tenth after being passed by Pierre Gasly's Alpha Tauri and by the end of lap five, a full pit stop behind the leaders. Because of this, it looked as if Mercedes would be fighting two Red Bulls with one Mercedes, an unusual position for the German manufacturer given that it has been the other way around in the past.
First round of pitstops
Nine laps into his stint, Verstappen remained within a second of his title rival but not in a position to overtake Hamilton. Seeing this, Red Bull decided to attempt the undercut with Verstappen on Hamilton and brought the Dutchman in on lap 10 to fit on a fresh set of hard tyres.
At first, this looked like a sticky situation for Verstappen as he came out behind the McLaren of Daniel Ricciardo and Charles Leclerc's Ferrari. Being stuck behind these two could have meant Verstappen could have lost time trying to overtake them and thus would hinder a successful undercut attempt being made.
This problem would be overcome quickly, as Verstappen quickly despatched of Ricciardo whilst Leclerc made a pit stop a few laps later and the championship leader was significantly quicker than Hamilton on the fresh set of tyres.
Four laps later, Mercedes brought Hamilton in to also pit for a set of hard tyres. However, Hamilton would lose the lead to Verstappen as the undercut proved to be successful and the British driver found himself over six seconds behind the Red Bull.
So why did Mercedes not immediately react to Verstappen's pit stop?
Presumably, they suspected that the undercut was incredibly powerful. When they saw the gap to Hamilton and the time gained, they might have known if they pitted the following lap, they would come out behind Verstappen anyways and so amended their strategy.
With the feedback from Hamilton that his tyres were good, Mercedes extended his stint so that when Hamilton made his stop, he would be able to claw all the time he lost with the fresher tyres. Although the tyre difference between Verstappen and Hamilton was only three laps after the first round of stops, this could have a significant affect on the grip and ability for each driver to push on their tyres.
Middle Phase of the race
At first, it looked as if Hamilton's three-lap tyre advantage didn't play a factor as the gap remained steady at around six seconds.
The positive news for Mercedes was that Hamilton was pulling away from the sister Red Bull of Perez as well as the rest of the field, leaving it to be a showdown between Hamilton and Verstappen for the victory.
To add to Mercedes' good news, Verstappen would eventually begin to struggle on his set of hard tyres, which enabled Hamilton to close in on the race leader. At first, it wasn't by much but as the laps went on, the gap begun to close until the Mercedes driver found himself almost two and a half second behind the Red Bull.
Acknowledging Verstappen's drop in pace and how powerful the undercut was from the first round of pitstops, Red Bull made an aggressive call.
The second pitstop
At the end of lap 29, Red Bull brought Verstappen in to put on a fresh set of hard tyres to take him until the end of the race.
The decision aided both Verstappen's pace deficit as well as protecting them from a potential undercut attempt by Mercedes. However, the second pitstop for Verstappen was much earlier than anticipated so the Dutchman would need to go a long way to keep the tyres in good shape to the end of the race.
Verstappen would come out only behind his teammate, who he quickly passed down the back straight to move himself up into second place.
Mercedes radioed into Hamilton informing their driver that they would extend their target lap to pit by an additional six laps. Once again, Mercedes chose to give up track position on the older tyres by not reacting immediately in the hopes that the tyre difference would be enough for Hamilton to take the lead back from Verstappen. Given how the gap closed with the tyres being only three laps difference between Hamilton and Verstappen, this was a very logical thought process.
Nine laps later than Verstappen, Hamilton came into the pits and changed onto a fresh set of hard tyres. He would come out nine seconds behind Verstappen, with nine laps fresher tyres.
The stage was set, would Red Bull's early pitstop reward them with a victory for Verstappen or Mercedes' fresher tyre advantage give them their third consecutive victory?
The Closing stages...
This time around, Hamilton's tyre advantage saw the gap closing to Verstappen right after the pitstop with the nine second gap beginning to close up.
Whilst Verstappen himself wasn't particularly having issues with his tyres at the time, the championship leader was unable to draw out the pace that Hamilton had despite beginning to set personal best lap times.
To add to Verstappen's problems, he would encounter traffic such as Raikkonen and Tsunoda which meant more time was lost. Of course, Hamilton also had to weave through most of this traffic but it appeared that he got through this a lot easier than Verstappen did. Once that traffic was cleared, the gap had closed to four seconds between the two.
As the race reached the final few laps, Hamilton had closed even further to almost within DRS range of Verstappen and it looked for many like it would be a fierce fight to decide the winner of the race.
However, as Hamilton got close to the Red bull, he begun to struggle in the turbulent air of Verstappen's car and begun to drop back. In particular, Hamilton's onboard saw him particularly struggling on the exit of turn 9 as the Red Bull was able to accelerate much faster out of the corner.
This became crucial as it means Hamilton was unable to get DRS to help increase his chances of passing Verstappen, making a victory tougher for the six-time US Grand Prix winner.
As well as the threat of Hamilton behind, Verstappen's last little obstacle was Mick Schumacher's Haas which was another backmarker needed to be cleared. Although this took longer than Verstappen would have wanted, as he exclaimed over his team radio, Schumacher moved out of the way of the pair.
On the final lap, Hamilton missed out on the DRS and was too far back to make a move down the two straights. This was enough for Verstappen to take the flag and win for the first time in Austin, extending his championship lead in the process.
This was an incredible duel between the two drivers and teams, one which boiled down to both driver skill alongside strategic calls. Hamilton and Verstappen drove an incredible race and the result could have easily turned the other way. In the end, track position was the decider here but no doubt in these final few races that the title fight will come down to the wire.