Posted on October 31, 2021.
Report by Tony Cotton
Anybody who has watched a “fly-on-the-wall” documentary will recognise the technique of spicing it up with some jeopardy. (“The team have run out of semi-skimmed milk for tea and have only two hours to get to the convenience store”….you know the idea.) It would be a cynic who thought that F1 owner Liberty Media would use such a ploy to raise interest in F1, yet it surprised me how often friction seemed to be present at Austin.
My first example is during the preceding week, RedBull complained about Mercedes having a “straight line device” that lowered the rear of the car – thus lowering the downforce and the induced drag. The FIA concluded that Mercedes did have such a system. But so did seven other teams, with Ferrari openly stating it had been part of their standard setup tool kit for some years. Can you use the words “RedBull”, “snooze” and “lose” in the same sentence?
A second, less technically interesting, piece of friction was when Martin Brundle approached two women in the pitlane, one a young lady whose apparently modest fame is based on shouting rhythmically and wearing lightweight clothes, while the other was a middle aged woman, who was once very good at tennis. Both brushed him off, the younger’s flamboyant publicist being particularly ignorant of MrB’s status. This garnered plenty of post race social media activity. Can you use the words “handbags”, “dawn”,“storm” and “teacup” in the same sentence?
And finally, as if working to instructions, Verstappen raised a middle finger from within the cockpit to Hamilton in P2 after a dice went wrong. A few things come to mind here. You aren’t supposed to race in practice, was there ever a chance of Hamilton seeing the gesture, and why broadcast such an embarrassing episode if not to raise the friction level?
Whatever the reasons, the race proved popular with a reported 400,000 attending over the weekend, and and hopefully many, many more in the USA via their HD media streaming services (I assume you mean the telly? – ed). And who can blame them? For the second race running, I find myself praising a modern course, which led to an exciting and enjoyable race. Not only does Austin have some great corners, openly copied from classic tracks, but it is very wide so allows different lines and hence dicing opportunities. It’s also high friction which leads to tyre wear and potentially more changes of order. Back with the cynic hat on, this means more opportunities for mistakes to be made and perhaps more opportunities for tyre strategy errors. It’s all good for the jeopardy and so good for the show.
A decision made in Q2 had long term implications for Carlos. Whilst Charles was 4th in the session using mediums, Carlos was slower in 6th using softs. They finished 5th and 6th in Q3, but with a penalty for Bottas, each moved up a grid slot. Charles was on the optimum tyre for the start, Carlos was on a tyre which was little if any faster at any point in the race but with dismal durability.
Meanwhile, the RB and Mercedes number 2s were initially ahead of their colleagues, Perez, Verstappen, Bottas, Hamilton being an interesting order. Unsurprisingly, Hamilton moved to the front on the final runs but was then jumped by Verstappen, leaving Perez in 3rd and Bottas 4th but with a penalty. Both McLarens shadowed the Ferraris, Ricciardo this time eclipsing Norris, while Gasly was an unusually low 9th ahead of Tsunoda.
Hamilton got the better start, and the wide track proved to be a benefit as he and Verstappen had a good dice without destructive contact. As Verstappen went a little off circuit, Hamilton took the lead. More interestingly to Ferrari enthusiasts, the two Maccas sandwiched Carlos into turn 12. Norris on the inside backed out because although he passed both Carlos and Ricciardo he was in danger of overshooting into the back of Charles. Ricciardo passed Carlos at turn 17, leaving Carlos 6th. He later said “It was an intense battle, with cars switching positions a lot, and in the end I let Ricciardo by, thinking it was Lando.” The mistake would, arguably, cost a place or more.
Apart from tyre changes, Charles then spent the whole race in 4th, but it was far from an easy race, mainly because of the abrasive track wearing the tyres, especially the rears. “It was definitely one of the most physical drives of my career. The rear was moving quite a lot and temperatures were high throughout. I am satisfied with my personal performance. I don’t think that I left much on the table today and I really pushed the car to its limit on every lap. Our pace was a positive surprise.”.
Carlos had just as much work but less reward. His softs were changed to hards on lap 11 and he had a good stop, soon passing Vettel to return to 6th and pressure Ricciardo. He then took another set of hards on lap 29, leaving 27 laps to go, while rival Ricciardo took his on 30. Sadly, Carlos’s stop was 3.4 seconds longer than the first which made the pursuit of the McLaren an issue. “We went for the undercut and it would have worked very nicely, overtaking him and having clean air behind Charles, but unfortunately we had a slow pit-stop and I was again stuck behind Daniel.” He did catch Ricciardo, which led to excitement on lap 43 as he tried to pass. The two cars touched slightly, the move did not come off and the front wing on the number 55 SF21 was slightly damaged. Initially Carlos was critical of the Aussie, but later accepted it in true Essere Ferarri style as a racing incident.
The ill-fated undercut attempt, or perhaps the need to change softs early on, had an effect on Carlos as his tyres were 5 laps older than those of Bottas who took the place from him 2 laps from the end, leaving him a disappointing 7th. “We had the pace to finish P5 but things didn’t go our way today. I damaged my tyres trying different lines to pass Daniel and eventually that allowed Bottas to catch us at the end. I’m frustrated because the result did not live up to the potential of our package.” Nevertheless, 7th against Norris’s lacklustre 8th and Ricciardo a place behind Charles gave the Scuderia a boost in championship points to narrow the gap to McLaren to 3.5 points.
With no relevance to high placings, Alonso had a little fight with Raikonnen, resulting in the Finn retaking position while over the white lines. This led to a call from Renault to Michael Massi complaining of the move, but couched in terms of such high sarcasm that the Renault man could clearly have a successful career as a chip-on-shoulder traffic policeman. It didn’t help the decision or, surprisingly, a later one when the loveable Spaniard was, after another spat, told to give a place back to Giovanazzi. All good fun but doubtless not encouraged by Liberty as it would just be a cheap way of raising excitement and ratings.
Tsunoda and Vettel completed the top 10.
Back with Hamstappen, the Dutchman took an early set of hards on lap 11. The RedBull is reputedly more easily tuned to high rear downforce than the Mercedes, which meant the tyres slide less and therefore wear less. It was still a brave move to change so early, an opinion clearly shared by whoever takes strategy decisions at Mercedes – probably Hamilton – who tried to stay out. However, when rather cleverly Verstappen suggested Perez be put onto new tyres, Hamilton was forced to stop on lap 13. That dropped him behind Verstappen. The next changes came on lap 29 for Verstappen and, pushing the tyres again, lap 37 for Hamilton. After a gentle warming of the tyres, Hamilton put in a stunning fastest lap, which clearly frightened RedBull. Hamilton chipped away, while Verstappen tried to keep ahead while conserving the tyres. The gap stabilised for a while, and then Hamilton had a go again. As they entered the final lap, Schumacher’s Haas was in their path but he was very professional and got out of the way. However, he gave Verstappen a DRS boost which allowed him to put a bit of clear air between himself and Hamilton and helped compensate for the older tyres. Nothing was certain until the flag, but in the end Verstappen held on to be ahead of Hamilton, with Perez in 3rd.
RedBull were generally faster than Mercedes at what is traditionally a Mercedes track, which perhaps will make the next few races interesting.
An exciting race which will hopefully help establish F1 in the USA. The tyre wear once again added to the interest, though perhaps the wide track which allowed a bit of racing and rubbing helped. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could widen all of the other tracks a bit? Or – and this may be heresy but it’s a bit more practical – could the cars be made a bit smaller?
Ferrari are showing signs of strength in being consistently best of the rest. As Mattia Binotto said ”I believe we can fight for third place all the way to the end and that we have everything in place to achieve that.” Dare we hope for something special in the closing races? Wouldn’t Championship 3rd be even better if it included a 1st place?