Fast and furious Max pulls ahead in title race

In Mexico City, Verstappen coasted to victory 16 seconds ahead of the pursuing pack and increased his lead over Lewis Hamilton to 19 points. Red Bull is now just one point behind Mercedes in the constructors’ battle.

Standout performance: Leader of the Red Bull driver Max Verstappen, of Netherlands, jumps off his car after winning the Mexican Grand Prix at the Hermanos Rodriguez racetrack in Mexico City.   -  AP

Ahead of the twin races in the United States and Mexico City, Max Verstappen and Red Bull were on the back foot without a win for three races as Mercedes stepped up its game in terms of performance despite Lewis Hamilton losing his lead of the title race to Verstappen after the Turkish GP.

The North American leg was set to play a crucial role in how the championship battle evolved and at the end of it, Verstappen and Red Bull managed to cement their hold on the title lead with two brilliant wins in completely contrasting styles.

The US GP was a microcosm of the 2021 season in the year-long battle between the protagonists Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen.

The race in Austin saw the fortunes swing between both drivers through the course of the weekend with very little to separate the two.

Going into the weekend, Mercedes and Hamilton were favoured to do well in this track but it was Verstappen who took the pole.

Wave of pride: Red Bull’s Mexican driver Sergio Perez, right, celebrates finishing on the podium in his home Grand Prix with teammate and race winner Max Verstappen.   -  AFP

 

However, Hamilton seized the advantage at the start by taking the lead of the race as Verstappen had a poor getaway and had to thank his Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez, who was behind him, for not losing more than one place.

But from the start, it was clear that Verstappen had the pace advantage over Hamilton but he couldn’t get close without the turbulent air hurting his tyres.

This prompted Red Bull to do an aggressive pit-stop for Verstappen on lap 11 and under-cut Hamilton by using fresh tyres to set quick times and gain track position when Hamilton eventually pitted.

Mercedes was aware of the tactic and ready to play the long game by giving track position and running longer with the hopes of attacking towards the end of the race.

But Red Bull had an ace up their sleeve and asked Perez to pit on lap 13, forcing Hamilton to stop earlier than he would have wanted on lap 14 so as not to lose another position to the Mexican.

In the second stint, Verstappen had overused his tyres to gain track position from Hamilton and had to pit again on lap 29 while Hamilton was able to run up to lap 38 before his second stop.

When he rejoined, Hamilton was nine seconds behind Verstappen and on much fresher tyres with about 19 laps to go. In the first few laps, Hamilton quickly cut into Verstappen's lead, taking chunks of time. But as they say in Formula One, catching up to a driver is one thing, passing is another.

In his pursuit of clawing back the deficit, Hamilton overused his tyres a bit and did not have enough of a pace advantage over Verstappen to get any closer without the dirty air from the Red Bull affecting him through the high-speed corners.

The Dutchman, meanwhile, had preserved his tyres well and had enough life in them to use it for defence and was able to keep the Briton at bay by 1.3 seconds. When the chequered flag fell, he extended his championship lead to 12 points. Perez finished third, giving a boost to Red Bull’s constructors’ title hopes.

From Austin, the F1 circus travelled south to Mexico City. It was a track in which Red Bull and Verstappen have done well historically, winning the race in 2017 and 2018.

But in a surprising turn of events, Valtteri Bottas took the pole for Mercedes, ahead of teammate Lewis Hamilton. Verstappen and home hero Perez were third and fourth on the grid.

Despite the impressive qualifying performance from Mercedes, Verstappen and Perez knew they had the pace advantage and it boiled down to the start.

The run to turn one is one of the longest on the calendar and starting third was not a bad thing here as the long straight allows a driver to slipstream past the drivers ahead. And just like that, Verstappen quickly breezed past the slow-starting Bottas and was late on the brakes to pip Hamilton into the lead.

At the same time, Bottas was hit by Daniel Ricciardo from behind, forcing the safety car to come out. When racing resumed on lap five, Verstappen left Hamilton in his tracks as he timed the restart to perfection and quickly set a series of fast laps to build a commanding lead to which the reigning champion had no answer.

From there on, the race win was largely uncontested with Hamilton fighting hard to stay ahead of Perez in third. The Mexican driver put the Briton under constant pressure and had a chance to undercut — pit a lap earlier and jump him, but Mercedes had wisened up and stopped Hamilton on lap 29.

This meant Perez, who is known for his good tyre management skills, opted to go long on his first stint and run till lap 40 to come back at Hamilton towards the end of the race on fresher tyres.

With the crowd goading him, the Mexican did his best to reel the ten-second deficit but traffic due to backmarkers towards the end of the race meant Perez fell short, just like Hamilton did in Austin chasing Verstappen.

At the front, Verstappen coasted to victory 16 seconds ahead of the pursuing pack and increased his lead to 19 points. Red Bull is now just one point behind Mercedes in the constructors’ battle.

While the gap is slender with four races to go, Red Bull and Verstappen are now firm favourites going into the remaining rounds.