SCARPERIA, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 12: Pole position qualifier Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP and third placed qualifier Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing in parc ferme during qualifying for the F1 Grand Prix of Tuscany at Mugello Circuit on September 12, 2020 in Scarperia, Italy. (Photo by Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)
The American Grand Prix is back and will surely prove to be a challenge among the two title contenders. Both Hamilton and Verstappen have had podium success at COTA over the years and have given F1 fans an exciting battle this season. So, it leaves us with one question: Who will be victorious on the Austin circuit this weekend?
The Circuit of The Americas made its Formula 1 debut in 2012, being on the F1 calendar every year – apart from 2020 because of the pandemic. Lewis Hamilton has had huge success at COTA, achieving five wins (2012, 2014-2017), one fastest lap (2018) and two podiums (2018 and 2019). Hamilton is the far more experienced driver compared to Verstappen, but that isn’t to say that Max lacks talent.
Making his F1 debut in 2015, Verstappen, who was racing for Scuderia Toro Rosso Renault at the time, achieved a P4 finish at COTA. Over the years, his talent only strengthened when he signed with Red Bull in 2016. At COTA, Verstappen has reached respectable points finishes every year, except in 2016 when he had to retire from the race, but he’s yet to take the win.
Hamilton and Verstappen are two of the best racing drivers and their history at the Austin circuit promises an exciting competition this weekend. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses, but who will be more likely to achieve a podium finish?
Having won 100 Grand Prix and being a seven-time world champion, it is undeniable that Hamilton has next-level talent. With numerous wins at COTA, it is clear that Hamilton can utilise the circuit to his advantage. This season has once again shown us the Mercedes driver is good at overtaking – driving one of the best cars on the grid allows him to do this; but, from his history at the American Grand Prix, it’s clear he can be difficult to overtake as well.
Hamilton is clearly quick around COTA, having taken pole many times, but his starts seem to let him down more than he’d like. As the lights go out, his reaction times or deployment of the car, just aren’t quick enough to maintain the lead going into Turn 1. Unlike his current teammate, Valtteri Bottas, whose reaction times have been dubbed “unhuman”.
In 2016, Hamilton did start well and managed to defend his lead against his then fellow teammate, Nico Rosberg. A year later, despite losing the lead from the start to his title rival, Sebastian Vettel, Hamilton managed to outdrive the Ferrari driver to take the lead for an eventual easy victory. He used Turn 12 to his advantage when on lap 6, passing Vettel on the inside. Vettel’s teammate, Kimi Räikkönen, completed the podium as Max Verstappen just missed out (more on that below).
In 2018, it was another slow start for Lewis as Räikkönen pulled away better on softer tyres, to lead the pack going into Turn 1. History was repeating itself having to look at the back of a Ferrari once again! This time, Hamilton tried a one-stop strategy, but after his rear tyres began to blister, he was forced to pit again. The thing that Hamilton had been thwarted by is the one thing that is ultimately out of his control – tyre degradation. Hamilton eventually finished in third, running out of time to pass Verstappen as the Dutchman took second, with Räikkönen taking victory – less than 4 seconds split the top 3 in the end.
The following year in 2019, Hamilton ran Bottas wide at Turn 12, but his efforts appeared futile as the Finn raced past, aided by DRS on the long back straight. Unfortunately, history couldn’t repeat itself with a teammate battle of 3 years earlier.
This season, Verstappen has been delivering on his performance. The young talent is pushing the most successful F1 driver in history and is currently leading the world championship by six points. Since his debut in 2015, Verstappen has had ups and downs at COTA but has been consistent with points finishes, having just one DNF.
In 2016, Verstappen made a rookie error and completed a phantom pit-stop as he wrongfully thought his engineer had “boxed” him. A few laps later, Verstappen was forced to retire from the race due to a gearbox failure, which ultimately gave Mercedes an advantage of a “free” pit-stop under a virtual safety car. Despite the mechanical failure and mistake, Verstappen has proved each year that he has talent.
Whilst being ‘unlucky’ with penalties, Verstappen has shown he can make his way through the field to a strong points finish. In 2017, he qualified sixth but subsequently started P16 after receiving a grid place penalty for exceeding his quota of power unit components. As he blew past the chequered flag he thought he’d secured his place on the podium, but his slightly aggressive racing style saw him take a five-second time penalty; he tried overtaking Räikkönen on the inside of Turn 16, but was deemed to have cut the corner to get ahead.
In 2018, Verstappen showed just how much he can challenge Hamilton. After receiving a five-place grid penalty, Verstappen started P18, after qualifying P15, ahead of Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley, who were also penalised. The penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change did nothing to hinder Verstappen. As Hamilton’s one-stop strategy proved his undoing, the Dutchman managed to slice through the field and overtake Hamilton towards the end of the race, keeping him at bay to achieve his first podium finish at COTA.
Who will win in 2021?
There are only a few races left and the battle is tight. With both Hamilton and Verstappen having success at COTA over the years, it’s hard to predict who will win. They both have their strengths, but they also have their own obstacles that they’ll need to overcome. With the weekend set to be a scorcher, looking after their tyres will be a necessity and could decide the winner. In a post-race interview of COTA 2019, Hamilton spoke about Verstappen:
“I got so much respect for this kid, you know, he’s doing such a great job and he’s a champion of the future.”
So, will Verstappen extend his title lead or Hamilton regain control?
Mercedes have been dominant at COTA with 5 wins out of the last 6, but can Lewis tame the Red Bull this time out… we will have to wait and see. My personal opinion is that Lewis has shown he has pace, but Max has closed the gap – to the point one does not really exist. It is so close to call but if I had to predict a winner, it would have to be Lewis on past experience. He has proved himself at COTA, and Max is still searching for his first victory there.
Headline Image: Dan Istitene – Formula 1 via Getty Images
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