Max Verstappen kept a charging Lewis Hamilton behind to hold on for a crucial win in an absorbing, topsy-turvy United States GP in Austin – extending his title lead to 12 points.
The two title rivals finished only a second apart in an engrossing race, which saw both of them lead at different times, with split strategies leading to a thrilling conclusion on Sunday.
Sergio Perez rounded off the podium, with Charles Leclerc running a lonely yet sterling race to take P4, with Daniel Ricciardo rounding out the top five.
Anticipation was high at a sellout Circuit of The Americas in the Texan sun, with the two title contenders lining up alongside each other on the front row for the seventh time this season.
And the start saw Hamilton get the much better getaway of the two and, while Verstappen came across the track to try and cut off his rival, the open apex at Turn 1 allowed the Mercedes driver to get through the first corner in the lead.
The Red Bull ran wide and had to be careful as he came back on track, leaving Hamilton in front. Game on.
There was plenty of action behind them too, with Ricciardo, Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris all trading places on the first lap, with the McLaren of Ricciardo managing to crucially get past his Ferrari rival on the first lap.
At the back, there was contact between the two Canadians as Nicholas Latifi and Lance Stroll tangled at Turn 1, with the Aston Martin being spun around as a result.
The top three started galloping away from the rest of the pack early on, as Hamilton dropped Leclerc in P4 by 10 seconds in the first five laps alone.
Valtteri Bottas’ grid penalty looked especially damaging from his point of view, though, having remained stuck in the midfield and unable to support Hamilton in the way Perez was able to do for Verstappen.
The Dutchman was getting a handy slipstream from his World Championship rival, and Hamilton was heard on team radio admitting Verstappen was quicker than him in the early stages – although the Red Bull kept the gap steady within the Mercedes’ DRS range.
But having felt confident on his tyres, Verstappen rolled the dice to and attempted an undercut by stopping for hard tyres on lap 10. He came out behind Ricciardo and Leclerc, but he was able to make light work of them and get back into position behind Hamilton – lapping over a second per lap faster than the Mercedes on older rubber in front.
This prompted Hamilton to pit three laps later, with the undercut having the desired effect as Verstappen took the lead and earned a six-second gap to boot. Advantage, Red Bull.
Hamilton then kept the margin steady behind his rival, as he looked to extend the life of his tyres rather than use too much grip in pursuit of the Red Bull.
Away from the battle for the win, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen made contact as they ran side-by-side into Turn 1, with the Alfa Romeo emerging in front of the Alpine.
Elsewhere, Bottas passed Stroll and Yuki Tsunoda as he tried to work his way back up the field as we headed towards the middle of the race.
At the front, Hamilton’s newer tyres began to allow him to pull back towards the race leader, getting back to within three seconds of Verstappen as the Red Bull driver complained that his rear tyres were starting to drop away from him.
In the sister Red Bull, Perez hit trouble as his car’s drink system failed him – hardly ideal on a hot day in Austin – and he was becoming an increasingly insignificant factor in his role as Verstappen’s back-up, as Hamilton extended his strategy to try and get a pit stop’s gap ahead of the Mexican.
Max makes his second pit stop on lap 30 and Lewis is told “target plus six”.
— PlanetF1 (@Planet_F1) October 24, 2021
Then, a key moment came. On lap 30 of 56, Verstappen pitted again while Hamilton was asked to extend his strategy by six laps.
This would offer the Red Bull immediate track position, but how the Mercedes would respond would eventually become an integral part of how the race strategies would play out in an engrossing United States Grand Prix.
Verstappen’s fresh tyres meant he was reeling the Briton in on track, and at the end of lap 37, Hamilton made his move.
He pitted for a set of hards, Mercedes nailed a 2.4-second stop, and Hamilton came out with an eight-second deficit, and 18 laps of racing for him to reel in his World Championship rival. This was where the race to the line began.
After being told initially to warm his tyres up gently, the reigning World Champion started to put his foot down. He closed Verstappen down by almost seconds within two laps as the Red Bull was slow to get past lapped traffic.
Elsewhere, Sainz and Ricciardo were doing battle for P5 on track, and the two touched as the Ferrari driver tried to find his way around the outside of the Australian at Turn 14, with the Spaniard accusing his rival of forcing him wide deliberately.
But all eyes were fixed firmly on the top two, however. Hamilton had closed the gap down to 2.5 seconds with 10 laps to go, and Verstappen was advised to prioritise getting a solid exit out of the hairpin of Turn 11, leading onto the long stretch down to Turn 12 – where Mercedes have had a straight-line speed advantage all weekend long.
The two title rivals could see each other closely, but the turbulent air coming from the back of the Red Bull began to slow Hamilton’s progress, as Verstappen managed to match the Mercedes for consecutive laps, meaning time was running out for Hamilton to make a move.
Mercedes told Hamilton earlier on that it would come down to the last three laps, and at that time, he edged ever closer to DRS range.
However, Verstappen drove brilliantly to keep his nose in front and keep the gap just above that crucial window, and managed to keep Hamilton at bay to open up his Drivers’ Championship advantage to 12 points, with the Mercedes driver taking the fastest lap point.
1 Max Verstappen Red Bull 1:34:36.552 2 stops
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1.333s 2 stops
3 Sergio Perez Red Bull 42.223s 2 stops
4 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 52.246s 2 stops
5 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren 76.854s 2 stops
6 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 80.128s 2 stops
7 Carlos Sainz Ferrari 83.545s 2 stops
8 Lando Norris McLaren 84.395s 2 stops
9 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri 1 LAP 2 stops
10 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin 1 LAP 2 stops
11 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Racing 1 LAP 2 stops
12 Lance Stroll Aston Martin 1 LAP 2 stops
13 Kimi Raikkonen Alfa Romeo Racing 1 LAP 2 stops
14 George Russell Williams 1 LAP 2 stops
15 Nicholas Latifi Williams 1 LAP 2 stops
16 Mick Schumacher Haas 2 LAPS 2 stops
17 Nikita Mazepin Haas 2 LAPS 3 stops
R Esteban Ocon Alpine
R Fernando Alonso Alpine
R Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri
Are we watching a season for the ages?
Round 17 of the World Championship is upon us. How will this one go?