Sainz vs Verstappen and Red Bull’s title charge – What To Watch For in the US Grand Prix
From a Ferrari vs Red Bull fight on the front row to Charles Leclerc out of position; and from Mercedes looking threatening to a title that could be won, we’ve picked out some key areas to keep an eye on when the lights go out at the Circuit of The Americas…
1. Sainz vs Verstappen
The drivers’ championship might have been settled last time out in Japan but that doesn’t mean there will be any less of an edge to the racing between the drivers as Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen line-up on the front row on Sunday.
Sainz is going after just the second victory of his career, after securing his third ever pole position.
The last time he started on pole was in Belgium where he finished third behind the dominant Red Bull pair, but on this occasion there’s only Verstappen to worry about at the front of the grid and a much closer performance spread between Ferrari and Red Bull.
The challenge for Ferrari has been tyre wear in recent races and Sainz will know that keeping the lead on the opening lap will be crucial, because if he can manage the pace and keep Verstappen behind then he has a better chance of compensating if tyres become a weakness once again.
2. The Mercedes threat
As exciting as the front row is, you don’t have to look far for a threat to Sainz and Verstappen, with Mercedes locking out the second row. Granted, both drivers have been promoted a row by the grid penalties at Ferrari and Red Bull, but the gap from Lewis Hamilton to pole was just 0.6s and could have been closer, but he didn’t improve on his final run after a slow first sector.
Mercedes have had a tendency to struggle to match Ferrari and Red Bull over one lap but are often closer in the race, and with an upgraded car getting its first outing in Austin they will be hoping that the same is true at the Circuit of The Americas.
Both Hamilton and Russell are likely to be less concerned about the immediate threat from behind given the way the grid has shaped up this weekend, so they can both be aggressive trying to attack Sainz and Verstappen if they get the chance, as they go in search of Mercedes’ first win of the season.
3. Leclerc on a charge
Sergio Perez has a big task on his hands to give the large Mexican contingent in the crowd what would be a popular victory as he has a five-place grid penalty for changing power unit components, but it’s even tougher for Charles Leclerc to delight the Ferrari fans as a new internal combustion engine (ICE) and turbocharger (TC) see him take a grid drop of 10 positions.
While the downside is the fact that Leclerc has to fight his way through the field to try and get into the battle at the front, the trade-off is that the Monegasque has a fresh Ferrari power unit that can be run more aggressively than an older engine in order to try and help with that attempt. And COTA is a track that you can overtake on, especially if you have good straight-line speed.
Leclerc has never been on the podium at Circuit of the Americas – finishing fourth on two occasions – and while he hasn’t won since the Austrian Grand Prix back in July, he is currently on a row of four straight podium finishes, so keep an eye on his attempts to reach the top three on Sunday, because he’s going to need to put on a show if he’s to manage it.
4. Red Bull’s title permutations
It was a sombre mood at Red Bull on Saturday evening following the sad news that the team’s owner Dietrich Mateschitz had passed away at the age of 78. Team principal Christian Horner paid tribute to the Austrian, and admitted it gives them even more motivation to try and win the constructors’ championship for Mateschitz this weekend.
The equation is relatively simple: Red Bull need to score 26 points to be champions, because that would stop Ferrari outscoring them by the required 19 points. That works out as a third and fourth place finish being enough for Red Bull even behind a Ferrari one-two, so it’s not out of the question.
Similarly, if a Red Bull driver wins the race they will be champions whatever else happens, because the most Ferrari can then outscore them by is nine points (even with a double podium and fastest lap).
It might feel inevitable but it will be a significant moment even without the context of Mateschitz’s passing, as it will being to an end Mercedes run of never having been beaten in the constructors’ championship since the V6 turbo era started in 2014.
5. Big points on offer for midfielders
Red Bull are not the only team thinking they could score a big constructors’ championship result this weekend either, as both Aston Martin and McLaren are in a very strong spot after qualifying.
Lance Stroll set his one and only Q3 lap with a clear track in the middle of the session to secure the seventh quickest time, and Lando Norris squeezed through after Zhou Guanyu had his best Q2 lap deleted, but then ended up right behind Stroll.
With grid penalties, they will line up fifth and sixth respectively, and with Sebastian Vettel in tenth it gives Aston Martin a big chance to try and jump ahead of Alfa Romeo for sixth in the constructors’ standings after a very productive second half of the season. The gap at present is seven points, but Valtteri Bottas does start from seventh to try and defend the position for the Sauber-run team.
Norris is leading the way for McLaren with team mate Daniel Ricciardo mixing it directly with the two Alpine drivers further back, as Fernando Alonso’s grid penalty sees him start 14th and Esteban Ocon a surprise Q1 casualty, so the 13-point gap between those two teams could close up too.