10 things we learned from F1’s 2021 United States Grand Prix

The return of the United States Grand Prix to the Formula 1 calendar was well received by a sellout crowd, who watched Max Verstappen and Red Bull deliver a timely victory. Motorsport.com picks out the key talking points as Sergio Perez again proved his worth, track limits returned to the agenda and momentum swung in the constructors' championship race

10 things we learned from F1’s 2021 United States Grand Prix

Formula 1 returned to the United States in style after a two-year absence, as title rivals Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton delighted a sell-out Austin crowd.

The Circuit of The Americas produced a compelling strategy race as Red Bull and Mercedes fought it out on the pitwall, setting up a grandstand finish that left fans on the edge of their seats.

Verstappen succeeded in pulling off Red Bull’s aggressive strategy to clinch the race win and extend his points lead, taking an important step entering the title run-in.

Here are 10 things we learned from the 2021 United States Grand Prix.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, 1st position, takes the chequered flag

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, 1st position, takes the chequered flag

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

1. Verstappen’s COTA victory was his best yet

"It's all about the last three laps," Hamilton was told by engineer Pete Bonnington. No doubt Verstappen will have heard something similar from his own team as the US Grand Prix entered its final third.

Having lost the lead to Hamilton off the line, Verstappen had to be satisfied with shadowing his title rival through the race's opening stint, sitting around a second behind before Red Bull decided to take the initiative with its bold strategy to grasp the undercut.

Verstappen shook out in the lead following the pitstops, opening a seven-second gap to Hamilton following a flurry of speedy out-laps, but the seven-time champion began to chip away at the Dutchman's advantage.

After Verstappen had got to the end of his first set of hard tyres, he called in on lap 29 for another set - giving him just under half of the race to do on a single set. What's more, Hamilton went eight laps further before stopping for a second time, yielding a significant tyre advantage. Thus, the stage was set. Verstappen held an 8.8s lead, but Hamilton began to scythe away at it as he sought to reclaim control of the 2021 championship.

PRIME: The key details the boosted Red Bull and held back Hamilton in Verstappen’s USA victory 

The Mercedes driver was asked to bring his tyres in slowly, and over the first two laps out of the pits, Verstappen's lead was only nipped down to 8.1s. Then Hamilton pulled the trigger, setting a brace of scorching tours to cut his disadvantage to 4.8s. He then began to home in on Verstappen, carefully plugging away to keep life in his tyres, and brought the gap down to 1.5s by lap 50.

But Verstappen hit back. Critically, he opened his lead to 1.9s over the next two, buying him some time. With Hamilton in DRS range by the final lap, he couldn't capitalise - and instead, Verstappen claimed the draft off the lapped Mick Schumacher. It proved enough to stave Hamilton off and win for an eighth time this year.

Mercedes' period of Austin dominance now over, Verstappen now sits with a 12-point gap atop the standings. He was made to work for victory in Texas, but Verstappen responded with one of his best drives under masses of pressure - and it's one that his title credentials could hinge on.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, leaves his pit box

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, leaves his pit box

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

2. Mercedes couldn’t match Red Bull’s strategic aggression

Mercedes sent an early warning shot by leading FP1 by almost a second on Friday in Austin, but it proved to be the high point of the weekend as rear-end struggles began to set in.

The team was unable to match Red Bull’s pace on the medium compound tyres, with Verstappen noting early in the opening stint that Hamilton was sliding around ahead of him.

Toto Wolff explained after the race that Mercedes did not think it could match Verstappen’s early stop on lap 10, prompting it to keep Hamilton out longer and to try to create a tyre delta that could allow for a fightback.

But Red Bull appeared to have Mercedes covered. The power of the undercut meant whoever came in first was always going to get track position, and Red Bull clearly had a confidence that Mercedes did not by pulling the trigger so early.

Mercedes did what it could, creating as much of a tyre delta as possible with Hamilton before pitting when his times dropped off, but it wasn’t enough. There are some important learnings for the team to do leaving Austin to understand why it wasn’t in as strong a place as Red Bull.

Red Bull team members celebrate victory at COTA

Red Bull team members celebrate victory at COTA

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

3. Red Bull has stopped Mercedes’ momentum at a crucial point

In any sport, momentum is key, and it’s perhaps even more important for the season run-in following a relentless battle. So Verstappen’s triumph at a circuit that has been something of a Mercedes stronghold in recent years - having won five of the previous six races in the hybrid era - couldn't have been better timed, and serves as further proof that the momentum has firmly swung in Red Bull's direction.

Mercedes headed across the Atlantic on good form after triumphs in Turkey and Russia, and had showed signs of continuing its US dominance in practice before Red Bull hit back in qualifying and in the race - Verstappen leading a Grand Prix for the first time since Monza, and taking his first win since Zandvoort in a bold statement for the title run-in.

With five races remaining, this momentum shift could prove a telling factor in the outcome of this year’s intense drivers’ title fight. As both camps know, momentum is much easier to continue than to get rolling from a standing start.

And for Red Bull, knowing it has the package to topple Mercedes at one of its most dependable tracks will be a very welcome psychological boost heading to Mexico, a race that has treated Verstappen well in recent years.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing, 3rd position, and Masashi Yamamoto, General Manager, Honda Motorsport, celebrate on the podium

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing, 3rd position, and Masashi Yamamoto, General Manager, Honda Motorsport, celebrate on the podium

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

4. Perez’s recent form looks like a breakthrough

Considering the illness he was fighting through race day and the fact he was without a water bottle from the first lap, Sergio Perez’s third-place finish was a massive result.

The Mexican appeared to take a competitive step forward over the Turkey weekend as he finished third, gaining confidence in his set-up direction to hold off Hamilton in the race's best battle.

That confidence continued to build in Austin as Perez led FP2 and FP3, then fought for pole before his final run in Q3 left him third on the grid.

Perez started well, backing out of a possible move to allow Verstappen to follow Hamilton through the esses, and kept pace with the lead duo through the first stint. His presence meant Mercedes couldn't afford to leave Hamilton out any longer to build a tyre offset, or he would risk being undercut by both Red Bulls.

The fact Perez kept going despite struggling with his vision and physical strength - calling it “the longest race of my life” - was testament to his growing contribution to the Red Bull team. His points haul helped Red Bull take a big chunk out of Mercedes’ constructors’ championship lead, and does look like a genuine breakthrough.

Up next is Mexico, where he will be eager to make it three podiums in a row for the first time in his F1 career and chase what would surely be the sweetest result of his career to date.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21, Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M, and Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21, Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M, and Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

5. Ferrari looks comfortably quicker than McLaren now

With the gap between the two teams now just 3.5 points, McLaren has some serious work to do in the remaining rounds if it is to keep Ferrari at bay in their ongoing battle for third in the constructors' championship.

A stellar performance from Charles Leclerc on Sunday demonstrated the leaps and bounds Ferrari have made this season, putting his SF21 across the line in fourth, 10 seconds clear of Daniel Ricciardo in fifth. Carlos Sainz Jr beat Lando Norris to seventh place, with Norris arguably having his weakest weekend of the season.

PRIME: US Grand Prix Driver Ratings 

A recent power unit upgrade seems to have aided Ferrari’s fight, with both drivers seeing an improvement in performance since its introduction. Team principal Mattia Binotto has been tight-lipped about just how much added speed it has offered, but the boost looks to have swung the balance in the constructors’ fight after McLaren appeared to seize the initiative with its 1-2 at Monza.

The orange cars need a punchy response in Mexico if it is to keep its hopes of securing third properly alive.

Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521, Kimi Raikkonen, Alfa Romeo Racing C41

Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521, Kimi Raikkonen, Alfa Romeo Racing C41

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

6. Drivers are pushing off-track passes to the limit

The fact Formula 1 race director Michael Masi has called for a meeting with drivers to discuss gaining positions while off the race track alludes to the biggest flashpoint in Sunday’s race.

Fernando Alonso was left baffled by a “strange” call from stewards that allowed Kimi Raikkonen to keep a position after the Finn used the kerbs on the outside of Turn 1 to overtake the Spaniard.

To make matters worse for Alonso - who has been vocal about stewarding this season - a number of drivers including himself had been told to give positions back for similar manoeuvres.

After the race, Masi claimed the call for Raikkonen not to cede the spot was “marginal” as it could be argued Alonso forced his rival off the road in this case.

“I can understand his [Alonso’s] frustration,” said Masi. “The call in regards to him and Kimi at Turn 1 was certainly marginal.

“We certainly will have a discussion at the next drivers' meeting with all of the drivers about it, because I think there was two parts to the story.”

What is clear is that drivers were certainly pushing overtaking moves to the limit during the race and the rules need to be outlined in black and white for the future.

George Russell, Williams FW43B, battles with Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin AMR21

George Russell, Williams FW43B, battles with Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin AMR21

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

7. Mercedes’ engine concerns could hurt its customer teams too

After the high of scoring his first win of the season in Turkey, Valtteri Bottas was brought back to earth with a bump in Austin thanks to another grid penalty induced by Mercedes unreliability.

The Finn's third grid drop in four races - after taking penalties at Monza and Sochi - for taking a sixth engine of the season meant Perez's third place didn't come under threat, allowing Red Bull to close its advantage in the constructors' championship to 23 points.

Wolff was moved to deny that the departure of former Mercedes High Performance Powertrains boss Andy Cowell last year was a contributing factor in its current malaise - which Red Bull's Christian Horner was moved to describe as “very unusual”, Mercedes having been the benchmark in reliability since the turbo hybrid regulations were introduced for 2014 - but he did concede that the problems were also impacting on customer squads McLaren, Aston Martin and Williams too.

“We are hanging on for dear life in supplying all customers, and that is not trivial,” he said.

Engine penalties also affected Sebastian Vettel and George Russell in Austin, the former fighting from the back to finish tenth when Aston needs to start scoring big if it is to overhaul sixth-placed AlphaTauri in the constructors' standings.

Mercedes greatest concern will be that more engine problems hamper Hamilton's title tilt and its push to continue a streak of constructors' titles dating back to 2014. But its customers may also face unwanted issues in the races ahead as a consequence.

Fans in a grandstand take photos

Fans in a grandstand take photos

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

8. F1’s breakthrough in the US market was clear to see

Some 140,000 fans packed into the Circuit of the Americas to watch Sunday’s grand prix, with a record 400,000 attendees across the weekend – 51 per cent up on 2018 – making it a big weekend for F1 in one of its most coveted markets.

The growth of F1 is not just seen in the ticket sales. ESPN, which screens races in the United States, said the 2021 season is averaging 931,000 viewers a race - 53% higher than last season’s average and 40% higher than 2019. This growth must, in part, be credited to Netflix’s Drive to Survive series, which proved a runaway success with both existing fans and newcomers alike.

OPINION: Why Netflix’s creative licence is a small price for F1 to pay

Traditionally not as popular in the US as IndyCar or NASCAR, F1 has looked across the Atlantic for a growth in audience, with an added American race in Miami for 2022, as well as talks of a third US round, further evidence of its boom.

Las Vegas has been touted as a possible third venue, while famous American racing marque Andretti is currently in talks to buy a majority stake in the company that owns the Alfa Romeo team.

As Austin proved, F1’s momentum in the US is building at a faster rate than ever.

Martin Brundle, Sky TV

Martin Brundle, Sky TV

Photo by: Drew Gibson / Motorsport Images

9. Grid walks were back to their chaotic best

For the first time since 2019, following the pandemic-influenced hiatus of our most treasured customs, Martin Brundle was once again able to embark on his famous gridwalk for Sky F1 - and boy, was it back to its chaotic best.

In the 24 years that Brundle has been weaving his way through the grid's great and good with only a microphone and a cameraman in tow, there has been a hatful of memorable moments that will forever remain part of F1 folklore. Fittingly, the gridwalk's return at Austin added two new incidents to the Brundle blooper reel, aided by the scores of celebrities all hanging around the start-finish straight.

Brundle approached tennis royalty Serena Williams twice: on the first, the 23-time Grand Slam winner was evasive, and awkwardly ambled to one side - and on the second, the normally persistent Brundle was served colder shoulder to put him off waving the microphone under her nose. “It's a double-fault,” Brundle quipped, who then had to contend with the overzealous entourage of rap artist Megan Thee Stallion.

Strangely enough, Megan seemed game enough to talk, as she and Brundle shared a brief conversation about the possibility of a rap about Formula 1 (Martin, let's not be giving Liberty any ideas...).

But before Brundle had a chance to load his next question into the chamber, he was pushed away by a sour-faced member of Megan's cortège from behind. Resembling a bargain-bin Draco Malfoy, he moaned to Brundle that he couldn't just go around and interview whomever he wanted. “I can do that, because I did,” Brundle deadpanned as the sycophant scurried away.

In TV terms, it was hilarious - and they'll forever be fixtures in the 360p-rendered “funny F1 moments” videos peppering the vast recesses of YouTube. But it's sad that a small handful of celebrities (or, in the second case, their people) aren't willing to engage with everything that F1 is, especially as the VIP tickets come free. Happily, basketball legends Shaquille O'Neal and Chris Bosh were more than obliging to jump through a few hoops for TV.

McLaren fans

McLaren fans

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

10. Fan survey result show F1’s approach is paying off

One of the biggest talking points of the Austin race weekend was the results of F1’s latest global fan survey commissioned by Motorsport Network in partnership with F1 and Nielsen Sports.

More than 167,000 fans in 187 different countries completed the survey and gave their views on the current state of F1, as well as picking their favourite drivers and teams.

Max Verstappen topped the driver vote, while McLaren was comfortable voted as F1 fans’ favourite team thanks to the combined popularity of Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo.

Both Norris and Ricciardo polled strongly among young fans, which spoke to the particular growth F1 has enjoyed. The overall audience has become younger - average age of fan is 32, compared to 36 in 2017 - and more diverse, which is hugely encouraging for F1.

F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali called it “the most encouraging and the most important push that we need to keep in our wave to the future”, taking heart from the fact the changes made under Liberty were clearly having the desired effect: “It’s good to see that the vibes and the feeling we are having are confirmed by this research.”

There has been a growing positivity around F1 in recent years, but to have the data to back it up is a huge boost for the series, giving it a platform to work from and build on.

By Jake Boxall-Legge, Luke Smith, Tom Howard, Megan White and James Newbold

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing, Mick Schumacher, Haas F1, and other drivers in the drivers parade

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing, Mick Schumacher, Haas F1, and other drivers in the drivers parade

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

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