Austin Takeaways: Verstappen's hard earned 50th

Austin Takeaways: Verstappen’s hard earned 50th

Austin Takeaways: Verstappen's hard earned 50th

Max Verstappen took his 50th Formula 1 career win last weekend in Austin, but it was far from easy for the Red Bull ace who had to put his nose to the grindstone to secure this one.

Another milestone in the bag for Verstappen, who now joins an elite club in F1 that includes the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost, and Sebastian Vettel – all drivers who have won 50 or more F1 races.

But the Dutchman was under pressure all weekend, especially in qualifying and the Sprint shootout, where Charles Leclerc in the Ferrari, Lando Norris in the McLaren, and Lewis Hamilton in the upgraded Mercedes gave him a run for his money.

Indeed, the triple F1 Champion cracked under that pressure in qualifying on Friday and had his best lap deleted for exceeding track limits, which meant he started the race from sixth.

In the Sprint shootout, he bounced back but not by much. He was on pole but only 0.055s faster than Leclerc and 0.069s faster than Hamilton.

However on race pace, Verstappen was still on it, beating Hamilton in the Sprint by over nine seconds, a gap he built over the second half of the 19-lap event, but brake issues on Sunday meant it was a tough day in the office for him, which makes his win from sixth even more impressive.

So let’s have a look at what the Lone Star State offered us last weekend, out Takeaways from the 2023 United States Grand Prix.

Are Red Bull’s rivals catching up?

Austin was by far the most challenging weekend for Max Verstappen and Red Bull, but the supreme form they have been in for a while now, meant they could walk away with wins in both the Grand Prix and the Sprint, despite not having a comfortable gap to their rivals.

This meant no mistakes were allowed, and while brake issues on Verstappen’s car on Sunday were a nasty surprise, the team delivered a proper race management to give their triple Champion his 15th win in 2023.

That doesn’t mean Verstappen did not drive the wheels off his car, he did, and against some tough competition on a weekend when the RB19 was not at its best, while its counterparts from rival teams showed improvement.

Ferrari were great in qualifying form, but then tripped on strategy and race pace, the SF-23 still chewing up its tyres, and while McLaren’s MCL60 did not enjoy the Circuit of the Americas that much, Lando Norris wrung its neck to finish on the podium on Sunday.

As for Mercedes, the new floor fitted to their W14 made Hamilton a happy bunny, and he was on a different level compared to George Russell who wasn’t on it last weekend.

But does that mean Red Bull are now under threat from their rivals? Hardly, and Hamilton gave the best explanation when he said: “We are bringing upgrades and they [Red Bull] are just chilling.”

Red Bull, especially after they secured both Championships are not developing their RB19 and Adrian Newey is now working on making sure the RB20 is an even more formidable racing machine.

That doesn’t mean Mercedes, McLaren, and Ferrari have not improved. They did but not in a way to threaten Red Bull’s throne, not yet though.

This means, though, that 2024 will be an interesting season, when we find out if Red Bull can produce an even better car, and if their rivals can finally give them some serious challenge from the beginning of the season.

Mercedes’ final major upgrade

Hamilton: Disqualification doesn't take away from progress made

Mercedes brought a new floor to their W14 for the weekend in Austin, and Hamilton was fast out of the box in it despite having one practice session to get acclimated to it, something Russell failed to do.

And while Mercedes seemed to have nailed their new floor, we cannot be sure that they have made a breakthrough, as since they changed their car concept in Monaco, their form has been fluctuating, and there is no reason why this wouldn’t be the case in the final upcoming races.

While Mercedes binned their slim sidepod design, their W14 was designed and built for it, and its underpinnings have not changed because that would’ve meant building a totally new car which is not possible with the F1 cost cap these days.

Needless to say, ever since James Allison re-took over the day to day running of the technical department at Mercedes, the team have improved, but were still lacking consistency.

However, until Mercedes build a new car with a new philosophy from scratch next year, a car fully created under Allison’s watch, we can never really judge whether the eight-time F1 Constructors’ Champions have really recovered from their rough patch.

A mundane Austin Sprint

After the exciting Sprint race we had in Qatar, we were kind of hoping that we could get another cracking one in Austin, and maybe, just maybe we would just start to find out the merits of this format.

But the Sprint in Austin was another mundane affair, which the teams probably used as a practice session to understand their cars and the tyres in preparation for the race, keeping in mind they had only one practice session to get their cars sorted.

But let’s talk about the elephant in the room, which is F1’s claim they introduced Sprint weekends to make the show more exciting which translates into “Show Me The Money” in Liberty Media’s language, but ironically, the Sprint did not boost the attendances in COTA according to its Chairman Bobby Epstein.

“It didn’t help,” Epstein said of the Sprint, quoted by Motorsport.com. “It’s a surprise.

“You have to decide at what point are people coming for the event, which I think our fans are coming for the event, as much as they are for the sport. So, I think it still remains to be seen whether the sprint race is something the fans are embracing, or it’s more controversial.

“You’ve got people that are proponents of it and advocates, and you have others that say I like it the way it was. It’s still an experiment at this point,” he added.

And responding to suggestions that Verstappen and Red Bull’s dominance turned people off, and asked how to pinpoint which was the reason, Epstein said: “You probably can’t, but one didn’t outweigh the other enough.

“I guess the only way to say it is that when Sunday is still as strong as it was last year, that probably answers the question that you asked.

“Why is Sunday still so strong if it’s the Max factor that affects the attendance? I’d say ‘well, I passed that test [in strong Sunday sales] and now I’m saying, part two is Saturday this year was a little bit less than Saturday last year, and yet we have a sprint race this year. So that’s the only thing that moved,” he explained.

A simple explanation is that people do not have time to watch F1 on Friday, they’re still working, and even if you have qualifying then, they won’t be able to watch it or follow it, let alone go to the track.

But again, who are we, the average Joes, who watched F1 passionately for years to have a say on this…

Quick Hits

Hamilton and Leclerc disqualified from United States GP

  • A tough one for Hamilton and Leclerc – that disqualification thing – but the rules are the rules, and the fact the teams did not contest them shows that.
  • Oscar Piastri showed his lack of experience in Austin, as he could not maximize the potential of his MCL60 around COTA like Norris did. The latter made the difference for his team in Austin.
  • Aside from qualifying, Alex Albon impressed in the Williams. He was ninth in the Sprint shootout and just missed out on points in the Sprint, but scored in the Grand Prix after Hamilton and Leclerc’s disqualification, which may not have been on merit, but he was hovering around the top ten in a car that shouldn’t be there.
  • And Logan Sargeant scored his first F1 points, also benefitting from the aforementioned disqualification, but at least he was there to pick up the pieces, and closer to his teammate than usual – in the Grand Prix that is.
    Will that be enough for him to keep his seat in 2024? That’s another discussion.
  • Haas probably chose the wrong weekend to bring upgrades with one practice session to make them work; or was the upgrade simply rubbish?
  • The same applies to Aston Martin, How embarrassing can it be to revert to the old spec car and go faster??!!