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Formula 1 United States GP

What the Austin sprint race taught us about the 2023 F1 US GP

Max Verstappen coolly dominated the Formula 1 United States Grand Prix sprint race from pole position, but he faces a tougher task in Sunday’s main race starting from sixth place. While the Red Bull driver remains strong favourite, the battle between his nearest rivals can spice up the contest plus the ugly issue of track limits not going away may complicate things further

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W14, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60, the rest of the field at the start

After dominating the Austin sprint race once he’d seen off Charles Leclerc and with Lewis Hamilton’s early time gains quickly reversed, Max Verstappen outlined once again why he detests these shorter contests.

“It takes away that magic of waking up on a Sunday,” he opined. “You turn on the TV and you’ve had qualifying but you're not sure which car is going to be quickest [in the grand prix].”

But, is that an accurate assessment for this weekend in Austin? Does F1 know exactly what is going to happen in the main event today now it has already witnessed a one-stint race at the Circuit of the Americas?

Here we dig into the deeper lessons of Saturday’s 19-lap first race to see if they do indeed indicate a repeat in the headline event.

Yes, Verstappen should still win from sixth

There’s no escaping how even with his relatively lowly grid spot thanks to his Friday night track limits slip, Verstappen remains the heavy favourite to win the 2023 United States Grand Prix.

He should’ve been on pole, after all, as even on a bumpy track that means the teams have had to raise their ride heights – which costs the Red Bull its underfloor downforce prowess, but seemingly not to Singapore levels – the season’s best car retained its typical form.

While Verstappen was closer to the rest in qualifying, in the sprint race his pace was devastating.

Even while managing his medium tyres to the end, he pulled away by an average of 0.6s a lap over Hamilton – from the time the Mercedes slipped out of DRS threat on lap five. The medium and hard tyres will be the rubber of choice for the frontrunners today, over a two-stop strategy contest, such is the thermal degradation management challenge here.

Verstappen was able to bolt clear of the chasing pack in the US GP sprint race

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Verstappen was able to bolt clear of the chasing pack in the US GP sprint race

As overtaking is on the easier side at Austin, the only real threat to Verstappen is again the start. Should he be caught up in an incident at Turn 1 – with Carlos Sainz’s race-ending clattering from George Russell in 2022 pertinent here – then the race’s outcome possibilities change dramatically.

Mercedes and Ferrari will have a hard time containing Norris

Thanks to Sainz jumping two places with his starting softs on Saturday, and then staying fourth until he was overcome as they wore, McLaren’s Lando Norris lost touch with the leaders in the sprint race to the tune of 6.7s by the end of its first half.

But after passing his former team-mate and then setting off in pursuit, by the finish he’d demolished that to run just 0.9s behind Leclerc’s third place.

Should Norris clear Leclerc in the GP, the lesson from the McLaren driver’s Austin sprint second half is that he came in with lap times averaging 0.557s down compared to Verstappen, to suggest he won’t be able to stop the Dutchman’s resurgence

That pair start from the front row for the main contest, with the Ferrari ahead on pole, and so it is to be expected that they and Hamilton will lead the early stages as Verstappen either works his way to them or has his hopes dented in an incident.

Norris’s average pace in the nine laps to the finish once he’d passed Sainz came in at 1m40.063s versus Leclerc’s 1m40.718s and Hamilton’s 1m40.181s. Leclerc reckoned “towards the end, we were more on the pace of Lewis, but it was too late”.

The times, however, say differently and the first race looked a real struggle for the Ferrari driver. Leclerc put this down to it being the case that “we seem to struggle mostly with the rear tyres towards the end” and it leaves Ferrari needing to “try and understand what we can do better, even though we cannot change the car”.

Leclerc will hope to profit from starting the grand prix from pole but faces multiple threats behind

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

Leclerc will hope to profit from starting the grand prix from pole but faces multiple threats behind

The Scuderia can, however, draw inspiration from its turnaround in the 2022 Austria sprint weekend – Leclerc’s most recent win.

The changes he made to his driving style, allied with steering wheel tool usage adjustments regarding diffuser opening settings, transformed his tyre degradation. Getting that factor on the right side of being “a bit inconsistent with our race pace” this weekend, will be critical.

But should Norris quickly clear Leclerc in the GP, the lesson from the McLaren driver’s Austin sprint second half is that he came in with lap times averaging 0.557s down each time compared to Verstappen. This suggests Norris won’t be able to stop the Dutchman’s resurgence should it play out in full.

Track limits will yet again be a talking point in today’s race

The Austin sprint’s final takeaway is that track limits will yet again be a focus in the main race. This is given Oscar Piastri picked up a black-and-white warning for repeatedly traversing them at Turns 9, 19 and 20, while Russell picked up a penalty for passing the Australian beyond the white line coming out of Turn 15.

Turn 1’s track limit was also a talking point in the sprint as Hamilton overtook Leclerc having gone completely over it, as he laid down the power blasting back down the steep hill towards the fast second corner.

Autosport understands that this incident was quickly assessed by FIA officials in race control and they deemed it not even worthy of noting in F1’s timing screen messaging system, as it was felt the move fell under the ‘lap one leniency’ approach.

But with today’s race set to be three times longer, and so the drivers potentially having to take more worn tyres through battles at the key corners in focus for track limits, plus the chance a safety car or two to bunch the field up, it’s hard to see how the ongoing track limits saga won’t again come up.

Will track limits create another headache in the US GP?

Photo by: Mark Sutton

Will track limits create another headache in the US GP?

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