Lap 12/56: Ricciardo and Bottas quickly fall by Verstappen’s wayside, and Ricciardo and Sainz then head into pits from fifth and sixth. Then it’s “Box, Checo, box,” and Perez steams into the pits for some used mediums – but it’s a slow stop!
Lap 11/56: In goes Tsunoda for the same reason. And Verstappen too! Red Bull pull in their man, presumably to undercut Hamilton. They don’t muck about, and Verstappen emerges in fifth, ahead of Sainz, the gap between him and Hamilton now 19secs.
Lap 10/56: Verstappen is sticking close, just 0.7secs behind, while back in 15th Alonso pits for some hard compounds. Sainz scoots past Norris into sixth.
Lap 8/56: “He’s quicker than me right now,” says Hamilton of Verstappen, who’s within DRS range. It’s a marathon not a sprint, of course, though all that sliding won’t be great for Hamilton’s tyres.
Lap 6/56: Having said that, Perez has dropped to 2.4secs off the front two. Further back, Latifi is miffed after being pincered by the two Haas cars and goes in for a new front wing.
Lap 4/56: Ocon pits very early, to switch to hards. “He’s sliding a lot,” Verstappen is told over the radio – “he” being Hamilton of course. The front three are pulling away.
Lap 3/56: That was a great start from Hamilton, fast and belligerent, pushing Verstappen wide from the off. Less great for his teammate Valtteri Bottas, though, who has dropped to 10th.
Lap 2/56: Hamilton leads by 0.6sec. Norris and Sainz go toe to toe, both running wide and Ricciardo recovers back to sixth, then past Sainz into fifth! Perez third ahead of Leclerc.
Lap 1/56: Hamilton nudges Verstappen wide going into turn one and overtakes his rival on the inside!
And the drivers set off on the formation lap, Verstappen leading the way on the very short run-up towards turn one, with the crowd going wild. Gasly’s car looks fine.
Toto Wolff speaks: “It’s hot, hotter than expected. So I guess there is strategy to play. I think that means on track to overtake will be pretty difficult, and following will also be difficult because the tyres will just melt in a few corners. If you can’t pass, I think it’s about protecting the tyres and maybe going for an undercut, overcut, or more stops.
A panic over at Alpha Tauri, where mechanics are swarming around Pierre Gasly’s car. It’s a sensor issue, apparently – but they seem to have fixed it in the nick of time.
Carlos Sainz: “The target for the [Ferrari] team is to finish ahead of McLaren with both cars. I’m in a bit of a weird situation with the soft tyre so let’s see how it goes.”
Would he change it? “One hundred per cent, but it’s better not to dwell on it too much and just get on with it.”
As the drivers take to the track for the We Race As One gesture, here’s some pre-race reading from yesterday’s qualifiers:
And Sebastian Vettel: “Turn 12 will be the best spot to do overtaking. I think today will be quite warm, expecting the sun to come out and then yeah, it will be a difficult race on tyres.”
Here’s Valtteri Bottas: “I’ll try and make the most out of it, always looking at things with the most optimism. Turn one at the start is a good place, and the back straight – that’s the best opportunity [to overtake]. Being patient can always pay off – it’s a long race ahead.”
Sky Sports’ roving reporter Martin Brundle hounds down Megan Thee Stallion on the track. “You’re a freestyle rapper, do you have any rap for us?” he asks. She responds in the appropriate manner: laughing in his face and wandering off.
Fans have amassed around turn one, the site of much prospective early drama. Could that drama be influenced by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz? The pair are back in fourth and fifth and both using their new power unit without engine penalties for the first time.
Red Bull will also be looking forward to the next two races, Mexico and Brazil, more than Mercedes will. So yet more pressure on Hamilton to claw back some vital points today. He says: “The start is definitely an opportunity but it’s a long race. The cloud cover makes it a bit better with the tyres. Keeping up with the Red Bulls will be a challenge but I’ll give it absolutely everything.”
Meanwhile, while the clouds have amassed over Houston, word is there’s very little chance of rain today.
Danica Patrick reckons it’s advantage Red Bull, with Perez starting from third. “I think it’s a really big deal,” she says. “Every time you have two team-mates there and one solo, it makes a difference. If Lewis is second and let’s say Max is leading, he’ll have pressure from behind, and if he gets behind he has the ability to get held up too. I think it’s a really tough dynamic for Lewis – not something he can’t overcome – but it’s tough.”
Serena Williams is in the house. Also in attendance: Ben Stiller, Megan Thee Stallion and Geri Horner – a trio who could put on a decent variety show between them.
How they’ll start
1 Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
2 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
3 Sergio Perez (Red Bull)
4 Charles Leclerc (Ferrari)
5 Carlos Sainz (Ferrari)
6 Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren)
7 Lando Norris (McLaren)
8 Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri)
9 Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes)
10 Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri)
11 Esteban Ocon (Alpine)
12 Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo)
13 Lance Stroll (Aston Martin)
14 Nicholas Latifi (Williams)
15 Kimi Raikkonen (Alfa Romeo)
16 Mick Schumacher (Haas)
17 Nikita Mazepin (Haas)
18 Sebastian Vettel (Aston Martin)
19 Fernando Alonso (Alpine)
20 George Russell (Williams)
As road rage incidents go, a middle finger and a “stupid idiot” may not rank very highly in the grand scheme of things but it certainly marks a break with the blandishments and politesse that tends to govern the public conduct of Formula One drivers. As such, this weekend’s exchanges between between Max Verstappen (deliverer of aforementioned insults in Friday’s practice session) and Lewis Hamilton (recipient) have been very welcome for those of us who prefer our sporting rivalries heated, hostile and vulgar.
Are we reading too much into a three-second tete-a-tete? Almost certainly – “It’s all fun and games” said Hamilton afterwards – but it nonetheless sets things up nicely for a race on a bumpy track with ample overtaking opportunities in front of a full house in Austin. Hamilton, the reigning world champion, was overtaken at the top of the standings by Verstappen in Turkey two weeks ago.
And there’s more anxiety at Mercedes after Valterri Bottas – who came third in Friday’s qualifying and triumphed in Turkey – will start further back after being handed a five-place grid handicap for using a sixth internal combustion engine this year, something that has left Toto Wolff worried about possible engine trouble. “We are trying to get on top of the problems, and we haven’t understood full,” he fretted on Saturday, knowing that his team need to avoid at all costs a scenario where Hamilton retires and his rival hoovers up the points.
Hamilton himself struck a morose note after qualifying: “it’s been a real struggle compared to normal here,” he said – and yet despite the doom and gloom he will will have to fancy his chances at a circuit where he has won five of his eight previous visits.
Verstappen meanwhile is six points ahead with six races remaining. “Everyone’s expecting a great race, and that’s what we expect as drivers,” says the championship leader. Quite right.