Having not raced at the Circuit of the Americas last year, changes in the track’s surface during that time have caused Formula 1 teams to revise their expectations after the first day of running.
Bumps in the road
The bumps at COTA have been there for years. But drivers have commented that this year its surface is significantly worse than they even expected.
Esteban Ocon, who hadn’t driven at the Texan course since 2018, found he “had to rediscover the track pretty much.”
“It’s a very different challenge,” said the Alpine driver. “There’s a lot more bumps, it was a lot more slippery, track grip was a lot less.”
A mixture of resurfacing and “milling” to ease the bumps has taken place since F1’s last visit to the track two years ago. This has made grip levels inconsistent at the circuit, as newcomer Mick Schumacher observed.
“We had a few patches that were very, very grippy for some reason [and] some which weren’t,” the Haas driver explained. Several drivers were caught out by the variations in grip and spun, including 2018 race winner Kimi Raikkonen.
The US Grand Prix is set for some of the highest track temperatures seen this season. By the start of second practice the track was close to 40C and degradation was, as a consequence, very high – especially on soft tyres.
McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo ran only soft tyres during second practice, indicating they aren’t intending to save any for the race. “Everyone was, I won’t say struggling, but fighting the car a bit. It was hot. The grip was pretty low, the tyres dropped off quite a lot already after a lap.”
Managing the degradation and coping with the bumps is “fun”, said Ricciardo. “But the aim this weekend is to struggle less than everyone else, and I think we’ll be in a good position.”
By the end of Friday’s running McLaren had both cars in the top five. That was a considerable improvement after the opening session, where only Lando Norris made it into the top 10. Big performance swings between the two hours of running were a theme for several teams.
The turn of pace Mercedes revealed in the first practice session at the Circuit of the Americas looked ominous for their rivals’ chances in the United States Grand Prix.
That advantage seemed to fade in the afternoon. The track temperature was much higher during second practice, jumping by almost 10C, and the nearly a second of pace that Mercedes had seemed to hold over other teams disappeared.
Traffic and track limits
However the second session was also tricky to read as drivers encountered traffic or had lap times deleted for track limits infringements. They included Lewis Hamilton, who had beaten Sergio Perez’s session-topping time until it was scratched for his off-track moment at turn 19.
Traffic was also a concern and is likely to be so again in Q1. No one wants to follow another car closely through the sinuous opening sector at this track, and drivers were backing up at the final corner before they started their hot laps. It even contributed to what Red Bull team principal Christian Horner called a “playground” squabble between Hamilton and Verstappen.
Verstappen was so frustrated by further traffic later in the session he abandoned his performance run. It therefore remains to be seen whether he would have beaten Perez’s time, or Hamilton’s deleted effort. But Mercedes’ immediate pace in the opening practice session suggests they are keeping something in reserve for qualifying.
Reliability is more of a concern for Mercedes than its pace this weekend. Three Mercedes-powered drivers are set to take grid penalties for power unit part replacements.
Sebastian Vettel and George Russell will go all the way to the back of the grid, while Valtteri Bottas will take drop five places after Mercedes fit his sixth internal combustion engine. Hamilton played down fears over his power unit, after a new example was fitted at the last round. But Bottas’ engine was only one race older than his, so it has to be a concern for the championship contender.
Quotes: Dieter Rencken
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Combined practice times
|3||Sergio Perez||Red Bull-Honda||1’36.798||1’34.946||44|
|6||Lance Stroll||Aston Martin-Mercedes||1’36.972||1’35.561||45|
|8||Max Verstappen||Red Bull-Honda||1’35.806||1’35.824||39|
|9||Carlos Sainz Jnr||Ferrari||1’36.508||1’35.919||44|
|10||Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo-Ferrari||1’36.874||1’36.138||44|
|14||Kimi Raikkonen||Alfa Romeo-Ferrari||1’36.876||1’36.558||43|
|15||Sebastian Vettel||Aston Martin-Mercedes||1’36.982||1’36.718||50|
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Teams’ progress vs 2019
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2021 United States Grand Prix
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