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Austin Grand Prix Top Storylines: Formula One Returns to the U.S. As Interest Grows

Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
 2021-10-22

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How Netflix’s ‘Drive to Survive’ has brought in a new surge of Formula One fans, Vertsappen vs. Hamilton and other top storylines for the Austin Grand Prix.

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Count me among the thousands of people who have been glued to their television sets every Sunday morning to watch Formula One since binge-watching Netflix’s Drive to Survive during the coronavirus pandemic. This year’s Austin Grand Prix has been highly anticipated as a home race for us to get a taste of one of the best championship seasons in recent years and the first race on U.S. soil since last year’s cancellation.

Action gets underway on Friday and you can watch live on ESPN and its affiliate channels.

Friday (Oct. 22) – Practice 1 at 12:25 p.m. ET on ESPN 2
Friday (Oct. 22) – Practice 2 at 3:55 p.m. ET on ESPN 2
Saturday (Oct. 23) – Practice 3 at 1:55 p.m. ET on ESPN News
Saturday (Oct. 23) – Qualifying at 4:55 ET on ESPN News
Sunday (Oct. 24) – Race at 3 p.m. ET on ABC

Here are some of the top storylines to watch at the Austin Grand Prix.

Lars Baron/Getty Images

One of the Best Drivers Championship Races

Max Verstappen leads Lewis Hamilton by six points atop the championship standings with six races to go .

For those just familiarizing themselves with the drama, we have a clash between arguably one of the greatest drivers of all-time and the next big star.

Hamilton recorded his 100th victory at the Russian Grand Prix on Sept. 26. His dominance over the last decade has led him to set the F1 record for most points, most pole positions, most podium finishes and most consecutive race finishes en route to seven drivers’ championship titles.

Verstappen has won seven races in 2021 and is seeking his first title at age 24. He would be the first driver since Nico Rosberg in 2016 to defeat Hamilton. Although this year’s championship could also reflect that season where the last race in Abu Dhabi determined the winner, it’s different because Rosberg and Hamilton were Mercedes teammates. Verstappen isn’t in the same car as Hamilton but he’s keeping it close.

With four lead changes at the top of the championship standings in the last six races, this is sizing up to be one of the best finishes to a season. Tensions ramped up between the two drivers at the Italian Grand Prix in September when Verstappen and Hamilton crashed and knocked each other out of the race . This led to strong criticism of Verstappen, since he walked away from the collision without checking on Hamilton, who was stuck under the Red Bull car but saved from any serious injury due to advances in the Halo cockpit protection technology .

Verstappen has a pair of runner-up finishes in the last two races, in Russia and Turkey, but the stop in Texas is a place with rich history for Hamilton. Mercedes has won five of the last six races in Austin with four consecutive wins by Hamilton from 2014 to 2017 and then last year’s win by Valterri Bottas. Red Bull’s last victory at this race was Sebastian Vettel in 2013.

Looking ahead, Red Bull may get the edge with races in Mexico and Brazil being contested at altitude—an area in which the Mercedes car hasn’t been as great. Saudi Arabia looks like a toss-up. Qatar and Abu Dhabi have favored Mercedes in recent years. Both teams should also be done switching out engine parts, which changed up the starting orders for some due to F1’s 10-place grid penalty for power unit changes so it’s all systems go.

With all of that said: Remember, this is F1 where a bad pit stop, a crash, engine failure or even rain (sorry to Lando Norris fans for the reminder of how Russia ended) could make a difference.

Who Do Other Drivers Want to Win?

It’s been interesting to read into comments by other drivers when asked who they’d rather see win between Verstappen and Hamilton.

McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo didn’t necessarily take a side but said : “I think obviously people do like to see like a fresh face, so maybe Max is the more popular vote, because it would be a first title for him, and it's something new and exciting for everyone. So that's always like you've got that feel-good story.”

AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda has sided with Verstappen since Red Bull is also Honda-powered. During the Turkish Grand Prix, he admitted he wanted to hold off Hamilton for as long as possible. (It only ended up being eight laps before Hamilton made the pass. Tsunoda finished 14th on the day.)

“I want Max to win in the last year of Honda, and for Red Bull as well,” Tsunoda said. “So I tried to hold Lewis up as much as possible, for I don't know how many laps. I was trying to save more of my tyre.”

Constructors Championship Heating Up Via Perez and Bottas

Mercedes currently leads the Constructors championship with 433.5 points to Red Bull’s 397.5 points but it’s getting closer after recent strong driving by each team’s No. 2 drivers.

Bottas won from pole position and recorded the fastest lap of the day after Hamilton posted the fastest qualifying time but took a 10-position grid penalty for a new power unit and then finished fifth overall. It feels like a weight has been lifted off Bottas’s shoulders since it was announced he will be driving for Alfa Romeo in 2022. Of all drivers, Bottas has accumulated the most points since the news was official on Sept. 6. His 54 total points since then have come from a third-place finish in Italy, a fifth-place finish in Russia and his win in Turkey.

Perez’s third-place finish in Turkey was his first podium finish since the French Grand Prix in June. After the race in Turkey, Perez joked to Verstappen: “You owe me a couple of tequilas!” for holding off Hamilton. Verstappen said that he’d get them to Perez after the Mexico City Grand Prix.

A Bet Is a Bet

Before the season started, McLaren CEO Zak Brown made a bet with Ricciardo that if the driver made his first podium for the team in 2021, he’d let him drive Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s 1984 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. The Aussie star made it happen. At the Italian Grand Prix in September, Ricciardo and his teammate Lando Norris went 1–2 in Monza for McLaren’s first victory since 2012.

Danica Patrick: U.S. Needs Its Own F1 Star

As the sport continues to grow in the United States, one of the biggest ways it could find another take-off point would be if there was a U.S. driver. There has not been an U.S. driver in F1 since 2015. There are only 20 seats available, and politics are certainly at play as some drivers are provided opportunities because of the possible sponsorships they may bring or personal connections.

U.S. driving star Danica Patrick, who will be part of Sky Sports’ F1 coverage, also shared her hope for a U.S. driver in the near future.

"If there was an American driver that they could cheer for, then I think that what you'd see is more coverage here," she told Motorsport.com . "Whether it be, you know, late-night TV, magazines, morning news, just sports coverage in general; there'd be a reason to cover it, and I think that would definitely help."

Mario Andretti Enters the Chat

Rumors are heating up that Andretti Autosport is interested in taking over Sauber, which oversees the Alfa Romeo team. (Andretti Autosport’s Twitter account teased fans Wednesday morning with “a little team news” before announcing Avalanche as the title sponsor of its Formula E team.)

If a bigger deal were to happen, 21-year-old IndyCar star Colton Herta could be a name you start to hear as a possible transfer to F1. He raced alongside Lando Norris in F3 back in 2016 and returned to the U.S. to drive in IndyCar in 2017. In 2019, he made history as the youngest winner in the series’ history.

One of the biggest obstacles faced by the search for a U.S. driver is finding someone with a FIA Super License . Herta currently qualified for one. However, unless Andretti opens the door, it sounds like he’s content with his current setup.

“I know that the time to race in Formula One is short and I would have given that a shot, but I knew I’d always be able to go back to IndyCar,” Herta told the AP. “And I always planned to primarily race IndyCar for most of my career.”

Gene Haas is currently the only U.S. F1 team owner and his is the only team that has yet to score a point in the 2021 Constructors standings. They do not have a U.S. driver in development and have already committed to a second season of Mick Schumacher (Germany) and Nikita Mazepin (Russia) for 2022.

Eyes Already on 2022

Formula 1 announced its 2022 season calendar last Friday . The schedule features 23 races over 36 weekends for a new record-high. The season will start on March 20 in Bahrain. The United States will have a second race in 2022 with the Miami Grand Prix set for May 6–8.

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