AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – The searing rivalry between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton has returned to the race track with a backhand and an insult.
It was only training, but the exchange on Friday between the Formula 1 title contenders made for a lively opening day of the United States Grand Prix and showed that this championship duel between Red Bull drivers and Mercedes is just reaching its peak ahead of the final six races of the season.
Welcome to Texas everyone.
Just minutes after the start of the second practice session, Verstappen and Hamilton found themselves side by side in the long straight on the starting grid.
Verstappen said he was the first on the spot, but Hamilton sprinted with him to the end and took the inside line in the corner. It was the kind of risky wheel-to-wheel movements that drivers rarely do in practice, especially these two given their collision history this season.
Verstappen backed off, but returned his right middle finger to Hamilton and called Hamilton a “dumb idiot” in a radio message to the Red Bull garage.
“Ignore it,” was the team’s return message.
It’s impossible to ignore what will happen between these two in Sunday’s race and beyond. Verstappen clings to a tiny six-point lead over Hamilton for the championship of the season as the 24-year-old Dutchman continues his debut championship.
Hamilton, 36, has won seven championships and an eighth would break his tie with Michael Schumacher for the most in F1 history.
“I don’t know, we were all lined up to do our laps and I don’t really understand what happened there,” Verstappen said of the clash with Hamilton.
The Texas Race is the first of a two-part swing in North America as the series heads past Mexico City. Both races were called off amid the pandemic last season.
Mercedes has dominated the Austin track, scoring five wins since opening in 2012. Hamilton has won four of those races and teammate Valtteri Bottas won in 2019. Bottas and Hamilton earned a brace in the first practice on Friday morning.
Verstappen was third behind the Mercedes drivers in the first session, and the incident with Hamilton in the second practice was another frustration for the Dutchman. Verstappen was far from the pace of the leaders in the afternoon while his Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez was the fastest.
But the navigation was not smooth in the Mercedes garage. Bottas’ car needed an internal combustion unit change and he will have a grid penalty on Sunday. Hamilton had the same problem two weeks ago and another engine problem at this point in the season could have a huge impact on the championship.
“I think you see that we are suffering from reliability this year,” said Mercedes boss Toto Wolff. “We are really trying to get things under control. The points lost can be decisive.
Formula One hasn’t seen such a close championship battle since Hamilton lost to teammate Nico Rosberg in 2016. The series hasn’t had two teams clashing so late in the season since 2012, when Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull rallied late to beat Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso.
The race weekend is expected to draw massive crowds, with Sunday’s race in front of a capacity of 140,000 people. While the entire series is seeing increased attention and energy in the United States, at COTA it is Perez who is the star of the series.
The Guadalajara, Mexico native drew cheers when his car was first on the track in the morning, and again when he paced practice session two. He drew at least 10,000 spectators at a protest in downtown Dallas last weekend, and that’s just a glimpse of what to expect next week in Mexico City, where he’s adored. .
“I don’t feel that far from my people and the support I get in the United States is incredible,” Perez said. “Without a doubt, I will be the driver with the most support on Sunday.”
Off the track, reports of Michael Andretti’s offer to take over Alfa Romeo continued to circulate in the paddock. The American owner of Andretti Autosport and son of former F1 champion Mario Andretti has made his voice heard in his attempt to expand his reach in F1.
Zak Brown, McLaren’s U.S. boss and friend and business partner of Andretti, was unwilling to reveal how close Andretti could be to a deal.
“What I can say is he’s very serious about Formula 1. He loves Formula 1,” said Brown. “Obviously he has a lot of history including his father being a world champion. I think it would be great if Michael and Andretti’s name were involved in Formula 1. We’ll see what happens. “
There has been plenty of speculation that Andretti would attempt to move 21-year-old American IndyCar driver Colton Herta to F1 if he could get Herta the required license to compete. But even without Herta, an American pilot may be on the way.
Williams announced on Friday that he signed Logan Sargeant, 20, to his Driver Development Academy after three seasons in Formula 3. F1 hasn’t had an American driver since Alexander Rossi’s brief stint with Manor in late 2015.
“We expect him to progress quickly,” said Williams general manager Jost Capito. “We will have a good program for him.