Explained: How Verstappen and Red Bull won the tactical battle

The 2021 American Grand Prix will go down in the history books as a tactical titanic battle. Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton went head to head on the track, Red Bull and Mercedes did the same on the pit wall. Motorsport.com Netherlands explains how Red Bull and Verstappen have settled the tactical battle in their favor.

“To be honest, I like this strategy, sometimes it’s good to be aggressive,” Max Verstappen said after passing the black-and-white checkered flag. It fits seamlessly with previous statements by the Dutchman. After all, Verstappen has already stated more than once that Red Bull should mainly look at itself and take the initiative more into its own hands on a tactical level. The latter is exactly what happened last Sunday in Texas and what gave Verstappen – in combination with a strong example of tire management – the victory.

“After we lost the lead in the first corner, we knew we had to try something different,” said Verstappen, who, like most of the drivers, had started on mediums. It came down to a particularly early undercut in round ten in practice. That seemed significantly early and also risky, all the more so as Pirelli advised the teams not to start on softs before the race, as they could only last 10 to 15 laps. With a stop on lap ten, Red Bull Racing turned the later stints into a battle of attrition. It was all the more striking as Verstappen was faster than Hamilton on mediums and seemed to be following fairly comfortably. However, there was a clear plan behind this move.

What the TV viewers at home couldn’t see, but the team could, was that Verstappen’s tires also got quite warm and the risk of overheating was lurking. Or as Horner put it: “We were indeed faster on mediums in that first stint. Max saw Lewis slide quite a bit, but we also ran the risk of overheating our tires behind Lewis’ back. So we decided to take the gamble. and to choose free air.” Because Verstappen was on Hamilton’s tail before his pit stop, he immediately took the virtual lead. The effect of an undercut on COTA is estimated at three seconds, meaning Hamilton would have lost track position at a stop one lap later. Also because Verstappen put an impressively fast outlap on the mat.Mercedes would do and so any time gain was welcome.

College Tactic: Double Undercut, Perez Added Value

It’s basically textbook work for any Formula1 strategist and that certainly applies to what Red Bull has done after that. That can actually be called the most beautiful or at least the most interesting move of the entire Sunday. Red Bull also decided to bring in Perez and so go for a double undercut on Mercedes. It is also worth noting that that attack was launched on Verstappen’s advice. The Dutchman thought cheerfully about the tactics behind the wheel of his RB16B. With that we also immediately have a crucial aspect of the greatest F1 drivers such as Hamilton, Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna. Drivers who are so good that they have brain capacity left while driving, where every other mortal has their hands full to keep the colossus on the track.

Red Bull brought in Perez on lap twelve and that has proved crucial. With that action, Red Bull put a line through the ideal plan of Mercedes. The ideal plan was to continue for seven or eight laps longer and then switch to hard. With Perez’s stop, Mercedes was briefly checkmated and there were only two options left: either react immediately and stop sooner than you would like, or continue for an extremely long time on mediums. With a stop seven to eight laps after Perez, he could have ended up behind the Mexican and then Red Bull would have grabbed the fervently desired buffer for Verstappen.

It didn’t come to that. The Mercedes tacticians got the hang of the game quickly and responded by bringing Hamilton in on lap thirteen as well. The crux, however, is: with the Zilverpijlen it was already reacting instead of anticipating, as Red Bull has done. The worst-case scenario – getting behind Perez on the track – had been averted, but his own plan had also been shattered. Or as Perez said afterwards: “We stayed within the undercut margin of the leaders and that was important for the team. Lewis really had no other option but to come in. Because of this, he couldn’t pull his desired plan.”

Whoever says A must also say B in tactical battle

It’s college tactics and has had a big impact on the remainder of the race. In that remainder, Red Bull again opted for the attack. There were no other options, there was no turning back. A classic case of ‘whoever says A must also say B’. Especially since Mercedes clearly had the faster car on the hard compound. Hamilton came closer and Verstappen’s tires did not get any better. That the Briton approached rap was not out of luxury but a direct result of the difference in power at the time. It was not for nothing that Horner would later indicate that Verstappen’s tires were worn down to the canvas.

It ushered in another early pit stop from Verstappen on lap thirty, this time Red Bull took the initiative from leading position – fully following the adage ‘attack is the best defence’. It has already been indicated above that an undercut at COTA can work best if you drive within three seconds of your predecessor and Hamilton came within that margin of the leader. Red Bull was there like the chickens to send the pit crew outside. Horner’s men absolutely did not want to give up the track position, especially not because following on this circuit proved quite difficult. The undercut was the only option left.

Tactically it all worked like a charm and this was also manual work, but that does not alter the fact that there were still 26 laps on the counter for Verstappen when leaving the pitlane. If you consider that the previous set was worn down to the canvas after twenty revs, it didn’t bode well. It also immediately explains why Horner was nervous with his trembling right foot and was counting on a victory from Hamilton. Verstappen thought otherwise and that brings us straight to the second decisive aspect: tire management, and more specifically the first laps after the last pit stop. Where Perez immediately clocked the fastest race lap after his second stop, Verstappen deliberately did not do that.

The World Cup leader knows very well that those first laps are crucial for the life of the tires. If you don’t push the Pirelli rubber over the limit at that stage, you will benefit a lot at the end of the stint. Exactly this has brought Verstappen the win in the titanic fight with Hamilton. Although he pedaled hard, he kept enough life in his rear tire for the decisive phase. Add to that the Barcelona 2016 experience (putting everything on a few key points every lap) and it explains perfectly what we have seen: a victory to the amazement of his own team boss. It made Sunday afternoon in Austin a perfect example of teamwork. Tactical ingenuity from Red Bull coupled with particularly strong tire management from the driver. Only with that can such a daring plan to be repaid in cash. Or as Verstappen said: “Sometimes it pays to be aggressive.” A pre-gift of 12 championship points is the earned reward.

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