F1 United States GP preview: Charles Leclerc gets his best shot at a 2023 victory

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AUSTIN, TX — Max Verstappen and Red Bull may have sewn up both championships for 2023, but there’s no sign of them slowing down upon Formula One’s return to the United States this weekend.

The Circuit of The Americas has already provided plenty of action and some signs of what to expect in the grand prix, with Friday’s qualifying and Saturday’s sprint race telling two different stories.

The four-driver, four-team fight for pole position on Friday proved thrilling and received a late twist when stewards deleted Verstappen’s pole lap due to a track limits breach. Otherwise, Verstappen would’ve edged out Charles Leclerc by a few thousandths of a second due to a track limits breach.

So Verstappen will start today’s race from sixth on the grid, with Leclerc on pole ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton. All three are chasing their first wins of the year and will be gunning to capitalize on Verstappen’s mistake.

But with Verstappen delivering such a dominant win in Saturday’s sprint race at COTA, he will remain incredibly hard to beat.

Here are the big storylines heading into the United States Grand Prix.

Even from sixth, Verstappen remains the heavy favorite

For all the hype built up by the close fight in qualifying and the sprint shootout yesterday, Max Verstappen delivered a powerful reminder of his advantage over the F1 grid in the sprint race.

To win by nine seconds in just 19 laps showed how clear ahead the Red Bull car remains over the longer distances. Starting sixth isn’t ideal and will require Verstappen to execute a few overtakes to climb up the order. But the Dutchman has still got the confidence that has carried him through such a dominant year.

“Of course, it’s not ideal to start P6, but the pace of the car seems quite strong,” Verstappen said. “Hopefully, on higher fuel loads tomorrow, we can do something similar. It’s one thing to be faster, but we have to try and get by a few cars this time.

“With the (tire degradation) around here, it’s not going to be straightforward. We have a race on our hands, I think.”

Verstappen is one of the few people to think that. Hamilton said that Verstappen’s advantage was at least half a second per lap and that the Red Bull was “cruising” in the lead. “I assume he’ll be climbing relatively fast, so we’ll have a job on our hands up ahead to try and hold him back,” Hamilton added. “It’s a track that you can overtake, so it is likely he’ll be finishing high up tomorrow.”

Even the driver on pole Sunday, Leclerc, is skeptical of securing the win given the 17.9-second margin between him and Verstappen in the sprint. “I expect Max to be get there and then (there) to not be too much of a fight,” he said.

Verstappen used the dominant nature of his win to take another shot at the sprint race format, of which he has never been a fan. He pointed out how the nature of the sprint can take away some of the “magic” for those watching in the grandstands or back at home and that there would have been more buzz around a tight battle had it been based on qualifying yesterday.

“You don’t really know what’s going to happen before the race,” Verstappen said. “But now we know a little bit.”

No driver has won the United States GP more times than Leiws Hamilton. (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

Leclerc’s fight will be with Hamilton and Norris

Verstappen’s mistake might have opened the door for Leclerc to snatch the pole, yet that is not to take anything away from the Ferrari driver’s lap. Leclerc was on it right through qualifying and admitted he made a few mistakes on his final Q3 lap. He played it safe in several places to avoid risking a track limits breach, meaning there was more time in the car.

To be so quick came as a surprise to Leclerc and Ferrari, but the team has done well to hit the ground running with its base setup at sprint races this year when the single practice session reduces the window to make adjustments. The same was true at Spa, when Leclerc also inherited pole after a Verstappen penalty, even if there was no chance of keeping the Red Bull back in the race.

It looks like the same will ring true tomorrow. Leclerc doubted anyone could stop Verstappen, but he talked up the potential for the close battle against Hamilton and Norris, who will start second and third on the grid. Ferrari does need to understand why Leclerc did not have the pace to keep up with Hamilton in the opening phase of the sprint race, with the Ferrari looking more competitive towards the end of the stint on the mediums.

Should anything happen to Verstappen, then there’d be a chance for Leclerc to snap his win drought that dates to last July’s Austrian Grand Prix. But it does not seem Ferrari has the raw pace to gun for victory in Austin.

Can Hamilton continue his excellent COTA record?

In his 11 appearances at the Circuit of The Americas, Hamilton has finished on the podium 10 times, the only blot on his record book coming in 2013, when he finished fourth for Mercedes.

No driver has won the United States GP more times than Hamilton, who has six victories (five at COTA, one at Indianapolis). While adding to that on Sunday looks unlikely, there is still plenty for the Briton to be optimistic about.

Hamilton said that the new floor that Mercedes debuted this weekend was the first update in some time whose benefit he clearly felt. That confidence translated into two good qualifying performances and a really strong sprint race, even if Verstappen was well out of sight at the front.

Hamilton said he learned a bit about Verstappen’s Red Bull while running around a second behind in the opening laps of the sprint and that everyone chasing still has “a lot of work to do” to catch up. But there does seem to be a spring in Hamilton’s step, particularly as he bids to extend his excellent record at COTA. Based on Saturday, he’ll be the driver to beat to finish as ‘best of the rest’ behind Verstappen.

Aston Martin’s salvage job

It’s clear by this point that Aston Martin’s midseason upgrades were a dead-end for the car. The Silverstone-based team has scored just 30 points since the summer break. It was in second place in May; it’s now in fourth — and is on the verge of giving that up to McLaren.

So far, the U.S. GP looks like a new low for Aston Martin, which brought a new floor to Austin. Overheated brakes hindered the team’s Friday sessions. Neither car escaped Q1, and Alonso will start P17, and Stroll will start P19 on Sunday – a “heavily compromised” race, as Alonso said. He predicted a point-less weekend heading into the sprint shootout, and the sprint race bore that out. Stroll retired on lap 18 after reporting a brakes issue, and Alonso finished miles from the points in P13 – no match for Daniel Ricciardo’s AlphaTauri just ahead of him.

On Sunday, Aston Martin’s goal will be to stay out of trouble, methodically climb, and hope that something (anything) good can come from their weekend in Austin.

Haas F1 Team's Danish driver Kevin Magnussen walks to pit lane after the Sprint at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, on October 21, 2023, ahead of the United States Formula One Grand Prix. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Haas’ hopes of overtaking Alfa Romeo, let alone Williams, in the constructors’ standings are fading fast. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Haas’ high hopes

For a minute on Friday, it looked like Haas’s highly-anticipated suite of upgrades might work miracles. Kevin Magnussen lapped fifth-fastest in FP1, just a few tenths off the pace of the Red Bulls, Ferrari’s Leclerc and Mercedes’ Hamilton. Haas showed glimpses of that speed in qualifying, too – until Nico Hülkenberg’s blistering Q1 lap time got deleted, ejecting him early from the session in P16. Magnussen made Q2 but qualified P14.

Of course, this package isn’t just about qualifying pace. Haas’ ultimate goal is to fix their race pace.

“The race on Sunday is, of course, the big question, to see if we can look after our tires a little bit better,” Magnussen said Friday. “I don’t think we were expecting to be much more competitive over one lap – I think we’re hoping to solve some of the inconsistency issues, especially race performance.”

The sprint race provided some long-run results, which could have been more promising. Magnussen’s medium tires started to give by Lap 9, and he fell back to P19. Hülkenberg’s pace lasted longer, but he eventually had to fight off both Alfa Romeos for P16. Haas is still far from competing, but the incremental gains are there. We’ll see how the upgrades fare over an entire race.

Austin’s moment

Las Vegas looms large in the rearview mirror of the U.S. GP. Austin is still one of the more popular races of the season, but (if all goes to F1’s plan) it’s no longer the biggest American F1 race on the calendar.

If Las Vegas will aim for the best-looking American show of the year, the U.S. GP can at least try to provide the best racing show. So far this weekend, it’s done just that, with some of the tightest margins we’ve seen between teams all season. The first 10 laps of the sprint race featured plenty of action, and the heavy tire degradation expected over a full COTA race could provide some exciting strategic battles. On Sunday, the front of the grid will start free of Red Bulls as the Ferraris, McLarens and Mercedes duke it out.

Coming into the weekend, the U.S. GP needed to remind everyone why it has charmed F1 fans and drivers for over a decade – and reaffirm its claim as America’s F1 race. It looks poised to deliver.

(Lead image of Charles Leclerc: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

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