Red Bull's Max Verstappen ended the Mercedes monopoly on United States GP victories in the modern hybrid engine era by holding on at the front all the way to the chequered flag, despite a late charge from Lewis Hamilton.
Starting from pole, Verstappen lost the lead to Hamilton in turn 1 but regained the initiative with an early pit stop. A later second stop enabled Hamilton to eat into the gap, but Verstappen was narrowly able to held on.
An eighth win of 2021 means that Verstappen extends his lead in the championship to 12 points, while third for Sergio Perez means Red Bull makes up ground on Mercedes in the constructors championship after Valtteri Bottas was only able to claim sixth behind Charles Leclerc and Daniel Ricciardo.
Race day in Austin had started cool and grey, but you can't keep a state like Texas down for long and by the time that Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton led the field to the grid for the start of the highly-anticipated race it was back to brilliant blue skies, sunshine and scorching temperatures - a fitting backdrop for a championship fast approaching fever pitch in excitement.
With a huge crowd on hand, all eyes were fixed on what would happen to the lead pair heading up the hill into turn 1. Could the Mercedes get the jump on the Red Bull? Would they clash and take each other out? Or could either Sergio Perez or Charles Leclerc take advantage of their second row starting positions to spring a surprise by seizing the early lead? It was a tense countdown before the lights went out and we got our answer.
The early honours went to Hamilton, with by far the stronger start of those at the front of the grid together with the inside line into turn 1 giving him the ideal chance to take command of the race in the first corner, while Verstappen ran wide leaving him wheel-to-wheel with Perez. Leclerc held on to fourth but his Ferrari team mate Carlos Sainz was struggling as the leading car on soft tyres. He was soon picked off by Daniel Ricciardo, leaving Sainz now working hard to hold off a frisky Lando Norris in the second McLaren.
Further back there had been no gain for Valtteri Bottas, who then dropped a spot to tenth after his attempt to pass Pierre Gasly not only allowed Yuki Tsunoda to pass them both but which had also been achieved by going off track, obliging him to hand the spot back to Gasly as well which dumped him behind both AlphaTauris. Meanwhile the trio of cars forced by grid penalties to start the race from the back were making progress, with Williams' George Russell having made the best launch and already up to 14th ahead of Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso, while Lance Stroll had dropped down after being sent spinning by Nicholas Latifi.
Despite losing the lead, Verstappen was able to stay within range of Hamilton who conceded over the Mercedes team radio that "He's quicker than me right now", as the pair started to pull away from Perez. Everyone was soon settling in for the long haul, with two pit stops predicted for the 56-lap race for all drivers. Even so, Esteban Ocon's early stop on lap 4 to take on a set of the hard compound was much sooner than anyone had been expecting, indicating a problem with his initial set of tyres. His Alpine team mate Alonso stayed out twice as long before pitting on lap 8, with little to lose from where he found himself pinned in 15th place. More significant was Tsunoda coming in on lap 10, followed by Norris.
Verstappen was complaining that his tyres were overheating; Red Bull duly quickly pulled the pin and called him in for a new set of the hard compound on lap 11, returning to the track in fifth just behind Ricciardo whom he quickly dispatched. He was immediately onto the Red Bull pit wall to tell them to call in Perez as soon as possible as well, in an effort to use the threat of a double undercut to force Hamilton to go long. A slow service meant the Mexican lost ground, but the ploy succeeded in provoking an immediate response from Hamilton who pitted on lap 13. The Briton failed to get back out ahead of Verstappen, but remained comfortably ahead of Perez.
By the time Bottas pitted on lap 16, Leclerc had already made his stop and come back out still in fourth ahead of Ricciardo, Sainz, Norris and Tsunoda. Bottas was back out just behind in ninth but this time he was soon able to pick off the Japanese driver. Gasly then exited the picture and become the first retirement of the afternoon with rear suspension damage.
There was a fierce spat between Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen over 13th place which saw the two former champions make contact and shed carbon fibre debris through turn 1. The stewards nodded that through, but intervened a few minutes later when Alonso went far off track passing Raikkonen's Alfa Romeo team mate Antonio Giovinazzi. Alonso was offered the choice of handing the spot back or taking a five second penalty. He took the former choice, and a few minutes later successfully channeled his frustrations into turning the tables on Giovinazzi. However it meant that the pair were now being rapidly caught by Vettel, Russell and Stroll.
Verstappen's initial six second lead had been whittled down to just over three seconds as the leaders threaded their way through the backmarkers, starting with Nikita Mazepin and quickly followed by Ocon, Latifi, Schumacher and Stroll who all duly went a lap down. The intervals were unaffected by a brief Virtual Safety Car on lap 28 allowing a marshal to retrieve a chunk of debris from the track from the earlier Raikkonen/Alonso clash.
With the race now past halfway, Verstappen became the first driver to make his second pit stop on lap 30 for a new set of hard tyres. It was not the best service performed by the usually perfect Red Bull crew, but there was no great harm done - unlike Sainz, whose stop a lap later was significantly slower with a sticky right rear holding things up. That allowed McLaren to react immediately by summoning in Ricciardo and Norris next time by, with Perez also pitting at Red Bull.
This time Hamilton didn't take the bait and he stayed out, the radio messages indicating Mercedes was planning to extend his stint by at least six laps in the hope that a safety car at this stage could swing the race in his favour - or if not, then giving him significantly fresher tyres on which to hunt down the Red Bull in the closing stages. With no caution emerging, Hamilton finally pitted on lap 38 and got a top of the line service from the Mercedes crew, putting him back out in second with nine seconds to make up on Verstappen in the remaining 18 laps.
Behind Verstappen and Hamilton - and with everyone having made their second stop of the day by now - Perez cut a lonely figure in third ahead of an equally lonely Leclerc in fourth, while Ricciardo was coming under pressure from Sainz, Bottas, Norris and Tsunoda. Raikkonen remained just inside the points ahead of Giovinazzi, with Vettel now in 12th ahead of Alonso, Stroll, Russell, Latifi and Mick Schumacher. Mazepin was dead last after making an additional third stop to deal with a broken headrest which also allowed a return to the medium compound, while Ocon had been ordered to retire by the Alpine pit wall on lap 43. His team mate Alonso would also be forced out of the race eight laps later with rear wing failure.
All that remained was to see whether Hamilton could indeed hunt down Verstappen before the end of the race. It was looking good when he was two seconds quicker on lap 42 alone thanks to Verstappen getting held up in traffic, and by additionally claiming the bonus for fastest lap. The gap continued to close, and Verstappen was ordered to prioritise keeping his rear tyres in good shape to ensure that he would be able to defend from Hamilton if and when the Mercedes got within DRS range at the end of the race. However by the time this came to pass there were only two laps remaining, too late for Hamilton to pull off the move he needed to snatch back victory before the chequered flag despite Verstappen's frustration getting held up behind Mick Schumacher.
With Verstappen taking the win by a slender 1.333s from Hamilton, the crowds poured onto the track - a sight unseen since before the pandemic - and Perez duly joined the pair on the podium. He had been followed across the line by Leclerc and Ricciardo, with Bottas pulling off a penultimate lap pass on Sainz for sixth with the final points going to Norris, Tsunoda and Vettel after Raikkonen suffered a late spin at turn 6 under pressure from Vettel and went for an excursion across the gravel dropping him out of the points.