F1 returns to COTA 

Grand prix racing finally returns to the Circuit of the Americas this weekend as F1 heads to Texas for the first time in two years. 

The COVID-19 pandemic meant the US Grand Prix was absent from last year’s calendar but Austin is primed to stage its first F1 event since 2019.

COTA marks a home race for the Haas team, while Williams also considers the US GP to be something of a second ‘home’ event for the British-based outfit following its takeover by American investment firm Dorilton Capital last year. 

The circuit has been both a fan and driver favourite ever since it first joined the F1 calendar in 2012 and this season it will play host to one of the closest and most exciting title battles in years between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton

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Will Red Bull surprise at a ‘Mercedes track’? 

Just six points separate Verstappen and Hamilton with six races remaining in this year’s title run-in. 

Verstappen regained the lead of the championship at the last race in Turkey as he finished second to Valtteri Bottas, while Hamilton was a frustrated fifth having recovered from a 10-place engine penalty that left him starting 11th on the grid. 

COTA has been a Mercedes stronghold in the past, with the German marquee claiming five wins from the last six US GP’s. Hamilton has a particularly enviable record, having won five of the eight races to have taken place in Austin. 

Another victory this weekend - and a third in a row for Mercedes - would see Hamilton move back into the lead of the world championship, regardless of where Verstappen finishes. 

Red Bull is expecting Mercedes to once again be the class of the field at the US GP and is targeting the following races at higher-altitude venues in Mexico and Brazil as its best chance of striking back. 

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“We know the next race in Austin has been a Hamilton stronghold for quite a few years," said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. "But then Mexico and Brazil, hopefully higher altitude races tended to be quite strong for us in the past. 

“Then I'm really not sure what to expect from the last three. It's going to be fascinating, but you know we are going to have to be at the very top of our game.”

Although Red Bull has not won at COTA since 2013, Verstappen finished just five seconds behind Bottas in 2019, and came even closer to victory in 2018 when he took second. 

Those performances will provide Red Bull some hope that it can mount a sterner challenge to Mercedes this time around with its far more competitive RB16B. 

Can Ferrari leapfrog McLaren? 

Ferrari was able to reduce the gap to McLaren in their close fight for third in Turkey as the Scuderia took 10 points out of their nearest rivals in one fell swoop. It means that with six races to go, the two teams are split by just 7.5 points. 

On paper, COTA is a track that should suit McLaren given its straight-line performance this year, but with both teams so evenly matched, it is almost impossible to say with confidence who will have the edge on any given weekend. 

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Ferrari has been boosted by a power unit upgrade introduced over the last two races and the improved engine - believed to be worth between 8-9bhp - could prove a key factor in the battle for P3 in the constructors’ championship. 

The calculated risk of introducing its new power unit for 2022 early may end up proving beneficial both this year and next. 

It will be fascinating to see how the tussle between McLaren and Ferrari plays out in Austin and into the remaining races this season. Behind the Verstappen-Hamilton showdown, it promises to be one of the major storylines to follow. 

Will Austin’s bumps give drivers a headache? 

COTA’s bumpy track surface was a major talking point during the Grand Prix of the Americas earlier this month after MotoGP riders slammed the circuit as “dangerous” and “a joke”. 

MotoGP riders believe the circuit needs at least a partial resurfacing in order for the race in April 2022 to go ahead as planned, with a request being put in place before the world championship returns next year. 

Bumps have been an ever-present for F1 drivers since the venue joined the calendar in 2012 but the FIA has been in dialogue with COTA to try and improve the problem ahead of this weekend’s United States GP following MotoGP’s issues. 

It is unlikely that the situation will be completely addressed by the time F1 cars hit the track on Friday, meaning the surface could end up impacting proceedings and lead to potential set-up headache for the teams across the weekend. 

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