After a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Formula 1 returns to the United States and to Texas' Circuit of the Americas. In good news for the sport and Liberty Media, it heads to Texas somewhat triumphantly given that both championships are still wide open with six races remaining. Max Verstappen has a slender six-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, while Mercedes have a slightly more substantial 36-point lead over Red Bull in the Constructors' table.
The Circuit of the Americas has become a well-liked venue since joining the calendar in 2012, managing to combine the niceties of a modern facility with the rough rawness of an old-school track. This is thanks to a challenging layout, with a first sector akin to Suzuka's esses, a good overtaking possibility down the long back straight into a tight left-hander, and a tricky third sector with a long radius, multiple apex right-hander that is a real test for the drivers and their cars.
It's a bumpy track, too, with the surface settling into its foundations over the years of use. Due to some extreme weather events over the past nine years, the track is somewhat brow-beaten at this point, although the organisers are ensuring the worst of the bumps will be ground away before the cars head out on track on Friday morning.
The weather forecast for this weekend suggests a largely dry and sunny weekend, as has been the case throughout most of the races at COTA, while the engine penalty situation means a much more straightforward head-to-head Grand Prix is in store.
Verstappen vs Hamilton
It seems like ages ago since the last proper Hamilton versus Verstappen fight, given that their last true battle with each other ended in the gravel trap at the first chicane at Monza.
An engine penalty for Verstappen meant he was never near Hamilton in Russia, while the Mercedes driver serving an engine penalty in Turkey cost him the chance of battling with the Red Bull.
In 2018 and 2019, Verstappen and Hamilton finished within a second of each other in both races. Verstappen recovered from an 18th-place grid slot in 2018 to finish second and 0.9 seconds clear of Hamilton. In 2019, Hamilton reversed the roles to finish in second and 0.9 seconds clear of Verstappen.
Essentially, the two title protagonists have completed the last two United States Grands Prix in the exact same amount of time. It's a level of closeness that could be on the cards this weekend, too, given that there are no forecasted engine penalties for either team this time around.
Both Verstappen and Hamilton will be running their reasonably fresh power units and, on paper, the circuit offers both teams a chance to showcase their strengths. Red Bull's chassis and aero qualities should be rewarded by the first sector, while the long straight gives Mercedes a chance to show off their power unit.
Much has been made of the recent apparent power gains from Mercedes, with all sorts of rumour and conjecture floating about as to the nature of how they've achieved it, whether the power gains are having an effect on reliability, and even whether the gains are even really there.
Certainly, Red Bull believe Mercedes have a 10-15kph advantage down the straights – not inconsequential down a straight as long as at COTA. However, as seen in Russia, that power advantage doesn't necessarily translate into an easy overtake.
This weekend is crucial for the Mercedes vs Red Bull title fight. Given that Red Bull have struggled with outright pace since the Dutch Grand Prix, there are no excuses not to be able to, at least, match Mercedes this weekend. If Mercedes show up and enjoy a similar pace advantage to what they had in Turkey, then it's hard to see Red Bull being able to arrest the slide before it's too late.
Lewis Hamilton has also always enjoyed a natural affinity for the United States Grand Prix. Aside from 2013, he won it every year between 2012 and 2017, and scored podiums in 2018 and 2019. Even in the unlikely scenario where Mercedes are off the pace this weekend, expect Hamilton to be able to compensate the difference...
The battle of the 'Number Twos'
Both Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez stepped up to the mark for their teams in Turkey.
With Hamilton unable to challenge for outright victory as a result of his grid penalty, Bottas ensured that Verstappen couldn't maximise the opportunity. A single lock-up or mistimed application of the throttle could have gifted Verstappen an extra seven points, but Bottas didn't put a wheel wrong.
It was a vastly different performance from a driver who is usually underwhelming, at best. With his future secured, away from Mercedes, perhaps a calmer and more confident Bottas is emerging? If he can replicate his Turkey form on more occasions between now and Abu Dhabi, Bottas could be the difference between Hamilton and Mercedes winning the title once again, or Red Bull and Verstappen claiming their first together.
Perez, too, was impressive in Turkey. While he fell flat in qualifying, yet again, his staunch defence against Hamilton midway through the race was the wheel-to-wheel highlight of the weekend and showed that the Mexican is willing and able to get the elbows out against Mercedes when the stars align.
Unfortunately, the stars haven't aligned too often for him this season but, after that confidence boost, perhaps Perez can make a crucial difference as he heads to 'home' races in the Americas.
Ferrari vs McLaren
The ongoing fight over third place in the Constructors' Championship looks set to run and run, with Ferrari the clear winners of the battle against McLaren in Turkey.
Despite Carlos Sainz starting at the back, he finished in eighth and just four seconds behind Lando Norris. With Charles Leclerc in fourth, after briefly looking like a challenger for the win, the Scuderia's updated power unit appears to be helping them make steps back towards the front ahead of the upcoming engine freeze.
Daniel Ricciardo looked more like the version of himself that has been at most races this season, struggling for pace and confidence in the lower midfield and winding up in 13th at the chequered flag.
This is a battle that's going to ebb and flow right to the very end of the season, with the difference likely to come down to the form of the individual drivers rather than any particular technical advantage of the cars.
One way to watch the United Grand Prix in certain countries is through F1 TV, F1's own digital streaming platform that helps you get inside the pit lane while accessing real-time statistics and timing, along with historical content.
Users can live stream every track session for every one of the Grands Prix, along with access to all the onboard cameras and team radios for your favourite drivers.
In addition to Formula 1 content, you can also get the F2, F3, and Porsche Supercup action as well. Find out more here.
Video: Check out the sports cars Verstappen drives away from the track!
While Max Verstappen is most known for his performances in a Red Bull F1 car, his passion for motorsport can be seen in what he drives when he's away from the track.