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Rivalry between F1 stars Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen captures fans' attention at US Grand Prix

Thomas Jones
Austin American-Statesman

Brook Mestre, a lawyer from Dallas, didn’t grow up as a racing fan. In fact, he married into the Formula One madness that has drawn hundreds of thousands of fans to Circuit of the Americas this weekend.

Mestre’s wife, Lauren, is the true F1 aficionado in her family, having “fallen in love” with the sport as a child growing up in Birmingham, Ala., a city in the hearth area of NASCAR. Her father followed the famed Lotus racing team that rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s with its blend of on-track success and innovative design. Lauren Mestre even attended Silverstone Circuit in England with her father as a 9-year-old, an experience that cemented a lifelong passion for the sport.

“We were different growing up, I guess,” she said outside of COTA on Saturday. “My dad got me into it and, I don’t know, I just loved it.”

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Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands climbs out of his car following a practice session for the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix auto race at Circuit of the Americas on Saturday. Verstappen, who had a dust-up with four-time defending champion Lewis Hamilton in a practice session Friday, will try to hold onto his slim lead over Hamilton in the drivers standings in Sunday's race.

That love has spread throughout her family, which joined Lauren Mestre for the 3-hour drive from Dallas to COTA. While Lauren admires Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas, her husband said that fiery Australian Daniel Ricciardo has become his favorite, especially with an aggressive racing manner that has drawn comparisons to a certain animal that drew viral fame a decade ago for its rowdy ways.  

“We all had to pick different ones, to be honest,” Brook Mestre said with a grin while eyeing his wife. “Why did I pick Ricciardo? He’s Australian, and he’s the ‘Honey Badger.’ He’s got some attitude.”

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Of course, no group of fans entering the circuit comes without at least someone cheering on five-time defending champion Lewis Hamilton and another rooting for fierce rival Max Verstappen. In the Mestres’ case, 3-year-old son Walker donned a tiny Hamilton shirt while his older brother, 5-year-old Winston, rocked some Verstappen gear.

And Winston didn’t shy away from some jibes directed at his less-talkative brother.

“I like Max because he drives fast,” Winston said. “And he wins a lot.”

There’s no doubt about that. Verstappen, a 24-year-old driver from the Netherlands, has been the best driver in F1 this season with seven wins and 12 podium appearances in 16 races. Entering Sunday’s U.S. Grand Prix at COTA, Verstappen leads F1’s driver standings with 262.5 points, just six points ahead of Hamilton.

Flashback:Fans celebrate Formula 1 U.S. Grand Prix in Austin

Verstappen’s success has come at the expense of Hamilton, F1’s longtime king who has won seven titles, including six in the past seven years.

Lewis Hamilton, left, talks with former NBA star Chris Bosh in the paddock Friday at Circuit of The Americas ahead of the U.S. Grand Prix.

Anytime a usurper tries to claim the throne in F1, tensions mount between the drivers, teams and fanbases — no matter how young, as evident by the Mestre brothers. Hamilton and Verstappen have both shrugged off the notion of bad blood between F1’s two alpha drivers even though they’ve had several on-track incidents this year. However, the friction rose to a boil on the piping-hot surface at COTA in Friday’s second practice session.

The two drivers ended up side by side through the final corner and into turn one, a taut close encounter not usually seen in a practice run.

More:Verstappen, Hamilton clash in practice run

“Ha, stupid idiot,” snapped Verstappen on the broadcast of the race in COTA’s media center.

Hamilton’s team reacted quickly to calm the Englishman’s temper and diffuse the tension.

“Ignore it; don’t worry about it,” came the call from Hamilton’s radio crew.

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, of Britain, steers through a turn during an open practice for the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix auto race at the Circuit of the Americas, Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, in Austin, Texas.

After the race, Verstappen downplayed the moment and said he’s focused solely on Sunday.

“I don’t know, we were all lining up to go for our laps, and I don’t really understand what happened there,” he said.

Bottas, Lauren Mestre’s preferred racer who currently ranks No. 3 in the standings behind Hamilton and Verstappen, says the rivalry may excite the F1 fans but it’s unlikely to extend beyond the track.

“Lewis and Max, they’re both adults, so they also know that that is the name of the game,” he told reporters. “And I don’t think it’s anything personal. That’s my view.

“If you’re on the podium after a race that you’ve been wheel-to-wheel with someone, you still have adrenaline and you might feel tension, but that’s completely normal in the sport. So, for me, it’s all normal.”

Australia's Daniel Ricciardo, second from right, prepares to drive the late Dale Earnhardt's iconic 1984 No. 3 Wrangler Chevrolet Monte Carlo before an open practice for the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix auto race at Circuit of the Americas on Saturday. Ricciardo was allowed to drive the car as a reward from his McLaren boss, Zak Brown, for winning his first race with the team.

Honoring Dale Earnhardt

Racing fans marveled at an unexpected site on Saturday. A blue-and-yellow 1984 Chevrolet with a yellow No. 3 on the door roared around COTA, with Ricciardo behind the wheel.

Ricciardo, in his first season driving for McLaren Racing, was cashing in on a promise made by McLaren CEO Zak Brown before the Aussie driver joined McLaren.

Ricciardo, a massive Dale Earnhardt Sr. fan growing up in Western Australia, normally drives a No. 3 car in homage to the NASCAR legend and will wear a helmet painted in the colors of the black and silver No. 3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet made famous by Earnhardt in Sunday’s race. Brown offered Ricciardo a drive in Earnhardt's iconic 1984 Chevrolet Monte Carlo on the condition that the ex-Renault driver scored a podium for McLaren this season.

Ricciardo did his part by winning the Italian Grand Prix earlier this year. On Saturday, Brown made good on his deal.

Earnhardt was killed in a crash during the Daytona 500 in 2001. His son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., told Racefans.net he was “happy for Daniel” to have a chance to drive the car.

“I’m also appreciative for how he celebrates my father,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “That makes a lot of dad’s family members and fans smile.”

The moment also drew appreciation from those working long hours at F1 this weekend. One COTA worker, who didn't want to be named "because one of our rules is not to watch the race at all," eyed the No. 3 Chevy from a closed-off area in the paddock while he took a break. After Ricciardo roared by, the man took a final drag on a cigarette and noted "now, that's genuinely bad ass."

Red Bull driver Sergio Perez, of Mexico, climbs into his car during a practice session for the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix auto race at Circuit of the Americas on Saturday. Perez won the final practice round before Sunday's race.

Sergio Perez shows speed in final practice run

Mexico's Sergio Perez topped the timesheets for a loaded Red Bull squad in Saturday's final practice while both teammate Verstappen and Hamilton of Mercedes saw their fastest times deleted for track limits.

Perez, affectionately known as "Checo" by his legion of fans in Mexico and the U.S., posted a time of 1 minute, 34.701 seconds to win the session. He also had the fastest time in Friday's second practice round. He edged out Carlos Sainz of Spain on Saturday.

Shortage of shuttle buses leaves some fans stranded

A shortage of shuttle buses had COTA officials scrambling Saturday as lines backed up at various stops across the Austin area.

Officials said that "more than 100 buses canceled at the last moment," leaving F1 ticket holders desperate for a ride to COTA south of Del Valle. More than 360,000 tickets were sold for the three-day event, a record number for any F1 race in the U.S.

"We know many guests have been disappointed and inconvenienced," COTA officials said in a statement released Saturday afternoon. "Labor shortages and unexpected cancelations have affected so many parts of all of our nation's businesses, and we are no different.

"Most importantly, we want to extend our sincere gratitude to the thousands of Central Texans who are working hard to make this weekend a success. We encourage all our guests to join us in thanking these dedicated hospitality employees who are doing their best to make this United States Grand Prix possible."

Officials said they are working with area school districts to find more bus drivers, and they "hope to reopen shuttle sales from the airport for tomorrow.”