Valtteri Bottas, Lewis Hamilton 1-2 in opening practice at COTA; Max Verstappen third

F1 practice Friday Austin
ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

AUSTIN, Texas — Mercedes drivers Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton were both quicker than F1 rival Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing in the first Formula One practice Friday at Circuit of The Americas.

Bottas was fastest in the first session for Sunday’s U.S. Grand Prix as Hamilton and Verstappen went 2-3. The Mercedes power surge on a track where its cars have dominated shows the work Verstappen must do Sunday to hold his slim championship lead. Verstappen leads Hamilton by six points with six races to go.

Qualifying is Saturday. Bottas will take a five-place grid penalty in Sunday’s race because of an engine change.

The Texas race is the first of a two-part swing in North America as the series heads next week to Mexico City. Both races were canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Mercedes has dominated the Austin track, winning five times since it opened in 2012. Hamilton has won four of those races and teammate Bottas won in 2019.

Verstappen is chasing his first championship. Hamilton has seven. An eighth would push Hamilton ahead of Michael Schumacher for the most in series history.

The U.S. Grand Prix is not a must-win race for Hamilton, and the seven-time champion brushed off such a suggestion Thursday even as he trails in the title fight to Verstappen, who should be favored at Mexico City in the next round.

Verstappen is a two-time winner in Mexico City, where Formula One races Nov. 7 and the Red Bull team has been dominant. But up first is Sunday’s race. Hamilton calls COTA his “happy hunting ground” because he’s won five times in Texas.

In the latest PointsBet odds, Hamilton is heavily favored to win Sunday.

“It’s important to win every race somehow, you know, maximizing our points, that’s our goal over these next six races,” Hamilton said Thursday. “It’s going to be incredibly difficult and there will be moments where we can perhaps edge (Red Bull) out. I don’t like to assume that Mexico is not going to be strong but they are usually very strong in Mexico.”

The series has returned to Austin for the first time in nearly two years with a thrilling title fight between upstart Verstappen and the superstar Hamilton. He clinched his 2015 and 2019 titles at COTA, and Hamilton has won in five of F1’s eight races at the track.

Verstappen, a seven-time winner this season, hasn’t won at COTA but has been good. His sensational drive in the rain to fourth as a 17-year-old rookie with Toro Rosso in 2015 unveiled his potential as a championship contender. He finished second in 2018 and third in 2019.

Teammates could play a huge role Sunday.

Bottas drove his Mercedes to victory ahead of Verstappen in Turkey two weeks, and won in Austin in 2019 from pole position. Red Bull will need Sergio Perez running near the front to help Verstappen keep pressure on both Mercedes drivers.