The Formula One driver championship is essentially decided, with leader Lewis Hamilton only needing score eight points more than Sebastian Vettel to clinch his fifth title. So, no, that’s not the close, exciting battle battle at this weekend’s U.S. Grand Prix. The real battle is Max Verstappen versus the kerbs.
Not only will the kerbs be a reminder of the painful steward ruling at Circuit of The Americas in 2017 that took away Verstappen’s hard-fought podium finish, a marker chipping away at his soul as each lap clicks by, but they’ll apparently also chip away at his car—a too-close encounter with one knocked him out of qualifying contention almost as soon as the session started.
Verstappen had a banner U.S. race last year, driving from 17th to third after a grid penalty started him in the back. He crossed the line with a podium thanks to a wild last-lap pass on Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen, but stewards knocked him back to fourth for “leaving the track and gaining an advantage.”
To prevent Verstappen from leaving the track to gain an advantage this year, F1’s governing body, the FIA, added some extra kerbs to the turns where he made the pass last year. The Circuit of The Americas Twitter account called them the Verstoppers, something the rest of us wish we’d come up with first but didn’t because we don’t get paid to make funny tweets about kerbs.
It didn’t take long for Verstappen to have a run in with his new mortal enemy, the kerbs at COTA, this weekend. It wasn’t the Verstoppers that got him—this time—but instead, it was a kerb also there last year in turn 15. Verstappen’s car slowed during the first session of qualifying, and it looked like a reliability issue at first. It must have felt like one, too.
“Something broke… driveshaft… something,” he radioed to his team.
But it wasn’t a reliability issue. It was a kerb issue that damaged Verstappen’s suspension to the point that the team didn’t get the car back out to make a run during Q2, so he automatically didn’t make it to Q3. Other teams warned their drivers to watch out in turn 15, while Verstappen’s car sat in the garage.
Verstappen’s contention with the kerbs landed him with a qualifying spot of 15th, while championship contenders Hamilton and Vettel topped the board in Q3. Hamilton’s on pole and Vettel second, in a race to decide whether Vettel can prolong Hamilton’s fifth championship clinch a little longer.
But the real contest here isn’t one between drivers. They tend to have a rather predictable finishing order anyway. It is, instead, a contest between man and kerb, and only time will tell who emerges victorious.