AUSTIN, Texas -- The U.S. Grand Prix is back this week at Austin's Circuit of the Americas, one of the most popular venues on the current Formula One calendar.
With the 2020 event cancelled due to the pandemic, COTA has pulled out all the stops to make this year's event a memorable one. The Austin race remains one of the drivers' favourites, as an event and as a race venue.
So much happens in the days preceding a race weekend -- here we will bring you the inside scoop from the paddock and shine a light on some of the smaller stories that might otherwise get drowned out throughout the build-up.
Aston Martin wins free throw challenge
Aston Martin topped F1's first Free Throw Challenge on Thursday as Lance Stroll and Sebastian Vettel beat drivers from rival teams to win $20,000 for charity.
Drivers from up and down the paddock joined NBA stars Dikembe Mutombo, Chris Bosh, Sean Elliott and Fabricio Oberto in taking part in the challenge on a purpose-built half court in the paddock, which doubled up as ESPN's open-air studio. The link-up between F1 and the NBA marked the start of a new partnership between the two sports and the chance for F1 drivers to show off their skills (or lack of them) in front of the rest of the paddock.
The drivers were given 10 attempts to score from the free-throw line, with the totals of each set of teammates combined to decide an overall winner. Stroll made six baskets while teammate Vettel sunk three, giving them the best overall score ahead of Haas's duo Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher and Alpha Tauri's pairing Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda.
Daniel Ricciardo racked up the best individual score with seven out of ten ahead of Stroll on six and Mick Schumacher on five. Williams driver George Russell was last overall after failing to score on any of his ten attempts.
ESPN will be broadcasting from the challenge area all weekend ahead of Sunday's United States Grand Prix.
Ricciardo's tribute to The Intimidator
Daniel Ricciardo has a packed schedule for the U.S. Grand Prix. McLaren CEO Zak Brown has come good on a promise he made to Ricciardo at the start of the season, that he would let him drive Dale Earnhardt's 1984 car -- part of Brown's personal collection -- if he scored a podium. Ricciardo obliged by winning the Italian Grand Prix last month.
Ricciardo's boyhood hero was Earnhardt, which is why he also drives with the number three on his car.
While Ricciardo's exhibition run will be in the blue and yellow Wrangler colours Earnhardt drove in the 1980s, his helmet design for this year's race borrowed another iconic Earnhardt look. The seven-time NASCAR champion drove in an all-black car, sponsored by GM Goodwrench, in what is arguably the colours most associate him with.
In place of Goodwrench Service Plus, Ricciardo's one-off lid carries the words "McLaren Service Plus". On the back, Ricciardo has his Honey Badger logo. Despite saying at the start of the F1 season he wanted to be his sport's version of the Intimidator, on Friday he said he wanted to leave that nickname with Earnhardt himself.
Ricciardo is one of a number of drivers running tribute helmets this weekend.
His McLaren teammate, Lando Norris, has gone all out with American colours for his, while Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas has taken inspiration from a mural in downtown Austin for his.
Charles Leclerc, Pierre Gasly and Tony Parker front row at the NBA last night 🤩 pic.twitter.com/Q79IEfYrRS— ESPN F1 (@ESPNF1) October 20, 2021
Verstappen's Netflix snub
Netflix's wildly popular Drive to Survive series faces the prospect of not having the insight of one of the two protagonists of the F1 title fight in its series on the 2021 Formula One season, with championship leader Max Verstappen opting not to give interviews to the show going forward.
Verstappen, who was named as F1's most popular driver by a survey of more than 167,000 fans published Thursday, believes the series has portrayed him as a villain in previous years and created false rivalries between drivers. He has previously complained about how it covered his collision with then-Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo at the 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
"I understand that it needs to be done to boost the popularity in America. But from my side as a driver, I don't like being part of it," Verstappen told The Associated Press ahead of the U.S. Grand Prix.
"They faked a few rivalries, which, they don't really exist. So I decided to not be a part of it and did not give any more interviews after that because then there is nothing you can show.
"I am not really a dramatic show kind of person; I just want facts and real things to happen."
Leclerc's travel exemption denied
Even F1 drivers run into travel issues occasionally, it turns out.
Charles Leclerc has been enjoying himself in America since arriving, taking in the opening game of the NBA season between the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets. On Thursday, the media day ahead of Sunday's race, the Ferrari driver revealed his NBA trip was actually a spot of improvisation.
While trying to leave France's Nice airport last week, Leclerc was stopped from boarding by an overzealous member of staff who did not accept his NIE (national interest exemption) which everyone involved in F1 this weekend requires to travel to America. Leclerc saw the funny side at the time, posting to social media that he had ended up in New York after catching the wrong plane.
"It was just one guy at the airport of Nice that for some reason didn't really know what an NIE was, and I got stuck there," Leclerc said.
"He only realised one minute before closing the flight that the NIE was OK, but I didn't have my passenger locator form, so I had to stay in Nice.
"But anyway, it's no big deal. With the same papers I could take a plane to New York, which helped me visiting this city for the first time."
Leclerc used the opportunity to take in the opening game of the NBA season.
"It was very cool, it wasn't actually planned," Leclerc said about his NBA trip.
"My NIE hadn't been accepted at the airport, so I couldn't take the original flight, so we changed the flight and went to New York last minute.
"I managed to spend one day in New York -- which was my first time, which was incredible, what a city. I really, really enjoyed it.
"And then I went to Milwaukee for the first NBA match of the season, which was crazy with the ceremony of the [Bucks' championship] rings too.
"Just an amazing experience."
Hamilton gets locked in his room
Lewis Hamilton was late for his news conference appearance on Thursday in Austin but came armed with a good excuse.
The Mercedes driver, who has won at the Circuit of the Americas five times, was getting ready for the news conference in Mercedes' hospitality when the door to his room slammed shut and locked from the outside.
"It's good to be back," he said after taking his seat mid-presser. "Sorry I am late! I got locked in my room. I couldn't get out. No joke."
Once seated, Hamilton said he had been impressed by F1's rise in the USA in recent years.
"I think we already knew from the beginning there was huge potential here. My first race in the U.S. was 2007, but I've already been to a NASCAR race, seeing how it is, been to an NFL game, an NBA game; they're crazy about sports over here, and there's never enough sports, they always want more, more action.
"The progress that I have seen over these years has been huge. Obviously, of course, in these past couple of years, it's been the steepest rise. More and more people are talking about it, more and more people are engaging.
"The amount of emails and messages I get from people that I've known for years in the States but never knew what I was doing and are now hooked and can't wait to come. I think a lot of them are coming this weekend. I think that's only good, it's a good thing, and it's great to see the response."