AUSTIN, Texas — Lap by lap, Formula One’s best championship duel in years takes one dramatic turn after another.

The U.S Grand Prix has played a role in this tense title battle between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton with the championship rivals nipping at each other all weekend. The race is on Sunday but the two have done their part in F1’s much-hyped return to America.

The series is booming in the United States and a sold-out crowd of an expected 140,000 at the Circuit of the Americas will see points leader Verstappen lead his Red Bull at the start. He’ll be alongside seven-time champion Hamilton driving for a Mercedes team that has dominated this Texas course.

The two have gone back-and-forth since Friday practice when Verstappen flipped his middle finger at Hamilton in practice and called the five-time COTA winner a “stupid idiot.” Then Verstappen nipped Hamilton on Saturday’s last lap of qualifying by a whisper .209 seconds to snatch the pole.

So it will be the 24-year-old Dutchman out front at the start on Sunday at a track where Hamilton has dominated practically since the day it opened.

This race is important in the title fight because Mercedes has historically done so well. So Verstappen and Red Bull need to capitalize in Texas because Verstappen holds just a six-point lead in the standings with six races remaining.

The lead has seesawed several times this season as Verstappen tries to hang on in the chase of his first F1 championship. Hamilton is seeking a record eighth title, but this is his toughest challenge in years.

It sets up a potentially explosive start in front of a massive sold-out crowd that should be among the largest for a U.S. sporting event since the start of the pandemic.

“We’ve had a lot of good races this season,” Verstappen said, downplaying the nip-and-tuck nature of the season and the simmering tension in the title fight. “We’re all looking for another one.” (AP)