Mex­i­can GP re­port and anal­y­sis

He may have lost sleep over a qual­i­fy­ing op­por­tu­nity gone beg­ging, but Max Ver­stap­pen was mighty when it mat­tered in Mex­ico


MAX VER­STAP­PEN WAS NOT A HAPPY MAN AF­TER MISS­ING OUT ON POLE PO­SI­TION FOR THE Mex­i­can Grand Prix. The P2 marker board that he booted over with the nose of his Red Bull as he parked up at the end of the ses­sion was tes­ta­ment to that. But af­ter a fit­ful night of toss­ing and turn­ing, dur­ing which he man­aged only three hours of sleep, he brought his A-game not just to win, but to dom­i­nate a race that pre­sented very test­ing con­di­tions, and to up­stage newly crowned five-time world cham­pion Lewis Hamil­ton.

Ver­stap­pen blamed car prob­lems, specif­i­cally un­der brak­ing, for miss­ing out on pole. But the feel­ing was that he still had the speed to have beaten team-mate Daniel Ric­cia­rdo to first on the grid on a week­end where the high al­ti­tude of Mex­ico City played to Red Bull’s strengths – or, at least, mit­i­gated its weak­nesses. Still, while Ver­stap­pen’s Satur­day didn’t go as well as it should have done, he nailed it ev­ery step of the way last Sun­day. The rea­sons for Red Bull’s tremen­dous pace – Ver­stap­pen topped all three free prac­tice ses­sions and Q2 be­fore fall­ing short at the fi­nal hur­dle – lie in the unique de­mands of the track. At around 2225 me­tres, the air is ap­prox­i­mately 22% less dense. That equates to a pro­por­tional re­duc­tion in engine power for all man­u­fac­tur­ers and, since Re­nault doesn’t have the same poke as Mercedes and Fer­rari, that mit­i­gates its dis­ad­van­tage. The ERS pack­age re­mains as po­tent be­cause the MGU-K is an elec­tric mo­tor kick­ing out 160bhp, al­though the turbo has to work harder to try to cram as much oxy­gen into the engine as it can. Re­nault’s big­gest prob­lem ap­pears to be the V6 it­self, so at Mex­ico City there’s a weak­ness elim­i­nated. Be­yond that, with ev­ery­one forced to run ag­gres­sive wing pro­files that only de­liver Monza-es­que down­force in the thin­ner air, Red Bull’s aero ef­fi­ciency also helped. So too did a thor­oughly sorted me­chan­i­cal plat­form that al­lowed the car to be well-bal­anced straight out of the box and not take too much out of the tyres. This com­bi­na­tion is what led to Red Bull’s first front-row lock­out since the 2013 United States GP, be­fore the in­tro­duc­tion of the V6 turbo hy­brids. “Credit where credit’s due, Re­nault have pro­vided us with an engine this week­end in these con­di­tions that is com­pet­i­tive,”said

Red Bull team prin­ci­pal Chris­tian Horner af­ter the race. “that’s en­abled us to go head to head, lock out the front row and win the grand prix in a dom­i­nant fash­ion. “The­o­ret­i­cally, we should have had a one-two here. The al­ti­tude of this cir­cuit does con­strain some of our ri­vals and it puts Re­nault into a win­dow where they are com­pet­i­tive, which is why we put an aw­ful lot of fo­cus in this race in tak­ing the penal­ties [at pre­vi­ous races] to get an­other B-spec into the pool to have for this week­end.” Ric­cia­rdo had looked set to lead the charge for Red Bull in the race, but his jour­ney from pole to an ag­o­nis­ing re­tire­ment in the clos­ing stages while on for a bat­tling sec­ond started head­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion from the start when he bogged down. This al­lowed the fast-start­ing Hamil­ton, from third on the grid, to dive be­tween the two Red Bulls mo­ments af­ter the lights went out. There were con­cerns at Red Bull pre-race that the ex­tra poke of the Mercedes might al­low Hamil­ton to get past off the line, but Ver­stap­pen kept to the right of the track on the long run to Turn 1. That left Hamil­ton hung out to dry on the out­side line and con­tent to set­tle into sec­ond be­hind Ver­stap­pen. Ric­cia­rdo, mean­while, had Se­bas­tian Vet­tel chal­leng­ing him on one side and Valt­teri Bot­tas on the other. While Vet­tel backed out of it, Bot­tas toughed it out, only for Ric­cia­rdo to emerge from the right/left/right com­plex with third. Worse came for Bot­tas a few cor­ners later, when Vet­tel’s Fer­rari passed him af­ter light con­tact that put the Finn mo­men­tar­ily off the road. So Ver­stap­pen had ev­ery­thing set. All six of the lead­ing driv­ers, with Kimi Raikko­nen at the back of that group af­ter an early dal­liance with ‘Class B’leader Car­los Sainz Jr’s Re­nault, were start­ing on ul­tra­softs. But there were con­cerns about how the tyres would stand up, and it wasn’t long be­fore Mercedes started to strug­gle badly. Ver­stap­pen quickly built enough of a lead to en­sure that Hamil­ton didn’t have the DRS to at­tack with when it was ac­ti­vated af­ter the first two laps. By the end of lap seven, fol­low­ing the in­ter­rup­tion of a very brief vir­tual safety car to clear up Fer­nando Alonso’s re­tired Mclaren and some car­bon­fi­bre shards from the exit of Turn 3 – distributed when Es­te­ban Ocon clipped the back of Nico Hulken­berg’s Re­nault – Hamil­ton was still just 1.9s be­hind. Then things started to go wrong. Over the fol­low­ing three tours, Hamil­ton lost a sec­ond per lap to Ver­stap­pen and was drift­ing back into the clutches of Vet­tel. Ini­tially, he com­plained of a lack of rear grip, but then the real prob­lem set in: un­der­steer that ap­peared to ac­cel­er­ate the front-left grain­ing that many suf­fered. While Ver­stap­pen had hap­pily built up, then ex­ceeded, the 3.5s gap he was told was re­quired to be com­fort­able, Hamil­ton was in ex­cess of five sec­onds down when he pit­ted for su­per­softs at the end of lap 11, fol­lowed by Bot­tas. Mercedes had lit­tle choice but to do this, even though it would have put Hamil­ton be­hind Sainz

had the Re­nault driver not pit­ted on the same lap to get rid of the hy­per­softs on which he’d started. Since Hamil­ton wasn’t close enough to threaten a quick un­der­cut, Ver­stap­pen went a cou­ple of laps longer be­fore div­ing into the pits to switch to su­per­softs, while Red Bull brought Ric­cia­rdo in on lap 12 to at­tempt to un­der­cut past Vet­tel. At this stage, all three were told they were aim­ing to go to the end, al­though the tone of some of the com­mu­ni­ca­tions sug­gested this was far from cer­tain. Cru­cially, this phase of the race gave Ver­stap­pen the plat­form he needed. By the end of his out-lap he was 2.2s clear of Hamil­ton and run­ning third, with Vet­tel tem­po­rar­ily lead­ing from Raikko­nen. Ver­stap­pen picked off Raikko­nen be­fore Turn 1 on lap 15 thanks to hav­ing more grip through the fi­nal cor­ner; he was sub­se­quently re­minded to look af­ter the rear tyres, then as­sumed the lead when Vet­tel fi­nally stopped at the end of lap 17. Hamil­ton, be­hind, was al­ready not en­tirely happy with the grip lev­els and lost time pass­ing Raikko­nen, do­ing so af­ter at­tack­ing on the in­side into Turn 1 in a move he com­pleted two cor­ners later. Al­most im­me­di­ately, Fer­rari in­structed Raikko­nen to come in to the pits. When Ver­stap­pen led at the end of lap 18, he was 8.133s clear and told that all he needed to do was match the lap times of the cars be­hind. A few laps later Hamil­ton re­ported“i have no grip”, which meant that Ver­stap­pen couldn’t help but build his lead. On lap 27, Hamil­ton fell over 10s be­hind for the first time and be­gan to come un­der in­creas­ing pres­sure from Ric­cia­rdo. By this point in the race, Ver­stap­pen had a sig­nif­i­cant mar­gin and knew the squab­bling be­hind him would only al­low him to con­sol­i­date his lead. Dur­ing this phase of the race he was ut­terly in con­trol, with only the oc­ca­sional nudge from the pit­wall not to overex­ert the ma­chin­ery or the tyres as his strat­egy hov­ered be­tween one stop and two. But any peril con­nected to a pos­si­ble sec­ond stop was re­lieved by what was go­ing on be­hind, which al­lowed Ver­stap­pen to stop at the end


of lap 48 for a sec­ond set of fresh su­per­softs and still emerge with a lead of 5s over sec­ond place – now held by Ric­cia­rdo. Aside from the oc­ca­sional con­cerns that he might push a bit too hard while chas­ing fastest lap, which he did set briefly be­fore be­ing eclipsed mo­ments later by hyper-soft-shod Bot­tas, Ver­stap­pen stroked it to the fin­ish with­out ever look­ing like mak­ing a mis­take. Even­tu­ally, he crossed the line 17.316s clear of sec­ond-placed Vet­tel. While we’ve seen drives like this from Ver­stap­pen be­fore – his vic­tory on his Red Bull de­but in the 2016 Span­ish GP stands out for be­ing a great tyre-man­ag­ing per­for­mance – this is in­dica­tive of a driver ever more at ease with the de­mands of elite sport. He knew what he needed to do, even af­ter the qual­i­fy­ing er­ror, and ex­e­cuted the race beau­ti­fully. “The dif­fer­ence is I just lis­ten to my­self,” said Ver­stap­pen.“i do my own thing, even if there are a lot of things writ­ten I re­ally don’t care. My dad al­ways told me in go-kart­ing, back in the day, if I was maybe over driv­ing or some­thing he would al­ways tell me, ‘Max, even if you think you are not go­ing fast enough, it’s still fast enough. ’so, for my feel­ing, I just backed it out a lit­tle bit and that seems to make me a bit faster.” Since June’s Cana­dian GP, af­ter his desul­tory run of six races dur­ing which he squan­dered two vic­tory chances and made sev­eral other crit­i­cal mis­takes, Ver­stap­pen has been driv­ing beau­ti­fully. This vic­tory was as dom­i­nant as we’ve seen dur­ing 2018, which given the tax­ing tyre de­mands shows just how in con­trol he can be. But be­hind, the bat­tle was far more com­pli­cated. Sec­ond place was passed from Hamil­ton to Vet­tel to Ric­cia­rdo and then back to Vet­tel again, but ini­tially it was the Mercedes driver who fell by the way­side. On lap 39 of 71, Hamil­ton was passed by Vet­tel into Turn 2, then was baf­fled to be in­formed that Ric­cia­rdo was rapidly clos­ing the gap. The Aus­tralian at­tacked into Turn 1 eight laps later, Hamil­ton locked up, skated across the grass and headed back to the pits for an in­evitable sec­ond stop. With no su­per­softs left, Hamil­ton had to take on

ul­tra­softs that had been used for a run in qual­i­fy­ing; he had also handed fourth place to Raikko­nen, who was run­ning to the end. Vet­tel also opted to pit at the end of lap 47, re­join­ing in third be­hind Ric­cia­rdo on fresh ul­tra­softs. Ric­cia­rdo’s five-sec­ond ad­van­tage was quickly whit­tled down to next to noth­ing, a pass seem­ingly in­evitable. But re­mark­ably, he held firm, even find­ing the pace on 45-lap-old su­per­softs to take fastest lap for a time on lap 57. Ag­o­nis­ingly, a sus­pected clutch-bear­ing prob­lem then caused Ric­cia­rdo to grind to a halt, hand­ing the po­si­tion back to Vet­tel. Given how strong a drive this was (al­beit not quite at Ver­stap­pen’s level), and his ter­ri­ble luck in re­cent months, you can for­give Ric­cia­rdo for hav­ing the air of some­one who wanted to walk out of the pad­dock and not come back un­til pre-sea­son test­ing. This also pro­moted Raikko­nen to a solid – if anony­mous – third, with Hamil­ton com­ing home fourth. In the clos­ing stages, he summed up ev­ery­one’s feel­ings by say­ing:“it’s crazy that we’re not in this race, the car’s just… got no grip.”he fin­ished 1m18.738s off the lead, with his team-mate a whole lap down af­ter tyre trou­bles. So ex­actly what went wrong? Most driv­ers were strug­gling with grain­ing, usu­ally on the front-left tyre, al­though those with a more over­steery bal­ance did strug­gle at the rear, and Hamil­ton was no ex­cep­tion. But while other driv­ers were able to clear the grain­ing phase, the Mercedes driv­ers be­came stuck in an end­less spiral. Mercedes cer­tainly strug­gled to get the front tyres switched on, which con­trib­uted to the slid­ing over the sur­face that ex­ac­er­bated the grain­ing, but the team did not of­fer an im­me­di­ate an­swer to ex­actly why this was oc­cur­ring. Car bal­ance can have a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on grain­ing, and it’s pos­si­ble that the un­der­steer Hamil­ton re­ferred to as early as the pre-grid laps was the source of the prob­lem. This also raises the pos­si­bil­ity that Mercedes went for this bal­ance to pro­tect the rear tyres af­ter a dif­fi­cult Fri­day in higher track tem­per­a­tures; we could also take into ac­count the ef­fect of Mercedes’con­tro­ver­sial wheel­rims, which had been de­clared le­gal by stew­ards when Mercedes asked, though the team elected not to use them for fear of later protests. Un­der­steer can also be cre­ated to pro­tect the rears. What­ever the cause, Mercedes has some­times strug­gled to get the tyres work­ing this year, and in the con­di­tions in Mex­ico it just wasn’t at the races. This was still a Mercedes team go­ing badly on an out­lier cir­cuit dur­ing a sea­son that has now al­ready de­liv­ered the driv­ers’ cham­pi­onship for Hamil­ton and, all things be­ing equal, will bring the con­struc­tors’crown too. Hamil­ton didn’t want to win the ti­tle with a fourth place, but that takes none of the sheen off a re­mark­able achieve­ment from a driver who is get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter. He is also one who looks well equipped to take on the best of the next gen­er­a­tion, ex­em­pli­fied by Ver­stap­pen, who showed ev­ery­one that he’s ca­pa­ble of mak­ing a dif­fi­cult race look easy with his vic­tory.


Ver­stap­pen snatched the lead at the start un­der huge pres­sure

Hamil­ton’s Mercedes suf­fered from grain­ing on both front wheels

Hamil­ton had no grip, and no an­swer to Vet­tel as he swept past

Ric­cia­rdo’s re­tire­ment put paid to Red Bull’s hopes of a one-two

Both Mercedes driv­ers skit­tered over the grass late in the race

Vet­tel broke off post-race in­ter­views to con­grat­u­late Hamil­ton for his ti­tle win

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