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
“VERSTAPPEN KNEW THE SQUABBLING BEHIND WOULD ALLOW HIM TO CONSOLIDATE”
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.
“YOU CAN FORGIVE RICCIARDO FOR HAVING THE AIR OF SOMEONE WHO WANTED TO WALK OUT”
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