The F1 Mexican Grand Prix, with its high altitude and rear-limited corners, has long favoured the design philosophy of Red Bull Racing. It’s no surprise then that the Milton Keynes outfit were the favourites for taking pole position and the win. But just like the US Grand Prix, there was a role reversal with Red Bull falling short and Mercedes taking the honours in Q3.
This set the scene for a race that displayed a battle rather than a procession. And while Max Verstappen pulled a remarkable move to take the lead into Turn 1, the rest of the race focussed on the question of whether hometown hero Sergio Perez could overcome Lewis Hamilton. Let’s take a closer look at this as well as the impressive performances of Pierre Gasly and Sebastian Vettel.
Despite all the blood sweat and tears poured into maximising performance on a Saturday, pole position isn’t always all that it’s cracked up to be. With a long run down to Turn 1, the slipstream and clean side of the track can prove to be a formidable ally for the driver starting in P3. For this reason, Valtteri Bottas had everything to lose and Max Verstappen had everything to gain.
Figure 1 showcases the throttle, brake and speed traces for Bottas, Hamilton, Verstappen and Ricciardo. All drivers have a good launch with Ricciardo being the largest benefactor of the slipstream. As the drivers approach the braking zone, it is Verstappen who is the last to brake as evidenced by both the brake and throttle traces. As a result, the Dutchman can carry significantly more speed through the entry phase of the corner. Verstappen also benefits from taking the wide line on the outside, while Bottas and Hamilton are forced to take a tighter approach. All these factors give Verstappen the advantage needed to claim the lead of the race.
As this is happening, Ricciardo makes a mistake by locking up his front tyre on the approach to Turn 1. Ricciardo is on the inside of the track, more so than both Hamilton and Bottas while carrying the same speed as Verstappen who was on the outside. Ricciardo isn’t able to slow the car appropriately and tags Bottas’ rear sending him into a spin. While the Australian suffered a broken wing, Mercedes suffered a strategic blow as Bottas fell to the back of the grid. Now, Hamilton was left to fight both Verstappen and Perez alone.
F1-Perez Takes the Fight to Hamilton
Once Verstappen had the lead, he never looked back. The Dutchman’s pace was relentless and is highlighted in Figure 2 with Verstappen’s line steadily diverging away from Hamilton. And while Hamilton was losing ground to Verstappen, he was also falling into the clutches of hometown hero Perez.
With the gap closing between laps 25 to 28, the opportunity for an undercut opened up. However, this needed to be measured against the hypothetical position on track after pitting. An undercut strategy has the greatest probability of success when the executing driver can maximise the advantage of fresh tyres with clean air. The average cost of a pitstop in Mexico is roughly 23 seconds. Had Perez pitted on any of the laps between 25–28, then he would have risked returning to the track behind Carlos Sainz in P6. This traffic is problematic as Perez would be adversely affected by the dirty air of the cars ahead which could nullify the advantage of the new tyres relative to Hamilton.
The other risk with the undercut is that a failed attempt will take the pressure off the other driver. This could open up the door for Hamilton to go long and attack Verstappen in this way. Figure 3 also shows that Perez’s trend pace during laps 25 to 28 was also superior to Hamilton’s. For these reasons, it made sense for Red Bull to keep Perez out and apply pressure to Hamilton. The longer Mercedes left Hamilton out, the lower the risk of Red Bull attempting an undercut later on as the problem of traffic falls away.
Knowing this, Mercedes opted to pit Hamilton on lap 29 despite falling behind Pierre Gasly and Charles Leclerc (but only for part of a lap for Leclerc). Hamilton then pushed hard the next few laps to ensure the position was safe from Perez’s pit window. With the undercut opportunity now closed, the ball was in Red Bull’s court on strategy.
Red Bull opted to extend the first stint long enough to provide Perez with enough of a tyre life offset to be able to attack Hamilton. Having benefitted from clean air running, Perez pitted on lap 40 as this would allow the Mexican to rejoin the track in clean air ahead of Sainz while also not impeding Verstappen. With this, Perez was able to push hard on the second stint to try and attack Hamilton for P2.
There were a few opportunities where Perez was within the DRS range of Hamilton due to the effect of backmarkers. But it isn’t easy to overtake in Mexico. Hamilton was able to use track characteristics and optimise his defensive driving to hold off Perez’s late push.
F1-Gasly Unphased by Ferrari’s Double Threat
It was another strong race for Gasly, finishing P4 and bringing AlphaTauri level with Alpine in the constructor’s championship. The Frenchman survived the carnage of Turn 1 and delivered strong pace on the first stint as shown in Figure 4. With both Leclerc and Sainz pursuing in P5 and P6, Ferrari opted for a two-pronged attack: with Charles pitting early for an undercut to pressure Gasly and Sainz going long for the overcut.
The strategy was successful in that it forced AlphaTauri to respond and pit Gasly thus removing the option of extending the first stint. This would allow Sainz to pursue an aggressive second stint similar to the approach taken with Perez. However, despite this, Gasly’s pace remained resolute as shown in Figure 4 above. While Sainz was able to close the gap meaningfully, he was not doing so at the required rate to pose a credible overtake before the end of the race. Ferrari then opted to swap positions to not disadvantage Leclerc who only pitted early for the sake of the pincer movement.
F1-Vettel Leads the Old Guard
Vettel had a decent showing in Mexico, leading the old-timers to finish in P7. Figure 5 shows that the German had consistently impressive pace throughout both stints. Even though Fernando Alonso also showed decent pace, the Spaniard lost out relative to Vettel while extending his first stint during laps 34 to 39. Vettel was also helped by the fact that the early stop for Antonio Giovinazzi meant he could push more competitive lap times in clean air.
F1-Watchpoints for the Next Grand Prix
Verstappen extends his lead over Hamilton in the championship with 4 rounds remaining. While Hamilton still trails in the championship, a P2 finish at a Red Bull favoured circuit is a solid result. The next stop is Brazil which features some tight and twisty corners — favouring Red Bull — as well as the long rising straight — favouring Mercedes.
Sao Paulo is also known for its unpredictable weather which could spice things up, especially given the sprint qualifying format of the weekend. The constructors battle between Ferrari and Mclaren as well as Alpine and AlphaTauri remain tantalising. There is still so much to play for in this nail-biting season. See you for part 2 of the final tripleheader.
Author and graphics: Ekagra Gupta – @_ProjectF1