And then there were four. The Mexico City Grand Prix has come, impressed, and gone with Max Verstappen getting the better of Lewis Hamilton and edging closer to the title.
I for one cannot stop replaying the first lap’s “three-into-one” and that stupendous late-brake executed by Max Verstappen.
With all the hype around Red Bull and how their package should fit perfectly into the high-altitude environment of Mexico’s Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez, the weekend buildup was in line with the expectations, as bar FP1, the RB16B was the car every Formula 1 driver would have loved to be in for Sunday’s race.
Qualifying was a shocker, as the sixth tenths advantage the Bulls had over Mercedes in FP3, evaporated by Q3, and with the Academy Award-worthy support role of Yuki Tsunoda, Verstappen and local hero Sergio Perez ended up on the second row, bewildered, but no less so than the Mercedes duo, who were disbelieving of their front-row lockout.
Thus the stage was set for another electrifying race, because for one, having a pissed off Verstappen with a vendetta behind you is every F1 driver’s nightmare, in this case Lewis Hamilton and his Wingman’s.
And their nightmare became a reality as they tripped over each other going into Turn 1, while Verstappen took the lead and drove into the distance, with Hamilton from thereon worried about another nightmare, the chance that Red Bull’s Perez wingman beats him to second.
Well, the Mexican ultimately didn’t beat the seven-time World Champion who saved face by keeping the Mexican at bay, much to the disappointment of the partisan sell-out crowd.
No wait, they didn’t look disappointed, as even third was good enough for a celebration starring Checo’s proud father, and rightfully so considering his son was facing unemployment 12 months ago, but instead became the first Mexican to grace the podium of his home grand prix.
Enough of party talk, let’s have a look at our takeaways from the 2021 Mexico City GP.
Mercedes: The threat from within
As mentioned before, I have watched the race start over and over, trying to make sense of how the Mercedes drivers managed to mess up their launch so spectacularly.
Now clearly Bottas was generous with the space he kept for Verstappen on his left, and that’s a huge mistake. You don’t give Verstappen any space.
The Dutchman obliged and that late-brake – yes I am talking about it again – was just sublime. To have that much control on a fully fueled car, with brakes and tyre temperatures nowhere near optimum, on a track where downforce is a premium is just masterful. And his reward: Leading the race to the flag.
Now back to Bottas. Was what he did malicious? Or plain stupid? I am leaning towards the latter. But honestly, regardless of the reasons, the Finn’s manner of handling the start should be a cause of worry within the Mercedes camp, as they can no longer lean on the “Perfect Wingman” to help deliver that eighth Drivers’ Crown to Hamilton, regardless of the future Alfa Romeo driver’s motives.
Why not malicious? Well I tend to believe that there would have been some contract clauses or conditions that made sure Bottas will play the team game and keep taking “ones” for the team whenever the need arises.
Plus, should Mercedes retain the Constructors’ title, wouldn’t there be a generous bonus for the Finn for playing part in that success? Most probably yes.
Forget about driving for passion, F1 drivers drive for money as well, and will be keen to accumulate as much as they can before retiring at a relatively young age.
Plus, a driver who gets stuck all race behind a slower car in the form of Daniel Ricciardo’s “damaged” McLaren, while driving a Mercedes W12, does not have that killer instinct nor the capacity to act malignantly.
Nevertheless, Hamilton is on his own henceforth.
Hamilton shows his class yet again
Though it was Verstappen who won the race, his hard work was concluded on Lap 1, as from then, the guy was just cruising and managing his race, even messing with Bottas who was trying to take the fastest lap away from him.
But the driver who had to work hard all race was Hamilton.
The freakish loss of pace Red Bull suffered during Q3 vanished during the race, and the Bulls sprouted their wings on race day and simply soared. Hamilton was smart enough to know that he has no chance of winning the race unless Verstappen crashed or broke down.
The target was to avoid humiliation at the hands of his title rival’s wingman, who is known for being a master of tyre preservation, and with a formidable car as his RB16B, not to mention his home crowd cheering him on, was more than capable to overtake Hamilton, who was in a slower car on older tyres.
But then Hamilton showed for the umpteenth time why he has seven F1 Championships to his name, driving beautifully on his worn tyres, while maneuvering the traffic created by the lapped cars shrewdly, without the slightest hint of a mistake.
Perez may have been voted driver of the day, but Hamilton delivered the “Drive of the Day”.
Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz
In my Takeaways column from the Russian Grand Prix, I touched on the intra-team dynamics at Ferrari, with Carlos Sainz getting comfortable within his Red environment, and starting to threaten Charles Leclerc’s throne.
Mexico gave us another hint that animosities might be developing within the Scuderia.
Sainz was comfortably faster than Leclerc in Mexico and out-qualified him on Saturday. However, the Spaniard lost out in the first lap melee and emerged from it behind his teammate.
He then ran deeper on his tyres and by the end of the race was faster than the Monegasque who was duly ordered to let him by, to try and have a crack at overtaking Pierre Gasly who was running a strong fourth.
Leclerc’s silence over the radio after receiving the order was compelling, and what Sainz said over the team radio suggesting his teammate doesn’t want to let him by is further proof of the Monegasque’s mindset.
Eventually, Sainz failed to pass Gasly and swapped back with his teammate, and we can endlessly debate whether Leclerc delayed Sainz, hence his failure to pass the #10 AlphaTauri. But that would be pointless.
But just imagine if Sainz was able to pass Gasly… Food for thought.
- With the risk of sounding like a broken record, Pierre Gasly’s performance in Mexico went under the radar, but deserves a mention. Great qualifying, and not giving the two Ferraris even a chance to get close during the race is commendable.
- McLaren had a disastrous weekend despite recovering from their early pace deficit. They lost third in the Constructors’ to Ferrari who outscored them by 17 points, thanks to Ricciardo getting greedy on Lap 1, tangling with Bottas and ruining both their races, and not to mention Lando Norris’ off weekend compounded by the power unit penalty he received meaning he was only good for tenth.
- There are so many notes about Yuki Tsunoda’s rookie season, and honestly one cannot blame those who wonder what Helmut Marko sees in him. But let’s refrain from commenting on him now and maybe wait till next season, except that it’s not his fault that Perez followed him in his off-track excursion, ruining Verstappen’s final Q3 run. These things happen. Remember Bottas in 2019?
With how the Mexico City GP panned out, and the title battle building up towards the end of the season, it is great that we won’t have to wait long for the Brazilian Grand Prix. Off to Sao Paulo! (Follow me on Twitter @MallakJad)
That start matched the atmosphere on Sunday 👌
— Formula 1 (@F1) November 8, 2021