Verstappen Extends Championship Lead After Mexico Grand Prix Win
The Formula 1 World Championship returned to Mexico City after a pandemic-induced 1-year hiatus, as the battle between reigning champion Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen continued in Mexico’s bustling capital city.
Entering Mexico, the Red Bull team was expected to be strong at the high-altitude circuit due to the strength of the turbos on its Honda-powered engines. Past form also supported Red Bull's perceived advantage, as they had won both the 2017 and 2018 races at the circuit with a car worse than their 2021 competitor. However, this year has shown that past success at a circuit does not necessarily carry over, with Red Bull having won the United States Grand Prix that was expected to be a happy hunting ground for Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes.
However, when it came time for qualifying on Saturday, the expectations set on Red Bull were thoroughly ruined. The two Mercedes with Valterri Boltas on pole locked out the front row of the grid, with the two Red Bulls coming in behind them at third and fourth. While Red Bull never seemed to have the clear advantage that was expected of them throughout qualifying, both Verstappen and Sergio Perez’s laps were heavily compromised by Yuki Tsunoda of Alpha Tauri going off the track. While neither Perez or Verstappen were on pace to grab pole on the lap that was ruined by Tsunoda, Red Bull boss Christian Horner was quick to place the blame on Red Bull junior driver Tsunoda.
Nonetheless, Pierre Gasly, the other Alpha Tauri driver, had himself an excellent session, qualifying in fifth place. Just behind Gasly were Sainz, Ricciardo, Leclerc, Vettel and Räikkönen to round out the top 10. McLaren, who were in a fight of their own against Ferrari for third in the constructors championship, took an engine penalty on Norris as damage limitation against Ferrari, who were expected to be stronger than McLaren at Mexico.
However, with an 800 meter run down to the first corner, there was potential for any advantage gained by starting further up to be eliminated through the slipstream effect. This makes following cars faster as the lead cars deflect air and drag away. On Sunday at the start of the race, Verstappen was able to get alongside Bottas and Hamilton as the trio went three wide into the first corner. However, Bottas was tapped from behind by Ricciardo, sending him spinning as well as taking the McLaren’s front wing off. Following the safety car, Red Bull had all the advantage in a two against one situation with the two Red Bulls in front and behind the lone Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton.
Lewis Hamilton entered the pits for the hard tire compound on lap 29 followed by Verstappen, who came in for the same compound on lap 33, and Perez, who came in on lap 40 for hard tires. With Perez on 11 tires that were 11 laps younger than Hamilton's, he slowly began chipping away at Hamilton, closing a 12 second gap between the two over the remaining 31 laps. While Perez closed the gap to under a second with around 15 laps left in the race and was able to take advantage of the Drag Reduction System, he was never able to overtake Hamilton for second and ended the race in a close third. Nevertheless, Perez still became the first Mexican driver in history to lead a lap in the race and also finish on the podium which brough celebration to the 100,000 fans cheering on him at the race.
As the championship comes to an end, Formula 1 will have two consecutive race weekends in the next two weeks at the legendary Interlagos circuit in São Paulo as well as the brand new Losail circuit in Qatar. Following these races are the final two races which will be held back-to-back at the brand new Jeddah street circuit and the final race of the season at the Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi.
Verstappen, who leads the drivers’ World Championship with 4 races to go, is in prime position to win his first Formula 1 World Championship. Neither Red Bull nor Mercedes seem to have a clear advantage at the next four venues with two of them being complete unknowns. However, Interlagos should be another strong circuit for the Dutchman as he travels to a circuit where he has taken wins and pole positions in previous years.