Max Verstappen is closing in on his first Formula 1 world championship, and with a dominant performance in the Mexico City Grand Prix the Dutchman and Red Bull Racing stamped their authority on the 2021 season.
It was by no means a classic race, and the battle for the lead was effectively finished after the first turn, so well was the RB16B suited to the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez. The very characteristics Red Bull Racing mastered made it difficult for action to bloom, and there was little to catch the eye through the field after the pit stops.
Lewis Hamilton’s defence of second place against Sergio Perez was one of the few points of tension, the Briton salvaging 18 points in a final-lap skirmish that kept Perez’s home fans on the edge of their seats. The Mexican may have fallen fractionally short, but his hugely popular home podium shattered any illusions of Mercedes security atop the constructors standings.
On paper this is the circuit Mercedes feared most this season, and though it’s returned worse results in 2021, its trepidation was fell founded, and title rival Red Bull Racing was comfortably quicker for almost the entire weekend.
The thin air at high altitude was decisive, but not in all the ways expected. Mercedes proved its power unit inefficiency at altitude has been cured since F1 last races in Mexico in 2019 and was clearly quicker along the straights; instead its deficiency to the Bulls was all about downforce.
The Red Bull Racing philosophy brings inherently higher downforce, and in the rare air it was a boon, making it rapid through the corners and helping to protect the tyres from sliding and overheating during the race. It was an unbeatable package.
Or just about unbeatable. Imperfect execution in qualifying as the track warmed up to its highest reading of the weekend to date left it improperly prepared for the first laps in Q3, whereas Mercedes and in particular Valtteri Bottas were set up perfectly to extract maximum performance over a single lap.
When Perez and a slipstreaming Verstappen were caught out by an off-track Yuki Tsunoda — the Japanese driver was trying to get out of the way, but the Mexican was distracted by the dust thrown up in the run-off area — their second attempts were ruined as well, gifting Mercedes an unlikely front-row lockout.
That sort of alignment of stars was never going to be repeated for 71 laps, and indeed Verstappen needed only one corner to right the wrongs of the previous day and deliver as he was always likely to.
THE RACE-WINNING MOVE
Verstappen’s sweep around the outside of Bottas and Hamilton looked easy thanks to his assumption of the racing line and the grip that came with it on the otherwise slippery circuit, but the risk involved shouldn’t be underestimated. Had either Mercedes driver not played it safe on the brakes after a weekend of lock-ups, one or the other could easily have run wide and T-boned the Dutchman as he exited the corner, potentially resulting in a devastating failure to finish.
But so too did Bottas’s so-so getaway and lacklustre defence of the racing line contribute to his easy passage into the lead.
Mercedes had hoped Bottas and Hamilton would get away equally well, allowing the Briton to quickly assume the slipstream behind Bottas and thereby prevent Verstappen from doing so. Instead the Mercedes duo ended up side by side on the run to the first turn, towing both Bulls.
This shouldn’t necessarily have been fatal, but it seemed Bottas was equally worried by Hamilton slipping into the lead as he was Verstappen. Rather than covering wide, he held the middle of the track, gifting Verstappen the racing line that catapulted him into the lead.
That Bottas then cut across the track onto the apex, forcing contact with the just-in-control Daniel Ricciardo and spinning himself backwards and down the field, only added insult to injury, and both Toto Wolff and Lewis Hamilton expressed their disappointment after the race.
The only risk to Verstappen’s lead came at the safety car restart, but knowing his advantage was in the corners rather than the straights, he hit the power through the last bend. Not only did that maximise the lag time in Hamilton’s reaction, but it opened up the gap immediately such that even the Mercedes’s straight-line speed couldn’t get Hamilton back on terms by the first term.
Hamilton wouldn’t see Verstappen again until the podium ceremony. The race had been won.
THE BATTLE FOR SECOND
With Hamilton sprinting off into the distance, it quickly became clear his race was to hold second from Sergio Perez behind, who judged perfectly his attack on Hamilton in the first stint, ensuring he kept in the Briton’s mirrors without damaging his long-term prospects.
The thin air makes overtaking difficult for three principal reasons: slipstreaming is less effective with less drag to negate; cooling is less effective, which means extended time in dirty air overheating the engine and brakes; and the tyres slide around thanks to the disrupted downforce of the wake.
That Perez hung close to Hamilton for so much of the race demonstrated not only how well set up the RB16B was for these conditions but also how good a judge he is of the tyres. In fact for most of the race he radioed his team that the rubber was coming to him the longer his stint ran when so many others complained of unrecoverable thermal degradation.
Hamilton was one of those, and so he stopped on lap 29, the earliest opportunity he had to try to avoid pitting into slower traffic — and even then he slipped behind Charles Leclerc, who luckily pitted out of his way the end of his out lap to grant him crucial clear air.
The temporary obstructions didn’t matter, however, for Perez had different ideas. He went another 11 laps, to lap 40, before changing tyres, winning him a tyre offset he would use to chase down second place late.
He closed his almost 10-second gap down to nothing by lap 60, but even with his substantial car advantage and fresher rubber he found passing difficult. The Mercedes, despite again struggling with overheating tyres, was just quick enough down the straights to keep Perez painfully out of reach in the key braking zones.
Traffic broke the battle up, only for Perez to lunge forward again on the final lap, but he couldn’t pin a move on Hamilton, and they finished in first-lap order.
THE FIGHT FOR FASTEST LAP
Mercedes did see Verstappen on track one other time, albeit briefly and through Bottas. The Finn couldn’t find his way back into the points given the difficulty passing here, and so when the end of the race neared he was deployed to take the fastest lap away from Verstappen, depriving him of the bonus point.
But when he stopped for softs on lap 65 he rejoined just behind Verstappen and now two laps down. With the grippier rubber he unlapped himself, but the inherently faster Verstappen then closed up behind him, forcing him to obey blue flags and ruining his lap.
Mercedes responded by bringing in Bottas again on lap 70 to get him clear air, and he was eventually able to set the fastest lap on the final tour. It was an important team play — Mercedes leads Red Bull Racing by a solitary point; it would have slipped to a tied second had Verstappen been allowed to score 26 points.
FERRARI SCORES BIG
Ferrari had a good feeling about Mexico, the team tending to perform strongly when high levels of downforce are required, and despite an average qualifying session, Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz found themselves fifth and sixth early in the race behind Pierre Gasly at the head of the midfield.
The Scuderia barely had the pace to match AlphaTauri, but Leclerc pulled the undercut trigger anyway on lap 30, forcing Gasly to cover. Sainz was then released to go long, stopping on lap 42 with the aim of using his tyre offset to chase down the Frenchman late.
It was a nice idea, and Leclerc switched positions to aid his way — albeit after three laps as they worked their way through traffic — but Sainz didn’t have enough laps to get the job done, and on the last lap he slowed substantially to hand back the place to his teammate.
But the result was strong nonetheless, and it catapulted Ferrari 13.5 points ahead of McLaren in third place on the title table thanks to the British team scoring just one point via Lando Norris.
ALFA ROMEO BITTERSWEET
Alfa Romeo took home its first points since the chaotic Russian Grand Prix and only its fifth top-10 finish of the year in Mexico courtesy of Kimi Raikkonen’s eighth place, but there was more on the table for the Swiss team after a cracking start by Antonio Giovinazzi.
The Italian got himself from 11th up to sixth on the first lap and dropped to seventh at the restart behind the Ferrari pair, and he spent his opening stint defending against the faster Aston Martin of Sebastian Vettel.
With overtaking difficult, the team attempted to bank the track position with an early switch to the capable hards and pulled the undercut trigger early, on lap 16. But the team’s timing was off, and it proved to be a crucial mistake.
Rather than emerging in clear air ahead of the battling Ricciardo and Bottas, he rejoined the race directly behind them — and the pair weren’t due to stop for a long time, having pitted at the end of the first lap after their crash.
Getting stuck behind the two faster cars killed Giovinazzi’s race, and he took the flag a deeply disappointed 11th