You’d have got long odds as late as Saturday morning on Mercedes taking pole position for the Mexico City Grand Prix, but come the end of Q3 Valtteri Bottas had turned the form guide on its head — if anyone’s bothering to refer to the prediction book these days.
Red Bull Racing had been the form team for the weekend right up until Q2, and even then its suddenly ordinary pace was put down to use of the medium tyre rather than any sign of weakness. Max Verstappen seemed almost certain of pole, with teammate Sergio Perez his only likely rival.
But a combination of warming track temperatures to throw off the balance, cracked rear wings held together with tape and sloppy execution on the final runs of Q3 — Perez’s now infamous non-coming-together with Yuki Tsunoda and its distraction of Verstappen’s last-gasp lap — meant the team badly underperformed, leaving Verstappen and Perez third and fourth.
It’s certainly ironic that what should have been Mercedes’s weakest circuit on paper delivered the team’s first front-row lockout of this deeply unpredictable season.
The story of the topsy-turvy session isn’t simply that Red Bull Racing botched its chance. Mercedes deserves commendations on several fronts.
First, it has clearly finally cracked its power unit weakness at altitude that has seen its speed advantage curtailed at every visit to Mexico to date. Its field-beating performance on the straights is a testament to this recovery.
Second, though it doesn’t have the downforce to match Red Bull Racing, it nailed its set-up to achieve optimum balance around an extremely difficult track to work on — or at least Valtteri Bottas did.
Bottas expertly let the warming and gripping-up conditions come to him through qualifying, resisting the urge to play with his set-up unnecessarily through the qualifying hour. The Finn’s well known for his affinity for low-grip conditions, but on Saturday he used his gut and instinct in a way we rarely see or that is otherwise overshadowed by Hamilton’s usually stronger performances. He deserves credit for that.
Finally, Mercedes judged Q3 well, ensuring its drivers had space on track to manoeuvre as they needed and avoiding the perils of traffic. There were two cars in the final segment on track purely to offer slipstreams to their teammates, and one of them ultimately got in Perez and Verstappen’s way. Mercedes’s drivers had no such issues.
It all amounts to a serious twist in this championship campaign, and what Mercedes was expecting to be a damaging weekend to its and Hamilton’s title chances is suddenly an opportunity to strike.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
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Distance: 4.304 kilometres
Lap record: 1:18.741 (Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 2018)
Track record: 1:14.759 (Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing, 2018)
Lateral load: low
Tyre stress: medium
Asphalt grip: low
Asphalt abrasion: low
Downforce: very high
Safety car probability: 40 per cent
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 379 metres
Pit lane time loss: 19.2 seconds
Fuel consumption: low
Tyres: C2 (hard), C3 (medium), C4 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.6 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.6 seconds
SETTING THE SCENE
Mercedes versus Red Bull Racing in a straight fight — exactly what the campaign has been calling four. And all four start on the same tyre — the medium compound, which means strategy will all be about timing of the expected sole pit stop.
But before either team can consider strategy, first they have to make it through the first corner, which comes after the second longest launch on the calendar.
At 811 metres from pole to the apex, there’s ample space for slipstreaming, which mean’s Mercedes’s front-row lockout isn’t as secure a qualifying result as it may first appear.
As is the case in Sochi, third is often the best place to be — directly behind pole to capitalise on the tow and on the clean side of the track — which is why Verstappen’s frustrations were easily moderated after qualifying.
It puts the onus on Mercedes to orchestrate its launch as best it can. Will Hamilton and Bottas work together to block the inside and outside lines into the first turn? Or might it be possible for Hamilton to slip behind Bottas if Verstappen has a suboptimal start?
The Mexico City Grand Prix will be a one-stop race, and starting on the medium tyre will give the top four — and almost everyone else, with only two drivers locked into starting on softs — a wide window in which to pull the trigger.
The results of the 2019 grand prix may prove instructive here. Lewis Hamilton, recovering from a lap-one crash with Max Verstappen, stopped early, on lap 23 or 71, to switch from medium to hard, and though it left him vulnerable late, it earnt him track position he could defend. A more ideal window would be closer to lap 30.
The first game among the top four will be who stops first — and how early they’ll choose to stop.
If Red Bull Racing is the aggressor, will Mercedes cover like for like, Hamilton on Verstappen and Bottas on Perez? Or will it instead try to run its own race, as it did in Austin, by giving Hamilton a more workable tyre offset?
Mercedes’s race pace on Friday was competitive enough, but counting against the idea of a Texas-style counterpunch is that overtaking is more difficult in Mexico. Especially with Red Bull Racing quicker through the corners, Mercedes will struggle to earn that time back via straight-line speed in time to make a move in the braking zone.
Track position is therefore likely to be valued principally, which will make calling the first stops a particularly nervy game.
The one-stop strategy is possible starting on the soft, albeit requiring more management, so keep an eye on Yuki Tsunoda and Lando Norris, starting from the back with penalties, who will have to start on the red rubber after using it to break into Q3.
It will offer them a strong launch, particularly if any of the lower midfield cars start on hards, but the objective will be to time the stop onto the hard just right — not so early that the tyre manages to complete the distance but early enough to spend time in clear air on the fresh rubber and effectively undercut the slower midfield cars and emerge, hopefully, knocking on the door for points after the stops shake out.
Given the length of the pit lane and the speeds achieved in the thing air hurtling down the main straight, a two-stop strategy isn’t fast enough to compete with a one-stop race.