Ferrari will lock out the front row of the grid at the Mexican Grand Prix but it was Max Verstappen who controversially set the fastest lap.
The Dutchman overcame his own pessimism about Red Bull Racing’s chances to look comfortably fastest of all in Q3, but a flagrant disregard of waved yellow flags warning drivers of Valtteri Bottas’s last-corner crash at the end of qualifying — combined with some post-session arrogance to boot — earnt him a three-place grid penalty on safety grounds.
The crime was inarguable, particularly after Verstappen admitted to not slowing for the crash during the post-race press conference, and thereby handed Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel first and second on the grid respectively, with Lewis Hamilton bumped up to third.
It’s the first time Ferrari has taken six poles in a row since 1974, but it gives the team a serious headache for the race and the long run down to the first braking zone.
The slipstream potential is substantial, and combined with the massive cooling advantage of running in the lead in the thin air at high altitude, taking first place out of the first corner could be immensely rewarding.
Therefore Vettel from P2, as opposed to Leclerc on pole, is theoretically best placed to take the lead at the first turn.
Ferrari has been here before. The Russian Grand Prix, ironically with an identical 890-metre run from pole to the first braking zone, was a flashpoint in this regard. A pre-race agreement had Leclerc cede the lead to the slipstreaming Vettel understanding that the German would subsequently hand the position back, but Vettel reneged, forcing the team to use strategy to swap places.
However, Leclerc said before qualifying that Ferrari was prepared to engage in such place-swap tactics again if it would benefit the team, making for a fascinating fight into the first turn if both drivers start cleanly.
|2019 MEXICAN GRAND PRIX GRID|
Distance: 4.304 kilometres
Lap record: 1:18.741 (Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 2008)
Tyre stress: Medium
Lateral load: Low
Asphalt grip: Low
Asphalt abrasion: Low
Downforce: Very high
Safety car probability: 50 per cent
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 377.1 metres
Pit lane time loss: 16.996 seconds
Fuel use: 1.38 kilograms per lap
Tyres: C2 (hard), C3 (medium), C4 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta: Hard–0.6 seconds–Medium–0.9 seconds–Soft
Strategy is always difficult to predict at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez. Although this is F1’s fourth year here since the sport’s return to Mexico, teams continue to grapple with the high-altitude conditions with only mixed success.
At 2.2 kilometres above sea level a car produces around 25 per cent less downforce despite running maximum wing at a circuit that would at sea level demand only a moderate aero setup.
|Soft (C4), 6 laps|
|Red Bull Racing||1:21.836|
|Haas (4 laps)||1:23.573|
|Williams (2 laps)||1:23.702|
This puts emphasis on maximising mechanical grip, but with long straights and a combination of slow, medium and fast corners, the optimal setup is a compromise between a softly sprung car that can ride the kerbs and a stiffer setting that will be more beneficial in the higher-speed sections.
The bottom line of the equation is tyre wear. The tyres bear the brunt of the compromise, with sliding generating graining so severe that free practice data suggested the race could be as many as four stops.
This is misleading, however. More realistic is that the race will feature more significant management than usual, as was the case last year. This is doubly likely given the thinner air means cars cool themselves less effectively, requiring less aggressive use of brakes and engines.
Moreover, the little-used track will be in better condition on Sunday than Friday or Saturday. The asphalt was cleaned by rain on Thursday and Friday night, but the forecast is for a dry Saturday night, which means more rubber will remain on the surface and thereby reduce tyre wear.
How will this influence the race?
It’s notable all three top teams used the medium tyre to qualify for Q3, bypassing completely the fragile soft. All three teams are closely matched on the yellow-marked compound, with just over a second separating the trio.
|Medium (C3), 7 laps|
|Red Bull Racing||1:21.804|
|Racing Point||No data|
Pirelli suggests the fastest strategy will be a medium-medium-hard two-stop, but interesting to see will be whether any of the top six drivers extend their first stint and adopt the hard compound at the first stop to keep a one-stop strategy available to them if race pace is slow. Only Mercedes has decent data on the hard tyre, putting it at a potential advantage here.
If either Ferrari leads at the first turn, it’s difficult to envisage either Mercedes or Red Bull Racing overhauling them without such a divergent strategy given the Scuderia’s immense straight-line speed despite its deficiency through the corners. There are three DRS zones in Mexico, but the thinness of the air means the slipstream — and therefore the reduction in drag the DRS offers — is of reduced effectiveness, only further benefitting Ferrari.
Elsewhere, the McLaren and Toro Rosso pair will have to start the race on the soft tyre while those starting from 11th and lower will have free choice and will likely start on a more durable compound. This is nominally a disadvantage, though three of the four who were forced to do likewise last year scored points. Carlos Sainz would’ve done likewise to make it four from four had he not retired after 28 laps.
The undercut will rely on tyre warm-up given the lack of downforce to put energy through the tyres, which means the overcut could be available for drivers switching from a soft compound to a harder one.