The Mexican Grand Prix Strategy Report podcast features Channel 4 F1 commentator Ben Edwards.
The Mexican Grand Prix has long been a bit of a Mercedes bogey race owing to the unusual conditions brought about by high altitude, but this year Lewis Hamilton banished the German marque’s bad memories with a perfectly judged victory.
But despite his win and teammate Valtteri Bottas’s third race, this is another weekend Mercedes looked unlikely to reap any major rewards. Charles Leclerc took Ferrari’s seventh pole position of the season — owing in part to Max Verstappen’s qualifying penalty for ignoring yellow flags in Q3 — to lock out the front row with Sebastian Vettel, giving credence to forecasts of Italian supremacy. Yet for the third race in succession the team somehow managed to walk away winless.
Mercedes’s victory was decided by retaining greater strategic flexibility during the race, allowing it to respond to the conditions, but so too did doing its homework on Friday benefit it greatly — and likewise some of the midfield teams, who picked up during practice that the hard tyre could form the backbone of the race.
Every year Formula One wheels out some well-worn clichés about the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, in particular words to the effects of “wings like Monaco, downforce like Monza”. But at 2.2 kilometres above sea level, the thinness of the atmosphere plays a crucial role in the entire weekend.
At such altitude the air is around 22 per cent less dense, which means the car produces a corresponding lack of downforce and is less easily cooled by the same figure. Less downforce means cars struggle to put energy through the tyres and are instead liable to overheat the surface as the rubber slides around on the tarmac. It’s the overwhelming deciding factor when it comes to tyre usage.
Cooling is also critical, particularly when it comes to brakes given brake ducts can only be enlarged so much before they have a disproportionate effect on aerodynamics. When the brakes aren’t being managed, the power unit is being pared back to ensure this too doesn’t suffer overheating.
The Mexican Grand Prix is therefore a race of management, which means whoever can make best use of what little tools are left at that altitude normally holds an advantage that proved difficult to overhaul through the weekend.
Ferrari had the engine to overpower the competition — though it would have been interesting to see how the race would have unfolded had Max Verstappen started from pole — but it hadn’t done the preparation, having not brought enough hard-compound tyres to the weekend to evaluate during practice. It was far form the only team to do so this weekend or at others, but it would prove a key missing piece of information.
Mercedes, on the other hand, had conducted a simulation on the hards during second practice on Friday — as had Racing Point, Renault, Toro Rosso and Alfa Romeo, and all bar the last-named team benefitted from recognising the compound’s strengths during the race.
Banking on the life of the hard tyre proved fundamental to Hamilton’s victory.
The race-winning move
Hamilton was running fourth early in the race after recovering from a first-lap tangle with Max Verstappen, albeit having picked up damage to his floor. He moved up to second when Alex Albon and Leclerc stopped on laps 14 and 15 respectively — more on that later — but was unable to make an impact on Vettel in the lead.
Two things happened at this point. Mercedes knew it would have to try something different to Ferrari if it were to take the lead, and it had observed Daniel Ricciardo, who started on the hard tyre, and Verstappen, who had switched to the same compound on lap five owing to a puncture, enjoying very low tyre wear on the white-striped Pirelli.
Combining these observations with its own knowledge of the hard tyre, it brought Hamilton in on lap 23 for a 48-lap stint on the most durable Pirelli compound.
It effectively undercut the leading Ferrari, but Vettel, having beautifully managed his mediums up to that point, decided with the team to build an offset to take advantage of what he assumed would be Hamilton’s tyres falling off the cliff in the final phase of the race.
It was a misjudgement. Ferrari had missed the durability of the hard tyre and had handed Hamilton track position in the process, putting Vettel in a position to have to push late in the race to try to close what became a 15-second gap to the Mercedes and pass for the lead. It was too significant a gap and cost the team the race.
Leclerc was cooked early
Still, at least Vettel remained in contention for victory, at least theoretically, late into the race. Ferrari had already blown Leclerc’s chances on lap 15.
Ferrari was certain early that the race would require two stops — so certain that it brought in Leclerc early to cover Alex Albon and switched him to the medium tyre, meaning there was no way for him to extend and convert to a one-stop, even if it would have meant a very long final stint.
This desperately hamstrung his race, but the final nail in his coffin came at his second stop on lap 43, which was slowed by a problem switching his rear-right tyre. The stop was measured at 6.2 seconds, around four second slower than it should otherwise have been.
The Monegasque drove admirably, if not a little scrappily, to make up the 17-second gap to Hamilton with 28 laps remaining and ended 6.3 seconds adrift. Whether he would have been able to pass Bottas and his teammate to contend for victory is impossible to answer, but had his stop not been so slow, he would have had a real chance at the podium.
Ricciardo gambles on hards, wins big
Daniel Ricciardo had one of the grand prix’s standout drives thanks to his unique strategy, starting on the hard tyre and running deep into the race to end his afternoon with a blast on the medium compound.
Renault was one of the above-mentioned teams to have done practice work with the hard tyre, and Ricciardo, starting behind teammate Nico Hulkenberg outside the top 10, was given the alternative strategy, with the German and everyone else with free tyre choice starting on the medium compound.
He made rapid progress to put himself sixth by lap 20, and by the time he stopped on lap 50 he’d been impressive enough tot have built a gap sizable enough to the rest of the field to lose only two places, to Sergio Perez and Verstappen, behind whom he finished the race.
The hard tyre was (almost) always rewarding
Perez and Hulkenberg were likewise beneficiaries from betting long with the hard tyre, making their switches from medium to hard on laps 20 and 18 respectively. In Racing Point’s case it was perfectly judged, with Perez having just enough life left to defend against Daniel Ricciardo to the end, but Hulkenberg was just about caught short — though he would have finished ninth had he not been tapped into a spin by an overly eager Daniil Kvyat on the final lap.
McLaren, though, stands as an anomaly. Carlos Sainz, forced to start on the soft tyre from P7, made a switch to the hard compound on lap 15 after demonstrating strong pace during his first stint couldn’t extract any pace from the more durable compound and wallowed in the midfield until a second stop on lap 35 for the medium tyre, which he ran to the end. McLaren was one of several team to have not completed any serious hard-tyre practice on Friday.
The winner’s strategy
Lewis Hamilton: medium (used) to lap 23, hard (new) to lap 71.