MEXICO CITY — With four races remaining, Max Verstappen’s grip on the 2021 Formula One title is looking stronger than ever.
His ninth win of the season on Sunday moved him 19 points clear of Lewis Hamilton in the championship standings, with a maximum of 107 points (including those for the Brazil sprint race and fastest laps) left to play for.
It’s not over by any means, but as Verstappen heads to Brazil riding a wave of two consecutive victories, a continuation of his current form at the next two races could see him wrap up the title by the penultimate round in Saudi Arabia.
Even so, all three drivers on the podium had a reason to be happy in Mexico.
Verstappen’s victory was his ninth of the season and was secured with a remarkable Turn 1 overtake on both Mercedes cars. This circuit was always going to suit his Red Bull car, but after qualifying third behind the two Mercedes drivers he still had job to do and he executed it perfectly. If he is feeling any pressure from the championship battle, it isn’t showing in his driving.
Of course, Mercedes and Hamilton wanted to win the race after locking out the front row of the grid, but the pace of the two Red Bulls in the race meant it would have been easy for Hamilton to slip to third and lose a further three points to Verstappen. The task now facing Hamilton to secure his eighth championship is huge, but based on pure performance it could have been even bigger.
Arguably, Sergio Perez should have been the least happy of the three drivers after failing to pass Hamilton for second place in the final stint of the race, but it was impossible to keep the smile off his face after the 135,000-strong crowd engaged party mode to celebrate the first podium for a Mexican driver at the Mexican Grand Prix.
Why was Red Bull so much faster in the race?
Starting a race in first and second and finishing second and 15th is far from ideal, but the Mercedes car simply wasn’t a match for the Red Bull in Mexico over a race distance.
Mercedes surprised themselves with the performance of the car on Saturday, which it put down to finding a performance sweetspot from the soft compound tyres over a single lap. By contrast, Red Bull failed to unlock maximum performance from the soft tyres and by Saturday evening it had understood why.
But getting the tyres in the right performance window for a single lap is one thing, keeping them there for all 71 laps of the race is another, and the Red Bull was better equipped to look after its tyres over a race distance.
Differing car performance aside, the Mexican Grand Prix would also have been a lot more interesting had Verstappen not passed Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas at the start.
In Mercedes’ pre-race briefing, the team had envisaged Bottas leading the pack from pole position and giving Hamilton a slipstream down to the first corner. But when Bottas failed to get away from the line as cleanly as Hamilton, they were running side by side and offering a slipstream to the two Red Bulls behind.
When Bottas left a large gap on his left-hand side on the run to the first corner, it provided Verstappen with a clear shot at the lead. After the race it was evident that Hamilton was a little surprised at his teammate’s positioning.
“I’d envisaged it differently, naturally, in the sense that if Valtteri had maybe got a better start then I would have tried to get into his tow,” Hamilton said. “But obviously I was alongside him, which was good, and then I was just covering my side of the track, making sure no-one could come up the inside, so I was trying to keep whichever Red Bull I could see in my mirror behind.
“And I thought Valtteri would be doing the same — but obviously he left the door open for Max and Max was on the racing line, so did a mega job braking into Turn 1. Because I’m on the inside and on the dirt, there was no hope for me.”
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff went a step further, saying that Bottas simply left the door open for Verstappen.
“Yeah, that should not happen,” he said. “I think we had two cars in front and we seemed to open up the sea for Max to come around the outside.
“Even so, the spin afterwards and the complete loss of points with Valtteri’s car when it could have been a third or fourth place is annoying to say the least.”
But Bottas’ positioning shouldn’t take anything away from Verstappen’s overtake. It was the kind of move that defines him as a driver: aggressive, late on the brakes and making the seemingly impossible, possible. If he goes on to win the title in the coming races, overtakes like the one in Mexico City will be the reason why.
But let’s say he hadn’t got past Hamilton and Verstappen had slotted into second when Bottas was spun round by Daniel Ricciardo. Would a Mercedes victory have been possible from there?
“To be honest, most of the things that went wrong, went wrong in that very early part of the race,” Mercedes trackside engineer Andrew Shovlin said. “We didn’t have the fastest car, and without two cars and being able to use them tactically, it would have been a very difficult race to win.
“Max would have sat behind us, either we could have gone very very early [with our pit stop] or he would have been able to undercut us, but it was always going to be a challenge once we dropped back off the start.”
Once Hamilton dropped to second, it soon became clear that Verstappen had the sort of race pace that Mercedes couldn’t match. The track was hotter than it was on Saturday, which meant looking after the rear tyres was key, and that has emerged as a clear strength of the Red Bull in the second half of the season. The fact Hamilton managed to keep the Perez behind him over the remaining 70 laps was an achievement in itself.
In the first stint, Hamilton’s challenge was to make sure Perez didn’t get close enough to gain a strategical advantage. The moment Perez was within 1.5s of Hamilton, he had the potential to pit, take on fresh tyres and use the extra performance to undercut the Mercedes. Of course, Mercedes was aware of the threat from Perez and that is why it pitted Hamilton just as Perez got into the window where he could attempt the undercut.
But the fact Hamilton made it to lap 30 before pitting was crucial. In theory, Perez could have performed the undercut from lap 23 onward and still been able to make the end of the race. By keeping the Red Bull at bay and delaying the defence against the undercut until lap 30, Hamilton made life easier for himself in the second half of the race by minimising the tyre advantage Perez would have in the closing stages.
When Perez finally pitted on lap 41, he rejoined the track on tyres that were 11 laps younger than Hamilton’s, allowing him to close in on the Mercedes and have another go at overtaking. But it soon became clear that overtaking in Mexico City’s high altitude is not easy.
The thin air at 2,200 metres has two limiting factors on the cars when it comes to overtaking: the wings create less downforce and everything overheats. As a result of the reduction in downforce, the following car slides more when it is in the dirty air of the car in front and, in turn, that results in the tyres overheating as they scrub across the track surface.
The hotter the tyres get, the less grip they offer and the more they slide. The more they slide, the more they overheat and the less grip they offer, creating a negative spiral of performance that, combined with Mercedes’ straight-line speed advantage over the Red Bull, helped Hamilton keep Perez behind and secure second place.
Verstappen’s championship to lose?
In the past two races, the odds of Verstappen winning the title have shortened dramatically. His two performances in North America have not only been worthy of a world champion, they have built a robust lead in the standings just three races after he regained the top spot from Hamilton in Turkey.
The 23-year-old is now the clear favourite to be crowned champion.
But, as is always the case in sport, it’s not over until it’s over. Until it is mathematically impossible for Hamilton to win the title, Verstappen will not feel comfortable.
One blown engine or punctured tyre could still decide the championship, and for that reason, Verstappen is refusing to get ahead of himself.
“I don’t believe in momentum,” Verstappen said. “So, every single race we have to try and nail the details and we didn’t do that yesterday [inqualifying], so you know, things can go wrong very quickly, or can go right.
“So, it’s going to be really tight and exciting to the end. This has been always a track really good for us, so I expect Brazil not to be like it was today.”