Mexican Grand Prix: The soufflé that didn’t rise

We had all the ingredients for what should have risen to be a great race in Mexico, but it didn’t quite materialise for a variety of reasons.

The race was won because Lewis Hamilton was able to pit for a set of the hard tyres and manage and massage them with good pace for 48 laps.   -  AFP

Our commentator at Sky Sports F1, David Croft, used a very good phrase to describe the Mexican Grand Prix: “The soufflé that didn’t rise.” I thought that this was a really good summary because we had all the ingredients for what should have risen to be a great race, but it didn’t quite materialise for a variety of reasons.

First off, we’ve got to talk about Max Verstappen. He was blindingly fast on Saturday and showed once again that he is the master of Mexico. However, he made one crucial error on his final run by not backing off when passing Valtteri Bottas’ incident at the final corner in qualifying. As a driver, you know that not slowing down for an incident and the resultant yellow flag is one of the most basic rules that you can break. This is the same from karting to club racing and up to F1, and really as soon as Max saw the Mercedes in the wall, he should have aborted the lap as there was no way he was going to be allowed to keep that time. Crucially, nobody was going to beat him either, so he would have had pole position anyway from the first run. It was a silly error to make and one where there really isn’t any defence. That error would have big consequences as he — somewhat inevitably — got into a tangle at the opening sequence of corners and then got a puncture to fully ruin his race on a rare day when the Red Bull was a match for the Ferrari and Mercedes cars.

Ferrari will be pretty disappointed with that race. After running one-two for the first 15 laps, to finish second and fourth is not what they would have expected, but ultimately the Mercedes once again proved to be a better car on the Sunday. For whatever secretive reason, the Ferraris are unbelievably fast down the straights in qualifying, but don’t have as big an advantage over the rest when it comes to the races. This ultimately means that the Mercedes is still the better car but can’t always get pole position because of the Ferrari’s special power mode.

The race was won because Lewis Hamilton was able to pit for a set of the hard tyres and manage and massage them with good pace for 48 laps, fending off the one-stopping Sebastian Vettel and the two-stopping Charles Leclerc. Lewis had taken quite a bit of damage to the floor of his car on the opening lap of the race, and it was impressive to see how he was still able to deliver strong lap times all afternoon. That will make the aero department at Mercedes take note and perhaps think about the effects of that area of the floor.

The two-stop race clearly didn’t work for either Leclerc and Alex Albon, who went from first and third early on to finishing fourth and fifth, respectively. Albon got stuck in traffic on his out-lap, which somewhat ruined his strategy, and Leclerc had a slow second stop, which didn’t help, but either way it didn’t seem like he would end up in front.

Max Verstappen was blindingly fast on Saturday and showed once again that he is the master of Mexico. However, he made one crucial error on his final run by not backing off when passing Valtteri Bottas’ incident at the final corner in qualifying.   -  Getty Images

 

The theoretical strategy for the one and the two stop may have been close, but the problem in Mexico was that while on paper you could say it should be pretty good for overtaking with three Drag-Reduction System (DRS) zones, in practice, with the thinner air at 2,200m above sea level, the cars were all struggling to follow each other closely. With thinner and therefore less air going to the brakes and engines to cool them, following another car meant that you were very susceptible to overheating all of these components, and that ruined anyone’s chance of really overtaking.

The track evolution certainly seemed to catch people out strategically as well. Ferrari didn’t think that Lewis would be able to run at a good pace for that long on his hard tyres, but in the end Verstappen managed to go even longer with 66 laps! It was evident that the information on Friday was on the pessimistic side as none of the teams expected to be able to go so fast for so long, but as the temperatures came up and the track rubbered in on Sunday, the tyre wear became much more manageable.

In the end, this was why the race fizzled out somewhat and really underlines more and more why we need to see a big and aggressive stance from the rule makers to change the design of the cars for 2021. We have the potential for some really great racing with the top three teams if we can just find a way to get the cars to follow more closely. The front wing changes for this year really haven’t made a big difference and therefore, as a sport, we really need to be willing to leap a bit further into the changes for the future.

Outside the top six, McLaren had a very strange weekend with some great pace in qualifying that seemed to disappear during the race. To cap that, Lando Norris had an issue at his pit stop that completely ruined their afternoon, and they will be hoping that the track layout and altitude in Mexico meant that their poor Sunday form was a one-off. Sergio Perez did an outstanding job in front of his adoring fans to finish as the best of the rest. He came under huge pressure from Daniel Ricciardo but withstood it superbly towards the end of the race.

Off to Austin next and Lewis should be crowned champion there barring a complete disaster. He’s always been exceptional around the Circuit of the Americas, which I must say is one of the most fun layouts on the calendar. It’s a great city and a fantastic atmosphere, so I’m sure the whole paddock is looking forward to the next weekend!