There’s a fascinating conundrum for Lewis Hamilton: winning just ahead of Rosberg is a terrific achievement, and yet it’s just not enough to get him closer to the championship lead. What he needs is at least two Red Bulls or Ferraris between him and his teammate. Maybe Mexico is where it’s going to happen.
The start to the weekend couldn’t have been better for Hamilton: after 34 laps, he ended up on top, less than a tenth ahead of Vettel though. And Nico Rosberg was only seventh. Both Force Indias, Ferraris and even Bottas in the Williams outpaced the championship leader.
Red Bull meanwhile had a whole lot of issues: the car was not feeling right to Ricciardo and Verstappen. Mexico is a notoriously slippery track, and the thin air at the Grand Prix with the highest altitude erases a significant chunk of downforce. And brake cooling has always been an issue at Mexico as well. Max Verstappen in fact did not leave the pits in the latter half of the session due to an issue with the rear brakes. According to Christian Horner, their brake duct and energy recovery strategy was a bit optimistic, and they played the price for that.
Another technical issue was to be observed at Sauber: Felipe Nasr, one of the drivers without a signed contract for 2017, littered the track with carbon fiber bits as his front wing disintegrated early into the session when he ran over some kerbs with his Sauber. Apart from that, it was a pretty uneventful session, save for maybe 5 drivers giving HALO another test (and a mostly devastating review). All teams were praying for the track to pick up some rubber, and the Renault and Honda teams were struggling more than usual in thin air.
— Formula 1 (@F1) 28. Oktober 2016
With the track still being less than optimal, the teams went out for long runs. Again Vettel and Hamilton were at the front of the pack. This time, Vettel had the upper hand, but only just: the gap to Hamilton was at 0.004 seconds. Red Bull came back to life and had their cars in fifth and seventh overall. More interestingly, Red Bull was miles ahead on their longruns with the Medium tire, while Ferrari was the team to beat when it came to extensive runs with the Super Soft tire. Tactically, the different strengths and characteristics of each top team should make for a fantastic race – unless Mercedes can magically find a bit more speed come Sunday, as they usually do.
Behind the current Top 3 teams, Force India quietly proved that their car is an allround weapon. Nico Hülkenberg was sixth fastest and had comfortable long run pace. Williams and McLaren couldn’t follow, but Toro Rosso was close in theoretical race pace. Even further at the back, Manor is playing the trump card that is a Mercedes engine in their fight against Sauber. They need to survive another three races and hope that Sauber doesn’t score a single point if they want to get that sweet FOM payout.
— Formula 1 (@F1) 28. Oktober 2016
The battle for pole position had the same structure as Ferrari’s whole season: starting out very promising, but quickly being caught by harsh reality. Vettel and Räikkönen were close to Mercedes and even ahead of Red Bull in Q1, but that changed as the session progressed.
Jolyon Palmer was not even taking part: he damaged the chassis of his Renault in an earlier practice session. That made it a bit easier for the other backmarkers to make the jump into Q2. Surprisingly, both Haas-Ferrari were out early. Esteban Gutierrez had quite a mishap: on his last try to improve his laptime, he spun out and caused a yellow flag. The problem was that it destroyed the lap of Grosjean, his teammate, who was running right behind him. And as Pascal Wehrlein showed a sublime performance in his Manor, outpacing Ocon by half a second and within three hundreds of Jenson Button, both Haas ended their journey in Q1. Wehrlein progressed into a well-deserved Q2.
Of course, no driver could ever make a Manor handle like Mercedes, and so Wehrlein was without a chance and ended up 16th. He will start behind Ericsson and Magnussen, and his race will most likely be to follow these guys and stop Ericsson from getting into the top 10. Both McLaren stranded in Q2 too, but that was to be expected. Still, points are possible, and Alonso and Button have the advantage free tire choice ahead of tomorrow.
Much to the disappointment of the locals, Sergio Perez fell victim to Q2. He will start from 11th between the McLaren, and the Force India has the speed he needs to finish in the points. While Red Bull and Mercedes both made it through Q2 without any issue, their strategic approach was noteworthy: Mercedes chose to run the Soft tire so that they can start the race on the more durable rubber, Red Bull went for more risk with the Super Soft.
That leaves us with 10 drivers on the ultimate qualifying round. Carlos Sainz did well to get into the top 10, but the Toro Rosso’s aging 2015 Ferrari engine is a heavy burden. A respectable P10 for him. In 8th and 9th, the Williams were a bit underwhelming – Mexico should suit the FW38’s characteristics a lot more.
With his future in F1 secured, Nico Hülkenberg has been in fantastic form lately. What he did in Mexico is rather special though: the Force India driver outpaced both Ferraris and is starting the race from P5. That’s both a sensational result for him and a slap in the face for the Scuderia. What happened? Vettel reported that the Super Soft tire just didn’t work on the car today, and Räikkönen was having engine issues. Kimi was still quicker than Vettel for the third time straight – is that a sign of a stronger Räikkönen or is Vettel slowly realizing that Ferrari isn’t in shape to win championships? Given their race pace, not all is lost for Ferrari from P6 and P7, but a much-needed race win seems out of reach.
We’ve become accustomed to a Mercedes and Red Bull front row. The results don’t tell the whole story though. Hamilton’s first flying lap in Q3 was simply masterful and showed how committed he is to fighting for the championship. It was so good that he could not improve it later, but the gap to Rosberg was astonishing: four tenths. And to make things better, with minutes to go both Red Bulls were ahead of Rosberg, leaving him in fourth position. That’s just what Hamilton needed to build the pressure. Rosberg kept calm and on his last lap managed to move past the Red Bulls for P2, but was still 0.25 seconds slower than Hamilton. It’s another pole for Lewis, and a win tomorrow would make him the joint second most winning driver in history. Will he manage a clean start, and is Red Bull capable of a win without the Mercedes running into issues? Tune in to the race tomorrow to find out.
— Formula 1 (@F1) 29. Oktober 2016