RACE DEBRIEF

    The fans – most of them in support of home hero Sergio Perez – were in full voice at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on Friday, as practice for the Mexico City Grand Prix got under way. Here are five things we learned from the first day’s running…

    1. Verstappen in fine shape heading into the weekend

    Max Verstappen has done a good job of refusing to get caught up in the hype surrounding his first genuine F1 title challenge, and he took the same approach when asked whether he was carrying momentum into Mexico – a track Red Bull are expected to shine at – after his unexpected victory last time out in Austin.

    READ MORE: Verstappen says he has ‘good feeling’ after dominating FP2 – but Horner warns Mercedes have time ‘in the pocket’

    But after his efforts on Friday, where he topped the times by a staggering 0.424s, it was difficult to deny that he is far and away the driver to beat this weekend, making him favourite to extend his 12-point lead over Lewis Hamilton this weekend.

    There’s more to come from the Dutchman, too, with our ideal lap data suggesting he could have been a quarter of a second quicker had he got all his mini sectors together. And after some more number crunching, it looks like his team have a 0.22s edge over Mercedes in qualifying trim. That advantage drops to 0.10s when looking at the race simulation.

    It seems most of their advantage comes in the slow corners, where they are around 0.7s quicker than their silver rivals, the RB16B evidently coping better in high downforce spec at high altitude than the Mercedes W12.

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    2. Perez drawing impressive support from home fans

    Many of the fans that packed into the city centre Mexican track on Friday were dressed head to toe in Red Bull memorabilia, but they were hoping it was their man Sergio Perez, rather than his team mate Max Verstappen who came out on top.

    Unfortunately, the day started off frustratingly, as Checo slid into the barriers in FP1 on a very dirty track – having been rarely used in the last couple of years – and that damaged his rear wing. But once he got back out in that session, he quickly got comfortable with the car and felt in reasonable shape in FP2.

    READ MORE: ‘Every time I stop I can hear them’ – Home hero Perez targeting pole position in front of ecstatic Mexican crowd

    He’ll have been disappointed to be half a second off his team mate, but the rate in which he made progress after his FP1 setback has given him hope that some solid work overnight should put him in the mix to fight for the front row and put him in a position to give the fans their minimum requirement – a podium finish.

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    The fans have turned out in force for Perez at his home race

    3. Mercedes off the pace but very much in the fight

    The good news for Mercedes is that their trackside chief Andrew Shovlin believes the car and power unit “seemed to be coping well with the altitude”. And he feels that they can close the gap to Verstappen if they manage to fix “a few balance issues”.

    The silver cars are dominant on the straights and aren’t too far off Red Bull in the high-speed corners, but they are lacking a bit of overall downforce relative to their rivals and that meant they struggled to match Verstappen in the final sector.

    READ MORE: Hamilton admits Red Bull are ‘definitely too quick for us’ after first day in Mexico

    Shovlin added: “The long run picture is a bit tricky because we were on different tyres to our competition but the balance is reasonable and the hard tyre seemed to be working nicely. We didn't come here expecting it to be easy and there is clearly a bit that we need to work on but compared to some of our Mexico Fridays, we've got off to a decent start.”

    They hold a 23-point lead over Red Bull in the constructors’ championship – and have work to do overnight to ensure they can force their way onto the front row and put them in the mix to disrupt the Red Bull party come Sunday.

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    4. AlphaTauri currently top the midfield

    AlphaTauri have emerged as the third-best team on both short and long run pace, the Italian team making the most of a Honda power unit that excels in the high-altitude conditions found in Mexico City (the track is around 2.2km above sea level).

    The blue and white cars have been quick from the first lap, with Pierre Gasly in the top-six in both sessions and Yuki Tsunoda pulling himself into the top-eight in FP2.

    Encouragingly for Gasly, he still has plenty more time to find, with our ideal lap data (below) showing he left 0.414s on the table – the second highest amount of time of any driver.

    The Frenchman, who suffered his third retirement of the season last time out in Austin, can also take heart from their qualifying simulation pace, which was 0.64s off Red Bull but three tenths clear of the rest of the midfield.

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    Their chief race engineer Jonathan Eddolls reckons they didn’t reach a balance they were “fully satisfied with” either, so there should be more time to find in the short runs in FP3 on Saturday morning.

    It was a different Friday for Tsunoda, who entered the weekend knowing he would be starting from the back of the grid after a suite of engine penalties. However, that didn’t get him down with Japanese driver having an excellent short-run on the softs, as he continues to build confidence in the car, and he gathered some very useful data on the longer runs as he focused more on having a strong race car for Sunday.

    5. Ferrari chasing balance but look sharper than McLaren

    Behind the title contenders is an intriguing battle between McLaren and Ferrari for P3 in the constructors’ championship, with just 3.5 points separating them.

    Ferrari came into the weekend optimistic of being on top, and while they are somewhat surprised to behind AlphaTauri after Friday’s running, they can take comfort from heading the orange cars.

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    The Italian cars rank fifth in the qualifying simulations, a fraction behind Alpine, but nearly 0.3s clear of McLaren, while in the race, they improve to P4 as they extend that advantage to 0.45s.

    Both Charles Leclerc, who lost time in FP1 when he kissed the barrier and damaged his front wing, and Carlos Sainz are chasing a better balance, but despite those frustrations, they still got their respective cars into the top-eight in both sessions.

    READ MORE: Leclerc and Sainz pinpoint AlphaTauri threat after ‘challenging’ Friday in Mexico for Ferrari

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