FP1: Verstappen heads Ricciardo as Red Bulls set early Mexico pace
Red Bull know that out of the last three Grands Prix remaining this year, Mexico represents their best chance of adding to their win tally before the end of 2018. That prediction was borne out by the early running at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, with Max Verstappen heading team mate Daniel Ricciardo, the pair comfortably ahead of the Renault of Carlos Sainz.
Atmospheric conditions at the Mexico City track tend to play into Red Bull’s hands, rewarding the high rake, high downforce design philosophy of their RB14 while punishing less the horsepower deficit of their Renault engines. Both Verstappen and Ricciardo used that to great effect to mark themselves out as the men to watch this weekend.
Meanwhile, the big shock of the session were Renault, with Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg finishing P3 and P4. The team had expected a decent result in Mexico, but lining up as the second quickest squad in FP1 was probably beyond their expectations.
Behind the lined up Red Bulls and Renaults were the lined up Mercedes and Ferraris, Lewis Hamilton ahead of Valtteri Bottas – on a weekend when he needs to outscore Sebastian Vettel by five points to become a five-time world champion – while Vettel edged last week’s race-winner Kimi Raikkonen, who had a small spin en route to finishing P8. There will have been some anxiousness on the Mercedes pit wall, however, with Hamilton complaining of drops in power throughout his runs.
Barring any issues, however, it seems likely that both Mercedes and Ferrari will be able to surpass Renault by the time qualifying comes around on Saturday – but with rain predicted to fall ahead of Free Practice 2, both teams’ run programmes could be less-than-ideal in the two practice sessions remaining this weekend.
There were three Friday drivers out in action in Mexico, with Esteban Ocon replaced by Nicholas Latifi at Force India, Charles Leclerc making way for Antonio Giovinazzi at Sauber and Fernando Alonso stepping aside for Lando Norris at McLaren. Impressively, all three managed to beat the regular drivers in the other cars, Latifi going P10, one place ahead of Sergio Perez, while Norris edged Stoffel Vandoorne for P15 and Giovinazzi took P12 ahead of the 14th-placed Marcus Ericsson.
Despite the impressive performances, there was nearly a nasty moment when Norris, on a hot lap, came within a whisker of running into the back of Latifi as he was making his way slowly back to the pits. Norris took evasive action, but his heart-rate would have risen a BPM or three.
At the bottom of the timing sheets was Pierre Gasly, the Frenchman failing to set a competitive time before Toro Rosso consigned his car to the garage and went ahead with planned works to revert back to an old-spec Honda power unit – a move that will see Gasly take a 15-place grid drop for Sunday’s race.
His team mate Brendon Hartley, meanwhile, did a good job to find his way into ninth come the end of the session, ahead of the two Force Indias, the New Zealander using an updated front wing and revised floor to good effect on his Toro Rosso STR13.
And while Renault were, quite clearly, ‘best of the rest’ of the midfield teams (by dint of being better than both Mercedes and Ferrari!) it was a more frustrating session for their rivals for fourth place in the constructors' standings Haas, with Romain Grosjean finishing in P13, four places ahead of Kevin Magnussen, both drivers very vocal about the poor performance of their tyres.
So it was Red Bull on top in the first running in anger in Mexico – but with almost all drivers in the session complaining about a lack of grip on their tyres on the exceptionally 'green' Mexico City track, could it be the performance of the Pirellis that we need to keep our eyes on most this weekend?