After Friday’s blazing sunshine in Mexico City, it was a damp and much cooler Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez that greeted the F1 teams on Saturday morning. What didn’t change, however, was the name at the top of the times – though Max Verstappen and Red Bull’s advantage was much reduced, with Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton just 0.254s behind.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel all but matched title rival Hamilton in third, with team mate Kimi Raikkonen taking fifth behind Ricciardo. Charles Leclerc was an impressive sixth for Sauber, ahead of Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly, who will start from the back of the grid thanks to penalties for power unit and gearbox changes. The Renaults of Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg - split by Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson - completed the top ten.
Overcast conditions meant a very quiet start to the session as just a handful of drivers headed out for installation laps on intermediate tyres – or, somewhat oddly, in the case of Williams, full wets. The rest chose to wait for the rapidly drying track to improve.
Twenty-nine minutes in, McLaren’s Fernando Alonso was the first man to brave slick rubber and he duly set the day’s first time with a 1m 21.213s. That proved the circuit was in good shape and the benchmark quickly plummeted as others followed the Spaniard’s lead.
That was until the Virtual Safety Car was deployed with 15 minutes to go after Valtteri Bottas came to a smoky halt in his Mercedes at Turn 15. A suspected hydraulics issue was the dashboard diagnosis, but the exact problem is yet to be confirmed.
Once the stricken Mercedes was cleared, there was no let-up in the track action and improvements, with Verstappen ultimately prevailing. The only man not to set a time? Kevin Magnussen, who was confined to the garage as the intercooler had to be changed on his Haas.
Ricciardo predicted a six-way fight for pole on Friday. Based on this morning’s lap times, he could just be proved right. Bring it on!