PRACTICE DEBRIEF: Red Bull look strong but margins are incredibly tight between the rest of the top 10 in Mexico
While Max Verstappen stole the show once more in Mexico, overall Formula 1 witnessed one of its tightest fields of the season in Friday practice to suggest not only could every segment of qualifying be tight but the race might be a humdinger, too. But who looked like they had the edge after two hours of practice? And who might spring a surprise?
Red Bull take control of Mexican weekend
It was no surprise to see Verstappen command both practice sessions on Friday, the Dutchman quick from the very first lap he turned. And aside from having to pit for the team to sort ‘something loose’ around his feet, it was a super smooth day.
Somewhat ominously for his rivals, Verstappen said his day was “probably a little better than I expected”. While there may be a bit of gamesmanship there, there’s no doubt he remains the driver to beat – as he has been all season – around Mexico.
His team mate Sergio Perez will hope he can usurp Verstappen and give his loyal home crowd the victory they so crave. The Mexican looked more assured and consistent across the two practice sessions than he has done of late – and his 0.3s deficit to Verstappen is one of the smaller margins he’s endured this year.
If Perez can continue his improved form – and it turns out that he has more pace in the car after he made a mistake on his soft tyre run to slightly skew his ultimate pace – a double podium for Red Bull could well be a formality come Sunday afternoon.
McLaren in shape to continue podium run
McLaren’s relentless run of form looks set to continue in Mexico after a fine start to the weekend, especially for in-form Lando Norris who arrived in Latin America on a run of four successive podiums.
Norris was very quick throughout Friday practice, his best lap on the soft tyre within one-and-a-half tenths of Verstappen. And had he got his ideal lap together – a combination of all his fastest mini-sectors – he would have been even closer according to our data.
The Briton admits it will be “tough” to challenge Red Bull in Mexico – and our data supports that claim, with the papaya cars around a quarter of a second off the world champion team’s pace in both qualifying trim and race pace.
Their real fight, according to the numbers, is with Mercedes, the Silver Arrows edging them out in both metrics. However, we have seen Norris and team mate Oscar Piastri outperform their respective cars in recent races and it’ll only take one mega lap in qualifying to give them track position and slick strategy in the race to put them in the mix for another podium.
Trio of midfield runners could spring surprise
While Red Bull and McLaren were very quick once more, there were a trio behind them who caused quite a stir.
Alex Albon was mighty in FP1, the Williams driver saying they found a strong operating window for the car near enough straight out of the box, which might have flattered them, and that yielded the second-quickest time.
He didn’t get a clean lap on his soft tyre run in FP2, though – our ideal lap data has him up in 10th had he done so – and it should be noted he set his lap very early in the session, when the track was not at its grippiest. Q3 is on the cards for him.
Daniel Ricciardo looks like his old self again on track, at a layout where he has gone well at in the past. Our ideal lap data has the AlphaTauri driver a superb third, three places better than he was classified and right in the mix for Q3.
The third driver to surprise was Valtteri Bottas, who was fourth in FP2. The Alfa Romeo’s short run pace doesn’t look so good overall, but like Albon, Bottas set his best lap earlier in the session. The race pace is decent enough to suggest they should be in the fight for points on Sunday.
Mercedes could be more of a threat than they appear
The timesheets don’t make for pretty reading for Mercedes, with Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari seemingly holding the edge over them.
However, track evolution in Mexico was very high on Friday, around 0.05s/min. The Silver Arrows set their laps earlier than their direct rivals, and thus if you take that into the account when crunching the numbers, our data has them second quickest in qualifying and race trim.
If you were to compare Hamilton’s long run to Verstappen’s, it was actually Hamilton who was quicker on average – and while it was a small sample size and so should be taken with a pinch of salt, Mercedes could well be a threat to Red Bull.
How much of a threat remains to be seen, but if they are within two tenths of a second in both low and high fuel after day one, with one more practice session still to go, it is certainly a strong position for Mercedes to be in, as they look to bounce back from a frustrating Austin race result that saw Hamilton disqualified post-race.
Ferrari look fourth-best in Mexico
Charles Leclerc, who started the last race on pole, admitted Ferrari “are a bit too far away” this weekend in Mexico, as they struggled to get on terms with Red Bull, McLaren and Mercedes.
While they retained their impressive advantage on the straights, and are pretty much a match for Red Bull in the medium and high-speed turns, the red cars are in a world of pain in the slow-speed turns – and that is hurting them.
Ferrari are fourth-best in both qualifying and race trim, around 0.3s off the pace set by Red Bull.
They’re within a tenth of Mercedes and McLaren – a deficit which can realistically be overhauled overnight if they find the right gains, but it’s more likely they’ll be battling for points in the second half of the top 10 come Sunday.