WHAT TO WATCH FOR: 5 storylines for Sunday’s race in Mexico
From a first corner that could be ‘carnage’ to reliability concerns for the championship leaders, and top 10 runners on the back foot strategically to a delicate balancing act for Lewis Hamilton, we highlight five key things to look out for in Sunday’s race at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez…
Turn 1 in the distance
The run from pole position to Turn 1 in Mexico is the longest of the season at 890m (although Sochi can claim over a kilometre to the first braking zone at Turn 2), and with it comes 20 cars arriving at high speed. While that is not unusual given similar long runs at venues like Monza, Budapest and Barcelona, the grid creates the potential for an extremely chaotic opening couple of corners, as Toto Wolff succinctly explained on Saturday night.
“The grid has the potential for carnage on the straight and through the first corners, because you have the two Red Bulls who have the least straight line speed on the front row, and then it’s us, and then the Ferraris are obviously almost 10kph up on everyone else,” Wolff said.
“I try to visualise how that could like down the straight and through the first corner. I just hope we come out of it with two cars intact.”
You don’t need to look too far back to understand how the first corner can pan out, with Max Verstappen taking the lead in 2017 as Lewis Hamilton picked up a puncture after contact with Sebastian Vettel. Vettel needs to win to have any hope of extending the title race to Brazil, and the run to the first corner is his best chance of getting ahead of the Red Bulls…
Hamilton’s delicate balancing act
We referenced what Hamilton needed to do to win the title in Austin, and while it didn’t come together for the Briton on that occasion, it is a much more straightforward equation this weekend: finish in the top seven and he is world champion.
Starting from third place, that seems like a very possible result, but with anything less than a Vettel win also ensuring Hamilton wins the championship, limited risks need to be taken.
But Hamilton is a racer, and he insists he will not pass up an opportunity to try and take the lead at the start, even though it could be fraught with danger fighting for positions with drivers who have nothing to lose.
The Mercedes should be quicker than the Red Bull on the run to the first corner, and Hamilton has tended to judge racing situations extremely well this season, so would be well-advised to maintain the same approach in Mexico. But with the title within his grasp it will be tempting for Hamilton to play it safe, and he will have to wrestle with how much he is willing to risk and what the overall reward would be.
Mercedes with an eye on reliability
At over 2,200 metres above sea level, the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is a challenging venue for cars because there is less oxygen density at such altitude. That means it’s harder to get the correct ratio of compressed air into the power unit for the combustion process, but also tough to cool the engine and brakes.
Reliability issues have been few and far between for Mercedes this season, with Austria’s double DNF the only race-ending problems the team have faced. But Valtteri Bottas failed to make it to the end of FP3 on Saturday as a hydraulics issue stopped him on track and required a complete change of power unit.
“Valtteri’s reliability issue shouldn’t affect Lewis’ engine,” Toto Wolff said. “Nevertheless, it is a reminder how fragile the situation is, and how much everybody is pushing in order to extract performance. Reliability will continue to play a crucial role in this championship, and that’s why tomorrow, it’s about finding the right focus in finishing the race with the best possible performance.”
With just six points needed to secure the drivers’ title, will Mercedes turn down Hamilton’s power unit to reduce the risk of a similar failure?
The pain of qualifying in the top 10
Reaching Q3 is not always the best result for a midfield team, because you are forced to start the race on the tyre you set your best lap time in Q2 on. We’ve seen it a few times in the latter half of the season, where the softest compound – required by the midfield teams to secure a top 10 qualifying position – will not last for more than a few laps, with the resulting early pit stop dropping them behind their main rivals.
Mexico is definitely such a situation.
The hypersoft compound was lasting no more than four laps during Friday practice, and track evolution has been relatively low so far this weekend given rain on Saturday morning and further rain later after qualifying. That means the grip level remains low and so the tyre slides, leading to it losing performance quickly.
And when we say lose performance, Romain Grosjean estimated he was seven seconds per lap off the pace on the fourth lap of his long run in FP2…
The two Renaults have looked quick all weekend and will start from seventh and eighth, just ahead of the Saubers in ninth and 10th, but both teams must start on the hypersofts. That means Force India are sitting pretty in 11th and 13th with Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez respectively – as is Fernando Alonso between them – as they have a free choice of tyre compound to start the race.
An unpredictable sky
An additional aspect to Saturday’s running in Mexico City was the weather forecast, which warned of a chance of rain during qualifying that could quickly develop into a thunderstorm. Ultimately, the whole session remained dry, with light rain hitting the circuit later in the day. But Friday night had seen a huge downpour that washed the track clean, and also showed how rapidly the weather could change.
The threat of similar weather remains throughout Saturday night and Sunday, with thunderstorms in the area that could have a major impact on the race itself. At present, the forecast suggests the lowest chance of rain is at 1300 local time – 10 minutes before the start of the race – with the threat increasing as the afternoon wears on.
If the track is wet at the start of the race, then drivers will be allowed to choose which tyres they start on, helping Renault and Sauber, who were due to start on hypersofts. But for all the drivers it will be a major challenge, with no proper wet weather running having taken place so far this weekend.
Wet weather often produces classic races, though – and Mexico is shaping up to be one regardless.