The 2021 F1 Season was nearing its end, and the final triple-header kicked off at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City. The Mexican GP made a return after the 2020 edition got cancelled due to the Pandemic COVID-19. At an altitude of 2240 metres, the track presents a unique challenge for the drivers and the teams. Redesigned with Hermann Tilke's assistance, modern F1 cars could reach speeds over 360 kph down the main straight. The track had been a field hospital during the peak of the Pandemic, and the lack of racing made the tarmac dusty.
With five races in six weeks, reliability remained the biggest challenge for the teams. Aston Martin and Alpha Tauri chose new engine components for Stroll and Tsunoda, resulting in a start from the back of the grid on Sunday.
Mexico was the start of the final push for Hamilton and Verstappen for the 2021 crown. Twelve points separated the duo at the top of the standings. Meanwhile, Sergio Perez hoped to become the first Mexican driver to win or be on the podium at his home race. Mercedes had struggled with the cooler temperatures of Mexico in the past. Did they have a change of fortunes? Or did the Red Bulls romp to victory unchallenged? Was McLaren able to fend off the late charge by Ferrari in the battle for P3, and who achieved the best result in the quest for P5 in the Constructors'?
Time for a recap of the Mexican GP weekend!
FP1 got underway, and the drivers tried to find the limits under dusty conditions. Perez and Leclerc hit the wall at turn 16 after suffering spins. Both drivers damaged their cars' rear wings and had to return to the pits for repairs. Hamilton and Raikkonen had offtrack moments at turn one and failed to comply with the Race Director instructions. The duo got a reprimand from the stewards for rejoining the track incorrectly.
Bottas topped the timesheets at the end of FP1, followed by teammate Hamilton and the Red Bulls of Verstappen and Perez. Gasly was P5 for Alpha Tauri, while Alonso split the Ferraris of Sainz and Leclerc in P7. The top 10 got completed by Ocon and Vettel.
Tsunoda was P11 in the other Alpha Tauri, followed by Raikkonen and Stroll. The McLarens of Ricciardo and Norris were P14 and P15, respectively. P16 was the best that Giovinazzi could manage in the other Alfa Romeo, followed by the Williams of Russell and Latifi. Schumacher and Mazepin were at the back of the pack.
Clear skies greeted the drivers at the start of FP2. The lap times began to improve as more rubber got laid on the track. The Mercedes duo suffered lock-ups at turn one and had to take to the run-off area. While Leclerc complained about setup issues, Ocon reported that the problems of Austin had resurfaced on his Alpine. A gearbox failure for Russell ended his session prematurely.
Verstappen ended FP2 the quickest from Bottas and Hamilton. His teammate Perez was P4, with Gasly splitting the Ferraris of Sainz and Leclerc in P6. Tsunoda was P8 in the other Alpa Tauri, while Vettel and Alonso completed the top 10.
Norris split the Alfa Romeos of Raikkonen and Giovinazzi in P12, while Ocon was P14 in the other Alpine. P15 was the best that Ricciardo could manage, with Schumacher setting the 16th quickest time in his Haas. Stroll was P17, followed by Latifi and Mazepin, with Russell failing to set a lap time due to his gearbox issues in P20.
Red Bull seemed to have the upper hand in the race simulation runs, while Ferrari looked quicker than the McLarens, who failed to break into the top 10 on Friday.
Meanwhile, Russell got hit with a five-place grid drop as Williams had to replace his faulty gearbox.
Norris and Ocon got forced to take new PU components for the remainder of the weekend, which sent the duo to the back of the grid.
The final practice ( FP3 ) saw Hamilton, Norris and Alonso run wide at turn one after suffering from lock-ups. Leclerc suffered a spin at turn three as he exited the pits on a fresh set of soft tyres.
Perez was the quickest at the end of FP3, followed by Verstappen and the Mercedes of Hamilton and Bottas. Sainz was one second slower than Perez in P5, with Ricciardo splitting the Alpha Tauris of Tsunoda and Gasly in P7. The top 10 got completed by Leclerc and Norris.
Stroll led the lower half of the field from the Alfa Romeos of Raikkonen and Giovinazzi, with Vettel P14 in the other Aston Martin. P15 was the best that Alonso could manage, followed by teammate Ocon. Russell, Schumacher, Latifi and Mazepin completed the rear of the field.
With a pace deficit of six-tenths, Mercedes seemed to have no answer to Red Bull's pace.
Williams detected an issue in the Power Unit on Russell's car but addressed it by the start of Qualifying. Clear skies greeted the drivers, and track temperatures were hitting 45 degrees Celcius.
The Williams, Haas and Alfa Romeo drivers were the first ones out on track at the start of Q1. The rest of the teams waited for more rubber to get laid on the circuit. The Williams duo opted for medium tyres for their first runs. With 11 minutes remaining, everyone was out trying to set representative lap times. Stroll was about to start his flying lap when he lost control of his Aston Martin and careered into the barriers at the final turn. The resulting impact wrecked his car, and the session got Red Flagged. Raikkonen saw the Red Flag and attempted to enter the pit lane before aborting the decision. The Finn got summoned to the stewards and escaped with a reprimand, his 2nd of the weekend.
The FIA inspected the barriers as the marshalls went about their repairs. The session finally restarted, and the Haas and Williams cars exited the pits close to each other. Both Williams drivers inadvertently crossed the white line at the pit exit and thankfully escaped punishment by the stewards. Meanwhile, Sainz reported that he had no engine power. Ferrari guided the Spaniard, and the issue got addressed a few seconds later. Everyone chose the soft tyres for their final runs.
Bottas, Leclerc, Verstappen, Gasly, Perez and Hamilton were the top 6 at the end of Q1. Alonso, Latifi, Schumacher, Mazepin and Stroll got eliminated.
The start of Q2 saw Tsunoda opt for new softs, Ocon the used. While Russell chose to continue with a used set of mediums, the rest chose new ones. Verstappen, Hamilton, Tsunoda, Bottas, Leclerc and Perez were the top 6, with Raikkonen, Giovinazzi, Ocon, Russell and Vettel facing elimination at the end of the first runs.
The final minutes of Q2 saw all 15 drivers out on track, with Verstappen, Russell ( new ), and Tsunoda ( used ) opting for soft tyres. Giovinazzi, on his final attempt, suffered a spin at turn 12 and hit the barriers sideways, momentarily bringing out the Yellow Flags.
The following drivers made it through to Q3 - Hamilton, Verstappen, Tsunoda, Bottas, Gasly, Leclerc, Perez, Ricciardo, Sainz and Norris.
Vettel, Raikkonen, Russell, Giovinazzi and Ocon got eliminated.
It was time for the final top-ten shootout, and everyone chose the soft tyres for their first runs of Q3. The teams ensured that the faster driver got a tow from his teammate. Bottas went the quickest, a tenth clear of Hamilton on his first run. The Red Bull duo of Verstappen and Perez were four-tenths adrift. Verstappen reported a lack of balance on the rear, while Norris suffered a lock-up at turn one again.
While Norris and Tsunoda opted for used softs, the others had the advantage of new tyres for the final minutes of Q3. Bottas went purple in sector one but couldn't improve on his previous attempt. Hamilton failed as well. Meanwhile, both Perez and Verstappen got a tow on their final run. However, Tsunoda ran wide on the high-speed section and his off distracted Perez, who followed suit. With the duo running wide, Verstappen had to lift through those corners, which cost him time across the remainder of the lap.
Bottas took pole position from Hamilton and Verstappen. P4 was the best that Perez could manage, despite his heroics. Gasly qualified P5 for Alpha Tauri, followed by Sainz in the Ferrari. Row 4 got occupied by Ricciardo and Leclerc.
Tsunoda and Norris finished P9 and P10 but got bumped down to P17 and P18 due to their respective engine penalties.
The penalties paved the way for Vettel and Raikkonen to break into the top 10, albeit with a free tyre choice for the race.
Mercedes had been second best and seemed to have no answers for Red Bull's dominance until the final Qualifying. The decision to send the Mercedes duo sooner than the rest of the field paid dividends. More importantly, Hamilton had the track position on Verstappen and hoped to maintain the status quo on lap 1.
As for the Red Bulls, despite both drivers getting a tow, a mistake by Tsunoda in the sister team jeopardized a guaranteed front-row lockout. Questions would get raised over why Tsunoda participated in Q3 as he already had a penalty to send him to the back of the grid. Astonishingly, the Red Bull drivers were only a tenth quicker than Gasly in the Alpha Tauri. With Verstappen's rear wing taped up, things looked far from ideal. However, points got awarded on Sunday, and Red Bull had the resources to turn things around.
Gasly and his top 6 Qualifying performances continued with another P5 on Saturday. While Tsunoda showed marked improvement in the past few races, he got shamed by the Red Bull management for jeopardizing Perez and Verstappen's final laps. The criticism was uncalled for, and many chose to stand by the rookie.
Sainz and Leclerc looked strong the entire weekend, and with P6 and P8 as their starting positions, the duo looked to overturn the deficit to McLaren ( for Ferrari ). Ferrari had executed the tow between its drivers quite well throughout Qualifying and making progress towards the return of their glory days.
Ricciardo in P7 was the only real contender for McLaren, while Norris would start from a lowly P18 after his engine penalty. McLaren had had a few humbling weekends, and relinquishing P3 in the Constructors looked all but certain. Norris, however, had the pace to break into the points.
Aston Martin had representation in the top 10 in the form of Vettel in P9, but a crash for Stroll left the team with expensive repairs on Saturday night. Both drivers had a free tyre choice, and with a superior strategy, could score a handful of points on the weekend.
Alfa Romeo had a strong showing on Saturday. Raikkonen inherited P10, while Giovinazzi got P11 for the race on Sunday. Like Aston Martin, Alfa Romeo needed a potent strategy to ensure a points-finish, and with faster cars charging through the field, it was a tough ask.
Despite getting the tow from Ocon, Alonso failed to make it into Q2. However, the Spaniard moved up to P12 after those ahead served their relevant penalties. Meanwhile, his teammate Ocon would start in P19. Alpine had been off the pace in all three practice sessions, and a points finish looked unlikely.
Latifi qualified P13 with teammate Russell in P16. Despite his gearbox penalty, Russell stayed P16. The Williams duo faced a long Sunday afternoon, their main goal to keep the faster cars behind them at bay.
Schumacher and Mazepin's P14 and P15 made it a fruitful Qualifying for Haas F1 Team. However, like Williams, the American-backed outfit lacked the outright pace and would fall back through the race.
Would team orders come into play if Bottas led Hamilton? The latter needed all the points available to cut down the deficit to Verstappen.
An intriguing race awaited the teams and drivers.
Raikkonen got a fine for speeding on his way to the grid. C2, C3 and C4 were the dry tyres available for the race.
At the start of the race, Vettel and Raikkonen were on used mediums, along with Norris ( Q2 set ), while Tsunoda started on the soft tyres from the Q2 session. While Ocon opted for the softs, the rest outside the top 10 were on the mediums.
The five red lights went out, and it was a clean getaway for the top 4 drivers. Going into turn one, Verstappen was abreast with Bottas and Hamilton and made a move on the outside to take the lead of the race! Bottas got overtaken by Hamilton at turn one for P2 but got spun around by Ricciardo, who locked up his brakes and failed to slow down. Subsequently, Ricciardo lost his front wing. The incident caused a couple of drivers to go off track, with Perez holding off Gasly for P3. Ocon got sandwiched between Tsunoda and Schumacher. The trio made contact, and Tsunoda and Schumacher's race came to a premature end. There was debris strewn across the track, and the Safety Car got deployed.
Giovinazzi was up to P6, Russell up to P9, Mazepin P11 and Ocon P14 despite an eventful opening lap. Ricciardo and Bottas pitted for hard tyres ( and front wing for Ricciardo ) under the Safety Car ( lap 2 ).
Racing resumed on lap 5, and it was a clean getaway for Verstappen again. Sainz got past Giovinazzi for P5, Alonso overtook Mazepin for P11, Norris relegated Ocon to P14, and Ricciardo got the better of Bottas for P17.
Verstappen, Hamilton, Perez, Gasly, Leclerc, Sainz, Giovinazzi, Vettel, Russell and Raikkonen were the top 10 at the end of lap 7.
Verstappen was the fastest man on the track and began to extend his lead to Hamilton. Meanwhile, Raikkonen got past Russell for P9, and Norris relegated Latifi to P14 on lap 9. Alonso bumped Russell out of the points on lap 10. Norris got past Mazepin for P12, while Latifi lost P15 to Stroll on lap 11.
Latifi pitted for hard tyres on lap 12 and rejoined in P18. Stroll followed suit a lap later and managed to fend off Latifi. More pit stops followed with Mazepin, Ocon, Russell and Giovinazzi switching to hard tyres ( laps 14 to 17 ). Red Bull informed Perez that they were switching to "Plan B". At the front, Verstappen was 8 seconds clear of Hamilton and in total control.
Verstappen, Hamilton, Perez, Gasly, Leclerc, Sainz, Vettel, Raikkonen, Alonso and Norris were the top 10 on lap 24.
The pit window was open for those on a one-stop strategy. Bottas stuck behind Ricciardo in the battle for P11, tried to pressure the Australian but got rebuffed. Meanwhile, Red Bull asked Perez to reduce the gap to Hamilton. Hamilton pitted for hard tyres on lap 30 and rejoined in P5 but lost track position to Leclerc. However, Hamilton lost minimal time with Leclerc pitting ( for hard tyres ) a lap later. Hamilton was the fastest man on track as Gasly pitted for hards and rejoined in P7 ( lap 32 ). Meanwhile, Leclerc got past Alonso for P8.
Raikkonen pitted for hard tyres on lap 33, rejoining in P10. Red Bull covered off Hamilton's early stop by pitting Verstappen for hard tyres on lap 34. The Dutchman rejoined in P2, and Perez inherited the lead of the race. Perez was leading his home race, inviting big cheers by the fans across the track. The Mexican was happy to extend his stint on the medium tyres.
The Aston Martin duo of Vettel and Stroll pitted for hard and medium tyres, respectively. It was a slow stop for Stroll ( 6.7 seconds ). Bottas tried to pressure Ricciardo for P11 again, but the Australian didn't relent. However, Ricciardo pitted for medium tyres on lap 39 ( his 2nd stop ), which released Bottas into clear air. Ocon got past Russell for P14, while Alonso pitted for hard tyres on lap 40.
Perez finally pitted for hard tyres on lap 41, rejoining in P3 behind Hamilton. Hamilton asked his race engineer about Verstappen's lap times, requesting information about the corners where the latter was quicker. Further down the field, Bottas, who had been in clear air for a couple of laps, pitted for medium tyres on lap 42. However, a slow swap on the left front tyre left him stationary for 11.7 seconds, and the Finn rejoined the race a lowly 15th.
Perez was the fastest man on track as Sainz pitted for hard tyres on lap 43. Meanwhile, Bottas got past Russell for P14. Norris was the only driver yet to make a pit stop, and the Briton finally switched to hard tyres on lap 45, rejoining in P10. Bottas continued his recovery with an overtake on Ocon for P13 ( lap 47 ). Meanwhile, in the battle for P2, Perez continued to set blistering lap times and reduced the deficit to Hamilton to 6 seconds.
Verstappen, Hamilton, Perez, Gasly, Leclerc, Sainz, Vettel, Raikkonen, Alonso and Norris were the top 10 at the end of lap 51.
Verstappen set the fastest lap of the race on lap 53. Meanwhile, Ricciardo and Bottas had closed up on Giovinazzi in the battle for P11. Ferrari asked Leclerc to swap positions with Sainz while Stroll got past Russell for P15.
Perez was now only 2.5 seconds behind Hamilton, and the duo was closing up on backmarkers. Ferrari swapped the driver positions on lap 58, and Sainz began to hunt down Gasly in P4. With Hamilton having to negotiate his way through the backmarkers, Perez gained faster than expected and was within the DRS range of the Briton. Hamilton finally got some respite on lap 63 as he pulled a second out on Perez.
Meanwhile, Mercedes pitted Bottas for soft tyres on lap 65 to rob the point for the fastest lap from Verstappen. The Finn got released into Verstappen's path and got impeded by the latter on his first attempt. Bottas then unlapped himself, and Verstappen made his displeasure known over team radio. Eventually, Bottas got instructions to allow Verstappen through and pitted him again on lap 70. This time, Bottas had a clear track to push for the fastest lap.
Perez was within DRS range of Hamilton on the final lap but couldn't close up enough to overtake. Meanwhile, Leclerc got handed back P5 by Sainz after the latter failed to challenge Gasly. Bottas overtook Russell and bagged the fastest lap of the race on the final lap. He also set a new track record.
Verstappen took the Chequered Flag and Victory at the Mexican GP! Hamilton had to settle for P2, with Perez completing the podium finishers in P3. It was the first time a Mexican had finished on the podium at his home race, and celebrations broke out on Parc Ferme.
A stellar drive by Gasly saw him finish P4, followed by the Ferraris of Leclerc and Sainz. Vettel was P7 for Aston Martin, followed by Raikkonen in P8. Alonso and Norris completed the top 10.
Giovinazzi was P11 in the other Alfa Romeo, followed by Ricciardo, Ocon and Stroll. Poleman Bottas finished a dismal P15, followed by Russell, Latifi and Mazepin, who completed the race classification.
It was a hattrick of wins for Verstappen and Red Bull at Mexico, the Dutchman having extended his lead to 19 points in the Drivers' Championship. His race-winning overtake on the opening lap was also a pivotal moment in his title fight with Hamilton. Perez's P3 sent the fans at his home race into a frenzy. The Mexican did well to extend his stint on the medium tyres but ran out of time to challenge Hamilton for P2. More importantly, Red Bull now trailed Mercedes by a mere point in the Constructors' standings. The Milton-Keynes outfit had turned it around after a disappointing Saturday.
Bottas was unfortunate to be bumped out of contention by Ricciardo on the opening lap. The Finn never recovered and finished a dismal P15. Questions would be raised in the debrief about how Verstappen got a clean run into turn one on both the Mercedes cars and whether Bottas adopted the right line or not. No driver had won the Mexican GP from pole position, and the trend continued. As for Hamilton, P2 was the best result on Sunday. The Briton had no answer for Verstappen's pace, having to fend off a challenge by Perez as well near the end of the race. With a front-row lockout on Saturday, Mercedes had hoped for a better showing on Sunday. The battle for the Constructors was wide open.
Gasly's P4 brought Alpha Tauri level on points with Alpine, with the latter placed higher due to Ocon's victory at Hungary. It was yet another stellar performance by Gasly, who still harbours hopes of a call-up to the Red Bull A-team one day. As for Tsunoda, a first lap contact with Ocon led to his retirement from the race. Tsunoda's contribution ( in the last four races ) needed to be as substantial as Gasly's if Alpha Tauri wished to finish in P5 at the end of the season.
An 18 points haul by Leclerc and Sainz saw Ferrari leapfrog McLaren in the Constructor standings. P5 and P6 were that the Ferrari duo could manage, and their efforts allowed Ferrari to open a 13.5 point lead over McLaren. Ferrari was going through a resurgence of sorts and now looked "the best of the rest".
Vettel made the most of his start from the top 10, finishing a commendable P7 for Aston Martin. It was an eventful race for Stroll, but the Canadian lacked the pace to charge through the field. Stroll's efforts yielded only P14. Nevertheless, Vettel's P7 gave Aston Martin six points against Alpine's two. Although the deficit to Alpine and Alpha Tauri is still 38 points, Aston Martin remains committed in their fight for a position higher than P7 in the Constructors.
Raikkonen produced a stellar drive in P8 to give Alfa Romeo 4 points from the weekend, reducing the deficit to Williams to 12 points. However, Alfa Romeo made a strategic howler with Giovinazzi's race. The Italian was running in P6 until Alfa Romeo called him in for an early stop. On rejoining, Giovinazzi got stuck behind Ricciardo and Bottas, which put him out of contention for the top 10. Nevertheless, the Italian recovered to P11, and it was a day of "what could have been" had it not been for the blunder from the Alfa Romeo pit wall. This result ( like many others earlier ) will haunt Alfa Romeo if they fail to beat Williams at the end of the season.
P9 was the best result that Alonso could manage in an Alpine that looked to struggle all weekend. The Spaniard also had a slow pit stop, which prevented him from challenging Raikkonen for P8. As for Ocon, his accidents with Tsunoda and Schumacher on the opening lap compromised his race. It was a humbling weekend for Alpine, who are now ahead of Alpha Tauri only due to Ocon's win in Hungary. They cannot afford more mediocrity in the final four races if they wish to hold onto P5 in the Constructors.
McLaren had a weekend to forget in Mexico. While Ricciardo's mistake on the opening lap took him out of contention for points, Norris could only manage P10 after his charge from the back of the grid. The decision to pit as late as lap 45 didn't pay off for Norris in the end. The Woking-based outfit was faltering in the fight for P3 in the Constructors against a resurgent Ferrari. They could ill afford another Mexico in the final four races.
Despite making positions at the start, Russell and Latifi went backwards in the race. Eventually, they finished P16 and P17, remaining quicker only against Haas. As for Haas F1, Schumacher's hopes of a strong finish ended with a collision on the opening lap. Mazepin was as high as P11 but went backwards like the Williams duo in the race. Haas is yet to score a point in 2021, and it seems highly unlikely that their fortunes will change at the business end of the season.
Mexico had been a fortress for Verstappen and Red Bull in the past, and they ensured that it stayed that way. Hamilton and Mercedes faced an uphill task playing the chasers, something they hadn't experienced before in the turbo era. With Hamilton yet to take an engine penalty, the possibility of New Champions getting crowned seemed plausible.
Would there be another shift in the title fight, or would the odds favour Verstappen and Red Bull even more after the Brazilian GP, which was less than a weekend away? Time would reveal all.
Until then, Verstappen could bask in the glory of yet another famous and flawless Mexican GP victory!