NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Slipstream Saturday: Max Verstappen Sending a Message in Mexico

While NASCAR may be wrapping up its season this weekend, Formula 1 has traveled to Mexico City, Mexico.  The Mexican Grand Prix comprises one of the season’s final five races, and Max Verstappen leads Lewis Hamilton by 12 points (287.5 – 275.5) in the driver’s standings after winning the American GP in declarative fashion on Oct. 24.

In a similar vein, Verstappen and Red Bull came out firing on Friday (Nov. 5) in Mexico.  While Valtteri Bottas led the first session ahead of his teammate Hamilton, Verstappen sat only a tenth of a second off the pace.  Mercedes have tended to open up their engines during the FP1 sessions during the season, and Friday was no different.  The problem was that Verstappen kept pace, indicating he would be making good on his status as favorite for the weekend.

Sure enough, at the close of FP2, Verstappen held the top position and cleared second-place Bottas by four-tenths.  Hamilton pushed to a third-place result, five-tenths behind and just ahead of Sergio Perez.

The last time F1 visited Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez in 2019, Hamilton walked away with the win, his second at the track.  The result is a little misleading, however.

Verstappen started from pole in 2019, with Hamilton in fourth. Unfortunately, the two collided on the first lap, with Verstappen dropping to eighth and Hamilton to fifth.  The position changes not only favored Hamilton but gave him a clear route to victory.

On lap 4, Verstappen’s race became more challenging when he suffered a puncture from his overtake of Bottas.  With the tire failure coming after the pit lane entrance, Verstappen limped around the track before pitting and finally getting back up to throttle.

He rejoined the race around 30 seconds behind Romain Grosjean in the 19th position.  From there, he attempted to salvage the race and managed to come across the line in fifth, a finish that deserves more applause than it may have gotten at the time.

But the reason that Verstappen and Red Bull are favored for the win is because of just a drive like that one – overcoming an astounding deficit and still managing to pass three-quarters of the field.  Add in the fact Verstappen won the Mexican GP for two straight years (2017-18) and it is nearly impossible not to recognize his bona fides to dominate on Sunday.

Of course, a good showing on Friday does not make victory a forgone conclusion, as can be seen from the 2019 result.  But it does point to both team and driver being at their peak and portends to good things.

As for Mercedes, the team will do their best to keep it close and try to keep Perez off the podium at his home Grand Prix.  While Hamilton may not win the driver’s title, Mercedes are still ahead of Red Bull in the constructor’s championship, leading 460.5 – 437.5.

Odds & Sods

Daniel Ricciardo suffered a gearbox issue that limited his participation in FP2 to just 10 minutes after McLaren called him to the pits.  The team discovered a problem that required extensive investigation and he finished the session listed 15th.

The disappointing showing will surely frustrate Ricciardo as he has typically performed well at the Autódromo.  He finished eighth while driving for Renault in 2019 and in 2018, he took the pole while driving for Red Bull.  Seeing his name posted so low on the timing sheet is not a good omen for the first-year McLaren driver.

More importantly, Ferrari looks to be continuing to show pace following their decent outing at Circuit of the Americas. As a result, McLaren holds a 3.5-point edge over their Ferrari brethren (254 – 250.5) in the tightest constructor’s battle going.

With Lando Norris registering 12th in FP2, whereas Ferrari saw Carlos Sainz place fifth and Charles Leclerc in seventh, McLaren have a tough challenge ahead of themselves in Mexico.

– Ricciardo was not the only one felled by mechanical issues on Friday.  George Russell endured a gearbox issue that put him back in the garage after just two laps.  For a driver that puts together stellar qualifying results that has frequently led to points, he will have to start from the rear because of the announced gearbox change.

Joining Russell at the rear will be Lance Stroll and Yuki Tsunoda, who both took power unit replacements ahead of the GP.  Stroll took a smorgasbord of replacement pieces, installing a new internal combustion engine, turbo, MGU-H, and control electronics.  Of particular concern is that his Aston Martin is powered by Mercedes and there will be questions surrounding the reliability of the power unit in the high-altitude environment.

Tsunoda’s mechanics seem to follow the lead by putting in a new Honda ICE, turbo, MGU-H, and MGU-K.  What looks to be dispiriting for Tsunoda is that the Alpha Tauris were both showing excellent pace in FP2, with Pierre Gasly in sixth and Tsunoda in eighth – providing much better competition for Ferrari than McLaren could muster.  Tsunoda, who has been improving during the second half of the season, will need to show he can use the Alpha Tauri’s pace to score a points-paying position and continue his upward trend.

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