F1 Mexico GP preview: Can Ferrari thwart Red Bull and end more Verstappen history?

F1 Mexico GP preview: Can Ferrari thwart Red Bull and end more Verstappen history?

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MEXICO CITY – Much of the focus ahead of Formula One’s return to Mexico will be on the dynamic between Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez on the late homecoming.

However, Ferrari bested Red Bull at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on Saturday as Charles Leclerc led Carlos Sainz to a front-row lockout, with Verstappen third and Perez fifth.

Even more impressive was Daniel Ricciardo’s fourth place finish for Alfatauri, a new top points finish on his F1 return and defeat to Perez – his rival for the 2025 Red Bull seat – at home.

Qualifying ended in chaos with post-session inspections for many drivers. While there are no penalties, the mixed grid should make for entertaining racing, especially on the track where passing comes at a premium.

Here are the biggest storylines to watch out for at today’s Mexico City Grand Prix.

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Ferrari wants another surprise from the front row

Few – not even Ferrari – expected Ferrari to fight for pole position in Mexico or lock down the front row of the grid.

“It’s a big surprise,” Leclerc said after taking pole ahead of Sainz. “We say that every time we get a pole position, people stop believing what we say!”

At the end of Q3, the speed of the Ferrari car was not really shown until it really mattered. Unlike Verstappen, both Leclerc and Sainz improved through passing, gaining confidence with each session.

The competition can be a different story. Leclerc and Sainz can work together on the long run to the first corner to keep Verstappen off the field, but maintaining that advantage throughout the race will be a challenge. Even on a track like Mexico where overtaking is difficult due to the altitude (the thin air reduces drag and the benefit of DRS), the Red Bull’s pace is strong. “I think we still have a lot of work to do as a team to match the speed of our race,” said Leclerc.

Ferrari’s form so far this weekend has been closer to Monza (where Sainz and Leclerc finished P3 and P4) than Singapore (where Sainz won and Leclerc fourth). Between the reliability challenge and Red Bull’s struggle to go the distance, a repeat of Saturday’s incident would be needed to give Leclerc or Sainz a chance to win on the front row.

More history awaits Verstappen.

Missing out on pole position hasn’t put Verstappen and Red Bull out of contention for the title this season. Even starting from ninth or sixth at Spa and Austin in Miami, Verstappen was seen as a heavy favorite on Sunday – and won.

If Verstappen can win on Sunday, it will mark another piece of history: he will break his own record of 16 wins for the season from last year.

But Mexico has been a bit more difficult so far. As recently as Thursday afternoon, Verstappen was less sanguine about Red Bull’s chances, saying the track’s slower-paced corners would not suit the RB19 car. Despite being a four-time winner at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodríguez, Verstappen wasn’t confident going into the weekend.

He still looks like the driver to beat in practice, but has struggled to gain time in each qualifying stage. As Verstappen tried to recover time on the final lap, he pushed too hard, causing the car to slide in low conditions and overheat the tires. “This track is very, very difficult to put together a perfect lap,” he said.

Yet: The trend this season is for Red Bull to go one step further than they have in a long time. Verstappen has more confidence in his car set-up here than he did in Austin, with a single practice session giving him a narrow peak performance window.

When asked if he was confident about his pace, Verstappen simply said, “It’s good,” adding that he has two strong tires in hand. Verstappen said: “This could be important for tomorrow as well. But again, a lot can happen to turn #1. With a strong skid, Verstappen will be eager to make up places quickly and Ferrari’s competition has been poor this year. It remains a driver to hit.

Mexico City, Mexico - October 28: Mexico'S Sergio Perez And Oracle Red Bull Racing At Foro Sol Stadium Before The F1 Grand Prix Of Mexico At Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez On October 28, 2023 In Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo By Kim Ellman/Getty Images)

The home fans will be hoping for a big performance from Sergio Perez on Sunday. (Kim Illman/Getty Images)

Ricciardo is very close to his old self.

Ricciardo’s impressive pace in Friday practice was good, but more importantly he found comfort and confidence in the car that wasn’t there before the crash in Zandvoort.

Ricciardo gave up all that hope to qualify. He had a perfect session, putting a set of tires in the fastest lap 1 with teammate Yuki Shunoda pulling away and also helping him get through Q2. Flying solo for AlphaTauri in the final session, Ricciardo never lost his edge, qualifying an excellent fourth on the grid.

Of all the versions of Ricciardo we’ve seen since his return to F1 this year, this is the closest to the old man. The kind of qualifying magic that once made him Verstappen’s closest rival at Red Bull. And he set up his biggest comeback yet.

Ricciardo wants to get his elbow out for the first time today – naturally, he’s a racer – but his main aim is to bring home crucial points for Alfatauri. Two points will be enough to tie Haas, despite the team being in the last Constructors’ Championship.

Ricciardo knows that he has to play rationally in the race and will not let this opportunity slip away. But if he delivers a top-five finish that serves as a counterpoint to Alfatauri’s season, it would be a big statement for the team this year — and his own long-term future.

Checo needs another step to make his homecoming special

Given how bad some race weekends have been in recent times, fifth place on the grid is pretty good for Perez. He still needs to take another step on Sunday to provide all the hype surrounding his homecoming.

Perez entered the Mexico weekend feeling more confident about his chances after adjusting his approach with the Red Bull car. Austin believed his sprint weekend had revealed his true speed and potential, giving him reason to hope for what he called a “dream” victory in front of his countrymen.

For Saturday’s qualifying, Perez was on Verstappen for some time, slowing by two-tenths of a second in Q3 – but not enough to turn the tide. Even if Perez doesn’t dwell on the fact that Ricciardo has qualified him at Alfatouri, it’s a battle he must win today to overcome questions about his future with Red Bull.

From fifth on the grid, a podium would be a big result for Perez and enough to send off the home crowd. Verstappen will once again lead Red Bull, but Perez must make the most of this opportunity. He is now in a good headspace; Letting it slide all weekend is a bittersweet outcome.

Mercedes is back in the dark after the Austin move

Any good feeling Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton felt when he crossed the finish line in Austin last weekend lasted for two hours. That result backfired, and Mercedes’ exit in Mexico City was a real failure.

The first signs were in Friday’s two practice sessions, when poor balance and grip levels plagued George Russell and Hamilton. Mercedes changed their set-up for qualifying, resulting in a ride that Hamilton called “very good to drive”. But brake overheating became a new issue, and neither car had the lap speed to keep up with the Red Bulls or Ferraris.

“I really don’t know what to say,” Hamilton said Friday evening. “You never know what you’re going to get with this car. Some days, she’s great, and some days, she’s not.

Mercedes must hope Sunday is one of the best days of W14. Russell qualified P8, and Hamilton P6. Not bad, if Ferrari isn’t 20 points behind Mercedes for second place in the championship. It’s a sour mix for Mercedes: both Ferraris in the front row, an unpredictable car and a difficult track to pass.

Lando Norris has a long day ahead of him.

Hamilton isn’t the only driver experiencing F1’s wild swings in fortunes. Norris, who has four straight podium finishes, starts P19 after a grueling qualifying session.

In Q1, McLaren sent Norris to banker on communications. Norris then stuck the first lap on the soft tires, nearly losing the car, which meant he had to come back around the track and restart the lap where he had pushed 30 seconds.

Fernando Alonso then spun in turn 3, bringing out a yellow flag and slowing the field as Norris entered that segment. A good qualifying round on Sunday, a Q2 appearance, and (perhaps) a fifth consecutive podium may not be available. Norris starts the P19 on a difficult track to get around.

The good news is that McLaren’s long run looks good in practice. Of course, Oscar Piastri and Norris have played down their car’s hopes at this track – Piastri said the circuit doesn’t “especially” play to McLaren’s strengths. But ahead of the Grand Prix weekend, we’re learning to ignore McLaren’s sandbagging.

The team is currently one of the five fastest F1 teams, and so far, Mexico City is no different. Norris averaged 0.274s lap faster than Verstappen on the 15-lap medium tire long run in FP2. Solid tires don’t look promising for McLaren, so Norris needs a healthy mix of speed, smart strategy and good luck to get through the field.

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(Lead image of Sergio Perez, Charles Leclerc and Daniel Riccardo: ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP, ANDRES STAPFF/POOL/AFP, Rudy Carezzevoli via Getty Images)