Time is running out for Lewis Hamilton to try to rescue this year’s Formula 1 world championship in the face of the relentless excellence of Max Verstappen and Red Bull.
Verstappen’s victory in Sunday’s Mexico City Grand Prix was his ninth in 18 races so far this season. No driver who has won that many races in a year has ever gone on to lose the championship. And, as things stand, the Dutchman does not look like bucking the trend.
Verstappen has a 19-point lead in the championship, edging ever closer to a clear win, with four races to go, and Hamilton, whose Mercedes team were outclassed in Mexico, has won only once in the past eight races.
“It’s of course looking good,” Verstappen said afterwards. “but also it can turn around real quickly.”
Don’t be fooled by the matter-of-factness of the comment. It should not distract from the fact that this was the first time all year Verstappen had said anything like it, anything that remotely suggested the championship might be heading his way, rather than insisting on the need to focus on details, take it one race at a time, and so on.
Hamilton, meanwhile, is realistic about his chances of winning that record eighth title this year.
“There are still four races [to go],” he said, “[but] 19 points is a lot of points. And he’s had a lot of wins. If they were to carry that on to the next ones, we will be in trouble.”
An advantage thrown away
Verstappen’s victory was expected before the teams turned up in Mexico – Red Bull have been strong there even in the years when Mercedes had a significant car advantage over them at most of the other tracks.
But there was a period over the weekend when it looked like Mercedes might be able to snatch the race away from them.
Red Bull dominated through the practice sessions, but made a bit of a mess of the final part of qualifying, and Mercedes took advantage. Valtteri Bottas took pole position with a peach of a lap, and Hamilton joined him on the front row.
Verstappen, meanwhile, could qualify only third, his final session wrecked by first not getting the tyres to work properly on his opening lap, and then both Red Bulls tripping over the car of Yuki Tsunoda from their sister Alpha Tauri team on their final laps.
A front-row lock-out gave Mercedes the opportunity to take control of the race – as long as they could keep Verstappen behind through the first three corners. But they couldn’t.
Having aced qualifying, Bottas made a hash of the opening seconds of the race.
Mercedes had hatched a plan for Hamilton to slot in behind his team-mate on the long run to the first corner. Bottas would tow Hamilton, was the idea, so limiting the possibility of Verstappen trying to benefit from the slipstream himself.
But the plan immediately unravelled. First, despite being on the grippier racing line, Bottas’ start was worse than Hamilton’s. Hamilton could not slot in behind his team-mate because he almost immediately had part of his car alongside him.
With the Mercedes side by side, Hamilton on the inside, what the Finn had to do was ensure Verstappen could not get alongside him on the outside. But he left a gap, which Verstappen slotted into only too gladly.
Now they were three-wide heading towards the first corner. On the outside, Verstappen braked far later than the Mercedes drivers dared – they had no confidence in their car on the brakes into that corner, having struggled there all weekend. Verstappen was on the grippier part of the track, and simply swept around the outside into the lead.
That was the win settled there and then.
‘Valtteri left the door open for Max’
Mercedes are normally pretty careful about not throwing each other under the bus, but the measure of their frustration with Bottas for not being further left so Verstappen had no space was clear from the fact that both Hamilton and team boss Toto Wolff remarked upon it afterwards.
“I was covering my side of the track trying to make sure no one could come up the inside,” Hamilton said. “I was looking in my mirrors trying to keep whatever Red Bull behind and I thought Valtteri would be doing the same. But he left the door open for Max.”
“The cars are very difficult to judge from the mirrors what is actually happening behind you,” Wolff said. “But I think if they would have been more to the left he wouldn’t have passed, he would have been blocked.”
At the same time, when he was alongside, Verstappen still had a lot to do to get ahead, and he did, as Hamilton described it, “a mega job braking into Turn One”.
Hamilton out of options
Had they kept the one-two through the first lap, Mercedes might even have been able to hold off Verstappen for the win, despite his pace advantage – having two cars up front gives a team lots of strategic options, and the thin air at 2,200m in Mexico City makes following closely and overtaking particularly difficult.
That possibility was gone thanks to Bottas’ positioning on the straight. Then, to make matters worse for Mercedes, Bottas got rammed into a spin by Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren between Turns One and Two and dropped to the back.
Now it was Hamilton alone, sandwiched between the Red Bulls, and his race quickly became about not losing second place to Sergio Perez rather than challenging Verstappen for the win.
Verstappen was simply too quick – Hamilton reckoned his rival had about 0.5secs a lap or so on him – and he disappeared off into the distance at will.
But Hamilton was able to hold off Perez, despite the Mexican staying out after Hamilton had pitted and building up an 11-lap tyre offset.
Perez caught Hamilton with 12 laps to go, but Hamilton drove well to keep him behind.
“It was damage limitation for Lewis,” Wolff said, “and it was a really tough but great drive to be honest to hold on to second. Probably the car was only good enough for P3 today.”
‘I expect Brazil not to be like this’
Mercedes always expected Mexico to be a difficult race. The title will be decided over the remaining four over the next five weekends. At all of them the fight should be closer, on paper at least.
Brazil next weekend has also been a happy hunting ground for Red Bull – Verstappen won there the last time the race was held in 2019, last year’s having fallen victim to the pandemic. But although Verstappen will go to Interlagos as a narrow favourite, Mercedes should be able to give him more of a fight there.
“I don’t believe in momentum,” Verstappen said on Sunday. “So every single race we have to nail the details, which we didn’t do yesterday [in qualifying]. Things can go wrong very quickly or can go right. It’s going to be really tight and exciting to the end. This has always been a really good track for us. I expect Brazil not to be like it was today.”
Mercedes expect the same, but what is giving them pause is not so much losing to Verstappen in Mexico – that was expected; hence Hamilton’s remarks about being “grateful” he had managed to salvage second – but more what happened at the race before that in Austin.
There, Mercedes expected to have an advantage; instead, their post-event analysis has suggested that Verstappen was about 0.2secs a lap quicker than them in the race. And they can’t explain why the Red Bull had that edge, after a series of races in which the performance seemed to be swinging the other way.
“I am a pretty realistic person,” Wolff said, “but I love motor racing because anything can happen. None of us is ever going to leave the circuit with the the mentality that it is getting away from us.
“There are four races to go, four wins to take and four DNFS to [potentially] suffer. We have to continue fighting. We have a great team. The car was exceptionally good in Turkey [three races to go] and we have it all to win.
“When you look at the mathematical probability, I would rather be 19 points ahead than behind but it is what it is.”
On the face of it, it looks as if Hamilton now effectively needs to win in Brazil if he does not want to leave Sao Paulo with his title chances hanging by a thread. Does he feel that way, too, he was asked?
“Naturally I feel we need to be winning every race,” he said. “We need those extra points to try and regain [ground].
“That was the goal going into the last race and the race before that and here this weekend. But it’s just, you know, they’re just too quick. So, I’m giving it everything we’ve got but unfortunately it’s not enough at the moment to compete with them.”