The heated 2021 Formula One (F1) Drivers’ Championship battle was at the center of the Mexico City Grand Prix (GP) as the grid prepared for the 18th race of the season. Held at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez from Friday, Nov. 5 to Sunday, Nov. 7, the Mexico City GP kicked off the final tripleheader of the season, with the Brazilian GP and Qatar GP following over the next two weeks.
At a track that was expected to favor Red Bull over Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton found himself on the back foot as he tried to cut down Max Verstappen’s championship advantage. The weekend was also Sergio Pérez’s home race, meaning that crowds were out in full support of the Red Bull driver. Though Mercedes was able to upend all expectations in qualifying, the race itself was an entirely different story.
The weekend’s Free Practice (FP) sessions got off to a dramatic start as Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Pérez hit the wall at Turn 16 just minutes into the start of FP1, damaging their rear wings. While both of those cars were being repaired in their respective garages, the other drivers on track had to deal with repeated lockups on the dusty track. Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas traded fastest times throughout the session, though it was eventually Bottas and Hamilton finishing FP1 at the top of the timing sheets ahead of Verstappen and Pérez in P3 and P4.
FP2 played out in a similar fashion, with the Red Bull and Mercedes cars clearly miles ahead of the rest of the field in terms of pace. The two teams dominated in the top four positions as the session came to a close, with Verstappen setting the fastest time ahead of Bottas, Hamilton, and Pérez. Ferrari demonstrated the improvements in their car as they finished with Carlos Sainz in P5 and Leclerc in P7. AlphaTauri also continued to impress with Pierre Gasly in P6 and Yuki Tsunoda in P8, while former world champions Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso rounded out the final ten at the end of FP2.
After the final hour of track time before qualifying, Pérez finished with the fastest time of the final practice session, while Verstappen in P2 was almost two tenths slower than his teammate. However, the gap was even bigger to the two Mercedes behind, with Hamilton taking P3 with a large gap of 0.651 seconds to Pérez’s time followed by Bottas in P4. The final timed runs of FP3 were a cause for concern for the Mercedes pit wall as the qualifying session approached on Saturday, though for teams like Ferrari and McLaren whose drivers all finished in the top 10, FP3 was more encouraging.
The weekend’s FP sessions also brought a litany of engine penalties, as multiple drivers needed to take on new power unit elements, with Tsunoda, Lance Stroll, Esteban Ocon, and Lando Norris scheduled to be sent to the back of the grid. Williams’ George Russell received a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change. The multitude of midfield drivers taking penalties added an interesting element to qualifying, as teams planned out how the drivers receiving engine changes might help out their teammates during their timed runs.
Just minutes into the first portion of qualifying, Stroll crashed into the barriers at the start of the main straight, bringing out a red flag. Though the Aston Martin driver went to the back of the grid anyway due to his engine change penalty, the incident was not what the team wanted before the start of the race on Sunday. The other drivers who failed to make it through to Q2 were, unsurprisingly, Haas drivers Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin as well as Nicholas Latifi of Williams. Alpine would have been disappointed that Alonso found himself knocked out in Q1 while his teammate Ocon, who took an engine penalty, made it through.
As the clock started ticking for Q2, most of the drivers came out to do their timed runs on the medium tires, though Tsunoda was an outlier on softs. Hamilton held the fastest time ahead of Verstappen as the second portion of qualifying came to a close, demonstrating that Mercedes could still be a bother to Red Bull in Q3. Both McLarens and Ferraris also made it through to Q3. Though Vettel did not, and was instead knocked out in P11, the drivers ahead of him took engine penalties, allowing him to start from P9 on the grid for the race with free tire choice.
As the drivers geared up for Q3, all eyes were on the two Mercedes cars and how far up the starting grid they would finish. In a complete shock to both the crowd and the Red Bull and Mercedes pit walls, Bottas and Hamilton managed to secure a front-row lockout ahead of Verstappen and Pérez in P3 and P4. Though both Red Bulls headed out for their second timed runs, an incident with Tsunoda running off the track ahead and distracting Pérez, who followed him off the circuit and kicked up even more dust, prevented either of them from improving their times. Red Bull had to settle for the underperformance of a second-row lockout as Bottas took pole by two tenths from his teammate. It was a particularly impressive showing from the Finnish driver, who will be leaving Mercedes for Alfa Romeo at the end of this season, and demonstrated that he was continuing his run of excellent form as the end of the season neared.
As the lights went out for the start of the 71-lap race around the 4.304 km circuit, the drivers immediately began to make their way down the very long start-finish straight. Though the two Mercedes cars had pulled away from their grid spots well, Verstappen pulled close with a slipstream behind Bottas and braked later than both of the Mercedes, somehow managing to make his way around the outside of both the Mercedes drivers at Turn 1 and snatching away the lead of the race.
To make matters even worse for Bottas, he was immediately spun around through the exit of Turn 1 by McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo. The Mercedes driver was left sitting on the track as the midfield tried to navigate around his car until he could eventually turn around and head into the pits at the end of the lap. The chaos of the first lap brought out the safety car and also saw rookies Schumacher and Tsunoda retiring, ending their first F1 races in Mexico early.
The safety car went in before the start of Lap 5, leaving Verstappen to determine when to get back up to race speed. He timed his restart well, pulling away from Hamilton and maintaining that distance to extend his lead to over 6 seconds by Lap 16.
Behind the frontrunners, Vettel was stuck in P8 behind Antonio Giovinazzi until Giovinazzi came into the pits on Lap 17, freeing the Aston Martin to show his true pace and keep ahead of former Ferrari teammate Kimi Räikkönen. Behind the typical midfield runners, Bottas and Ricciardo needed to fight their way from the very back of the pack if they wanted to score any points.
Though both drivers had come in for a pit stop at the end of the first lap, with Bottas putting on hard tires and Ricciardo needing new tires and a nose change, Bottas found himself unable to get past the McLaren on track. Despite his best efforts, he remained stuck behind Ricciardo as the drivers passed the midway point of the race, finally reaching P11 when Ricciardo received the call to come into the pits on Lap 38. However, Bottas’ second pit stop for a set of medium tires ruined that progress and the rest of his race with a very slow stop, waiting for 11.7 seconds before being able to pull away from the pit lane at the end of Lap 40 and coming out in P15.
Lewis brought in the other Mercedes car for his first stop at the end of Lap 29 and came out behind Charles Leclerc, leaving the two Red Bulls in P1 and P2. He was soon up to P3 as Leclerc went into the pits on Lap 30 and Gasly pitted on lap 31, giving Hamilton some free air to try and chase down the Red Bulls. Red Bull, on the other hand, waited before bringing in Verstappen on Lap 33 while leaving Sergio Pérez out to hold the lead of the race, making Pérez the first Mexican driver to lead a Grand Prix in Mexico in F1 history.
With Verstappen coming out from his pit stop comfortably ahead of Hamilton, Pérez eventually pitted for the hard tire on Lap 40, with Verstappen and Hamilton both getting past the Mexican driver while he was in the pit lane before Pérez came back onto the circuit. It soon became clear that the main battle of the race would not be between Verstappen and Hamilton, but rather Hamilton and Pérez, as the Mercedes driver found himself needing to defend from the Red Bull behind him instead of trying to cut down the gap to Verstappen ahead. Pérez was quickly closing in, getting within Drag Reduction System (DRS) range with less than 10 laps to go.
On Lap 63, Bottas came into the pits to take on a set of soft tires to set a new fastest lap but ran into issues as he came out (2 laps down) just behind Verstappen, wearing out his tires and needing to come into the pits once again. Bottas pitted for a fourth time for another fresh set of tires and eventually did set the fastest lap on the final lap of the race, taking away the extra World Championship point that Verstappen would have gained while also setting a new lap record. It was a crumb of consolation for the Finnish driver, however, seeing as he had taken an incredible pole position the day before and ended up finishing the race in P15.
On the other hand, the end of the race was amazing from Red Bull’s perspective, as Verstappen extended his lead in the championship for the third consecutive race, crossing the line to take the checkered flag over 16 seconds ahead of Hamilton. While Pérez had closed in and regained the advantage of DRS on Lap 70, bringing him tantalizingly close, he was ultimately still too far away to overtake Hamilton on track. He crossed the line in third to immense cheers, becoming the first Mexican driver to finish on the podium in their home race. Pérez’s third-place finish also made the Mexico City GP the third race in a row and the fourth race of the season with a double Red Bull podium.
Further behind, Ferrari saw Leclerc and Sainz finish in P5 and P6 respectively, while Vettel finished in an excellent seventh ahead of Raikonnen and Alonso in P8 and P9. It was a particularly good race for the Aston Martin driver after the ups and downs of his first season with the team.
Following the weekend, the difference between Verstappen and Hamilton in the World Championship now sits at 19 points, with Verstappen holding 312.5 points to Hamilton’s 293.5. Bottas’ struggles and the strong drive from both Verstappen and Pérez meant that Red Bull concluded the weekend having pulled to just one point behind Mercedes in the Constructors’ Championship. With the top ten finish from both drivers, Ferrari managed to pull ahead of McLaren into third place in the WCC and now leads the Woking team by 268.5 to 255.0 points.
With just four races left in the 2021 F1 season, Mercedes will surely be nervous about the clear pace difference that Red Bull demonstrated during the weekend in Mexico City. If both Red Bull drivers manage to keep up the pressure on Mercedes going into the Brazilian GP, which will take place from Friday, Nov. 12 to Sunday, Nov. 14, the Brackley team will surely need to rethink their strategy if they want to keep their lead in the Constructors’ Championship and find a way for Hamilton to take back the momentum in the championship battle.
Jiyu Shin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.