A poor start from the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas at the Mexican GP spelled the end of any hopes they may have had of winning the race.
And then there were four. Races left in the 2021 Formula 1 season, to be precise. The race in Mexico offered up the almost-expected Max Verstappen victory. But it is hard to escape the feeling that Mercedes felt like the Mexican GP was there for the taking.
Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton locked out the front row after Saturday’s qualifying, which in itself was a surprise. The high-altitude track at Mexico City, after all, generally favours the Red Bull’s over the Mercedes.
But it appeared that the Silver Arrows had overcome the speed deficit and might have been able to challenge for the win – and a much needed one it was, given Hamilton trailed Verstappen by 12 points.
Instead, Verstappen got an excellent start and that was the end of the race. Running in clean air, he ensured a safe distance between him and Hamilton.
— Formula 1 (@F1) November 9, 2021
Indeed, the bigger race was between him and Sergio Perez – the hometown hero almost pulling off a dream weekend for Red Bull. But Hamilton held firm and was clearly spent by the end of the race.
But why was the race decided in the first corner itself? And could the Mercedes team have done any better to stave off the threat of the Red Bulls?
There’s two key aspects to keep in mind about the need for a good start for Mercedes. Firstly, they might have beaten Red Bull in Saturday qualifying, but the Red Bulls were quicker in the race.
Secondly, track position is extremely important at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez. The low drag afforded to all cars makes tailing cars tough, which is why overtaking maneuvers at the front aren’t very common.
Therefore, having done the hard work of locking out the front grid on Saturday, Mercedes needed to get off to a good start on Sunday.
The plan, as revealed by Hamilton after the race, was simple – Bottas would make a fast start, Hamilton would use him for a tow and they would be able to block Verstappen and Perez.
“I had envisaged it differently naturally in the sense that Valtteri maybe got a better start and I would have tried to get into his tow but obviously I was alongside him which was good.”
The issue, however, was that Bottas made a poor start – and that it was Verstappen who got the tow. He hit the breaks later than any of the Mercedes’ dared and was thus ahead.
“I was covering my side of the track making sure that no one could come up the inside so was trying to keep whichever Red Bull I could see in my mirror behind.
“I thought Valtteri would be doing the same but he left the door open for Max. Max was on the racing line so did a mega job braking for Turn 1 and I was on the inside on the dirt and there was no hope for me.”
Hamilton is now 19 points behind Verstappen after the Mexican GP. With 4 races left, this isn’t an insurmountable lead, at least in theory. However, the practical aspects are very different.
Red Bull clearly have the better package and, perhaps more importantly, hace momentum on their side. It might not be over – but it will certainly be more difficult.
However, at least publicly, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff has not yet lost hope.
“We are going to Brazil that wasn’t much better in the past. But at least we believe that we can have a solid car there, more close to Red Bull than what we had here. I am a pretty realistic person but I love motor racing as anything can happen.
“None of us is ever going to leave this circuit here with the mentality of this is going away from us. There is four races to go, there’s four wins to take, four DNFs to suffer and we will just continue fighting.
“We know that we have a great team. Our car was exceptionally good in Turkey and I think we have all to win. When you look at the mathematical probability then I would rather be 19 points ahead than behind, but it is what it is.”
Again, it’s worth noting that the races at Brazil and Abu Dhabi are too close to call for either side. Mercedes are expected to be favourites at Saudi Arabia; the pacy street circuit will suit their cars.
Qatar, with its focus on low and medium speed corners, will most likely favour the Red Bulls. Amazing as it may seem, the result at the Mexican GP has not rendered the title race moot. Not yet, anyway.