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MEXICO CITY — Much of the focus ahead of Formula One’s return to Mexico lay with the dynamic between Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez upon the latter’s homecoming.
Yet Ferrari upstaged Red Bull in style on Saturday at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez as Charles Leclerc led Carlos Sainz to a front row lockout, leaving Verstappen third and Pérez in fifth.
Even more of a surprise was Daniel Ricciardo’s surge to fourth place for AlphaTauri, marking a new high point in his F1 comeback and a blow against Pérez — his rival for a 2025 Red Bull seat — on home soil.
A messy qualifying ended in post-session investigations for a number of drivers. Even with no penalties, the mixed-up grid should make for an entertaining race, especially on a track where overtaking comes at a premium.
Here are the big storylines to watch out for in today’s Mexico City Grand Prix.
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Ferrari needs another surprise from the front row
Few expected Ferrari to be in the fight for pole position in Mexico or to lock out the front row of the grid — not even Ferrari.
“It’s a really big surprise,” said Leclerc after taking pole ahead of Sainz. “We keep saying that every time we get a pole position, so people will stop believing what we say!”
The pace of the Ferrari car didn’t properly show until it really mattered, at the very end of Q3. Unlike Verstappen, both Leclerc and Sainz made better progress through qualifying, gaining confidence through each session.
The race could be a different story. Leclerc and Sainz will be able to work together on the long run to the first corner to keep Verstappen at bay, but sustaining that advantage through the race will be a challenge. Even on a track like Mexico, where overtaking is difficult due to the high altitude (thinner air reduces benefit of slipstream and DRS), the pace of the Red Bull remains strong. “We still have a lot of work to do as a team I think to match them with our race pace,” Leclerc said.
Ferrari’s form so far this weekend feels closer to Monza (where Sainz and Leclerc finished P3 and P4) than Singapore (where Sainz won and Leclerc placed fourth). Between the reliability challenge and its struggles to keep up with the Red Bull over the longer distances, it’ll take a repeat of the Saturday surprise for Leclerc or Sainz to stand a chance at winning, even from the front row.
More history awaits Verstappen
Missing out on pole position has rarely ruled Verstappen and Red Bull out of contention for victory this season. Even starting as far back as ninth in Miami or sixth at Spa and Austin, Verstappen has gone into Sunday as the heavy favorite — and won.
If Verstappen can win on Sunday, it would mark another slice of history: 16 wins for the season would break his own record from last year.
But Mexico has been a bit more difficult so far. As early as Thursday afternoon, Verstappen wasn’t so bold about Red Bull’s chances, noting the track’s slow-speed corners don’t suit the RB19 car. Even as a four-time winner at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez, Verstappen wasn’t buoyed with confidence heading into the weekend.
He still looked like the driver to beat through practice, but then struggled to find time through each stage of qualifying. Verstappen pushed too hard when trying to recover time on his final lap, causing his car to slide around in the low-grip conditions, overheating the tires. “This track is very, very difficult to put a perfect lap together,” he said afterward.
Yet: The trend through this season has been that Red Bull takes a step forward over longer stints. Verstappen also has greater confidence in the car setup here than he did in Austin, where the single practice session left him with a narrower peak performance window.
Asked if he had confidence in his race pace, Verstappen simply said it was “good” and noted he had two sets of hard tires at his disposal, compared to just one for the other lead runners. “That’s also maybe an advantage for tomorrow,” Verstappen said. “But again, a lot can happen into Turn 1.” With a strong slipstream, Verstappen will be eager to make up places quickly, and the race pace of Ferrari has been a weakness this year. He remains the driver to beat.
Ricciardo is the closest he’s been to his old self
Ricciardo’s impressive pace through practice on Friday was nice, but more important was the fact he gained a comfort and confidence in the car that hadn’t been there since right before crash in Zandvoort that took him out for five races.
Ricciardo delivered on all that promise in qualifying. He had a near-perfect session, saving a set of tires with a rapid lap in Q1 thanks to a tow from teammate Yuki Tsunoda, who also helped him sail through Q2. Flying solo in the final session for AlphaTauri, Ricciardo lost none of his edge, qualifying a brilliant 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 his old self; the kind of qualifying magic that once made him such a close competitor to Verstappen at Red Bull. And it sets up his biggest comeback chance yet.
Ricciardo wants to get his elbows out for the start today — naturally, he’s a racer — but his key goal will be to bring home a vital haul of points for AlphaTauri. The team is last in the constructors’ championship, but two points will be enough to tie Haas.
Ricciardo knows he needs to play it sensible in the race and not let this opportunity slip. But if he can deliver a top-five result that would stand as an anomaly in AlphaTauri’s season, it’d be a huge statement to make for the team this year — and his own long-term future.
Checo needs another step to make his homecoming special
In the context of how bad some of his race weekends have been lately, fifth place on the grid is pretty good going for Pérez. He still needs to take another step on Sunday if he is to deliver on all the hype around his homecoming.
Pérez entered the Mexico weekend feeling more confident about his chances after adjusting his approach with the Red Bull car. He believed Austin’s sprint weekend masked his true pace and potential, giving reason for him to hope of what he called a “dream” victory in front of his compatriots.
Qualifying on Saturday was the closest Pérez has been to Verstappen for some time, lapping within two-tenths of a second in Q3 — yet it’s not enough to turn the tide. Although Pérez won’t dwell on the that fact Ricciardo outqualified him in an AlphaTauri, it is a fight he must win today to bat away the continued questions about his future with Red Bull.
From fifth on the grid, a podium would be a big result for Pérez and enough to send the home crowd wild. Verstappen will surely lead Red Bull’s charge again, yet Pérez needs to take full advantage of this opportunity. He’s in a good headspace right now; letting it slip on this of all weekends would be a bitter result.
Mercedes is back in the dark after its Austin step forward
Whatever good vibes Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton felt as he crossed the finish line last weekend in Austin lasted about two hours. That result got disqualified, and Mercedes’ outing in Mexico City has been a crash back to reality.
The early signs were there in Friday’s two practice sessions, when poor balance and grip levels plagued George Russell and Hamilton. Mercedes changed the setup for qualifying, resulting in what Hamilton called a “nicer to drive” ride. But brake overheating became a fresh issue, and neither car had the one-lap pace to keep up with the Red Bulls or Ferraris.
“I don’t really know what to say,” Hamilton said Friday evening. “You just 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 W14’s better days. Russell qualified P8, and Hamilton P6. Not bad, if Ferrari wasn’t 20 points back of Mercedes for second place in the championship. It’s a sour mix for Mercedes: both Ferraris on the front row, an unpredictable car, and a track that makes overtaking difficult.
A long day ahead for Lando Norris
Hamilton isn’t the only driver experiencing F1’s wild swings in fortune. Norris, fresh off four straight podium finishes, will start P19 after a disastrous qualifying session.
In Q1, McLaren sent Norris out for a banker lap on mediums. Norris then bungled his first timed lap on soft tires, nearly losing the car, meaning he’d need to come all the way back around the track and start his push lap again with about 30 seconds left.
Then Fernando Alonso spun in Turn 3, bringing out a yellow flag and slowing down the field right as Norris entered that section. He’d get no decent qualifying lap in, no Q2 appearance, and (probably) no fifth consecutive podium on Sunday. Norris will start P19 on a track that is hard to overtake around.
please lando never change 😭 pic.twitter.com/bcax9D3KL8
— bia (@LNFOURS) October 28, 2023
The good news is that the McLaren’s long-run pace looked good in practice. Sure, Oscar Piastri and Norris downplayed their car’s prospects at this track – Piastri said the circuit would “not particularly” play to McLaren’s strengths. But we’re learning to ignore McLaren sand-bagging before grand prix weekends.
The team is among the fastest five F1 teams right now, and so far, Mexico City is no exception. Norris averaged 0.274s a lap faster than Verstappen on a 15-lap medium-tire long run in FP2. The hard tires don’t look as promising for McLaren, so Norris will need a healthy mix of pace, smart strategy and good fortune to advance through the field.
Follow our live coverage of the Mexico Grand Prix.
(Lead image of Sergio Pérez, Charles Leclerc and Daniel Ricciardo: ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP, ANDRES STAPFF / POOL / AFP, Rudy Carezzevoli via Getty Images)