Did Red Bull outsmart its rivals?

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F1 Grand Prix, GP Mexico, Autódromo Hermanos Rodriguezmx

Red Bull Racing locked out the second row for Sunday’s Mexican GP after a rather complicated Friday. The Milton Keynes-based squad will start today’s race with a different strategy compared to its rivals Ferrari and Mercedes.

Red Bull seemed to struggle on Friday with its qualifying pace and its long run pace did not look that promising either. They lacked speed especially in the first sector during its qualifying simulations, and seemed to suffer from extensive tyre wear on the super soft tyres in the long runs.

However, the team managed to turn its fortunes around for Saturday and upped its pace in the third free practice session. In qualifying, both drivers Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen sticked to the supersofts in all sessions. That enabled Red Bull to learn how to use the softest compound available in Mexico in the best way. Its usage and the method to get that compound in the right operating window have raised difficulties for many drivers so far this weekend.

Red Bull was the only team which could get the best out of the tyres without an extra warm-up lap while others were forced to do an extra preparation lap after the outlap.

“I am very pleased with the way qualifying went, we have put ourselves on the second row again which means we are in an ideal position to fight from the start. All weekend we have had a good car. We are still just a little down on top speed which makes it hard to compete with the Mercedes in qualifying, but we are still pretty close so that is a good achievement,” said Max Verstappen.

The strategy Red Bull opted for in the qualifying means Red Bull has to start the race on the supersofts while its fierce rivals Mercedes and Ferrari are set to start today’s GP on the softs.

Theoretically, Red Bull is on the back foot as supersofts showed rapid and massive degradation in Friday’s practice sessions. That could force Ricciardo and Verstappen for an early pit stop.

Red Bull, however, showed confidence when it was confronted with its possible strategy compromise and replied that starting on a harder compound does not always pay off.

“In adopting a different strategy to the cars around us by starting on the supersoft tyres tomorrow it creates a strategically interesting race which should make for an exciting Grand Prix,” said team boss Christian Horner.

Red Bull’s optimism could be explained by a similar tactical battle in Austin a week ago where Mercedes drivers and Max Verstappen started the race on the harder compound (soft) while Ricciardo and the Ferrari duo began their first stint on the softer compound (supersoft).

The soft did not last that long while the supersoft held on longer than expected. When the divers that started on the supersofts pitted, the other trio was forced to make the first pit stop earlier than planned to avoid being undercut.

However, the situation is different in Mexico in various aspects. The difference in durability between the softs and supersofts seems to be bigger as the drop of performance on the supersofts was significant on the green track on Friday which could be different on race day.

Another aspect is that the softs need some time to warm up which means it is not possible to set much faster times immediately after the pit stop which is usually the case with fresh tyres.

As the softs hold on pretty well, it is possible for Mercedes and Ferrari to lengthen the first stint and refuse a desperate reaction on Red Bull’s possible early stop and cling to the original strategy even if Ricciardo and Verstappen could fulfil an undercut momentarily.

Furthermore, pace differences between teams are not huge this weekend which means Red Bull will have a hard time to build a gap against the drivers starting from behind. If they cannot manage to build a gap, they will come back to the track behind slower cars and the rather small pace difference means they won’t find it easy to make sudden overtaking manoeuvres.

Red Bull will, however, have an advantage with its supersofts. The softest compound on the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez race track could help at the start. It is expected to give an advantage of two meters at the getaway which is a car length. If Ricciardo and/or Verstappen could make a jump on Mercedes and take over the lead they could try to lengthen their first stint.

“It is a long run into Turn 1 and we start on the supersoft compound so our chances of making progress straight away is high,” Versteppen sounded confident about his chances at the start.