Top three outfits in close contention - Friday noticebook

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F1 Grand Prix, GP Mexico, Autódromo Hermanos Rodriguezmx

The first three hours of on-track action of the Formula 1 Gran Premio de Mexico 2019 indicated that all three top-teams are contenders for victory this weekend. In amongst plenty of excitement and points of interest, the first two practice sessions suggested that tyre management would be crucial for both one-lap and long-run performance in the remainder of the weekend.

Unusual qualifying battles – Daniel Ricciardo expects off-track strategic qualifying battles given the behaviour and consistency of Pirelli’s soft tyres at the Mexico City track. Drivers faced very high degradation and sudden loss of grip just after a handful of laps during their long runs on Friday which could mean that most of them will try to avoid to start the 71-lap race on the red-banded compound. “I guess we’ll talk after FP3 tomorrow, a bit of pre-qualy strategy. If [the soft tyre] falls away quite like it did today it’s going to be an interesting, strategic qualifying session tomorrow,” said the Australian.

Staright-line advantage – Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel topped the second free practice session, but his advantage was just over a tenth of a second ahead of Max Verstappen. In an attempt to play down Ferrari’s speed around the Hermanos Rodriguez race track, the quadruple world champion indicated that "the times don’t always show everything. I think it’s still a three-way fight between us, Red Bull and Mercedes." However, Max Verstappen suggested that the Scuderia enjoyed a healthy lead over the first day of practice in Mexico and the SF90’s straighline performance is one the main reason behind its strong showing. “Ferrari is too fast here.I think Mercedes and us are on about the same level, but Ferrari are miles ahead. The power they have is amazing,” said the Dutchman.

Totally focused on 2020 – Although McLaren announced that it would part ways with its current engine-supplier Renault at the end of 2020 to start a new chapter with Mercedes, the Woking-based squad’s team principal said that the mid-term priority is to close in on the sport’s current top three teams. “James Key is working hard on that, together with the entire team back home. I’m very happy with the progress that I’m seeing there and the target is clear for next year: we want to somehow jump in between these… let’s say a position in terms of lap time also where we are right now and where these guys are, and hopefully we can make that step for next year,” said the German.

Technical battle – The disqualification of the Renault cars from the Japanese Grand Prix was the result of the protest that the Racing Point team filed right after the race at Suzuka. When asked about the timing of the protest, team boss Otmar Szafnaur admitted that his engineers started looking at Renault’s brake bias system at Silverstone. “We, ourselves, had some issues with our brake bias actually failing, with I think resulted in Checo I think running into Hülkenberg at the restart after the Safety Car. That’s when we started looking at making our system a little bit more robust. As I’m sure everyone does, we started looking at our competitors to see what they do better than we do, and that’s when we noticed that Renault had the system that we really wanted.” The Silverstone-based outfit contacted the FIA to get clarification about the legality of a system of similar sort, but the governing body claimed that the system is illegal.

Still undecided – Red Bull are yet to decided who will be the partner of Max Verstappen in the coming year, but team boss Christian Horner indicated that the Milton Keynes-based outfit is delighted with the performance of Alex Albon. “I think he’s doing a very good job. You have to remember this is his first season in Formula One. He’s up against an incredibly tough team-mate in Max and he hasn’t had the benefit of a bunch of testing or anything like that, so I think he’s equipped himself and adapted well.” The Briton stressed out that the Thai-British driver has given good feedbacks despite to the lack of experience with the RB15. “His feedback shows a very strong understanding of the car – and as he gains confidence on circuits he’s visiting for the first time, he’s certainly impressed the whole team with his attitude, his application and his performance so far.”

Insecure future – Clouds are gathering over the future of Renault’s Formula One team amid the latest technical scandals. The French outfit has experienced two major setbacks in recent weeks. Daniel Ricciardo was disqualified from Singapore Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday after stewards ruled his car's energy recovery system had deployed too much power. In Japan, both Renault drivers were disqualified after having been found guilty of using an illegal driver aid in the form of an automated brake bias system. Sources from the paddock indicated that the technical infringements, the lack of performance and the change at the top management level following Charlos Ghosn corruption scandal raised questions internally whether Renault should continue at the pinnacle of motorsport.

Team boss Cyril Abiteboul labelled the current championship as personally “the most difficult season”. He conceded that his team has to “analyse not only our results, but also our potential to achieve better results in the future and the current situation in the industry. We have a long-term project, but one of the stages of that is finding out the regulations for 2021. Then we will need to confirm our participation in the seasons 2021-2015.” Abiteboul admitted that the top management of the French concern will ponder about the post-2021 F1 rules once they are confirmed. "The new leadership will think about whether this really suits us," said the Frenchman.