Ferrari secured a sensation front-row lock out in Saturday's qualifying while McLaren's Lando Norris achieved an eye-catching comeback following his qualifying woes. However, it was Max Verstappen again to secure the victory at the Mexico City Grand Prix.
Pirelli delivered an exciting tyre selection for the Mexico City Grand Prix, providing teams with softer tyres compared to last year. The C3 served as P Zero White hard, C4 as P Zero Yellow medium and C5 as P Zero Red soft at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.
The race was run in the highest temperatures seen all weekend, the track being at 52 °C at the start, dropping to 45 °C at the end.
As expected, almost all the drivers chose to start on the Medium tyre, the exceptions being Esteban Ocon (Hard), Alex Albon (Hard) and Lando Norris (Soft). All of them wanted to make inroads following their lowly starting position. The Frenchman and the Briton were both knocked out in Q1 while the Thai driver made it through into Q3, but he had his crucial lap time deleted and started from P14.
Once the race had settled down after the battles shortly after the start, the first part of the race saw the drivers play close attention to managing their tyres and cars. This applied to those who had definitely opted for a one-stop race as well as those keeping their options open to go for a two-stop, especially among the leaders.
Race leader Max Verstappen made an unexpectedly early pit stop on Lap 19, throwing his mediums away for a fresh set of hards. Interestingly, no other driver from the sharp end of the field followed suit with Lewis Hamilton and George Russell pitting six and seven laps later.
With Ferrari displaying an unusually encouraging tyre degradation, the Scuderia left Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz out on track for a very long first stint. The Spaniard pitted for a new set of C3 on Lap 30 with the Monégasque making the same move a lap later.
While the two Mercedes and the two Ferrari drivers were definitely on a one-stop strategy, Verstappen’s early stop indicated that the Dutchman would have required a second visit to the pit lane.
However, a race interruption completely changed the picture of the race. The Safety Car and the red flag that followed because of Magnussen’s crash, made it more complicated to determine which would be the quickest strategy, also because the race was now practically divided into two parts. The track condition improved significantly compared to the start of the weekend and this meant that the graining effect diminished progressively.
Ferrari was robbed the advantage achieved through their offset strategy. Having concerns about their higher tyre degradation that has led to their fading race speed across the season, Ferrari opted to leave both Sainz and Leclerc on the used hards which they never managed to put into the operating window after the restart.
Verstappen also opted for the white-walled compound. By contrast, Mercedes drivers opted for the medium compound which was an ambitious move considering that exactly the half of the race distance was still to complete. While George Russell completely ran out of tyres in the stages of the race, Hamilton managed to keep his mediums in good shape and finished the 23rd F1 race in Mexico in P2, overtaking Leclerc on the fifth lap after the restart.
Pirelli's Motorsport Director Mario Isola said: “As always, since Formula 1 returned to Mexico, the atmosphere at this race was amazing, despite the premature retirement of crowd favourite Sergio Perez. On the tyre front, we saw how track evolution and higher temperatures led to the C4 emerging as the most effective compound overall.
"That was particularly evident after the restart when those who went for the aggressive choice of fitting the Medium, were able to make the most of it when they could attack with it, without the lap times dropping off towards the end, as we saw with Hamilton and Norris for example.
"Verstappen’s superiority meant he could choose what he wanted to do in terms of stops and the Safety Car meant he made his second pit stop without losing position, given that his rivals were just making their scheduled stops. As is often the case with a driver on top form, luck seems to want to help him out still further," Isola conlucded.