A perfect race will give Ferrari opportunity to deny Verstappen win in Mexico City

Ferrari are the only team to beat Red Bull in the 2023 Formula 1 season

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Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz lock out the front row for Ferrari yet Max Verstappen is still favourite to win the 2023 Mexico City Grand Prix and break his own record of 15 wins in a Formula 1 campaign.

Ferrari looked down and out during practice but got the tyres into a sweet spot in Q3 and both drivers nailed their laps to deny Verstappen pole position. But can they the same on race day? That’s the big question.

The way Verstappen has come through the field from tougher positions in 2023 suggests, no. However, Ferrari are the only team to topple Red Bull this year, courtesy of Sainz‘s stunning win in Singapore and the characteristics of the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez give them a unique opportunity.

Retain 1-2 after Lap 1 or forget it

There are 811m between the grid boxes and Turn 1, which is one of the longest runs into the first corner on the 2023 F1 calendar.

In 2021, Verstappen brilliantly overtook the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas in the braking zone of Turn 1 and may look to do the same on Sunday.

Bottas and Hamilton didn’t work together on that occasion, leaving a clear gap on the racing line for Verstappen. Depending on the launch, Leclerc either needs to tow his teammate down to the first corner or the Ferrari pair should box Verstappen in.

“It’s very difficult to predict what’s going to happen,” said Leclerc. “It’s basically a result of how good a start one will have and then we’ll adapt.

“I think, obviously, we won’t take too many risks in between cars. But apart from that, it’s difficult to plan what’s happening at the start. It depends if I have a good start, if I have a bad start, so difficult to plan that.”

Sainz added: “I think it’s impossible to predict these kind of things. Only thing I can say is I’m starting, maybe, on the dirty side, which here is quite a big difference.

“I was almost kind of expecting Max to beat me a bit and maybe put me on P3 to have a better launch tomorrow. But even like that, I think it’s impossible to say.”

If Verstappen is in second or first, it’s game over for Ferrari. Even if they keep Verstappen behind though after the first lap, there are still 70 more laps to go.

Third placed qualifier Max Verstappen of Red Bull after qualifying for 2023 Mexico City Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Ferrari must work together

Something in Ferrari‘s favour is the Mexico City GP should be a one-stop, so it will be harder for Red Bull and Verstappen to attack them through strategy.

You would think Verstappen will have better race pace too but it’s hard to follow and overtake at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez due to the thin air, sensitivity of the tyres and the twisty second half of the lap.

It might be required for the leading Ferrari to keep their teammate within DRS range, while not going too fast to keep the field bunched up. If the field is still relatively together, say the top 10 are within 20 seconds after 15 laps, then it will be hard to do an undercut because you will come out in traffic.

At the 2023 Italian GP, Verstappen overtook Sainz for the lead before the first round of pit stops, so Ferrari need to show better race pace than they did at Monza to stay ahead of the Dutchman.

Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz on the stage after the 2023 Mexico City GP | Ferrari

They also only need to pit in reaction to a Verstappen pit stop, if they are leading, so there is no need for silly games or to overthink anything on the Ferrari pit wall.

“It’s a very difficult race here,” said Leclerc. “Everything can happen, especially with the cooling. Whichever car is behind will do a bit more management, so that can play in our favour.

“This year, clearly, Max has been extremely strong on the race pace. So at the moment it’s Max. We still have a lot of work to do as a team, I think, to match them with our race pace.”

“As a team” is the key phrase from Leclerc though. Sainz cannot attack his teammate or else they will hurt each other’s tyres and give Verstappen a free run at the pair of them at some point in the race.

A simple medium to hard strategy should be the play on Sunday and it will require a lot of management to keep the tyres in the right window. If Verstappen doesn’t have a big enough pace advantage, which is possible, Ferrari have a genuine chance to take a second victory of 2023.

Carlos Sainz debriefs with the team after qualifying for the 2023 Mexico City GP | Ferrari

“I feel like this year the tyres are trickier to manage,” said Sainz. “We saw FP2 and FP3, more graining on both front and rear axles and I think it’s going to mean that the race is going to be a lot trickier than what it was last year.

“It will be all about the management of the temperature of the tyres, but also the temperature of the engine and how we can put together the most consistent, trouble-free race.

“Obviously if we do laps like we did in qualifying we can aim for the podium or the win but to do that for 71 laps in our car is a bit trickier.

“Also, with our tyre management, it’s trickier and 71 laps, I think, normally that is where Red Bull makes a difference but together with Charles, we will try and do everything we can do to keep him behind and try to challenge that win.”

How far can Norris get up the field

Lando Norris suffered his first Q1 exit on Saturday since the 2023 Miami GP in May after not putting together a strong banker laps before Fernando Alonso caused yellow flags at the end of the first segment of qualifying.

Oscar Piastri split the Mercedes of Hamilton and George Russell to qualify seventh, so Norris could have been in the top five.

Points are a minimum but it’s hard to come through the field in Mexico as Hamilton showed in 2017 after dropping to the back following an incident on the opening lap and only getting back to ninth place.

Norris will probably start on the hard tyres and go long in the hope a well-timed safety car or virtual safety car can help him jump several midfield runners.

Lando Norris at the 2023 Mexico City GP | McLaren F1 Team

“An issue with the car on the first run meant we didn’t set the banker lap we needed,” said Norris after qualifying.

“I made a mistake on my second run, and didn’t get a chance to complete my third lap due to the yellow flag, but that’s the way it is sometimes. It’s frustrating as the car was good and the speed was there. I’ll bounce back on Sunday.” 

John Smithhttps://total-motorsport.com
Editor at Total-Motorsport.com and all round Motorsport journalist specialising in Formula 1, IndyCar and Formula E.
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