Formula 1 arrives in Mexico City on a high after a scintillating 2023 United States GP, though mercifully for teams it’s a standard three-practice weekend this time.
In the middle of an Americas triple-header with Interlagos coming up next, the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez at least always plays host to some of the most passionate fans in F1.
The big question is whether the parity of Austin – where four drivers from four teams were separated by just a tenth in the sprint shootout – can be replicated one week on with Max Verstappen aiming to break his own record for most wins in an F1 season.
Year-in, year-out the hot topic on everyone’s lips coming to the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is the altitude.
Mexico City is the eighth-highest capital city in the world (bonus points if you can name the seven ahead of it) and its F1 track has a whopping elevation of 2,200m.
The next-highest track on the calendar is Interlagos at a pathetic 800m above sea level, so it’s always a challenge for engineers and mechanics to nail car set-ups with cooling a perennial issue at the circuit.
Luckily teams have three practice sessions to get that sorted for qualifying, after back-to-back sprint weekends, but there’s usually a bit of a shake-up in the order regardless.
This weekend that could like McLaren falling back and Ferrari moving to the fore, thanks to the importance of mechanical grip over aerodynamics. With the altitude comes thinner air, effectively meaning less weight over the bodywork pushing cars into the circuit.
Ferrari thrived in Singapore, the last track with such a heavy reliance on mechanical grip, as Carlos Sainz took pole position and the win. But he was distinctly second-best to Charles Leclerc in Austin, so who’ll come out on top this time?
“In Mexico I want to see a more focused team, as we cannot afford to get things wrong in how we assess the race evolution, as was the case in Austin,” Ferrari team principal Fred Vasseur told the media. “The altitude in Mexico makes for a unique race, as it influences various aspects of the car’s behaviour from pure performance to tyre management.
“With this event running to the traditional weekend timetable, we will be able to carry out all the necessary evaluation work over the three free practice sessions.
“I believe we will come up with targeted strategies that will allow us to do our best in what, on paper, can be quite a complicated race. All of us, Carlos and Charles included, must be able to grab any opportunities that come our way.”
Can Checo Perez perform?
Sergio Perez is set to make history as the biggest loser in F1 – his 226-point gap to Verstappen is by far the biggest ever by a championship runner-up and has grown every single race since the 2023 Azerbaijan GP.
However, he can set a more positive record too this weekend by becoming the first Mexican to win a grand prix on home soil, it’d be his victory in F1 since April.
Perez appeared confused throughout his pre-race press conference, assuring fans that this is the biggest race of his season while also brushing it off as ‘worth the same points as any other weekend’, but it would be a memorable moment if he can take victory.
“It’s very different,” Perez told the media. “It’s the weekend you want to be perfect, the weekend that you want to maximise your result. And if there’s one particular grand prix that you want to win it’s your home grand prix.
“Once I’m in the car, it’s a lot easier. It’s very easy, it comes naturally, but when you are out of the car or even in the paddock, the attention is very different, a lot of flies on you and a lot of support from the crowd.”
Will Mexico City finally deliver?
Part of the F1 calendar since 2015 (COVID aside), it’s not a stretch to say the modern iteration of the Mexican GP has failed to provide a blockbuster.
It’s actually gone under the radar for lacking entertainment compared to tracks like Paul Ricard, Sochi and Abu Dhabi, but the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez‘s contract only runs to 2025 so it could find itself increasingly under the spotlight.
Right now it doesn’t help that the track is a certified Max Verstappen favourite either – if he wins this weekend it will become his most success F1 circuit. Perez crossed the line fifth in Austin so will be hoping for some improvement, with Red Bull slightly off the pace as a whole.
“Looking back at the weekend, we were probably not at our strongest,” Verstappen said. “So, it’s a bit difficult to say. From the beginning of the year to now, the teams behind us have been catching up, for sure, but how much?
“It’s also every weekend seems a bit different, sometimes they are closer, sometimes they are further away, and next year impossible to comment on.”
Another potential flashpoint isn’t on-track, but over the airwaves. Verstappen got audibly irritated several times over team radio at the Circuit of the Americas, with race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase the main target of that ire.
Verstappen insisted all was well in their relationship, which has now netted 50 grand prix wins, but it’ll be interesting to see whether that holds in the heat of battle.
“We always get along very well,” Verstappen added. “Of course, in the heat of the moment, I let him know that I wasn’t very happy that he was talking under the braking.
“The race was done and he had to catch a flight, so he said I’ll see you Friday and people then said oh he’s very p*****d off. Whatever, we always get on well.”
The ridiculous nature of the Formula 2 calendar means drivers have a nearly three-month gap between the last two rounds of the season – Italy and Abu Dhabi.
However, five drivers from the grid get their chance to impress in Mexico, as part of the new (from 2022) rule that teams must give up two free practice sessions a year to a driver who’s raced in less than three grand prix.
So far only Aston Martin and Ferrari have bit the bullet – with Felipe Drugovich and Robert Shwartzman respectively – but plenty of teams have picked the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez for their first showing.
|Driver||Team||F2 championship position|
|Theo Pourchaire||Alfa Romeo||1st|
With 19 F1 drivers already holding contracts for next season and Williams still backing Logan Sargeant to the hilt especially after he scored his first points in Austin, 2024 could be the first-ever F1 season with no rookie drivers on the grid.
In the long run, Pourchaire and Bearman probably have the best chance of making the step up but will Friday morning in Mexico change that?
“I’m incredibly proud to be doing the FP1 session in Mexico City with the team – it’s a dream come true,” Vesti said. “This has been my dream since I was very young and something I’ve been fighting for through my whole junior career.
“It’s taken a lot of hard work, and this is a very important step for me on my journey. To be able to develop myself in an F1 car alongside some of the best drivers in the world is something I’m looking forward to. I can’t wait to be driving W14 for the first time.”