Bottas stuns Red Bull but will Verstappen have last laugh? 2021 Mexican GP qualifying report


Mercedes turned the tables on Red Bull by locking out the front row in qualifying for the 2021 Mexican Grand Prix. But Max Verstappen will be confident of his chances from third on the grid

Valtteri Bottas in qualifying for the 2021 Mexican Grand prix

Bottas led a Mercedes lock-out of the Mexican GP front row

Clive Mason/Getty Images

“Ha, ha, yes!!” You could hear the delight in Valtteri Bottas’s voice as Mercedes took an entirely unexpected pole position and front row lock-out for round 18 of an epic F1 season, in Mexico.

That’s right, Mexico. Where the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is meant to play to the strengths of the Red Bull-Honda package.

It was the second pole in three races for Bottas as he broke the timing beam on his first Q3 run 0.15sec quicker than Lewis Hamilton could manage.

“This sport just continues to amaze me,” said his team principal, Toto Wolff. Friday and Saturday in Mexico City was the polar opposite of the corresponding days in Austin a fortnight ago. In Texas, Mercedes dominated the opening day before Red Bull recovered and stole pole. In Mexico, Red Bull dominated until Mercedes turned the tables in qualifying.

What surprised Wolff was that on the opening day the Red Bull onboard footage showed a car that could be turned into a corner and nailed with a constant steering angle, whereas Hamilton and Bottas needed multiple inputs with a car that appeared nothing like as benignly balanced. But then in qualifying, all that changed. Verstappen was sliding in Q1/Q2 and Bottas’s Mercedes at least, looked supremely drivable. Hamilton, although less happy, still managed to see off the Red Bulls.

Valtteri Bottas with Juan Manuel Fangio replica helmet

A replica of Juan Manuel Fangio’s helmet was the polesitter’s trophy, 70 years after the Argentinian’s first World Championship

Grand Prix Photo

Verstappen was missing three-and-a-half tenths to Bottas’s pole time but, in reality, the fight was closer than that. While Valtteri called it one of the best qualifying laps he’s ever driven, Verstappen was left frustrated after Alpha Tauri’s Yuki Tsunoda and Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez both went off the road in front of him on his final Q3 run.

“My first Q3 lap was horrible, with just no grip,” Max explained, “but on the second run we found enough to fight for pole.”

But that fight was disrupted when he saw dust from the excursions ahead. “Unbelievable. Such a dumb idiot…” was his frustrated radio reaction, without clarifying whether the remark was aimed at Yuki or Sergio!

When he’d cooled down, he added: “I saw the dust, lifted off in Turn 10 and lost momentum. You try to recover in the last sector but it never works. It was just a bad qualifying and we deserve to be where we are.”

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The theory is that the respective architecture of the Mercedes and Honda power units allows the Japanese engine to spin its turbo faster, particularly beneficial in the thin air of Mexico City, at more than 7000ft of altitude. Which was one of the factors in Red Bull being such strong pre-race favourites.

But Saturday was certainly not problem-free for Red Bull, the team making modifications to its rear wings post-FP3, with the work continuing right up until moments before the qualifying hour. Christian Horner, however, denied that it had any influence on proceedings: “We saw something in P3 and wanted to add a bit of protection. It was a bit of fatigue and the the mods we made have addressed any concerns.” Alpine, remember, had rear wing fatigue issues in Austin.

Horner was not too despondent though: “We still think we’ve got a great chance. The first one, of course, will be down at Turn 1 when the tow is at its strongest. I think it could be pretty interesting down there. Lewis is on the dirty side of the grid, so let’s see what happens.”

Mercedes, after spending Friday’s night’s debrief working through likely scenarios from P3/P4 on the grid, was suddenly discussing P1/2 24hrs later. Which, ironically, might not be as great as it sounds given the length of the run to Turn 1, even if the altitude does make for a weaker tow.

Red Bull mechanics working on rear wing of Sergio Perez

Red Bull was working on the rear wings of their cars as qualifying started

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Pierre Gasly was a delighted fifth, the AlphaTauri/Toro Rosso team’s best ever qualifying performance in Mexico, no doubt also aided by the Honda power unit. But for the Frenchman to set a lap more than three-tenths ahead of the quickest Ferrari, was a fabulous effort.

The Ferrari/McLaren battle was as intense as ever, with Carlos Sainz sixth (1min 16.761sec), Daniel Ricciardo seventh (1m16.763s) and Charles Leclerc eighth (1m16.839). Lando Norris, who will start from the back of the grid after being the last of the Mercedes-engined drivers to take a fourth power unit, played the team game by towing Ricciardo in Q3.

“I’m definitely on the wrong end of the narrow gaps this year…” smiled the Aussie as he contemplated the 0.002sec that separated him from Sainz.

Leclerc, superb of late, was annoyed with himself and typically candid: “I struggled throughout practice but qualifying was much better. I drove well until the last Q3 run, when I made a mistake. I’m pretty upset, it was down to me.”

Tsonoda, who had never seen Mexico before, impressed from first thing Friday morning and did a great job to give Gasly a meaningful tow on the first Q3 run, but you had to wonder what he was doing in front of Perez/Verstappen on the track on the second runs? If the idea had been to tow the senior cars and sacrifice his second run too, it didn’t work, with Horner left commenting that they’d been ‘Tsunodered’.

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With all of those progressing to Q3 doing so on the medium compound Pirelli barring the Japanese rookie, there is unlikely to be much strategic variety in the race, with one-stop medium-hard runs likely to be universally adopted.

Lance Stroll and Esteban Ocon will join Norris in starting from the back of the grid with new power units, while George Russell, who qualified 13th, will take a five-place penalty for a new gearbox. Given Stroll’s situation, he could have done without running wide out of the final corner, getting on the dirt and binning the Aston into the barrier.

Fernando Alonso was another surprise Q1 eliminee. Given that Ocon was starting from the back anyway, it would have done Alpine a favour if the Frenchman had not bumped his team-mate out in the opening session. Alonso was not blaming him, having lost his first run to the red flag for Stroll’s shunt, then endured a scrappy second effort with no grip.

Crashed Aston Martin of Lance Stroll in 2021 Mexican GP qualifying

Stroll’s Peraltada crash brought out red flags in Q1

Hector Vivas/F1 via Getty Images

With AlphaTauri only 10 points behind Alpine in the battle for fifth in the constructors’ championship, tomorrow’s race represents a great opportunity for the little Italian team, which has both cars firmly in the top 10.

At Alfa there is still no news on Giovinazzi’s future but Antonio did himself no favours by spinning off in Q2 and being outqualified by team mate Kimi Räikkönen for only the fifth time in 18 races.

Mercedes may have taken the front row but Hamilton didn’t sound too confident when he spoke of a car that, despite multiple Friday night hours with his engineers, still wasn’t nice to drive, and in which he had multiple lock-ups. But he’s Lewis Hamilton, so you never write him off.

Red Bull, despite the psychological blow of the great Mercedes turnaround, do still seem quietly confident. I can’t help feeling that Verstappen will still be the man to beat, but have given up trying to call 2021 with any degree of confidence. Just don’t miss the opening lap…


2021 Mexican Grand Prix qualifying results

Positions do not take into account grid penalties

Position Driver Team Time (Q3)
1 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1min 15.875sec
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1min 16.020sec
3 Max Verstappen Red Bull 1min 16.225sec
4 Sergio Perez Red Bull 1min 16.342sec
5 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri 1min 16.456sec
6 Carlos Sainz Ferrari 1min 16.761sec
7 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren 1min 16.763sec
8 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1min 16.837sec
9 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri 1min 17.158sec
10 Lando Norris McLaren 1min 36.830sec
Q2 times
11 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin 1min 17.746sec
12 Kimi Räikkönen Alfa Romeo 1min 17.958sec
13 George Russell Williams 1min 18.172sec
14 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo 1min 18.290sec
15 Esteban Ocon Alpine 1min 18.405sec
Q1 times
16 Fernando Alonso Alpine 1min 18.452sec
17 Nicholas Latifi Williams 1min 18.756sec
18 Mick Schumacher Haas 1min 18.858sec
19 Nikita Mazepin Haas 1min 19.303sec
20 Lance Stroll Aston Martin 1min 20.873sec