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.
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’.