Why Max Verstappen disappeared into thin air: Mexican GP analysis


Max Verstappen seized the lead of the Mexican Grand Prix at Turn 1 and then shot off up the road. Mark Hughes examines the emphatic win and why Mercedes locked out the front row

Max Verstappen races past face paionted on track at the 2021 Mexican Grand Prix

Florent Gooden / DPPI

Red Bull came to Mexico expected to dominate and backed up that expectation throughout Friday when it was at times up to 0.5sec quicker than Mercedes. But Mercedes locked out the front row a day later, Valtteri Bottas from Lewis Hamilton. Which was the outlier: Friday or Saturday? The race was only a few seconds old when Max Verstappen made the answer to that crystal clear. Slipstreaming the two Mercs on the long, long run down to Turn 1 of the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, he flicked left into the space Bottas had inattentively left there for him and now on the rubbered-in racing line, stood hard and late on the brakes and with sublime confidence ran off to a meeting he had with the man holding the chequered flag. The rest scrabbled about in his dusty wake.

Why was the Red Bull faster?

It wasn’t engine power. Traditionally that has been Mercedes’ limitation at this track’s 2300-metre altitude. Its turbo used to generate too much heat to meet its boost targets. So you set the desired boost level and the turbo spins to whatever speed is required to achieve that: in the thinner air of high altitudes it simply spins faster to make the same boost. That’s the theory, but if it creates more heat than the thin air can cool in spinning faster, then its speed must be limited and the boost targets are not met. For the 2021 power unit a lot of thought and effort went into giving the required level of cooling and the Mercedes PU was this time competitive with the Honda in the back of the Red Bulls and AlphaTauris.

It was about downforce. The high-rake Red Bull generates more total downforce than the low-rake Mercedes, albeit at the expense of aero efficiency. Aero efficiency is way less important here than the downforce limitation – again for reasons relating to the thin air. A lower drag design brings much less lap time reward in air with 25% less oxygen while simultaneously every extra bit of downforce is at an unusual premium when Monaco-style wings bring only Monza-style downforce.

At such high track temperatures (that thin air again), the tyres are constantly running at or close to their thermal limit. Downforce becomes yet-more valuable.

Why was Red Bull outqualified by Mercedes?

Possibly distracted by its rear wing problems (a stress fracture was found after FP3), Red Bull did not adapt as well as Mercedes to the big increase in track temperature between Saturday morning and afternoon.

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

It was all about the out-lap preparation and as the track temperatures came up, Red Bull lost control of its rear tyre temperatures. What had worked beautifully all weekend suddenly didn’t. The car which on Friday and into Saturday morning had been visibly more planted than the Mercedes had a shortfall of rear grip. Furthermore, Verstappen – and Perez – were slowed on their final runs by Yuki Tsuonda trying to get out of their way by driving onto the run-off and creating a dust cloud which distracted Perez onto the run-off too and obliged Verstappen to lift.

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Red Bull was, by its later reckoning, 0.8sec off its potential pace in qualifying because of how it was ambushed by the increase in track temperatures. Meantime, Mercedes found around 0.3sec from the track temperature increase. Up until then the problem was in getting the front tyres up to temperature by the start of the flying lap without overheating the rears. The hotter track made this much easier for them – or for Valtteri Bottas at least. He drove a brilliant pole lap, which Hamilton couldn’t quite match.

But in hindsight the Mercedes front row lock-out represented a serious under-performance from Red Bull and Mercedes extracting the maximum from what it had. “We just didn’t nail it in qualifying,” said Verstappen. “We lost a lot of pace and just weren’t making the tyres work and it all started falling away from us. When there’s so little grip, everything you do to the tyre can make a massive difference.” Mercedes simply capitalised.

Two Against One

Mexico normality resumed on race day as the Red Bull tyre prep issues had been understood. It was no longer about finding the delicate sweet spot of temperature balance between front and rear over a single lap, but about keeping the tyres from running too hot – which is largely a function of downforce and balance.

Start of the 2021 Mexican Grand Prix

Verstappen took advantage of a gap on the outside at the start, but locking-up Ricciardo found himself running out of room

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

But in addition to the Red Bull reverting to being the faster car, Verstappen instantly got track position by winning the start with that brilliantly committed move under braking into Turn 1, using the rubbered-in racing line to stand on the left pedal about 20 metres later than either of the Mercedes guys. He’d got a nice slipstream from them and second-guessed which way Bottas was about to move. Bottas had been slow off the line, Hamilton getting ahead and blocking the right-hand side, but Bottas not doing the same to the left – which is exactly where Verstappen wanted to be.

As if fastest car and instant track position wasn’t enough for Red Bull, Mercedes then effectively lost Bottas from the game as he was hit into a spin by the locked-up McLaren of Daniel Ricciardo. That made the strategic game for Red Bull very simple, with two cars against Hamilton: Verstappen pulling away out front, way out of undercut range, Sergio Perez ready to apply the undercut pressure, forcing Hamilton in early and letting Verstappen have the ideal stint lengths.

Valtteri Bottas spins in a cloud of tyre smoke at the 2021 Mexican Grand Prix

From pole to pirouette in one corner


That’s how it played – Hamilton coming in on lap 29 with his rear tyres absolutely finished, Perez then staying out for another 11 laps and delighting his countrymen by leading the race when Verstappen pitted on lap 33. Verstappen was able to cruise to his tyre temperatures with a building lead over Hamilton who even on the hard tyres everyone used for the second stint was suffering way more thermal deg than the Red Bull. Perez on his much newer tyres started the second stint 9.5sec behind but was able to get onto Hamilton’s tail with 10 laps still to go. “You know they are faster when Perez is closing you down,” said Hamilton later.

But getting past was a different matter. The problem here is that you can only tow close behind another car for a lap or so before everything – tyres, brakes, power unit – begins to overheat. Furthermore, there is way less drag reduction than normal when you hit the DRS button, because of that thinner air. Hamilton used backmarkers to help, placing them in between him and his pursuer at strategic places. Perez got close at Turn 4 on the final lap, but not close enough. Verstappen by this time was only a couple of corners away from meeting that man with the chequer.

Pierre Gasly in the stadium section at the 2021 Mexican Grand Prix

Ferrari had to challenge to the AlphaTauri of Gasly

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

Bottas stole the point for fastest lap, though it entailed an extra two stops, one for the soft tyres and another to get him out of Verstappen’s way. Max – who had the fastest lap so far and wanted to retain the point that goes with it – had initially let the Mercedes by, then caught up to it again, asking for blue flags… Gamesmanship and niggle.

Almost a lap behind, the AlphaTauri of Pierre Gasly was best of the rest, a pristine drive from fifth on the grid and clear of the two Ferraris the whole way.