Lewis Hamilton v Max Verstappen rivalry could reignite at Mexican Grand Prix

Luke Murphy
Red Bull driver Max Verstappen smiles and talks to Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton.

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen talks to Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton.

After Red Bull managed to survive scares and claim US Grand Prix victory, will the champions prove their mastery in Mexico or could it finally be ‘Hammer Time’ for Mercedes again?

Max Verstappen overcame handling difficulties, brake issues and rampant rivals to take win number 15 of the season and the Dutchman will return to one of his most successful circuits to take the unique technical challenges of the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.

With the iconic event combining a party atmosphere, an often-combative Turn 1 and a home hero, we take you through what the teams will need to deal with at the Mexican Grand Prix?

How has the circuit changed for 2023?

The historical circuit returned to the schedule in 2015 after renovations by regular F1 track designer Hermann Tilke. The 17-turn, 4.3km venue has been tweaked and reshaped since its first F1 race in 1963, and now combines its high-speed history with intricate, precise corners.

The Mexican Grand Prix will remain on the calendar at least until the end of 2025, and has proven popular due to the electric atmosphere and unique technical challenge.

Aside from the 2020 season, the Mexico City race has been ever-present on the schedule since 2015, and one of Max Verstappen’s most successful venues. The Dutchman has taken four wins in the last five events here, and will be on the hunt for three Mexican Grand Prix wins in a row.

Aside from some fine-tuning of kerbs, walls and DRS zones, the circuit has stayed largely the same since its return to the calendar.

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What are the characteristics of the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez?

The main characteristic of hosting a race in Mexico City is that it’s one of the highest altitude capital cities in the world. At over 2200 metres above sea level, the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez has an altitude of over 1400 metres more than the second-highest F1 track, the Interlagos circuit in Brazil.

At higher altitudes air becomes thinner, and this reduction in air density makes setting up cars for the Mexican GP one of the most unique challenges on the calendar.

The effects of airflow on the cars will be reduced, and the thinner air means that cars will have less aerodynamic drag. However, the reduced air density will also mean that cars will not be able to produce the same levels of downforce as they would at other tracks.

This means that cars are able to run with their ‘high downforce’ setups – like the ones used at the Monaco and Hungarian Grands Prix – with less of a penalty of aerodynamic drag, and still achieve some of the highest top speeds of the season.

The altitude also impacts the rest of the car. The power units will not run as optimally, and cooling the various components of the car, including tyres, will become more difficult. Whilst air temperatures aren’t extreme in Mexico City, the reduced air density means it’s harder to dissipate the heat.

The track surface is often relatively low-grip and, combined with cars which generate lower levels of downforce, the tyres aren’t under as much stress as they are at other venues. However, these conditions pose a challenge for keeping tyres in the correct temperature window.

Teams will have fewer bumps to contend with compared to the Austin track, meaning teams should be able to run their cars lower to the ground and try to eke out every bit of underfloor performance possible from the downforce-starved track.

The configuration of the track is a healthy mix of high and low-speed corners, with the prime overtaking opportunities coming at Turns 1 and 4, after the two longest straights of the circuit. The long run from the start line to Turn 1 means that opening lap overtakes often happen, making a lights-to-flag victory less than straightforward.

Who is expected to do well at the Mexican Grand Prix?

The Mexican GP has a history of being able to disrupt the form book and provide a slight shake-up to the running order. During Mercedes’ period of domination earlier in the turbo-hybrid era of F1, Red Bull were able to take occasional victories partly thanks to a reduced power unit advantage of their rivals.

This time around, it’s Red Bull who head to Mexico as the ones to beat, with the chasing pack hoping that their strengths can be nullified at a circuit that can forgive some weaknesses.

The Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is helpful to the cars which typically struggle with excess drag, something that both Mercedes and McLaren have complained about in 2023. A core strength of the RB19 is its aerodynamic efficiency, and reducing this advantage could bring their rivals closer.

The Red Bull, however, has worked incredibly well at a variety of circuit configurations, but appeared to be hampered by the bumpiness of the COTA circuit at the previous race. Fewer bumps at the Mexican circuit should allow Red Bull to extract as much performance as possible from their mighty floor.

After an improved showing at the US GP, Mercedes will be hoping their upgrades continue to show more promise in Mexico. In a difficult 2022 season, last year’s race was one of Mercedes’ better events, partly due to the reduced effect of their draggy car. This year, they will be hoping their car optimisations can help them challenge for their first win of the season.

On current form, a rejuvenated Lewis Hamilton, buoyed by the latest upgrades, has to be favoured over George Russell who has been the first to admit his season has been a “scrappy” one.

McLaren have looked to lower expectations across the remainder of the season, and suspect that their better chances of victories have already passed. With the car favouring the higher-downforce tracks like Qatar and Suzuka, it will be interesting to see how far the car has come at a track with many more low-speed corners where downforce is harder to generate.

Ferrari admitted that the troublesome altitude triggered some reliability concerns – and therefore a drop in performance – in a poor 2022 race, but this season the team has been plagued by their consistent inconsistency. They’ve been able to show impressive speed in qualifying and circuits with more lower-speed corners, but can their race pace improve to challenge in Mexico?

After pit lane starts at COTA, Aston Martin showed strong pace to recover through the field and challenge for a double points finish, even though Alonso retired due to floor damage. The team used the race as a test session to run one car with updates and one without. They have less than a week to assess their upgrades before trying again on a non-Sprint F1 weekend.

If reports about a lack of performance with Alpine’s power unit are to be believed, then a circuit which can either nullify – or sometimes expose – a power unit inefficiency might help this season’s middle-of-the-road team.

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