Very few people expected Ferrari to lock out the front row for the Mexico City Grand Prix but Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz performed when it mattered most at the business end of qualifying.
The Ferrari duo got their tyres into the optimal working range as Max Verstappen admitted his Red Bull car got away from him as he pushed a little too hard.
But, given Red Bull have only been beaten once on a Sunday all season, world champion Verstappen inevitably remains favourite for the 71-lap race – which starts at 8pm live on Sky Sports F1 – when he will aim to beat his own record of 15 wins in a single campaign
Much of Ferrari’s hopes will likely rest on the race’s opening seconds and holding one-two formation on the long run down to the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez’s first corner.
In 2019, Leclerc started from pole alongside then-Ferrari team-mate Sebastian Vettel and they kept the field at bay after the 811m charge to the opening right-hander. But, it can get very feisty there as Lewis Hamilton and Verstappen showed in that same race when they made contact just behind the leaders.
In 2021, Verstappen made a stunning move late on the brakes to overtake the Mercedes of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, so don’t be surprised if we see a three-wide moment going into the first corner.
“It’s a very difficult race. Everything can happen, especially with the cooling. Whichever car is behind can do a bit more management, so it can play in our favour but for that we need a good start,” said Leclerc.
“Starting first here is always tricky to keep that position into the first corner but we have had pretty good starts here, so I’m confident we can keep that place.
“This year Max has been extremely strong on the race pace so at the moment we still have a lot of work to do to match them with our race pace.
“It’s a very special track for strategy, especially with high altitude, tyre management will be a huge thing. We will have to be on top of this. For the strategy, we will adapt on the go to try and keep that first place.”
How might Ferrari play the start to keep Verstappen behind?
If all goes to plan for Ferrari, Leclerc should immediately move over to the right hand side from pole to tow team-mate Sainz down to Turn One and leave Verstappen with no slipstream, potentially leaving the Dutchman vulnerable to Daniel Ricciardo – who qualified a superb fourth for AlphaTauri – or the Mercedes’ of Hamilton, sixth, and George Russell, eighth.
Then, Sainz should go to the outside of Leclerc in the braking zone and not race his team-mate too hard so the Ferrari pair can retain their one-two positions.
Asked by Sky Sports F1 if the team-mates can work together at the start, Sainz said: “If we can of course. But it’s impossible to predict whether we will be able to do so. A few metres better start than Max or Charles and suddenly we cannot play with slipstreams anymore.
“I will just try and do the best possible start because I am starting on the dirty side so my start will be weaker than Max and Charles, then we can see where we are at.”
Will Ferrari be able to manage their tyres?
On paper, strategy shouldn’t be too difficult for the Mexico City Grand Prix because it’s a low degradation track, so a one-stopper should be the way forward.
The only big threat Ferrari will face if they are one-two is from an undercut or overcut. It’s likely that Verstappen will have to overtake one, or both, of Leclerc and Sainz on the track – perhaps in a similar fashion to Monza back in September when he overcame both to win.
It’s tyre management where Ferrari could be vulnerable compared to the usually exceptional wear Red Bull have had this year. Keeping the tyres in the right window will be just as important as the wear though given the altitude of the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, which is 2.2km above sea level.
Ferrari team principal Frederic Vasseur suggested that there could be other factors that come to play due to the nature of the track.
“On the long stints we mainly focused on cooling (on Friday), like Mercedes, McLaren and Red Bull. Everyone will be more focused on the brakes and engine,” said Vasseur.
As for Sainz, he may have to play rear-gunner behind Leclerc in order to keep Verstappen behind and he is not too optimistic about his chances.
“It will be very difficult because of the race pace they have. Normally one way or the other, or by simply offsetting their pace with a tyre advantage, they can finish ahead,” admitted the Spaniard.
“Given their race pace, at one point or another he will have a chance to overtake us and it will be up to us to manage the strategy and situation to keep him behind.”
As for Verstappen, he didn’t have much to say post-qualifying and appeared to be quietly confident about his chances of winning as long as he can get through the opening corners unscathed.
“I always learned that you can never repeat the same start,” said Verstappen in response to a question about whether he could repeat that surging Mercedes-beating getaway from the same position on the grid two years ago.
“Of course you can look at it. Depend on how good your start is, the line into the first corner, track conditions.
“It’s more just an instinct and once you do your start you make your mind up on what you want to do. It’s a long race. It’s not won or last at the first corner.”
Asked about his confidence of winning he said: “Good. Yep. I also have two hard tyres. Nobody else has them around me, so that could be an advantage.”
Ferrari certainly caused a surprise on Saturday and victory for them on Sunday would be a shock going by Verstappen’s calm manner.
When to watch the Mexico City GP live only on Sky Sports F1
6.30pm: Grand Prix Sunday Mexico City GP build-up (also on Sky Sports Main Event)
8pm: The MEXICO CITY GRAND PRIX (also on Sky Sports Main Event)
10pm: Chequered Flag: Mexico City GP
F1 is in Mexico for the middle leg of the Americas triple header. Watch the Mexico City Grand Prix live on Sky Sports F1, with Sunday’s race at 8pm. Stream F1 on Sky Sports with NOW