The Formula One world drivers’ championship is important. It’s the one people remember. How many Juan Manuel Fangio had and for how long, until Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton came along. But for the sport itself, the constructors’ championship is much more important, vital. It’s what decides how much of the fabulous prize money from the FIA is paid out to the teams. And if you’re backed by a big automaker, it certainly helps when you go to the board and explain why they need to give you another $100 million to go racing.
As a result, it’s pretty incredible that with four races to go in the 2021 season, Mercedes-AMG and Red Bull are separated by just one point. And it could’ve been even closer had Mercedes not pulled a last-minute pit stop for Bottas in order to do some damage control in Mexico. As things stand, Mercedes has 478.5 points, while Red Bull has 477.5.
By anyone’s measure, the start of the Mexico City Grand Prix was a bit of a mess. Well, no. That’s not quite true—Max Verstappen probably feels that it worked out absolutely fine for him—and he’d be right. He slipped around the outside of Hamilton and Bottas into turn one, neatly took the lead and cleared off into the distance after starting third. That’s the power of the draft and late-braking at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.
For pretty much everyone else, it wasn’t as straightforward. Polesitter Bottas was tagged by Daniel Ricciardo and ended up facing the wrong way on the track, both the Mercedes and the McLaren having to pit with damage and ending up dead last by the second lap. Behind them, somehow Alpine’s Esteban Ocon got squeezed by two cars and came out the best, with his car clearly robust enough to dispatch Yuki Tsunoda’s AlphaTauri and Mick Schumacher’s Haas.
Tsunoda goes flying
Bottas getting caught in the turn-one carnage was obviously a pretty heavy blow for Mercedes’ points chances—a blow that favored its rivals. It was also extremely clear, early on, that the Mercedes was no match for the Honda-powered cars.
Verstappen was able to build a five-second gap after the end of the safety car and basically pulled away for the rest of a race, which would see both Mercedes drivers frustrated by a lack of pace and few strategic options to do anything about it. Hamilton pitted earlier than the two Red Bulls to try to upset their rhythm but wasn’t able to make an undercut, only staying ahead of Perez.
Perez himself got to be the first Mexican driver to lead laps of his home race and the first on the podium, a pretty solid day and it’s fair to say that the home crowd wasn’t really paying attention to the title rivals when it came to spraying the champagne.
F1 awards a point for the fastest lap but only if it’s won by a driver who finishes in the points. Bottas had been not so much on board the struggle bus as held up behind it, frustrated by being unable to pass Ricciardo—the driver who’d spun him at the start. So it already wasn’t going well, but finishing 15th and two laps down in a Mercedes is borderline an achievement.
Bottas was pitted not once but twice, in the final laps of the race, to try and beat Verstappen’s fastest lap time. He’d already been lapped by the leaders, so he had his first attempt ruined by coming up behind Verstappen, who managed to slow down enough through the tight stadium section just to get in Bottas’ way and block his flying lap. That might have been the end of it, if Mercedes hadn’t pitted Bottas again for more soft tires so that he could make another attempt in the final laps, eventually preventing Red Bull from getting the fastest lap on lap 69. Nice.
Ahead of the race, Red Bull had kept back an unused set of soft tires for Perez. It wouldn’t have been a popular choice at his home race to pit him late in the race for an attempt to take the fastest lap from Mercedes, but clearly, either team had weaponized their second drivers just in case.
Mercedes got the (very, very narrow) advantage this time, but with the Sao Paulo Grand Prix in Brazil coming up this weekend, Red Bull has another chance to get more points and some big bucks.
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