Max Verstappen is world champion. After victory at this weekend’s Mexico City GP, he was won 14 of this year’s 20 races (as well as two sprint race wins to boot). His teammate, Sergio Perez, has won two of the remaining six.
Astonishingly, it is now nearly four months since anyone other than Red Bull won a race. Ferrari, despite their early season promise, have only won four races all year, and Charles Leclerc now looks unlikely to even finish in second place in the championship.
Mercedes, eight times consecutive world champions, have not won a single race all season - though Lewis Hamilton has come mighty close on five occasions now.
So, what on Earth will it take to beat Red Bull? We can take some learnings from this weekend’s race in Mexico, as weary eyes already turn to 2023 with a (over)long 2022 season starting to wind down.
Mexico City F1 GP: Mercedes come up short yet again against Max Verstappen
For the fifth time in 2022, it looked as though Lewis Hamilton may finally get his maiden race win of the year. Silverstone was a day on which the Mercedes got caught up in a battle with Charles Leclerc and Sergio Perez, when it looked as though it may have had the pace to defeat race winner Carlos Sainz.
In Hungary and the USA, alternate strategies gave him a chance of defeating eventual winner Max Verstappen, but the Red Bull simply proved too quick on both occasions. Zandvoort will feel like the “one that got away”, as a late safety car changed the complexion of the race.
Mexico City may well end up being remembered like that Dutch Grand Prix. The Mercedes looked like the quickest car through practice, before Verstappen did what he has done so often this year, and pulled out an extra three tenths out of his pocket to take pole.
— Formula 1 (@F1) October 30, 2022
On race day, Mercedes tried an alternate strategy to both Red Bull cars in an effort to manouevre either Hamilton or George Russell into a race winning position. The gamble did not work, with Mercedes spending the entire final stint expecting Verstappen and Perez’s tyres to miraculously drop “off the cliff” (they did not).
The post-race scenes in Mexico City saw a deflated Hamilton suggest in his podium interview that he felt his team had chosen the wrong strategy.
(A brief aside: Kudos to Sergio Perez for telling off his home crowd for booing Hamilton. A nice moment of sportsmanship and nice to see one of the drivers calling out this sad behaviour, it has happened to Hamilton and Max Verstappen far too many times)
To an extent, Hamilton is right, though that only became apparent midway through his doomed second stint on the hard tyres. Initially, many commentators and pundits were unsure Red Bull would be able to pull off their soft-medium strategy, expecting both Verstappen and Perez would need another pit stop.
But, ultimately, it was the wrong strategy. And, for at least the second time this season, a race win slipped away from Mercedes because of being caught out on strategy by Red Bull.
— Formula 1 (@F1) October 30, 2022
In both Zandvoort and Mexico, however, they used sound logic in pushing Red Bull with alternate strategies. It’s been pretty clear since the summer break that Verstappen and Red Bull are not going to be beaten on pure pace, so doing something different strategy wise is the best shot the rest of the teams have at beating them as is.
In Zandvoort, Mercedes split their strategies, with Russell making an extra stop, and Hamilton staying out. Ultimately, this proved to be the wrong call, with Hamilton left out to dry, and Russell coming up short in his chase of Verstappen.
In Mexico City, they made the opposite mistake, keeping both cars on the same strategy, but pushing them both to go long. Neither attempt at beating the Bulls worked out - so what will work?
Simply put…it’s unclear if anyone has it in their back pocket to beat Red Bull (and, more specifically, Max Verstappen) - this season, at least. In the Netherlands, USA, and Mexico, they came close to being beaten on alternate strategies. Verstappen won anyway. The rain didn’t stop them in Japan, and a Ferrari pole didn’t stop Perez from winning in Singapore.
But the chasing pack (and specifically Mercedes) are getting closer. With a bit more ruthlessness in the strategy department, they probably could have won in the Netherlands and in Mexico. An aggressive two-stop may have done the trick on Sunday, whereas inverting Russell and Hamilton’s strategies in Zandvoort may have won them the day there. But that is just speculation.
The facts are that Mercedes are far closer to Red Bull than they have been at any stage this season. And, even if Ferrari may have fallen away in terms of pace at the end of this year, both of their drivers have become more consistent in the second half of the season.
It may be 2023 before we see anyone beat Red Bull again - but it feels as though the gap to those behind may be smaller at the beginning of next season.
For now, let us bask in the glory of a remarkable record-breaking season for Max Verstappen, who has proven himself a worthy champion. It may be ruthless, it may be dominant, but he is peerless at the moment, and it is always a privilege to watch sportspeople operating at such a high level.
But Mexico has many fans dreaming of a return to the glory of 2021, and a tight title battle once again, whomever it may involve. I tentatively hope for and look forward to it in 2023.
Wrapping up from the Mexican Grand Prix
|1st||Max Verstappen||Red Bull Racing-RBPT||416||14 (+2 sprint wins)|
|2nd||Sergio Perez||Red Bull Racing-RBPT||280||2|
|3rd||Charles Leclerc||Scuderia Ferrari||275||3|
|4th||George Russell||Mercedes AMG F1||231||0|
|5th||Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes AMG F1||216||0|
- Driver of the day: Hard to choose one on a day when the field spread was so wide, but the fans’ choice to go with Daniel Ricciardo - despite his clumsy contact with Yuki Tsunoda - was a fair one. It was great to see the Aussie back in top overtaking form, in what could end up being one of his final F1 races.
- Day to forget: Charles Leclerc - left himself with too much to do after his crash in practice, on a weekend when Ferrari were so far off the pace. He has done very well in recent weeks, but this was one of his most disappointing weekends of the year.
- The big question ahead of round #21: What impact will sprint race action have on the end result of the race? Say what you will about the sprint race concept, it has at least thrown up some intriguing circumstances (Daniel Ricciardo’s win, Hamilton’s Brazil fightback, Lando Norris’ podium in Imola) - what is in store this year in Sao Paulo?