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Verstappen holding all the aces ahead of Mexican Grand Prix

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Max Verstappen.

Max Verstappen.

Formula One Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, of Britain, steers his car during a practice session ahead of this weekend's Mexican Grand Prix in Mexico City, Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Formula One Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, of Britain, steers his car during a practice session ahead of this weekend's Mexican Grand Prix in Mexico City, Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

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Max Verstappen.

You could hardly accuse this season’s Formula One title race of lacking in atmosphere. But that is all anyone has been talking about in Mexico this week.

With an altitude of 2,238 metres, the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is F1’s highest race track by a country mile. And the implications of that raised elevation on the outcome of this weekend’s grand prix, and by extension on the home stretch of a season in which the leading protagonists are separated by just 12 points with five races remaining, could be significant.

The reason is twofold. First, with an air density approximately 78 per cent that at sea level, the cars’ turbochargers are having to work an awful lot harder in Mexico than they do anywhere else to compress the air passing through the intake. Secondly, the thin air affects the cars’ aerodynamics as it greatly reduces the amount of drag produced by the chassis.

The bad news for fans of Lewis Hamilton is that both of these factors are expected to play into the hands of Red Bull and their championship leader, Max Verstappen.

In terms of the engine, Red Bull’s Honda power unit has less outright performance than the Mercedes. But the Japanese manufacturer’s experience in other areas, including its work with jet engines, has allowed it to optimise its turbo and improve the rate at which air is forced into the compressor.And the Red Bull car’s high rake, which means it naturally produces more drag compared to the likes of Mercedes, is another added bonus at a track such as the one in Mexico.

This may sound like technical mumbo-jumbo but the impact is far from theoretical. Mercedes have had the dominant car for pretty much the entire hybrid era yet Verstappen won in Mexico in 2017 and 2018 and took pole in 2019, the last time the sport visited the country pre-pandemic, only to make contact with both Mercedes drivers.

Unsurprisingly, the bookmakers have the Dutchman as odds-on favourite for victory this weekend. Mercedes are putting a brave face on it, though. As Toto Wolff, their team principal, pointed out, Austin two weekends ago was expected to be a “Mercedes track” and Red Bull ended up being quickest.

“Red Bull have gone well here in the past and it hasn’t been our strongest circuit, but this year has shown that anything is possible and circuits where you were previously weak, you are suddenly strong – and vice versa,” Wolff said.

Hamilton’s team-mate, Valtteri Bottas, added that he felt Mercedes’ engine department had made big strides over the past couple of years to make their power unit’s performance more equal in Mexico. It remains to be seen whether that is just hot air about thin air but it was interesting that Red Bull’s motorsport adviser, Helmut Marko, chose yesterday to claim the team had “information” from their spies that Hamilton would have to take another engine change this season, which could require him to take a potentially very costly grid penalty.

“The engine situation is certainly more reassuring on the Honda side than on the Mercedes side. Our information, our hope, is that Hamilton will have to change again,” Marko said. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2021)

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Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]


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