(L to R): Carlos Sainz Jnr, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, 2023

Verstappen has strategic edge even if he can’t break Ferrari’s defence at the start

2023 Mexican GP pre-race analysis

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By his own admission, Charles Leclerc has given up on predicting whether his Ferrari team will be strong, weak or even just average ahead of grands prix weekends in 2023.

Ferrari’s form has fluctuated over the season – and even between individual days of the same race weekend. But nowhere has that been more the case than in Mexico City.

In each of the three practice sessions around the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, Max Verstappen set the pace by an average of just under a tenth of a second. In comparison, Leclerc averaged seventh position and six-and-a-half tenths off Verstappen over those same three sessions. Hardly the favourite for pole position.

And yet, come the chequered flag in Q3, Leclerc was not only on pole position for the second straight Sunday, but he had done so without improving on his final run. Verstappen was not only behind Leclerc but also the second Ferrari of Carlos Sainz Jnr. No wonder Leclerc was caught by surprise.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, 2023
Leclerc’s fourth pole position came out of nowhere
“Until Q3, we had no idea that it was inside the car,” Leclerc admitted after qualifying. “For some reason in Q3, I managed to put more or less everything together apart from the last sector and straight away the lap time came straight away. So that was a good surprise.”

Sometimes it requires just one mistake or one corner taken in a less than ideal manner for a pole position to be lost in 2023. But over their laps, Verstappen was chasing Leclerc from the moment they exited the first chicane.

Interestingly, the pair took very different approaches to the low-speed corners in the middle sector, Verstappen preferring to brake earlier than the Ferrari driver for a better exit while Leclerc carried more speed into the apex. Verstappen was also able to keep his foot to the floor longer through the sweepers longer than Leclerc, but despite the different styles of the two, Verstappen gained back none of the time he lost through the first chicane.

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While Verstappen in third was a shock, perhaps the bigger surprise was the driver who will line up directly behind him on the second row of the grid. Not his team mate, local hero Sergio Perez, but Daniel Ricciardo. Despite driving for Red Bull’s junior team once more, Ricciardo will start from as high as fourth on the grid for only the second time in the last three years. It was enough to bring out the Incredible Hulk in him.

Verstappen charged past the Mercedes two years ago
“I just want to rip my shirt off,” he said. “I’m very happy with P4 – it’s an amazing result for us as a team. On one hand I think the result is crazy, but already from yesterday really from the first lap I just had a lot of good feeling in the car.”

Ferrari may have secured a front row lockout almost out of the blue, but now comes the more difficult challenge of keeping both of their cars ahead of Verstappen. The 800 metre sprint from the grid to the first braking zone on the circuit is the longest on the calendar, with drivers reaching well over 300kph before they even consider putting their braking foot down.

Verstappen may have the advantage of likely picking up a slipstream from either or both Ferraris during the long run to turn one, but Ferrari have strength in numbers. However, even second-placed Sainz admits that Verstappen could be in the box seat by starting from third.

“It’s impossible to predict these kind of things,” Sainz said. “Only thing I can say is I’m starting, maybe, on the dirty side, which here is quite a big difference. I think it will be a fun start, a fun run down to turn one. I think Max will be on the attack. We will all be trying to get slipstream.”

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Two years ago, Verstappen started from that same third position behind the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton but was leading by the time they all reached the first corner. However, Verstappen played down his chances of emulating his 2021 start on Sunday.

Lando Norris, McLaren, Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, 2023
Norris had great race pace but will start at the back
“I always learned that you can never repeat the same start, from when I was little,” he said. “It depends on how good your actual start is, then the line to the first corner – there’s a lot that comes into play. Track conditions as well, for example. So it is more just an instinct and once you do your start, you make your mind up of what you’re going to do.”

Beyond the run to turn one, a gruelling race of 71 laps lies ahead. On Friday, all of the leading candidates for victory ran their race simulation runs on the medium tyre, which makes for a more direct comparison than most race weekends. Verstappen’s pace over his 12-lap run in second practice was around half a second a lap quicker than Leclerc’s, with Perez and even Hamilton lapping at a superior pace to the Ferrari driver. However, the quickest of all over the high fuel runs, Lando Norris in the McLaren, will be starting from near the back of the grid and is unlikely to feature in the fight at the front.

Last year, Verstappen managed to beat Mercedes by running a one-stop strategy using soft tyres before switching to mediums, while Mercedes ran a stage harder than the Red Bull in each stint for Hamilton. This year, the tyres Pirelli have brought are all a step softer than 2022, meaning Verstappen’s race winning ‘soft-medium’ strategy is now the ‘medium-hard’ strategy.

Unsurprisingly, Pirelli expect that approach will be the best way to reach the chequered flag first. Ferrari’s Achilles heel all season has been their tyre degradation, so over a race where managing tyres over a likely one-stop will be key, Red Bull will feel they could have an edge. Unlike the Ferraris, Verstappen also has two untouched sets of hard tyres to use – an advantage he was quick to draw attention to after missing out on the front row of the grid yesterday.

But signs point to the Mexico Grand Prix largely playing out similar to the race in Baku early on in the season, where Leclerc started ahead of both Red Bulls but was quickly dispatched by both to finish behind them. Even though Sainz is in the mix this time around, he admits it is a tall order to try and keep the world champion at bay during the race.

“He’s obviously a very difficult guy to keep behind because of the race pace they have over 70 laps,” Sainz admitted. “It’s 71 laps tomorrow and given the race pace, at one point or another he’s going to have a chance at overtaking us and I think it’s up to us how we manage the strategy and the situation to try and keep him behind.”

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Qualifying times in full

P.DriverTeamQ1Q2 (v Q1)Q3 (v Q2)
1Charles LeclercFerrari1’18.4011’17.901 (-0.500s)1’17.166 (-0.735s)
2Carlos Sainz JnrFerrari1’18.7551’18.382 (-0.373s)1’17.233 (-1.149s)
3Max VerstappenRed Bull1’18.0991’17.625 (-0.474s)1’17.263 (-0.362s)
4Daniel RicciardoAlphaTauri1’18.3411’17.706 (-0.635s)1’17.382 (-0.324s)
5Sergio PerezRed Bull1’18.5531’18.124 (-0.429s)1’17.423 (-0.701s)
6Lewis HamiltonMercedes1’18.6771’17.571 (-1.106s)1’17.454 (-0.117s)
7Oscar PiastriMcLaren1’18.2411’17.874 (-0.367s)1’17.623 (-0.251s)
8George RussellMercedes1’18.8931’17.673 (-1.220s)1’17.674 (+0.001s)
9Valtteri BottasAlfa Romeo1’18.4291’18.016 (-0.413s)1’18.032 (+0.016s)
10Zhou GuanyuAlfa Romeo1’19.0161’18.440 (-0.576s)1’18.050 (-0.390s)
11Pierre GaslyAlpine1’18.9451’18.521 (-0.424s)Missed by 0.081s
12Nico HulkenbergHaas1’18.9691’18.524 (-0.445s)Missed by 0.084s
13Fernando AlonsoAston Martin1’18.8481’18.738 (-0.110s)Missed by 0.298s
14Alexander AlbonWilliams1’18.8281’19.147 (+0.319s)Missed by 0.707s
15Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauri1’18.890
16Esteban OconAlpine1’19.080Missed by 0.064s
17Kevin MagnussenHaas1’19.163Missed by 0.147s
18Lance StrollAston Martin1’19.227Missed by 0.211s
19Lando NorrisMcLaren1’21.554Missed by 2.538s
20Logan SargeantWilliams

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Sector times

P.#DriverS1S2S3Ultimate lap (deficit)
116Charles Leclerc27.291 (1)29.853 (3)20.022 (5)1’17.166
21Max Verstappen27.369 (3)29.818 (1)20.037 (6)1’17.224 (+0.039)
355Carlos Sainz Jnr27.344 (2)29.9 (6)19.989 (3)1’17.233
43Daniel Ricciardo27.492 (8)29.846 (2)19.937 (1)1’17.275 (+0.107)
544Lewis Hamilton27.46 (5)29.868 (4)20.015 (4)1’17.343 (+0.111)
611Sergio Perez27.46 (5)29.884 (5)20.079 (7)1’17.423
763George Russell27.549 (9)29.92 (7)19.973 (2)1’17.442 (+0.231)
881Oscar Piastri27.447 (4)29.979 (8)20.126 (8)1’17.552 (+0.071)
977Valtteri Bottas27.483 (7)30.073 (9)20.167 (9)1’17.723 (+0.293)
1024Zhou Guanyu27.67 (13)30.115 (10)20.265 (10)1’18.050
1123Alexander Albon27.599 (11)30.318 (12)20.381 (14)1’18.298 (+0.530)
1214Fernando Alonso27.691 (16)30.423 (14)20.324 (12)1’18.438 (+0.300)
1322Yuki Tsunoda27.825 (19)30.256 (11)20.435 (15)1’18.516 (+0.374)
1427Nico Hulkenberg27.68 (14)30.563 (18)20.278 (11)1’18.521 (+0.003)
1510Pierre Gasly27.774 (18)30.39 (13)20.357 (13)1’18.521
1618Lance Stroll27.746 (17)30.499 (16)20.728 (18)1’18.973 (+0.254)
1720Kevin Magnussen27.68 (14)30.728 (19)20.585 (17)1’18.993 (+0.170)
1831Esteban Ocon28.038 (20)30.5 (17)20.524 (16)1’19.062 (+0.018)
192Logan Sargeant27.567 (10)30.91 (20)21.152 (19)1’19.629
204Lando Norris27.653 (12)30.444 (15)23.457 (20)1’21.554

Speed trap

P.#DriverCarEngineModelMax kph (mph)
13Daniel RicciardoAlphaTauriHonda RBPTAT04353.8 (219.8)
227Nico HulkenbergHaasFerrariVF-23352.2 (218.8)
320Kevin MagnussenHaasFerrariVF-23352.0 (218.7)
411Sergio PerezRed BullHonda RBPTRB19351.2 (218.2)
516Charles LeclercFerrariFerrariSF-23350.7 (217.9)
61Max VerstappenRed BullHonda RBPTRB19349.9 (217.4)
781Oscar PiastriMcLarenMercedesMCL60348.8 (216.7)
855Carlos Sainz JnrFerrariFerrariSF-23348.7 (216.7)
92Logan SargeantWilliamsMercedesFW45348.0 (216.2)
1018Lance StrollAston MartinMercedesAMR23347.8 (216.1)
1177Valtteri BottasAlfa RomeoFerrariC43347.3 (215.8)
1223Alexander AlbonWilliamsMercedesFW45347.2 (215.7)
134Lando NorrisMcLarenMercedesMCL60347.1 (215.7)
1424Zhou GuanyuAlfa RomeoFerrariC43347.0 (215.6)
1514Fernando AlonsoAston MartinMercedesAMR23345.1 (214.4)
1644Lewis HamiltonMercedesMercedesW14345.1 (214.4)
1763George RussellMercedesMercedesW14345.0 (214.4)
1810Pierre GaslyAlpineRenaultA523343.2 (213.3)
1931Esteban OconAlpineRenaultA523343.0 (213.1)
2022Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauriHonda RBPTAT04342.2 (212.6)

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Over to you

Share your views on the Mexican Grand Prix in the comments.

2023 Mexican Grand Prix

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Author information

Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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10 comments on “Verstappen has strategic edge even if he can’t break Ferrari’s defence at the start”

  1. Any team has an strategic edge over Ferrari.

    Even if Ferrari were to race alone, they would still manage to lose the strategic battle.

    1. That’s a nice cliché, but not true (anymore). Bar Redbull they’re as good as anyone else if not better lately.
      The problem is, and has been for a long, their lack of race pace. If you’re always fighting against faster cars you’ll drop back eventually and sometimes you have to take risks.

      1. “But Not true…”

        Ferrari: the medium will be gone in 5 laps…
        The medium: lmao keep dreaming..

  2. As much as I’d like a Ferrari win, I don’t hold hope for that.

  3. An on track Ricciardo vs. Pérez squabble is the stuff DTS producers salivate over.

    And sure, Verstappen will win unless he hits trouble. But Ferrari’s fight is with Mercedes.

  4. As much as I wish for Ferrari to pull a fast one on Verstappen, they’re better off focusing on getting a podium, ideally a double.

    1. Feels like monza all over again.

  5. well there’s going to be lots to watch for, even after Max waltzes off into the distance. Oscar. Danny, Checo, Lewis, George… all with tyres, tyres and tyres to manage. Lando trying to come through, Carlos and Charles trying to hang on

  6. I wish someone would try a Qatar-style loads-of-stops-and-thrash-it strategy. Tyre management’s as boring as any other kind of management.

  7. Max sails off into the sunset whilst we get to listen to the Ferrari teammates complain that the teammate ahead is going too slowly and should be ordered to give up the position. Same with the Merc teammates.

Comments are closed.