“Winning is very motivating.”
When you’ve clinched the world championship title with five rounds to spare and already equalled your own record for most wins in a season, what else is there to do?
Keep winning, naturally.Max Verstappen’s 15th grand prix victory of 2023 at Circuit of the Americas had been one of the more hard-fought of his dominant season. So when the world champion’s practice pace at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez went unmatched by any of his competitors, it seemed almost certain that normal service would be resumed in Mexico City.
However, for a second straight race weekend, Ferrari put one over Red Bull in qualifying as Charles Leclerc pulled another blistering lap from the ether to secure back-to-back pole positions. But unlike the two previous Leclerc had taken pole with the fastest Q3 time in Baku and Austin, Verstappen would not be the one starting alongside him on the front row. Instead, Carlos Sainz Jnr set up an all-Ferrari blockade for Verstappen to have to knock down by beating him into second place, providing Leclerc with a wingman for the 800 metre sortie from his pole position grid slot to the first corner.
But while millions of eyes were locked on the trio at the top of the order, the crowd of over 100,000 would only be focused on one car. Drivers often enjoy passionate support from fans at their home grand prix, but few get the main character treatment that Sergio Perez receives whenever he races in Mexico. From the rhythmic chants of “Che-co! Che-co!” from the grandstands that provide the backing track for the weekend to a motorised facsimile of his racing helmet being driven around the Mexico City streets in his honour, Perez feels the full weight of carrying the hopes of his countrymen every time he steps off the plane back in Mexico.
It’s not surprise, then, that Perez appeared more determined than he had ever been to deliver his best ever performance at home from fifth on the grid – especially on a week where so many Mexican lives were lost or torn apart by the horrific, violent force of Hurricane Otis which had battered the nation’s southern coast days prior. So when Perez harnessed his own patriotic pride with the will of millions watching, he managed to somehow channel it into one of the best starts of his 250-plus grands prix career.
The entire front half of the field lined up on the grid on medium tyres, making the sprint to turn one an even fight. Before the race, Sainz had been openly wary of Verstappen’s potential threat from third on the grid. Within a matter of seconds of the lights going out, he was proven right.
After an unusually long hold, Verstappen bolted from his grid box and was already ahead of Sainz before they had reached the end of the pit wall. Clearing the first Ferrari allowed him to pull right and claim the inside line as Leclerc moved to try and deny his any more space than he had to. But behind them, Perez was tucked in the pair’s slipstream having himself jumped Sainz and Daniel Ricciardo. While Verstappen went right, Perez went left, carrying so much momentum it was as if he was being pushed by the roar of the crowd.
The trio hit the brakes for the first corner together, Leclerc uncomfortably flanked by the two Red Bulls. Perhaps overtaken by the emotions of potentially leading his home grand prix, Perez turned in to find Leclerc with nowhere to go. The inevitable contact bounced the home hero’s car into the air, sending Perez, his Red Bull and all the hopes and dreams of Mexico skidding down the run off.
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“I took a risk that I paid a high price for,” Perez later admitted.
“I was also honestly not expecting Charles to brake that late as he was in the middle, so he had a bit less room for manoeuvre. As I was ahead of him, I thought he was going to bail out a bit more. But obviously in those decisions everything happens really late.”
Leclerc had to bail through the grass, rejoining ahead of Verstappen before correctly handing him the lead. Sainz found himself back in third with Ricciardo fourth ahead of the two Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and George Russell. Leclerc’s Ferrari wore the scars of the Perez clash, but his team were not worried just yet.
“Some front wing damage, but we stay out,” Leclerc’s engineer Xavier Marcos Padros informed him. “We don’t see anything in the data.”
Verstappen was over one-and-a-half seconds ahead as he crossed the timing line to end the first lap. Leclerc was told he had lost “five to ten” points of downforce from his left-hand front wing endplate being loose, but Ferrari were otherwise happy. The FIA were not, however, with brows furrowing in race control at the sight of the damage to Leclerc’s car. But the endplate solved the problem for them, breaking away of its own accord as he rounded turn one for the fourth time.
The Virtual Safety Car was briefly deployed in order to clear the jettisoned piece of Ferrari from the track. Perez, who had recovered back to the pit lane on the opening lap, was still sat in his car in the garage staring at the TV monitors, hoping for a miracle that never came. He waited a short while longer before climbing out.
When the race resumed, Leclerc sat just under two seconds adrift of the leader, who was pacing himself in the low 1’23s. With temperatures higher than they had been all weekend plus the infamously thin air of Mexico City, many drivers were already getting early instructions to manage their tyres, brakes and even their power unit temperatures. None more so than Lando Norris, who was sitting in 15th on the soft tyres after starting down in 17th place. The McLaren driver received instructions to keep out of the slipstream of Yuki Tsunoda ahead along the straights as early as the first lap – showing just how concerned his team were about the conditions.
Verstappen suitably managed his pace out front, content to creep gradually away from Leclerc. Hamilton was the only driver in the top ten making any progress as he picked off Ricciardo for fourth place, before closing to within DRS range of Sainz in third.
Red Bull had the advantage of two fresh sets of hard tyres for Verstappen and it seemed they were intending to use them. While the conventional wisdom had been to run a one-stop from mediums to hard tyres – which Ferrari appeared to commit to with Leclerc when they confirmed he would remain on “plan A” – Red Bull chose to go their own way.
At the end of lap 19, with Verstappen complaining about the state of his medium tyres and Leclerc maintaining a gap of four seconds to him, Red Bull called the leader in to switch onto his first set of hard tyres. When Verstappen returned to the track, he was sat in seventh between the Mercedes of Russell and the Haas of Nico Hulkenberg.
“So, the rest of the field are hanging it out for the one-stop by the looks of things,” Verstappen’s engineer Gianpiero Lambiase warned him. “Just be sensible over these first three or four laps.”
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While Verstappen took on that advice, he still surgically picked his way past Russell, Oscar Piastri and then Ricciardo over the following laps to move up to third behind the Ferraris as all three of the cars he passed – as well as Hamilton – made their first stops in the ensuing laps. By lap 29, Verstappen was within reach of Sainz and used DRS to breeze by the Ferrari who almost immediately pitted himself. Leclerc, five seconds ahead in the lead, was the only front runner yet to have pitted until he finally joined the club at the end of lap 31.
Leclerc’s skilful tyre management over his opening stint allowed him to retain second place when he emerged from the pit hand with his fresh hard tyres. But behind him sat not the sister Ferrari of Sainz but Hamilton’s Mercedes, which had undercut the second Ferrari with the benefit of his earlier stop. Verstappen’s advantage out front was 17 seconds, but with a second pit stop to make, there was still work for him to do over the remaining 40 laps.
Towards the back of the field, Kevin Magnussen was having a much more challenging race than Verstappen in 16th. After catching a snap of oversteer through the long final right-hander to end the lap, the Haas driver ran over the kerbs and onto the run off, kicking up dust as he did so. Whether it was the cause or effect of his excursion, Magnussen was visibly struggling with his handling.
After being passed by Logan Sargeant, Magnussen reported to his team that his “rear-left has just completely gone.” Just seconds later, as he was rounding turn seven, his left-rear suspension failed, jerking his car left despite turning his wheel to the right at 180kph. A violent impact with the barriers was cushioned by the fact he struck TecPro rather than tyres or raw wall, but the collision destroyed his Haas and triggered an immediate Safety Car.
Verstappen was one of the first cars past the scene. With his 16 second lead inflated to 22 seconds under the reduced speeds, Red Bull pulled him into for his second fresh set of hard tyres to last him the second half of the race. With all of his rivals behind already on hards, none followed him into the pits. But Verstappen had enough advantage to comfortably rejoin in the lead behind the Safety Car.
Moments later race director Niels Wittich chose to red flag the race and bring all cars into the pit lane. But Verstappen was unimpressed with the effective free pit stop provided to those behind him.
“Eh, that’s a joke,” Verstappen spat over the radio. “A red flag? For what? I saw the car was a bit on fire but it’s already all cleared.” Lambiase sympathised with his driver, blaming the call on “various noise on the radio, as you can imagine Max.”
One of those who had called for a stoppage was third-placed Hamilton. Over a 20-minute delay, Mercedes weighed their options of whether to stick with the nine-lap old hard tyres he had been on or try something more aggressive. Eventually, when Verstappen led the field back out onto the circuit at 3:13pm, Hamilton was the only one of the top five cars not to leave the pit lane on the same tyres that he had entered them on as he switched onto four-lap-old mediums to last the final 36 laps of the grand prix. Further back, Piastri and Russell also opted to exchange their hards for mediums in sixth and seventh, respectively.
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For the restart, the field would form up on the grid for a standing start. This time, Verstappen was on pole position, with Leclerc alongside him sporting a brand new, undamaged front wing, with Hamilton and Sainz on the second row. When the lights went out for a second time, Verstappen got another excellent launch off the line and could instantly pull right to defend the inside line in a way Leclerc failed to at the initial start. Behind, the field remarkably filtered through the first chicane largely in the same order that they had left the grid, only Russell gaining two places over Piastri and Ricciardo into fifth with help from his medium tyres.
Verstappen quickly pulled out a gap of over a second to Leclerc on the restart lap, but Hamilton on his mediums was already well up to temperature and stalking him as they ran down the main straight for the first time at full racing speed after the restart. It took until DRS was activated at the start of lap 38 for Leclerc to really start to feel the pressure from the Mercedes, having to go defensive on the run to turn one on lap 39.
But Hamilton was not going away any time soon. He stuck well within a second of the Ferrari while they completed the next lap, then tucked into the slipstream down the long straight. Leclerc pulled right to defend but left a Mercedes-sized hole for Hamilton to slot into. When they entered the first corner, Hamilton was ahead and up into second place. Now with only Verstappen ahead, Hamilton knew he had only one job to chase down the race leader – but he was unsure about how much time he had available in which to do it.
“There’s 20 laps left, yeah?” Hamilton asked race engineer Peter Bonnington over the radio.
“It’s 30 laps remaining,” Bonnington clarified. “Three-zero.”
“Shit…” Hamilton reacted. “That’s a long way on this tyre.”
“Leclerc did 31 [laps] on it and he was still strong at the end,” Bonnington encouraged back. “You’ve got every opportunity here, mate.”
While he pulled away from the Ferraris behind, Hamilton was unable to make the progress he wanted in his pursuit of the leader. Over the next 15 laps, Verstappen’s lead over Hamilton grew from just over three seconds to 10 as Verstappen lapped consistently in the low 1’22s with Hamilton in the mid-to-high 1’22s. “I can’t do that,” Hamilton admitted after being informed of the pace of the race leader ahead.
Hamilton was gaining no ground on Verstappen, but back in the pack, Norris was making moves up the order. After being caught out by pitting under the Safety Car before the red flag had been called, the McLaren driver had restarted from 14th position with, like Hamilton, a scrubbed set of medium tyres to take him to the end of the grand prix.
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After four laps sitting behind Valtteri Bottas, Norris eventually got by the Alfa Romeo before picking off the two Alpines of Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon before overtaking Hulkenberg’s Haas and Alexander Albon’s Williams to move into the top eight. Eventually, Norris’s lap times were matching Hamilton and were even briefly faster than the leader’s at one stage.
Ahead of him was Tsunoda, on course to back up team mate Ricciardo with solid points which would be vital for AlphaTauri in their bid to avoid the indignity of finishing last in the constructors’ championship. Tsunoda was fighting had to get around Piastri in the other McLaren, who had fallen into his clutches on his medium tyres.
On lap 48 the two ran side-by-side through turn one and met in the middle through the left-hander of turn two. Minor contact forced Piastri to catch his car from spinning, but he was able to keep ahead.
At the start of the next lap, Tsunoda once again had a run on the McLaren down the main straight and pulled to the left to take the outside line after Piastri chosen at the last minute to cover the right hand side. Tsunoda drew alongside the McLaren as they both slammed on the brakes for the first corner, but as they both turned into the corner Tsunoda clipped the McLaren’s left-front wheel with his right-rear, sending him spinning off the circuit in a fashion that would have given the fans in the grandstand déjà vu from the opening lap incident with Perez.
A very angry Tsunoda righted his car and rejoined the race, but had dropped eight places from eighth to 16th as a result. The stewards looked into the incident, but one glance of the trackside camera replay was enough to show that Tsunoda was the architect of his own downfall.
The result of the clash was that Norris was now up to eighth behind his team mate. But with his superior speed more than apparent despite being on similarly aged tyres of the same compound, McLaren soon decided to tell their rookie to let his team mate by.
“Oscar, if this is our pace, we would let Lando past to go and attack Ricciardo,” race engineer Tom Stallard informed him. Half a lap later, Stallard gave the order and Piastri obliged, pulled over on the run to turn four to allow his more experienced team mate through into seventh.
By now, Verstappen was looking well in control of the race with Hamilton unable to do anything to close the gap between them. Leclerc behind had stabilised his deficit to the Mercedes at around five seconds, but approaching the final ten laps of the grand prix Leclerc began to fade further back from Hamilton ahead of him.
It took just three laps for the hard-charging Norris to catch up to the back of Ricciardo’s sixth-placed AlphaTauri. Once within DRS range, Norris ate up the rest of the gap between them on the approach to turn four until they were side-by-side. Ricciardo fought formidably to keep the McLaren behind him by hugging the inside line into the left hander, but with the superior cornering grip available to him Norris simply held the outside and turned it into the inside for turn five. Sixth place was his.
Ahead of him, Russell was on four-lap older mediums than Norris in fifth. Russell had spent 12 laps within DRS range of Sainz ahead of him but had been unable to get close enough to truly challenge him and now he was falling back into the clutches of Norris. But passing a Mercedes would be the most challenging prospect yet for the McLaren.
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By lap 65 Norris had got within a second of Russell and his tyres were continuing to hold on with the track nine degrees cooler than it had been at the very start of the race. A top five finish was now within Norris’s grasp, but Russell was not going to give it up without a fight.
“We know what Russell is like – he’s all-or-nothing,” Norris was warned by race engineer Will Joseph. “So just have patience with him.”
But again, rather than bide his time to try a high-percentage DRS pass down the main straight into turn one, Norris instead put the pressure on in the middle sector. Like Ricciardo, Russell went defensive into turn four but Norris chose not to try and dive down the outside as he had with the AlphaTauri. Instead, he backed off to take the apex and keep it tight through the two 90 degree turns which allowed him to get much better traction out of turn five. With the inside line for the slow right handers ahead, Norris had the superior position and could charge by on the inside to take fifth position.
While the second half of the race had been non-stop action for Norris in his charge up the order, Verstappen was having yet another quiet afternoon out in the lead of the race. Only once did he ever allow his pace to fall beyond 1’22.5 across his entire final stint following the restart – a sign of the phenomenal comfort he felt in his car as he managed his tyres with ease.
With just five laps remaining, Verstappen became the first driver in the history of Formula 1 to lead more than 850 laps in a single season – well above any previous mark set by the likes of Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel or even Hamilton. But the only lap Verstappen cared about leading was the final one and after completing his 71st and final tour of the 4.3km circuit, he crossed the line to secure his 16th grand prix win of the 2023 season to set yet another record during this year of unparalleled dominance – all set up by getting by the Ferraris at the very start of the race.
“I think that start definitely made it a bit easier for me in the first stint,” the winner explained after the race. “I think the strategy was looking great. But then of course, we had the red flag – so basically, everything that we did, we could throw in the bin and start over.
Hamilton had to settle for finishing second to Verstappen for the second straight Mexican Grand Prix and the second consecutive Sunday – although at least this time he was allowed to keep his position – and even set the fastest lap of the race at the end of his stint on mediums.
“It was a great day,” Hamilton hailed. “I was not expecting to be up here with these guys.
“I didn’t know if whether or not the medium would make it that long. I was trying to see if I could close the gap to Max but he was long gone and I could only just about equal his times. But great result for the team, really proud of everyone.”
The thousands of Mexican fans in the Foro Sol stadium had naturally been devastated to see Perez’s prospects end at the very first corner and some were looking for a release valve to vent their frustrations. Unfairly, some of them chose third-placed Leclerc for this, booing the blameless driver as he arrived for his post-race interview. But while the Ferrari driver was not delighted with third, that was much more to do with the performance of his car during the race.
“’Very pleased’ is not the word,” he said. “Really good pace in qualifying, but then we don’t quite have the car to win races on Sunday. So that’s where we are going to try and put all our effort into for next year, in order to be better for the Sunday.”
Sainz finished fourth, four seconds behind his team mate as Norris completed his comeback from 17th on the grid and 14th at the restart to finish in the top five. Russell took sixth in the second Mercedes with Ricciardo equalling Tsunoda’s best finish of the season for AlphaTauri in seventh to secure vital points for his team – and remind Red Bull what he can do on a day when Perez’s shortcoming were again glaringly obvious.
Piastri finished eighth with Albon adding two points to Williams’ total for the second straight Sunday in ninth. Esteban Ocon took the final point in tenth ahead of team mate Pierre Gasly.
It may not have been the result that many of the fans would have wanted, but it was likely the one they could have predicted. Beating his own record of wins in a season just one year after setting an all-time benchmark, even Verstappen had to admit this had been special.
“It’s been another incredible season,” he said. “I’m very proud of the achievement, because I think after last year, when I won 15, I was like, ‘well, if I can ever try and replicate something like that, I will be very happy’ and now we are here with 16. So just very happy with everyone’s performance in the team for the whole year for basically not making a lot of mistakes.”
With three rounds remaining, Verstappen can only push his own unfathomable statistics to even further, more extreme heights. But even having enjoyed such impossible success so far, it’s hard to see him losing focus over the final races.
After all, winning is very motivating.
2023 Mexican Grand Prix
- ‘I’m so s*** in qualifying’: Norris berates himself despite pole-winning lap
- Ferrari reaping the benefits of having F1’s most closely-matched team mates
- Norris had “no chance” to beat Verstappen in Mexico even without Q1 exit
- Transcript: How Ricciardo’s race went awry soon after he was told to “bring it home”
- Mercedes see “very encouraging signs” from Austin floor update
F1 race reviews
- Mission complete for Verstappen as Ferrari fall short of their final objective
- Verstappen denies Leclerc as F1’s Las Vegas spectacular lives up to its billing
- Verstappen on song with Sao Paulo win as Alonso prevails in podium photo-finish
- Verstappen beats Hamilton for third year running before disqualification drama
- Victory is no sweat for champion Verstappen as McLaren turn up the heat in Qatar