MEXICO CITY GRAND PRIX

By Michael Lamonato

The first of the final five races in six weekends is in Mexico City, where Mercedes’s historic struggles have Max Verstappen poised to break free from Lewis Hamilton in the title standings.

AUTÓDROMO HERMANOS RODRÍGUEZ

Laps: 71

Distance: 4.304 kilometres

Corners: 17

Formula 1 has had an on again, off again relationship with Mexico, but Sergio Perez’s arrival last decade reinvigorated the nation’s love for the sport, and Mexico City now hosts one of the calendar’s most popular races.

The vibrant Mexican fans packed into the disused baseball stadium at turn 13–14 overshadow the circuit for spectacle, but the track makes up for its straightforward layout with its unusual context. Situated 2.2 kilometres above sea level, a grand prix distance leaves both car and driver breathless in the thin air for a unique engineering and endurance challenge.

The lack of air resistance also generates some extreme top speeds: Valtteri Bottas set the all-time race speed record at 372.5 kilometres per hour in his 2016 Mercedes-powered Williams.

THE 2019 RACE

2019’s winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)

Lewis Hamilton recovered from a first-lap crash with Max Verstappen to win Mercedes’s 100th grand prix victory. Mired in the midfield, and down on pace with damage, an aggressive early stop got him ahead of the pack and enabled him to grind out a victory in a driver-team effort.

FORM GUIDE

Max Verstappen arrives in Mexico City with a spring in his step, having beaten Lewis Hamilton at his Texas stronghold to open a 12-point title advantage. It confirmed his Red Bull Racing car is still competitive after a string of off-pace performances, and with Mexico kicking of three back-to-back races expected to favour the Bulls, the Dutchman might dare to believe he can see his maiden championship on the horizon.

WHAT TO EXPECT

You’re likely to hear an old-favourite phrase repeatedly to describe the altitude challenge: wings like Monaco, downforce like Monza.

Every car will be running their Monaco aerodynamic packages to scavenge as much downforce as possible from the scarce air, but regardless they’ll be generating less downforce than in Monza, where their bodywork kits make the cars as slippery as possible.

At Mexico City’s extreme altitude the air is 22 per cent less dense, making aero performance commensurately less effective. Thus those cars with inherently more downforce benefit, being faster through the corners and taking better care of the overheating-prone tyres.

It’s music to Red Bull Racing, whose aerodynamic philosophy natively produces more downforce than the Mercedes car.

The thinner air also has serious implications for the power units, for the turbocharger must work harder to maintain pressure for combustion. The Mercedes turbo has traditionally run hotter at the required compensatory speed, and at altitude there’s less air to cool it, leaving it down on power relative to its competitors.

Mercedes is also dealing with an undisclosed internal combustion engine problem that has forced four penalty-attracting engine changes in the last four rounds — a worry at a potentially engine-killing circuit. And that cooling limitation has also typically hit Mercedes’s more marginal brakes.

Tick, tick and tick again to Red Bull Racing.

On paper this has Red Bull Racing all over it, and combined with Sergio Perez’s purple patch of form, Mercedes will be up against it to prevent Max Verstappen from a 22-point lead in the championship standings.