Posted on November 5, 2022.
Report by Tony Cotton.
It’s bad form to quote one’s own reports, but here’s how I opened Austin: “Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say about a Grand Prix, because it is so dull.” (Which Austin wasn’t.) It was quite prophetic, because Mexico City only really had any interest if you like spreadsheets, are a Ricciardo fan, or just take in the atmosphere without caring about the race.
Forget the colourful but grotesque “Day of the Dead”/Halloween masks, Mexico City’s atmosphere is important because it’s 7,350ft above sea level. This means the air is thin. To put it in perspective, the live timing screens quoted air pressure as 780mb. “Standard” pressure is 1,013.25mb, so the air is 23% thinner. Less for Carlos, Charles, and the rest to breathe, less for their aero to produce downforce from and less for their engines to breathe. Unless something can compensate, power is proportional to the oxygen available, so is down by 23%. Cooling likewise has issues.
Aero effects mean that the downforce and drag is reduced so that although there’s a very long straight at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez, maximum downforce setups tend to be run, but this means potential changes to the rake which in turn affects the ride over kerbs and other bumps. There is therefore a mix of a wish for a “Monza” mechanical setup and a “Monaco” aero setup – but one interferes with the other.
As for human factors, hypoxia (lack of oxygen having an effect on the brain) generally kicks in at 10,000ft, but can start at 8,000ft if somebody is less than 100% fit. The issue is a particular risk if the subject is learning something new rather then practising something familiar. Whether that explains some teams’ tyre strategy or Ricciardo’s driving, I leave to you to decide.
Handbags at Dawn
“We asked for a comment but no spokesman was available” is heard on TV and Radio programmes when a piece is too embarrassing or too true to be answered. It’s fallen out of favour recently now that most politicians of any hue will happily defend the indefensible if told to do so. So it came as a surprise when first Max Verstappen and then Christian Horner decided to boycott Sky because Ted Kravitz had described the 2021 Championship the same way on air as about 100 million fans had said off air. Rather than stand up for themselves they’ve gone away and sulked “to teach Sky a lesson.” I do remember a “celeb” once failed to turn up for BBC’s “Have I Got News For You” and was replaced by a tub of lard; Sky might try the same technique with a can of pop.
Carlos said “It was a difficult qualifying. Riding the kerbs was very tricky for us, especially in the first two sectors, which meant it was challenging to put together the perfect lap.” Charles commented “We had a tough qualifying, losing quite a bit of time down the straights and not having a great feeling in terms of drivability.” I would suggest that most of this was down to the altitude. Suffice to say, the issues couldn’t be resolved and in a fairly dull qualifying, Carlos managed 5th and Charles 7th, being pipped by Bottas in the recently lacklustre Ferrari-powered Alfa.
Unlike Ferrari, Mercedes seemed to thrive at altitude, challenging for fastest lap in practice and looking good in qualifying. However, it’s perhaps significant that Verstappen took pole from Russell and then Hamilton, but both Merc drivers had a Q3 time disallowed for track limits, indicating who was working within his limits. Perez slightly disappointed his home crowd with 4th, while the Alpines of Alonso and Ocon (9th and 10th) were in a McLaren sandwich with Norris 8th and Ricciardo in his usual 11th.
The Excitement of Tyre Strategy
Here’s where the spreadsheets come out. The race was all about tyres. Plan “A” as adopted by Verstappen was to start on softs and pull out a lead, and then change early onto mediums in the hope that mediums will be fast enough when new to get the lead back and then sustain it. But would the mediums run to the end or would the strategy be destroyed by a second stop?
Plan “B” was based on the history of Miami when after about 25 laps on the second stint, the hards became the fastest tyre on the circuit. So a conservative policy would be to start on mediums and go long to the first stops, then be sure of reaching the end without changing by running hards, with the added bonus that they might be fast at the end to ward off opponents on 3rd set softs.
Plan “C” was to start on mediums, and run them long, then run softs to the end as the car will be lighter and less damaging to the tyres. This plan works only if (a) the tyres hold out (b) the driver can overtake.
There were other variations, but these were the front runner plans and doubtless formed the basis of lots of fascinating Excel sheets with tyre deg, ease of overtaking, tyre lap times, safety cars and driving over Latifi debris all factored in. This is genuine excitement for an Excel jockey or a tyre technician, even if not for anybody else.
On a normal weekend it would have been easy to test out the plans in FP2, but Pirelli were using that to test out their 2023 tyres, so slightly spoiling the race by making the key parameters more guesswork than they should be. But perhaps that lack of knowledge would make the race interesting? (Spoiler alert – it didn’t).
Verstappen was on plan “A”, while despite talking about an aggressive strategy, Mercedes not only chose the highly conservative plan “B” but switched to hards after only 29 laps, so barely getting any extra running . The Ferraris started on softs and changed to mediums fairly late (laps 28/29 compared to 23/25 for the RedBulls.
Race? What Race?
Verstappen was challenged by Russell through turn 1 but, as is normal, he drove away. Plan A worked and he won the race. As happened last week, Hamilton challenged Russell and won, sufficient that the younger man went wide at turn 3, letting Perez into 3rd and dropping to 4th. Toto Wolff said “We just got it wrong today in hindsight.” Both drivers were unhappy, but it succeeded in keeping Perez in 3rd as the RedBulls were faster than the Mercedes, which in turn this week were faster than the Ferraris.
Carlos stayed in 5th while Charles moved up past Bottas. Both ran to tyre “plan A”. Charles summed it up as “Carlos and I were lapping together, too quick for the midfield but too slow for the front runners. We stuck to our strategy, focused on ourselves and got the most out of our package, but we were just too far off.”
Unexpected Mid-Field Thrills
That settled 1st to 6th while 7th was about the only interest in the race. Ricciardo started 11th on mediums, ran fairly conservatively for 44 laps (take note Hamilton….) and changed to softs. Interestingly a different tactic to Norris who went from medium to hard after 31 laps and, after complaining about the wrong tyres, ended 9th. For the first time this season, Ricciardo was the most exciting man on track as first he launched an uncharacteristically ill-judged move which had Tsunoda up in the air at turn 5 and out of the race, with a 10 second penalty for the Aussie. Ricciardo then traded places with his team-mate and began to catch Bottas, passing the Alfa Romeo on Lap 48 for P9. The Alpine pairing of Alonso and Ocon were next, Alonso within two laps and then Ocon one lap later. He had 10 laps left to build up a 10s buffer, and did so for 7th. Ocon was 8th, Norris and Bottas – a stranger to points after his good start to the season – completing the top 10.
The season began so optimistically, but now Charles is behind Perez in the Driver standings and Mercedes are only 40 points behind in the Constructors’. As Mattio Binotto said “It is vitally important that we improve in the last two races so as to end the season to the best of our ability.” Fortunately, Brasil and AbuDhabi are not quite the “breathtaking” prospect that Mexico was, so hopefully normal service will be resumed.