Max Verstappen’s victory in Mexico on Sunday is no surprise. This high-altitude circuit suits cars with high levels of aerodynamic downforce since the thin air affects their performance much less than their rivals and it also helps them to make better use of their tyres. Max won in Mexico in 2017 and 2018, and started on pole position in 2019. He clearly enjoys the circuit.
The big surprise came on Saturday when Valtteri Bottas took a brilliant pole position, the 19th of his career, and was joined on the front row by Lewis Hamilton. Mercedes got qualifying right, optimising the set-up of their cars, while Red Bull got it wrong due to their tyres not working as well due to the sudden increase in temperatures. They learned this lesson in time for the race.
Max won the race at the first corner, using the racing line to brake as late a possible and turn across the two Mercedes. It was a very strong, confident manoeuvre, and with Valtteri being knocked into a spin by Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren, it meant that Lewis had to fight against the two Red Bulls.
While Max drove into the distance Sergio Perez was able to use the pace of his Red Bull together with a late pit stop for fresh tyres, to put pressure on Lewis in the final laps. It was fantastic for the Mexican crowd, and although Lewis was never really in trouble, it underlined Red Bull’s advantage at this circuit. Lewis did well to finish 2nd. This was all about damage limitation.
There is no doubt that Max’s victory has given him a strong lead in the World Championship with only four races remaining. But in my opinion a lot can still happen in this battle between Red Bull and Mercedes. While the next Grand Prix in Brazil should again suit Max’s car, Lewis Hamilton won at Interlagos in 2016 and 2018.
We then head to two new circuits in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which means neither team has any data from previous events on which to rely. They will of course use simulation technology to predict performance, but you never really know how a car and tyres will work until you start running. Freshly surfaced, new tracks can be oily, dusty and definitely tricky.
Red Bull have shown a small but important pace advantage, however I am certain that next four races will produce surprises. This is when the psychology of the driver and his team will become important. When everything is going well it can start to feel easy, but it’s when something goes wrong that championship-winners show just how good they are.
I won both my World Championships at the final race of the season, so I know what it’s like to have a tight battle. Every point counts, and so too does every technical issue or accident. I won in 1998 when Michael Schumacher stalled on the grid in Japan and then suffered a tyre failure, while in 1999 I won the title by just two points from Eddie Irvine.
You have to keep your focus, and keep working hard with everyone in the team to make sure nothing is taken for granted. If you relax, the other guy is always waiting to take an opportunity.
In my experience, therefore, it’s never over until the chequered flag falls on the last race. I feel sure this World Championship can go all the way to Abu Dhabi. Mercedes will do everything they can to make that happen, and no one should discount Lewis Hamilton’s ability to give Max plenty to think about during these final races. He likes a challenge, and that’s what Max is to Lewis.
Much can still happen.