Max Verstappen, a two-time world champion, gave Red Bull another cause to celebrate on Saturday when he qualified first for the Mexican Grand Prix. After a day of debate and mockery over Red Bull’s $145 million fine for breaking Formula One’s cost limit last year, Vettel’s sixth pole of the season and 17th of his career was a welcome respite.
The 25-year-old Dutchman finished 0.304 seconds ahead of George Russell and seven-time winner Lewis Hamilton of the Mercedes squad. His fastest lap time was 1 minute, 17.775 seconds.
On his first Q3 lap, Verstappen claimed the lead and then lowered his time to hold off the upgraded Mercedes squad. On Sunday, he’ll try to break the record for most wins in a season by one player, which now stands at 14.
The Dutchman said, “That was a nice qualifying.” To be on pole here is, of course, incredible since it was a tight race, but we made some changes to the vehicle and got into a better rhythm.
A solid start is crucial because of the lengthy distance to Turn One, but I’m confident in our car’s speed and that’s what matters most. It’s great to drive into the stadium and feel the energy created by the spectators here.
In fourth place was his Red Bull teammate and hometown hero Sergio Perez, ahead of Carlos Sainz of Ferrari and a resurgent Valtteri Bottas of Alfa Romeo.
When asked whether he thought Perez “will be there in the battle tomorrow,” Verstappen said confidently.
Charlie Leclerc, who wrecked his Ferrari on Friday, finished eighth, ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris, and the Alpines of defending champion Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon.
This shattered Russell’s hopes. After going wide on the penultimate lap, he apologized over his team radio, “Sorry, sorry, sorry.” The squad was due better results today. They made a fantastic vehicle this weekend, and I thought we were going to win the pole position until I turned in a bad last lap.
Despite his pessimism, Hamilton remained optimistic.
We’ve never had a better qualifying session all year. It’s proof that sticking to a goal and not giving up may provide positive results.
I’m content with where I am right now – Turn One is quite the trek!
Many of the top teams had expressed displeasure before to the session over Red Bull’s $7 million punishment and 10% decrease in allowable aerodynamic research for overspending in 2017.
Ferrari expressed their “extreme dissatisfaction” with the sanction, while Mercedes said that Christian Horner’s characterization of the penalty as “draconian” was “an exaggeration,” and McLaren claimed that the punishment was “not strong enough.”
Domestic hero Perez
When qualifying began at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, where the air temperature was 25 degrees Celsius and the track temperature was 49, all of that was forgotten.
Hamilton maintained Mercedes’ much-improved form in the thin environment, at 2,200 meters altitude, by setting the fastest lap times in the first qualifying session ahead of Verstappen and Leclerc.
Sebastian Vettel, a four-time champion, was eliminated.
Mercedes’ best session performance of the year was the Russell-Hamilton one-two after a rocky start to the season when they were plagued by “porpoising” troubles.
With a time of 1:18.552, Hamilton topped Russell by 0.013 seconds to take the lead. Bottas and Verstappen followed, and the sold-out crowd erupted as Perez emerged alone.
They cheered, “Checo, Checo,” as he moved up to third on brand new, soft tires.
On his second lap, Verstappen moved back up to third, but Sainz passed him to take second and break up Ferrari’s’silver arrows.
McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo, Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guayyu, Alpha Tauri’s Yuki Tsunoda, and Alpha Tauri’s Pierre Gasly and Kevin Magnussen all came up short in the final ten-man shootout.
Perez’s early exit from Q3 prompted a tight battle for the lead among the top four drivers, with just 0.014 seconds separating them.
Hamilton’s fastest lap, a 1:18.094, was erased for exceeding track limitations on the curb at Turn Three, and Verstappen quickly surpassed it with a 1:17.947 amazing lap that went unequaled on the initial runs.