Russell believes Mercedes' eyes are winning in Mexico

Russell believes Mercedes’ eyes are winning in Mexico

The Mexico City Grand Prix is ​​live on 5 Live and the BBC Sport website

George Russell believes Mercedes have a “reasonable chance” of winning the Mexico City Grand Prix.

That might not sound like the most overwhelming level of confidence, but in the context of a season that Max Verstappen and Red Bull have taken almost total control of, it certainly says something.

This has been a difficult year for Mercedes, and with just three races to go, they will still win a race. This looks like it could be their best chance yet – just a week after Hamilton came as close as he had yet in the US Grand Prix in Austin, Texas.

Russell and Lewis Hamilton start second and third, behind the world champion, for a race that has not been won from pole position since 2016, when Hamilton did so.

Verstappen will still be a formidable opponent, still starting as favourite. If he wins on Sunday, it will be his 14th win of the season – a new all-time record.

But Mercedes have looked competitive all weekend at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, and Russell felt the 0.304-second gap by which Verstappen beat him to pole – much on one of the shorter laps of the season – flattered Red Bull.

“It was a very difficult session,” Russell said. “The car has felt very good all weekend, and since my first lap in Q1, it was just terrible. I was driving terribly and I had no rhythm at all.”

At the start of the final session – Q3 – Russell seemed to have regained his rhythm. He was 0.143s off Verstappen on their opening lap and felt he could do significantly better.

“The lap in Q3 wasn’t a banker, but a good lap, a clean lap and I knew there was a lot more to come,” said Russell. — And when I started pushing harder, I was bitten by the car.

This was the problem with the Mercedes that Hamilton described in the interview he did with BBC Sport and three other selected shops in Austin last weekend, and which was published on Thursday.

“Take the car to the limit” Hamilton said, “is like crawling up behind a horse – you try to get as close as possible. What’s the breaking point before it kicks you in the face? And you know it’s going to hurt when it hits your face.”

Russell said after qualifying: “I’m disappointed because I felt the team deserved pole position, but at the end of the day the points are on Sunday and we’ll go for the win.

“It’s a shame but we start P2, the second best qualifier of the year, and there are a lot of positives to take away.

“We think we have a reasonable shot, and having Lewis up front also gives us the opportunity to do something different on the strategy.”

Even Hamilton felt he was in with a stroke of what would have been his first pole of the year.

Fastest in both first and second qualifying, Hamilton had good reason to be confident going into the final session.

But he was judged to have clipped the third corner on his first lap, and his time was disallowed. That meant he had to be a little careful on his final run, as messing it up would have meant starting 10th. In addition, he suffered engine problems that slowed him out of the corners.

“No big problems,” Hamilton said. “Some engine issues, some performance left on the table with that, unfortunately.

“Losing the first lap made it a bit more difficult because I had to keep it clean, so I couldn’t push as hard as I would have liked.

“(The engine problem) started showing up in Q2 and then it was every run in Q3.

“Basically I lost power on corner exits, so I definitely think we lost quite a bit of time. It felt like an ignition problem but I’ll find out from the team.”

Mercedes said the problem was oscillation in the powertrain.

But overall, Hamilton was pleased.

“Second and third is not a bad starting position,” he said.

Why are Mercedes so competitive?

Russell believed that Mercedes’ competitiveness was a consequence of the altitude. Mexico City is more than 2,200 meters above sea level, so the air is thin, which has a significant effect on F1 cars.

Although the track has long straights, the teams run their cars in the highest possible downforce configuration because the low air density reduces the effectiveness of their aerodynamics.

It also reduces drag – and this is key for Mercedes, for whom one of the biggest problems this year has been the dragging nature of the car.

Russell said: “Red Bull have a very efficient car and have taken a huge amount of time on us on the straights. This weekend it’s been less and that’s probably why we’ve had the fastest car this weekend.”

George Russell and Max Verstappen
Russell must go ahead – and stay ahead of – champion Verstappen (right)

Why is pole not so good?

This race was won from third on the grid last year, from fourth in 2019 and second in 2018 and 2017.

Why is it so difficult to win from pole in Mexico, and why is qualifying second and third almost considered an advantage?

Part of the explanation is that the drive to the first corner from the grid is more than 800m, one of the longest of the year, giving the drivers behind a good opportunity to gain ground with the help of the tow.

This is how Verstappen managed to take the lead at the start last year, despite Mercedes having a front-row lockout – although part of that was Valtteri Bottas, Russell’s predecessor at the team, not doing his job properly and failing to block the Red Bull.

The problem for Russell and Hamilton, however, is that the Red Bull remains a faster car, and it’s still incredibly quick on the straights. Mercedes may have less of a disadvantage than usual, but overtaking Red Bull will remain a problem.

Hamilton said: “It’s always a tough race here with track temperatures and tyres, but these guys have been quick all year and even at our best we’re still losing straight line speed.

“It will be difficult to get past them but we will give it our best shot and Turn One is an opportunity.”

Verstappen, who has won three of the last four races in Mexico, said: “I started everywhere but pole here and we won races so it’s always important to have a good start.

“Our top speed is not too bad to defend when people are in the draft. We just need to focus. If we have good race pace, it will be a good fight anyway.”

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