Daniel Ricciardo will start Sunday’s Mexican Formula 1 Grand Prix from pole position alongside Red Bull Racing teammate Max Verstappen, who was once again denied a shot at becoming the sport’s youngest ever pole-sitter.
While much of this weekend’s focus will be on whether Lewis Hamilton will clinch his fifth Drivers’ Championship title – the Englishman qualified third-fastest and needs to finish seventh or higher in the race – the sideshow of qualifying provided plenty of excitement and drama where Red Bull Racing showed their rivals a clean pair of heels.
Running on the high-altitude Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez circuit, the thinner air negates the Renault-powered cars’ traditional power disadvantage. This allowed the Red Bull and factory Renault outfits to get all of their cars into the final phase of qualifying for the first time since the Austrian Grand Prix – another high elevation venue.
The factory Renaults of Nico Hülkenberg and Carlos Sainz Jr. qualified seventh- and eighth-fastest – a result that will no doubt give Ricciardo further comfort ahead of his move there next year – ahead of the similarly impressive Sauber Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Marcus Ericsson.
Up at the front, qualifying was all about the battle of the Red Bull Racing teammates. Verstappen had been the pacesetter all weekend and finally looked good to break through and claim his first pole position, but he could not account for a scintillating lap from Ricciardo.
The Australian scorched around the 4.3-kilometre circuit on his second Q3 run with a time of 1:14.759, breaking the track’s lap record to claim the third pole position of his F1 career.
Verstappen finished just two-hundredths of a second down and blamed a rear locking issue for being denied his first pole. The front-row lockout was the team’s first since the 2014 turbo-hybrid era began.
Hamilton could not match the two RB14 cars and settled for third on the grid in his Mercedes ahead of arch rival Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari. With seventh or better needed on Sunday – regardless of where Vettel finishes – he can afford to take it easy but will be mindful of his tangle with the German at the start of last year’s race which gave him a puncture and forced him onto a recovery drive through the field to claim his fourth championship title.
“If you go easy, you can get hit. If you go too aggressive, you can hit or still get hit,” he said, emphatically rejecting suggestions he would play a percentage game. “You’ve got to race it like normal and go in for the win. That’s what I’m going to be doing. I mean, that’s what we’re here to do – to race.”
The form of the Red Bulls over longer runs suggests Hamilton will have his work cut out to beat them, barring reliability woes or the teammates running into each other. Neither is beyond the realms of possibility.
The third row of the grid saw Hamilton and Vettel’s respective teammates, Valtteri Bottas and last weekend’s United States Grand Prix winner Kimi Räikkönen, qualify fifth- and sixth-fastest.
With five teams locking out the first five rows of the grid, the back half features some tales of success and failure. Force India’s run of four consecutive Grands Prix where both Esteban Ocon and Sergio Pérez made the Q3 cut came to an end, with the duo knocked out during Q2. Ocon will start from eleventh on the grid, two spots ahead of teammate and crowd favourite Pérez.
The pair was split by Fernando Alonso in the McLaren Renault. The Spaniard’s MCL33 was a much more competitive force on this unique circuit, although his Formula E-bound teammate Stoffel Vandoorne had another poor session and was only 17th-fastest.
The two Toro Rosso Hondas of Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly completed the final Q2 runners, however the latter will start at the back of the grid for an unscheduled gearbox change and taking on more new Honda power unit elements.
In a tight Q1 session, the two Haas Ferraris of Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen just missed out on making the cut, qualifying 16th and 18th-fastest respectively. however Grosjean will serve a three-place grid penalty for his antics in Austin last weekend.
The two Williams’ were predictably at the bottom of the timesheets once again as their nightmare 2018 season approaches its end. Lance Stroll outqualified Sergey Sirotkin for the eighth time this season.
Image via Red Bull Racing