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What we learned from Friday F1 practice at the Mexico GP

There was nothing out the ordinary in Max Verstappen leading both opening practice sessions for Red Bull at Formula 1’s 2023 Mexico Grand Prix, but the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez presents a unique challenge to the drivers and yesterday the Mexico City climate added an unexpected one for the drivers to boot

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19

Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

Behind Verstappen, the battle for outright pace looks to be very close in conditions and through corner types that somewhat negate the RB19’s usual strengths. And in the long run exercises at FP2’s end, McLaren, through Lando Norris, seemed particularly strong.

Elsewhere, Charles Leclerc and Lewis Hamilton led the way on pace for Ferrari and Mercedes respectively, while Aston Martin had a second tough Friday in seven days following its United States GP struggles.

Here, then, is everything we learned yesterday in Mexico.

The story of the day

Verstappen topped FP1 with a 1m19.718s effort ahead of surprise package Alex Albon and his FW45 by just 0.095s. Albon surprised even Williams with his pace early in the weekend at a track where the team had arrived feeling pessimistic about being in certain points contention. Perez followed in third ahead of Norris and Leclerc.

But while the teams began to understand how their maximum downforce packages and additional bodywork cooling openings were working in the famously thin air here, and there were also slips and spills aplenty on the low-grip surface, the biggest story of the opening session was the combined fates of the five (non-Oscar Piastri) rookies taking part.

Ferrari junior Oliver Bearman took 15th in Kevin Magnussen’s place for Haas, with Isack Hadjar finishing in 17th place in Yuki Tsunoda’s AlphaTauri. Jack Doohan came in just behind as Pierre Gasly sat out FP1 for Alpine, while Frederik Vesti finished 19th in George Russell’s Mercedes.

Theo Pourchaire’s outing in place of Valtteri Bottas for Alfa Romeo never really got going, as an alarm appeared on his dashboard and coincided with a long throttle pedal feeling early in FP1, with the issues reoccurring three more times he emerged from the pits to try to and set a lap time.

F2 star Bearman impressed Haas in his first FP1 outing

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

F2 star Bearman impressed Haas in his first FP1 outing

Haas ended up very pleased with Bearman’s performance alongside regular Nico Hulkenberg in the opening session, with team engineering director Ayao Komatsu saying he “didn't put a foot wrong”. The 18-year-old particularly impressed Haas with his familiarity of its procedures, plus his feedback to its engineers.

Red Bull is planning to fill both its RB19s with its simulator driver – and Formula E world champion – Jake Dennis and Hadjar in Abu Dhabi FP1 to satisfy its rules requirements in this regard. Team boss Christian Horner said in the press conference between FP1 and FP2 that Red Bull feels that season-ending session “tends to have not a great deal of car set-up value” for its race drivers.

So, when it came to FP2 yesterday, Verstappen and Perez therefore remained together aboard their dominant machines as they have done throughout all the 2023 sessions so far, with their efforts in Friday’s second session following the season’s established themes.

This is that Verstappen again led the way, while Perez came in behind Norris and Leclerc. Bottas – his car now fixed – also demoted the home hero to fifth.

Haas ended up very pleased with Bearman’s performance alongside regular Nico Hulkenberg in the opening session, with team engineering director Ayao Komatsu saying he “didn't put a foot wrong”

But Perez was unfortunate he “had a yellow flag on my lap” – more on that later – as it meant he didn’t have a new soft tyre freshness boost when he tried again a short while later midway through FP2. This second effort ended with him running perilously wide out of the Peraltada. Perez concluded that as a result he, “didn't get a good read on the soft over a single lap” yesterday.

There were two standout elements of FP2. The first was rain falling in the opening minutes and then returning for the closing stages – not enough for any laps to be lost but a reminder that overnight rain here can wash away what rubber has gone down.

This can lead to graining on the front left tyres that take the punishment around here, while also requiring the teams to keep a close eye on tyre preparation in qualifying with a significant track evolution factor. Come the race, the drivers will want as much rubber laid down as possible to reduce tyre temperature spikes and therefore additional graining alongside the typical degradation concerns.

Perez “didn't get a good read on the soft over a single lap” yesterday

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Perez “didn't get a good read on the soft over a single lap” yesterday

The other main takeaway from FP2 was that Aston Martin ended a Friday on the back foot for the second time in a week.

Fernando Alonso “lost the car” during his mid-session qualifying simulation effort on the softs, which caused that yellow flag – the Spaniard producing something of an understatement there given he spun dramatically and fully between Turns 9 and 10, an incident he tried hard to underplay in further comments (see below).

But with Lance Stroll losing much of FP2 with a left front medium stuck on the other AMR23 and Aston mechanics taking great hammer swings at trying to remove it, it all rather left the green team down on qualifying preparation.

Medium tyre long run pace gives McLaren an early boost against Red Bull

In the typical FP2-ending long runs, the averages Autosport logged must be treated with even more caution than normal due to the low-grip surface and low-downforce setting triggering plenty of minor moments for the drivers.

The late rain falling also meant drivers struggled to keep the best tyre temperature as the ambient came down at that stage too. Therefore, all the drivers from the leading teams had plenty of outlier times we had to discount as a result.

But looking at the FP2 long run averages – with all the usual caveats they include regarding engine modes and fuel levels – these look very encouraging for McLaren, which has been Red Bull’s closest rival of late.

Oscar Piastri had come into the weekend saying the McLaren expected this place to “not particularly” suit the MCL60, but Norris essentially said the same thing at Austin and he was right in the mix there.

McLaren’s early one-lap pace put them just 0.12s behind Verstappen with Norris in FP2

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

McLaren’s early one-lap pace put them just 0.12s behind Verstappen with Norris in FP2

Therefore, McLaren’s early one-lap pace to sit just 0.12s behind Verstappen with Norris in FP2 is allied to the Briton edging his friend by an average of 0.274s a lap on the medium tyre long runs they completed late in that session.

Further boosting McLaren is that Norris’s average came over a 15-lap stint and Verstappen’s was done with at least 11 laps of fuel aboard.

The hard tyre averages – with these two teams the only two to back-to-back the two compounds that are set to be the choice for best race tyre here, allied to possible starting stint on softs – looked much better for Red Bull, however. In these, Perez edged Piastri by an average of 0.576s, over 10 laps and 14 respectively.

Even though it appears close on race pace at this stage, Red Bull will be relieved its set-up adjustments ahead of FP2 fixed the issue of the “front tyre collapsed more or less”, per Helmut Marko, that the team saw in the limited long runs in the hotter FP1 Friday opener.

At the end of FP2, Hamilton’s medium long run came in at 0.326 behind Norris and 0.052s down on Verstappen – his 1m23.338s average being clocked over an eight-lap stint

Judging by the medium tyre long runs, Mercedes is right in the mix at this stage too – at a venue where the thin air covers up the W14’s remaining drag deficit to Red Bull and so the Black Arrows team has rather been targeting some special here.

At the end of FP2, Hamilton’s medium long run came in at 0.326 behind Norris and 0.052s down on Verstappen – his 1m23.338s average being clocked over an eight-lap stint.

In this it should be noted Hamilton’s pace fell away a touch dramatically from the early 1m22s to the 1m24s by the end. Norris, meanwhile, was able to stay more consistently in the 1m23s, while Verstappen was actually lapping quicker at the end of his long run than the start.

Both Hamilton and Russell were unhappy with the balance and grip levels aboard their cars

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

Both Hamilton and Russell were unhappy with the balance and grip levels aboard their cars

Mercedes feels both Hamilton and Russell were unhappy with the balance and grip levels aboard their cars, although such utterances are fairly typical of them both at this stage.

The team is now analysing the results of its FP2 set-up experiments, and the ones it feels worked best for the rest of the weekend will likely be picked come qualifying much later today.

Ferrari’s best medium long run average (both Leclerc and Carlos Sainz ran this rubber for the FP2 race data gathering exercises) was Leclerc’s 1m23.885s. This is 0.873s down on Norris’s leading time. The red team, which quickly fixed a hydraulic issue aboard Sainz’s car that left him without power steering during FP1, feels it has a gap to close to the front on both single lap and race pace.

Aston concluded that its day was “not a true reflection” of where it sits in the Mexico pecking order, per team principal, Mike Krack, due to its lack of qualifying simulation.

Plus, the team’s sole FP2 race run came from Alonso thanks to Stroll’s stuck wheel issue. Alonso produced an average of 1m24.458s on the mediums, which is a hefty 1.45s slower than Norris and the slowest of the typical 2023 frontrunners.

Given he nipped in front of Perez to run fourth in in FP2 and felt the Alfa “was generally pretty good” even after Pourchaire’s misfortune, Bottas’s average on the mediums over 12 laps was an Alonso-beating 1m24.041s.

When it comes to predicted race strategies at this stage, a one-stopper is likely to be the quickest and most common – albeit with the teams looking to see how much graining there is early on before committing either way to mediums or hards for the latter stint or stints.

What they say

Verstappen says he had a better start to the weekend than expected

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Verstappen says he had a better start to the weekend than expected

Max Verstappen: “We look competitive, so that's good. But they are always a few things to improve. Overall, I think it was a positive start to the weekend, probably a little bit better than I expected. So that's always good, I guess. You can see the track is very slippery like always, tyres are very difficult to manage as well in the long run. So, there's a few things that we can work on. I think [qualifying] is going to be incredibly competitive over one lap and I the race pace again that's a different story.”

Lando Norris: “A good start to the weekend, it’s close. We’ll continue to try and improve but it’s a good start. I think we generally do start the weekend off well. We always have a good idea where to put the car to begin with, and normally it’s not far off from where we end up, so there’s not a lot to gain through the weekend.”

"We didn't show the most competitive long-runs, so we've been focusing on trying out different set-ups" Lewis Hamilton

Charles Leclerc: “It has been a positive day overall as we were able to test everything we wanted. We tried all the tyres available and worked a bit on the set-up even if it’s clear that being only Friday there’s still some work to do for tomorrow’s qualifying and the race. We will analyse all the data we collected and will work to make a step forward.”

Lewis Hamilton: “It's been a challenging day for me today, the car felt completely different to what it felt like in Austin a week ago and we need to understand why. We didn't show the most competitive long runs, so we've been focusing on trying out different set-ups. The track here comes with its challenges, but we've done well here in previous years. So, we're not yet fully where we want to be ahead of tomorrow, but we will work hard overnight to improve and make necessary changes.”

Fernando Alonso: “It's been a good day. In the end [I have] a good feeling in the car, trying to understand more about the new aerodynamic package. We have focused a lot on the long runs, a lot of fuel in the car all day. We have not gone to look for lap times, so let's see tomorrow where we are.”

Aston concluded that its day was “not a true reflection” of where it sits in the Mexico pecking order

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Aston concluded that its day was “not a true reflection” of where it sits in the Mexico pecking order

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