Mexico City — Lewis Hamilton will be hoping his Mercedes team have overcome their occasional altitude sickness this weekend as he bids to beat Red Bull’s Max Verstappen at the Mexican Grand Prix.
The defending seven-time world champion, who is bidding to overhaul the Dutchman’s 12-point advantage in the drivers’ championship, knows he needs to respond after losing to his rival in Texas last month.
With five races to go, both men will be seeking a third win in five Mexican outings since 2016 in the rarefied atmosphere at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, which is 2,285 metres (7,500 feet) above sea level and frequently the scene of high drama.
The thin air usually plays a part by diminishing the performance of teams’ power-units, with the turbo-chargers required to spin faster to make up for lost performance. In turn, this can create other problems and often deliver surprise results.
‘Layer of the unknown’
Mercedes have often struggled with the altitude while Red Bull have done well, Verstappen winning in 2017 and 2018. But Hamilton won in 2016 and 2019, when the race was last held before the Covid-19 pandemic, and Mercedes retain optimism that this year they will cope better.
“Red Bull have gone well here in the past and it hasn’t been our strongest circuit, but this year has shown that anything is possible and circuits where you were previously weak, you are suddenly strong—and vice versa,” said team boss Toto Wolff.
“It adds a layer of the unknown in the build-up, which only increases the excitement. We’ll keep taking things race by race and preparing the best we can and we’ll be ready to hit the ground running on Friday.”
Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas was also relatively upbeat. “Mexico, we know, has usually been a bit of a weakness for us. It feels like in recent years quite a big chunk has been taken from the power unit with the high altitude.
“But I think we’ve been able to optimise a lot since so I expect us to be in a better place than in recent years.”
Like Hamilton, Bottas will have his work cut out as he bids to beat his Honda-powered Red Bull counterpart and local hero Sergio Perez as Mercedes seek to retain or consolidate their 23-point lead in the constructors’ championship.
Both teams will make reliability a priority and therefore not take great risks, knowing that a non-finish at this stage of the season could prove decisive, but the drivers are sure to be intensely motivated as their closely-fought title duel approaches a climax.
That could lead to more spectacular incidents on a fast track that offers slipstreaming opportunities in front of a raucous crowd, packed into towering grandstands around the baseball stadium section.
Hamilton and Verstappen have collided already at the British and Italian Grands Prix and three-time champion Jackie Stewart warned both drivers to avoid getting “too carried away with the need to win a race”, adding: “I think they are both overdoing it a bit.”
Speaking to Motorsport-Magazin.com, Stewart said Verstappen would not have survived his Silverstone accident—when he flew into the barriers after contact with Hamilton —in his racing era in the 1960s and 1970s.
“The accident that happened at Silverstone—in my time he would have died,” he said. “They both did things they shouldn’t have done so early in the race.”
Behind the title contenders, Ferrari are expected to make the most of their new power-unit in their scrap with McLaren for third place, a battle likely to see Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz racing closely against Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo.