Red Bull believe they are poised to challenge Mercedes and Ferrari at the Mexican GP, but admit their Friday speed alone will not be enough to take their first pole in 17 months.
While the scene this weekend is set for Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton to either clinch his fourth world title or for Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to unexpectedly take the fight on to Brazil, Red Bull’s eye-catching start gives them the chance to play the role of wildcard interlopers as the championship reaches its crescendo.
“Each race for us is a bit like a cup final,” Red Bull chief Christian Horner told Sky F1. “We can afford to be aggressive on strategy, can afford to take a few risks and we have our own race to run.”
Daniel Ricciardo set the Friday pace in Mexico City with his RB13 competitive on both short and long runs. Hamilton was second-fastest despite an early spin, with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel in fourth after an inconsistent day.
Lewis Hamilton was on his first timed lap on the supersoft tyre and spun in to turn 11, leaving a big flat spot on his front left which may have compromise his race strategy
P2: Ricciardo tops close fight
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Ricciardo is confident Red Bull can “improve and get better” ahead of qualifying, although is aware Mercedes are able to extract more performance from their engine for the Q3 pole position battle.
“On the long runs I still think we could find a bit more,” he said. “On low fuel we are more or less there. Mercedes always have more on Saturday so I think we still need to find a few tenths if we want to stay ahead of them.
He added: “I’m sure Mercedes will make a good step and improve.
“We will look for this tonight but it’s nice not having to change too much on the car, we don’t seem too far off.”
Mercedes have claimed 13 poles this season, whereas Red Bull have only topped qualifying once since their last title win in 2013 – with Ricciardo at last year’s Monaco GP.
Completing a competitive opening day, Max Verstappen was third fastest, although was restricted to just 16 laps in P2 when the old engine he was running failed.
“I think the pace is good of the car,” he told Sky F1. “I didn’t do many laps in the morning as we tried some new bits for next year.
“We lost a bit of momentum with the early finish and then this afternoon we were chasing a bit the car balance. But even when not happy with the car balance we were still third.”
On Sunday watch our exclusive sit-down interview with Lewis Hamilton ahead of what could be his fourth world title
Hamilton in a spin but comes good
Hamilton needs to finish just fifth in Sunday’s race to be crowned world champion for the fourth time and the Englishman has partly credited his strong form this season to a lack of mistakes.
However, he made one in Practice Two when he spun at Turn 11, wrecking the one set of supersoft tyres he was using in the session.
Hamilton admitted he “put myself on the back foot” but believes his later performance on the ultrasoft compound, when he was faster than the Ferraris for race pace, was among the most consistent stints of his career.
“It’s been a good day today,” he said.
“It didn’t really start out great, particularly in the second session with the big spin on my first lap. That really threw off the session and obviously made it a little bit tricky to get the run on the supersoft. So I put myself on the back foot.
“But the single lap and then the long run on the ultrasoft was probably one of the best I’ve ever done. I don’t think I’ve ever done 26 laps that consistent, apart from in the race maybe. We got lots of information, the track was feeling better in the second session once the temperature came up.”
Sebastian Vettel had to return to the pitlane after something exploded in his cockpit leading to a change of overalls
Do Ferrari have most to do?
Ferrari’s Friday form was harder to read.
Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen were outpaced in both sessions by Red Bull and Mercedes, with the drivers each running off the circuit at several points of the day.
Vettel also lost time when a fire extinguisher went off under his seat, prompting a change of overalls.
Needing to outscore Hamilton by 17 points on Sunday, the German must realistically win the race to have any chance of still being in contention by the time of the Brazilian GP on November 12.
Drivers’ Championship title permutations in Mexico Result Hamilton fifth or higher Hamilton is champion Vettel second Hamilton is champion if he finishes ninth or higher Vettel third or lower Hamilton is champion
But while a front-running Red Bull arguably does not help Vettel’s cause, the pace of his former team could still prove useful to complicate matters for Mercedes if Ferrari end up being the team leading the field in qualifying and the race.
For his part, Vettel believes Ferrari have no cause for alarm yet this weekend.
“I think our car is fine,” he told Sky F1. “We didn’t get a smooth session with the extinguisher bursting on one run.
“I think overall it’s OK but we have some work to do. Long runs were so-so. I was stuck in a lot of traffic. I think it was OK but we need to improve.”
See if Lewis Hamilton can clinch his fourth world championship at the Mexican GP exclusively live on Sky Sports F1. Sunday’s race begins at 7pm. Want to watch but not got Sky F1? Buy a NOW TV pass from £6.99!