Conclusions from Max Verstappen’s record-breaking win at the Mexican Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton Max Verstappen Sergio Perez on the Mexican GP podium. Mexico October 2022 Credit: Alamy
Lewis Hamilton Max Verstappen Sergio Perez on the Mexican GP podium. Mexico October 2022 Credit: Alamy

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen made history at the 2022 Mexico City Grand Prix by becoming the first Formula 1 driver to win 14 races in a single season, breaking a record previously shared by Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel.

Here are our conclusions from the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez…

Max was never going to take it easy after clinching the title

When the title is sealed with weeks to spare, it is during the collection of ‘non-championship’ races to conclude a season when the true depth of a driver’s ambition and application becomes apparent.

Lewis Hamilton famously failed in this area in the early years of Mercedes’ dominant period, allowing Nico Rosberg to win the final three grands prix of 2015 to set himself up for one last stab at the Championship the following year.

He didn’t exactly cover himself in glory in late 2017 either – failing to win either of the final two races after securing his fourth Championship in Mexico and crashing out of qualifying in Brazil without a time on the board – but learned the art of finishing with a flourish in 2018/19/20.

When the competition has lost all hope, don’t let them see even the faintest glimmer of light.

Having won his first title on the final lap of last season, Verstappen is in new territory as 2022 comes to a close, facing that age-old challenge of maintaining his standards even though his work for the year is already done.

Should it come as a surprise to anyone that he is attacking these final races with his usual relentlessness and commitment?

After recovering from a slow stop to win in Austin, much of the pre-race talk in Mexico concerned whether Max would be minded to help team-mate Sergio Perez win his home race.

Checo, for his part, claimed he didn’t want nor necessarily need assistance while simultaneously pointing out that – actually, now you mention it – he had helped Verstappen at various points over the last two seasons.

Verstappen, however, was utterly unmoved: no presents.

It is at times like these you are reminded that the life of an elite athlete contains far more moments of defeat than victory – winning only ever provides momentary relief from failure – and that if an opportunity to win exists it must be taken and it must be savoured.

“We have to remember these days because there’s no guarantee that they will last forever,” Vettel, Verstappen’s predecessor, memorably said at the height of his dominance in 2013. “Enjoy them as long as they last.”

Right now, Max has his foot on the rest of Formula 1’s throat and he has no intention of lifting off.

Only more Verstappen-Hamilton battles can finally lay the ghosts of 2021 to rest

As the first anniversary of Abu Dhabi 2021 creeps closer, relations between the Verstappen and Hamilton camps appear to be at an all-time low.

In truth, the end of last season has hung like a dark cloud over Hamilton’s every move since it became obvious Mercedes had not provided him with a car to hit back in 2022, but the recent saga surrounding Red Bull’s breach of F1’s cost cap has brought 2021 back into full focus.

On the weekend Red Bull’s punishment was announced came a number of clues as to how deep the resentment still runs between the pair.

As Verstappen and Red Bull waged war against a certain television station having been affronted by a presenter’s potted recap of Abu Dhabi, Max revealed he has heard rumours that Lewis cannot even bring himself to speak his name these days.

Hamilton, meanwhile, directed his own ire at Fernando Alonso via Twitter after his old foe took it upon himself – in an interview with a Dutch newspaper – to compare the value of the 2021 protagonists’ world titles.

Lewis Hamilton’s cryptic response to Fernando Alonso’s F1 World title critique

Certainly, an icy silence permeated the cool-down room as Max and Lewis met again after the race in Mexico, with little interaction between them as they watched the race highlights, eyes fixed on the screen.

It came at the end of an afternoon when we had briefly been transported back to 2021, the high-altitude conditions bringing Mercedes closer to Red Bull on raw pace than at any time this season.

Mercedes’ race would eventually fade when both Hamilton and George Russell made the ill-advised switch to the hard tyre.

But that first stint – a truce called to stop the nonsense and let racing drivers be racing drivers, with Verstappen and Red Bull on softs and Hamilton and Mercedes on mediums – was the first time all year the two have gone head to head, toe to toe, eyeball to eyeball.

Is that why tensions remain so high between the drivers, the teams, the fanbases? Abu Dhabi was not only a pivotal moment in the Verstappen-Hamilton rivalry, but almost a year later later it remains the most recent.

Perhaps the ghosts of 2021 will only truly laid to rest when there is the opportunity for fresh battles to be had and new memories to be made, opening a window for the respect between Hamilton and Verstappen to be re-established.

They are more alike than either would care to admit.

Ferrari’s season has faded alarmingly

How can it be that with this car – and these drivers – Ferrari have failed to win a race since July?

It is clear by now that they were the team hurt most by the Spa technical directive, the Scuderia never quite the threat they posed to Red Bull prior to the mid-season break, but the results have continued to roll in.

A Ferrari driver stood on the podium in each of the six races immediately following the summer shutdown with pole positions for Charles Leclerc at Monza and Singapore and Carlos Sainz in Texas, but Mexico was an alarming new low in performance terms.

After Sainz qualified six tenths off pole with Leclerc even further back – struggling with an engine issue and outpaced by Valtteri Bottas’s Alfa Romeo – the Ferraris were similarly distant in the race as they finished a minute behind race winner Verstappen.

The only saving grace was that the team expected to suffer more than most at high altitude – their smaller turbo, for instance, went from a key strength at other circuits to a major weakness here – with Sainz insisting Ferrari knew exactly why they were slow and which “compromises” had to be made.

Yet how exactly does that tally with Bottas’s single-lap performance in a car with an identical engine? And the countless replays of Leclerc and Sainz catching slides in the esses throughout the weekend?

“But at the same time, I must say the car was a bit trickier to drive than I expected, or trickier to drive compared to other weekends, and we need to find out why,” Carlos conceded.

This is traditionally the time of year when many observers begin to look for clues to the form guide for the following season – an irresistible temptation that comes with a high risk of making smart people look stupid.

As recently as 2017, for example, a tame performance in the season finale in Abu Dhabi resulted in some concluding Ferrari were in some sort of terminal decline, only for the Prancing Horse to emerge with the quickest car of 2018.

Ferrari will hope Mexico will prove to be a one off over the coming weeks, but the general trend across the second half of 2022 does not look encouraging.

Valtteri Bottas: F1’s American specialist

Bottas started the 2022 season as though he had travelled back in time to his earliest days at Williams, driving with an ease and freedom he had only occasionally shown under the pressure of being Hamilton’s team-mate at Mercedes.

With Alfa Romeo unable to sustain their early form, however, in recent months he has started to resemble the man he replaced, Kimi Raikkonen – a popular driver but one whose best days are behind him and who may, with Audi-Sauber on the horizon, be forced to make way for fresh talent in the not-too-distant future.

It is such weekends as Mexico, though, that act as reminders of his immense value to the team in their current incarnation.

Having offered a glimpse of the potential of Alfa’s new front wing and floor in Austin – where he reached Q3 for the first time since Hungary and then spun into retirement after just 16 laps – Bottas was the standout performer of qualifying in Mexico.

With the C42 working well in the slow corners and Bottas excelling in the low-grip conditions, he split the Ferraris – as well as outpacing the Alpines and McLarens – before scoring his first point in more than four months to help Alfa’s defence of P6 in the Constructors’ from the advancing Aston Martin team.

Bottas has emerged as something of an American specialist in 2022 with his return to form in Austin and Mexico coming after he qualified as high as P4 for the inaugural race in Miami, with his last top-10 finish prior to this back in Canada.

One more big performance across the Atlantic at Interlagos next time out may be just enough for Alfa Romeo to cling on to sixth…

Alpine will only have themselves to blame if they don’t secure P4

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the 30-second penalty handed to Alonso in Austin – following one of the greatest, most defiant drives of his career – was that it had the power to completely distort the fight for fourth between Alpine and McLaren.

The decision to reinstate his seventh place on appeal prior to the Mexico weekend was a victory for motor racing itself and ensures this battle – captivatingly taking place against the backdrop of the Oscar Piastri saga – will be decided on track.

Ask Lando Norris, though, and he will tell you it should have been decided long ago.

Following the recent Japanese GP, he admitted he has “no clue” how McLaren are still within touching distance of Alpine, who not only have a faster car but – our words, not his – two drivers performing at a consistently high level.

The reason Alpine are only seven points ahead with just two races remaining? Unreliability.

After appearing to have overcome the worst of their issues prior to the summer break, Alpine are struggling to finish races at the worst possible point of the season with Alonso’s retirement at Monza followed by a double DNF in Singapore.

With Alonso suffering his fourth mechanical failure of the season within sight of the chequered flag in Mexico, the door has reopened for McLaren on a rare day when they could count on both their drivers.

Daniel Ricciardo seemed to have hit rock bottom when a move on Yuki Tsunoda went badly wrong on Lap 51, the driver renowned for his definite, perfectly judged overtakes in years gone by now half-hearted and uncertain in combat.

It earned him a 10-second penalty but merely added an extra layer of drama to his strongest race of the season.

Having extended his opening stint on medium tyres to 44 laps, Ricciardo utilised the softs as those around him struggled on hards to render his penalty meaningless and finish as the best of the rest in P7.

A little like Monza last September, Daniel finally turned up when his team needed him most.

As for Alpine? They will only have themselves to blame if they lose fourth from here – which, considering the mess surrounding the post-race penalty in Austin, is how it should be.

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