Another race weekend has kicked off with titans Red Bull peering over their shoulders, wondering if any challenger can threaten the reigning champion, Max Verstappen.
In a season where the Red Bulls have proven almost invincible, capturing both the drivers’ and constructors’ titles with plenty of races to spare, their rivals are beginning to close the gap. Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton flirted with victory just a week ago in Austin, narrowly missing out to Verstappen by just a couple of fading seconds.
However, as the Mexican Grand Prix weekend kicked off, it wasn’t the usual suspects of Ferrari or Mercedes snapping at the heels of the Red Bull masterclass. Instead, it was Williams’ Alex Albon and the ever-improving McLaren of Lando Norris who were stirring the pot.
“Alex looked very racy this morning,” observed Christian Horner, the team boss. “So it keeps moving around behind us.” Horner shed light on the evolving dynamics, attributing the closing gap to the team’s strategic decision to cease upgrades on their dominant 2023 car, choosing instead to channel their resources into future endeavors. “With the wind tunnel restrictions we’ve had, we’ve elected to use that on next year’s car,” he revealed.
As the sun dipped low on Friday, Albon’s morning exuberance seemed to have waned, making way for Norris’ McLaren to ascend in the time sheets. “It’s true, we’re close to the Red Bull,” admitted a cautiously optimistic Norris. “But it’s only Friday and we can’t get too excited. It was a good lap.”
Yet, in the heart of the Red Bull camp, Dr. Helmut Marko, the team’s sage advisor, couldn’t help but cast a wary eye on Norris. “McLaren has certainly made progress again and is now also good in slow corners,” he noted to Austrian broadcaster ORF.
Marko candidly shared the team’s initial struggles. “In the first session it wasn’t good in the long run for us because the tyre wear was too high. The front tyres collapsed completely.” But with the resolve that has defined Red Bull’s season, he declared, “We solved the problem and are now well positioned. Both the shorter and the longer runs look good.”
When prodded about Norris, who finished a mere tenth behind Verstappen, Marko was skeptical of his ability to sustain that pace over a race distance. “He is still better than Oscar Piastri, but their tyre wear is worse than ours.”
Amidst the festival-like intrigue, local hero Sergio Perez, in his sister Red Bull, and Daniel Ricciardo of Alpha Tauri, the Red Bull junior team, were adding to the suspense. Perez, with the crowd’s roar behind him, clocked in at P5. “Three tenths behind (for Perez) is a very good sign for a Friday,” said a content Marko, “A home race like this is motivating. Things can immediately just go a lot better for you.”
Ricciardo, fresh off his return from a broken hand, was proving he still had the magic, just a hundredth behind Perez. “He was in a good position right from the start. I don’t know the amounts of fuel, but he probably wouldn’t have had that much less than the others,” speculated Marko.