It's time for the intense final act of 2021, with the final five races of the season squashed into a six-week window that won't allow the drivers or teams a moment's respite.
Formula 1 heads back to Mexico City this weekend, for the first time in two years. Just like the United States, Mexico was forced to sit out the 2020 edition of their race as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the immensely popular Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is the venue for this weekend's Grand Prix.
As any fan of the sitcom Arrested Development would know, the circuit is named after two brothers. Pedro and Ricardo Rodriguez were racing drivers from Mexico City, with the 20-year-old Ricardo killed at the fearsome Peraltada corner in 1960, while Pedro was killed 11 years later at the Nurburgring.
The Mexican circuit is another old-school venue that's been modernised and updated. Peraltada, which continued to challenge the drivers right up until the early 90s, was neutered by the construction of the Foro Sol baseball stadium. It's this stadium that the drivers now cut through in the final sector, bringing down speeds but allowing them to savour the atmosphere of the fans cheering them on through the tricky section.
Mexico also provides a unique challenge for the teams. At 2,200 metres above sea level, the air is thinner than at most Grands Prix. This means the engines are worked a little harder, while the aerodynamics also provide an interesting challenge.
As the cars don't produce as much downforce from the air, teams will run them with a Monaco level rear wing, but only generate similar downforce levels to Monza. This makes the cars feel skittish and lacking in grip, despite the large rear wings, while also ensuring huge straight-line speeds down the immensely long pit straight.
Can Mercedes claw back the deficit?
With just five races remaining in the season, Verstappen's crucial win at the Circuit of the Americas will have struck fear into the hearts of all at Mercedes.
Given that COTA was supposed to be a track that, arguably, favoured the Mercedes/Hamilton package a little more than Red Bull/Verstappen, the Dutch driver exploited the team's aggressive undercut strategy to steal a win that the car's pace on the Hard tyres suggested it shouldn't have.
Hamilton's body language after the race certainly hinted at his realisation that this championship may yet slip away from him, and it won't appease him much that the next venue is one that Red Bull have excelled at in recent years.
Verstappen won the 2017 and 2018 races with ease, and took a comfortable pole position in 2019. Given a three-place grid penalty for failing to slow for yellow flags, that race would get even worse for him at the start as he and Hamilton came to blows at Turn 2, with neither conceding to the other. A puncture while battling with Valtteri Bottas would take him out of contention entirely.
Hamilton won that race, pushed all the way to the chequered flag by Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel. Previously, Hamilton won the Mexican Grand Prix in 2016, after a contentious start where he cut the track at Turn 1 while battling Nico Rosberg.
With Verstappen enjoying a 12-point lead over Hamilton, it's at the likes of Mexico and Brazil that Red Bull need to capitalise on their supposed advantage and try to extend that gap over the reigning World Champion.
Red Bull are happier than Mercedes running in higher downforce setups and, given the reliability concerns Mercedes have with their ICEs (Internal Combustion Engines), they may be forced to be more cautious about pushing their power units too hard at a track where the engines are already struggling to breathe.
The battle of the 'Number Twos'
It's all eyes on Sergio Perez this weekend, with the Mexican driver returning home to the adulation of his fans as a front-runner with Red Bull.
Perez's uptick in form in recent races couldn't have come at a better time for him, or for Red Bull, as he has scored two consecutive podiums and joined in the pole position fight in Austin.
Those two third places have helped the team close to within 23 points of Mercedes at the head of the Constructors' Championship and, if he's able to harness some extra speed from the energy of his crowd this weekend, he'll be hopeful of trying to help Red Bull secure a 1-2.
Bottas, while being blameless for taking his third power unit-related grid penalty in four races at the United States Grand Prix, was much more like his usual self as the Finn made little impression on the race from his eighth-place starting grid slot. There are no guarantees that he, or Hamilton, won't need any new power unit components this weekend, even though Bottas said after the USA that he hopes he's served all the penalties that he'll need for 2021.
With five races to go, and the championships as finely balanced as they are, it's crucial both drivers perform at their best. Bottas finished third in 2019, with Perez in P7, both roughly finishing where you might expect them to given their machinery that year. Can either exceed expectations this season?
Ferrari vs McLaren
This particular battle looks like it's going in Maranello's direction, given their recent surge forwards after a power unit update.
Both Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo have admitted that they feel McLaren have now been eclipsed by the Scuderia, but have obviously vowed to keep up the fight. Charles Leclerc raced to a lonely fourth in Austin, with Ferrari getting the better of McLaren early on before the Monegasque consistently pulled away during the race.
It's a knife-edge battle, especially since Norris and Leclerc seem to be able to consistently fight over best of the rest, with Ricciardo and Sainz slightly further back. An enthralling fight, and one that's set to run right to the end of the season.
One way to watch the Mexico City Grand Prix in certain countries is through F1 TV, F1's own digital streaming platform that helps you get inside the pit lane while accessing real-time statistics and timing, along with historical content.
Users can live stream every track session for every one of the Grands Prix, along with access to all the onboard cameras and team radios for your favourite drivers.
In addition to Formula 1 content, you can also get the F2, F3, and Porsche Supercup action as well. Find out more here.
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