Both Ferrari and Mercedes blame problems with getting their tires working for their lack of pace during Friday practice at the Mexican Grand Prix.
While Red Bull expected to be strong in Mexico, it was surprising to see Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo enjoy an advantage of more than a second over the rest of the field, and even more so to see Renault best of the rest in both Friday sessions. Sebastian Vettel finished fourth in FP2, 1.2s off Verstappen and 0.001s behind Carlos Sainz, and says a lot of that lost time could be traced back to the Pirellis.
“Today was very difficult for us to get the car to work,” Vettel said. “Interesting in the morning to compare the packages. In the afternoon we focused more on preparing for qualifying and the race. The long run is not too bad, but for one lap we are struggling quite a bit to get the balance right and squeeze everything out of the tires.
“The difficulty is that you don’t have any grip so we are sliding a lot, and the problem is if you don’t have a lot of grip and downforce because the air is so thin [ED: due to the altitude], you don’t get the tires to work. When the tires don’t work then it is really tricky. So that is why you can see sometimes quite big jumps in lap times.
“If you don’t get it right, you are quite far off the pace. That will be the main job to get right for tomorrow, because you have one lap in qualifying. With the hypersoft it should be a bit easier, but still it is tricky to keep a clean balance from the beginning to the end of the lap.
“Everybody’s on the limit with tires, trying to get them to work in order to slide less, with the exception maybe of the Red Bull.”
Vettel also revealed Ferrari will stick with its old aerodynamic package in Mexico, having carried out back-to-back comparisons during FP1. The German needs to win on Sunday to have any chance of denying Lewis Hamilton the title, but the championship leader says at present the two rivals look closely matched.
“Red Bull’s obviously out of our reach at the moment, but the Ferraris are just with us or just slightly ahead,” Hamilton said. “I think on the long run I was right there with Sebastian’s times, so we’ll have a bit of a battle.
“There’s not one particular area, there’s just a bunch of things that we can improve on. The car was good in some places and not so good in some other places. It’s very, very difficult here with the temperature being as high as it is on-track, melting the tires and graining, which I think a lot of people are experiencing.”
Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas echoed Vettel’s comments that the main reason for the relative lack of performance is tire-related.
“Both sessions, we struggled with pace,” Bottas said. “We struggled with tire life, but I think in tire life, everyone struggled. It felt pretty horrible in the car in terms of how quickly the tires were starting to grain, both of the compounds. It just feels like we are lacking overall grip. The car is sliding around a lot which is then wearing the tires, so plenty of work to do for tomorrow.
“I wish I knew, I don’t think we have a clear answer yet as to why the pace isn’t quite there. Fundamentally it’s grip, but the track is the same for everyone. The car hasn’t taken any steps back from the last few races, so that leaves maybe something with the tires.”