MEXICO CITY (AFP) – Lewis Hamilton’s hopes of wrapping up his sixth drivers world title this weekend dimmed on Friday when he languished in fifth place behind Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari after the second free practice at the Mexican Grand Prix.
After topping the times in the opening session, the defending five-time champion was unable to resist the pace of his main rivals as four-time champion Vettel delivered a best lap in one minute and 16.607 seconds.
“It wasn’t good enough,” said Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, whose team clinched an unprecedented sixth championship double last time out in Japan. “This is a difficult track for us, but we are lacking performance. It is one of our worst tracks.”
On an overcast but warm day at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, the outright pace of the Ferraris ruled on the main straight with Max Verstappen, winner of the last two Mexican races for Red Bull, also showing competitive pace.
The Dutchman was second, just one-tenth down on Vettel, but four-tenths ahead of Charles Leclerc with Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate – and only remaining title rival – Valtteri Bottas fourth ahead of the champions-elect.Daniil Kvyat was sixth ahead of his Toro Rosso teammate Pierre Gasly, Carlos Sainz of McLaren, Nico Hulkenberg of Renault and Lando Norris in the second McLaren.
The session was supported by a big crowd and delivered plenty of incident including a 15-minute red-flagged interruption when Red Bull new boy Alex Albon lost control of his car and hit the barriers heavily at Turn Seven, severely damaging the front right section of his car. “It was a careless moment,” admitted the London-born Thai racer.
The crash wrecked his hopes of matching the time of teammate Verstappen in the rarefied atmosphere of the sprawling Latin American city where, at 2,250-metres, cars and humans struggle to breathe easily.
Tyres were also a problem for most teams as they suffered graining and high levels of wear, conditions that suggest an unpredictable contest lies ahead in the 71-lap showdown tomorrow (2.30am Brunei time).
Hamilton, who showed strong pace in race trim in the final part of practice, has to outscore Bottas by 14 points to win his third consecutive title in Mexico City and sixth overall.