Valtteri Bottas takes pole as Mercedes drivers go 1-2 in Mexico qualifying

F1 Grand Prix of Mexico - Qualifying
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MEXICO CITY — Mercedes got the F1 pole and front-row lockout for the start of the Mexico City Grand Prix — but the challenge will be holding off the hard-charging Red Bulls and Max Verstappen over 71 laps Sunday.

Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton seized on what Verstappen called a “terrible” qualifying for Red Bull on Saturday to earn Mercedes its first 1-2 start of the season. Bottas starts from pole position and, most critically, Hamilton gets an early race advantage over Verstappen in their fight for the season championship.

Verstappen, who was a heavy prerace favorite, leads Hamilton by 12 points with five races to go in Formula One’s best driver duel in years.

“It’s a real surprise and a shock to us to see we’re on the front row,” Hamilton said. “I don’t really have an answer for it, but I’ll take it for sure. Really grateful to be up there with Valtteri.”

Shock indeed. The high altitude of Mexico City was supposed to make the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez Red Bull territory, and Verstappen and teammate Sergio Perez looked strong in practice and the first two stages of qualifying. So much so that even Hamilton seemed unsure how Mercedes would hold the lead Sunday.

But if they can, the British driver could take a big chunk out of Verstappen’s lead in the championship.

“All our results (over practice) have shown that we’re behind,” in race trim, Hamilton said. “So who knows? We’ll work as a team to try and battle them and keep it.”

Verstappen is chasing his first career championship, and Hamilton his eighth, which would be an Formula 1 record.

Verstappen teammate Sergio Perez will start fourth, a disappointing result in front of a home crowd of more than 100,000 that loudly cheered his every lap. The only Mexican driver in F1, Perez is adored in Mexico City and expected to have a realistic chance at pole position, and possibly even a race victory.

Red Bull had faced questions this week whether Perez would be told to let Verstappen pass him in the race, even if it meant possibly giving up a victory, in order to help Verstappen in the championship.

The first priority of team strategy now will be how to work together to pass Mercedes.

Asked if the chatter about Red Bull’s dominance motivated Mercedes, Bottas and Hamilton said it wasn’t a factor in qualifying.

“We didn’t even know that was happening,” Hamilton said.

Verstappen blamed the qualifying struggles on poor tire grip in the last session and an incident ahead of him when Alpha Tauri driver Yuki Tsunoda ran off the track and interfered with Perez, which forced Perez to bail out of a corner run off the track with Verstappen coming up quickly.

“I don’t know what happened in front of me. I just saw a lot of dust, I thought a car crashed,” Verstappen said. “I backed out of it a bit. No yellow flag came, so I continued pushing but I was basically finished. I want to look at what happened there.”

He had to be cautious and slow down, having been stripped of pole position in 2019 when he ignored yellow-flag warnings after Bottas crashed. It cost him dearly as Hamilton went on to win.

Verstappen won in 2017 and 2018, and both victories came from pole position.

Verstappen also took the United States Grand Prix two weeks ago to stretch his championship lead on a track that was supposed to favor Mercedes. Hamilton can now return the favor to keep Verstappen in sight in the title chase.

“Not a great place to be,” at the start, Verstappen said. “Let’s see. It’s a long race.”

Rolex 24 at Hour 8: Acuras, Cadillacs look strong in GTP; tough times for Tower in LMP2

Rolex 24 at Daytona
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The premier hybrid prototype era of the Rolex 24 at Daytona began with a relatively smooth start Saturday through the Hour 8 mark.

Though two of the new Grand Touring Prototype cars fell out of contention within the first six hours, seven cars representing four big-money manufacturers were setting the pace (albeit conservatively at times) after eight of 24 hours in the endurance race classic.

The Cadillacs of Alex Lynn (No. 02, Chip Ganassi Racing) and Jack Aitken (No. 31 of Action Express) held the top two spots with a third of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship completed.

RUNNING ORDER: Standings through eight hours l By class

Brendon Hartley was running third in the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Acura, followed by Nick Tandy in the No. 6 Porsche Penske Motorsport 963, Renger van der Zande in the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac and Tom Blomqvist in the No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing Acura.

The No. 24 BMW M Team RLL BMW M Hybrid V8 ’s No. 24  was the first GTP car a lap down, but in better shape than its sister. The No. 25 BMW pulled off track for major repairs near the end of the first hour and was classified 133 laps down in 59th in 61 cars.

Misfortune also befell the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsport, which was forced into the garage for a battery change with 18 hours and five minutes remaining. The 963 was 19 laps down in 22nd.

But all things considered, the debut of the GTPs had belied the hand-wringing and doomsayer predictions that had hung over Daytona the past two weeks. Cadillac Racing’s three V-LMDh cars had avoided mechanical problems (needing only typical body repairs for the front end of the No. 01 and rear end of the No. 31 for minor collisions in heavy traffic throughout the 61-car field).

Its stiffest competition seemed to be the Acura ARX-06s, which led more than 100 laps in the first eight hours.

Pole-sitter Tom Blomqvist built a sizeable lead in the No. 60 (which won last year’s Rolex 24) while leading the first 60 laps around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course.

“That was my longest time in the car since we got it,” said Blomqvist, who led the car to the IMSA premier championship last season. “We’re driving it into the unknown now. We’ve done everything we can. We know it’s a strong, fast car, but there are so many things to learn it almost feels like we’re winging it. It’s a constant learning curve, for both me as a driver but for the whole team. We’ve had a good start to the race, but there’s a lot of race to go and anything can happen.”

The No. 60 lost positions when Helio Castroneves spun just short of seven hours remaining but later soldiered back into the lead with Blomqvist.

“That was a wild ride,” Castroneves said. “I just got caught up in the moment and I’m not sure what happened. It locked the rear so unexpectedly. Certainly, the car is fast. There’s a lot of traffic. It was very, very difficult. The Acura has good pace so far, and we are learning a lot in a short time.”

Two days after predicting the race would be an “old-school endurance race” with conservative driving and setups, Simon Pagenaud said his forecast has been realized.

“Totally,” the Meyer Shank Racing said after completing his first turn behind the wheel of the No. 60 shortly before Castroneves’ incident. “It’s been rare that I’ve been saving equipment this much here. In any of my experience in sports car racing, I’ve rarely driven this cool, basically trying to protect everything. It’s what we’ve got to do. And we’ve got the advantage having pace with the Acura.

“So for us, this time of the race, we’ve just got to build the foundation of our race. There’s really no need to dive into the Bus Stop on somebody right now. Six hours to go is a whole different story. If we’re there, there’s no problem. We’ll do it. We have the capacity to do that, which is honestly such a luxury. But at this point to me, we’re just going to save the equipment, get there and see where we are because the car is extremely fast.”

Pagenaud was involved in one when he was warned by IMSA stewards for “incident responsibility” on a spin involving the No. 8 Tower Motorsports LMP2 that is being co-driven by Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin (two of the 10 active IndyCar drivers in the 2023 Rolex 24).

Tower driver-owner John Farano was in the car at the time, but Pagenaud joked he thought it was Newgarden, his former IndyCar teammate at Team Penske.

“I thought the Tower car, that must be Newgarden,” Pagenaud cracked. “Was it him? Don’t tell me. I know it was him. Doesn’t matter. Let me just take it. I’m going to say it’s him. Please tell him I said that when you see him.

The 2019 Indy 500 winner and 2016 IndyCar champion chalked up the run-in with Farano as “a misunderstanding. He hesitated passing the car ahead of him and gave me the left side, so I dove in on the outside, and he basically released the brake and hit my rear. So you could say it’s on me. You could say it’s on him. Honestly, I was confused as to what happened because I just saw him spin in the mirror. I don’t think we had contact.”

It already was a long day for the No. 8 Tower, which had to pull off the track on the first lap. A water bottle fitting leaked onto the ORECA LMP2 07’s electronic control unit, which malfunctioned. The team lost 10 laps while being towed to the pits and repaired as the first yellow flag flew less than five minutes into the race for the incident.

By the time Newgarden handed off the car to McLaughlin, the No. 8 still was nine laps down with eight hours to go.

Last year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona LMP2 winner, which also featured two IndyCar stars in Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward, rallied from five laps down, but Newgarden lamented missing three opportunities to regain a lap under yellow.

“We’re trying to chip away at it; it’s just difficult,” the two-time IndyCar champion said. “I feel solid, and it’s very fun to be in the mix the first time. Very special to be out there in the action. Just wish we were on the lead lap. Our pace was solid. We were strongest on track, but that’s going to change in the later hours with the hot shoes in the car. It’s not going to be easy to pull laps back on this field. It’s a very stacked contingent. They’re all good teams, lot of good drivers. Put ourselves in a hole not a good situation to be in, keep fighting at it. Felt like our pace was good.

“It’s not looking good now. You get toward the end of race, you won’t gain laps back on pace. There are too many good teams and drivers. … We need 8 or 9 yellows to go our way. It just doesn’t look good. But never say never. What if all the GTPs just blow up? I don’t know what’s going to happen. They look really good right now. This is not what everyone predicted. Let’s see. You just never know in racing.”