As Perez aims for home win in Mexico, Hamilton out to close gap on Red Bull

Seven-time champion and his Mercedes team have cause for renewed optimism about catching Max Verstappen in 2023

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Perhaps it’s more than a little apt that with the driver and constructors' world championships decided, Formula One arrives in Mexico just ahead of the Day of the Dead.

For Mexicans it is more than just an Aztec halloween. With skeletal costumes and faces painted as lurid hollow skulls it is when the dead come to life and party with the living. Or so it goes.

Talking of which, we come to Sergio Perez.

Max Verstappen and Red Bull have their championships but what of him? Could his compensation come in the way of being the first Mexican since F1 came to town in 1963 to win his home race?

It was fairly lawless city when I was first there in the 1980s. There was a camel standing on a traffic island advertising cigarettes, I witnessed an armed robbery, was extorted of £50 by a motorcycle cop and narrowly escaped death when an F1 car crashed close to where I was standing on the pit wall.

It’s different now but will things be civilised enough for the new double champion to lend Perez a helping hand into history?

He is owed a favour having done his bit in holding up Verstappen’s bitter rival heroically here in Abu Dhabi as the Dutchman took his first world title.

Red Bull, too, know even in their best years they have never had 1-2 in the drivers' championship but now have a golden opportunity.

Verstappen’s willingness to play his part may be coloured by the desire to land a 14th victory which would make this the most dominant season in F1 history.

But then there is Brazil and Abu Dhabi to come.

Red Bull have every reason to make hay while the sun shines, given their cost cap punishment is due any day now. Many believe that if it does anything other than leave them as walking dead in next year’s title race, the financial regulations will have been a failure.

For that reason, perhaps, as well as others that offer hope of a real title tilt next year the seven-time champion refuses to accept the Age of Hamilton is over and the Verstappen Era under way.

“It’s too early to say. If we get into next year and they’re dominating again then yes,” Hamilton admitted.

Under the new sliding scale Mercedes, if third, will have 14 per cent more tunnel time than Red Bull in 2023.

Add a cost cap penalty and they have every reason to believe they will be key contenders with Ferrari.

Maranello’s alarming fall off in form since the summer break is proof enough they have long since turned their attention to the future.

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Verstappen notched up just eight more laps in the lead than Charles Leclerc in the first half of the year (298/290) although his win ratio was eight to three.

Since August, though, he has won five out of the six GPs and led for nine times the distance (190/20).

The demise of Maranello as a real front-runner since the break has been so extreme even Hamilton, labouring in a hated car, has more lead laps (23/20).

Renewed optimism flows through Mercedes after almost winning on Sunday with their updated car but they have admitted its fundamental "architecture" will change for 2023.

And last weekend demonstrated the scale of the mountain faced by one and all.

It looked as though Hamilton was finally in with a chance when he closed within 0.6s of leader Verstappen on lap 21. In fact, the Dutchman was sandbagging.

Whether the team didn’t want to show their ultimate speed for political reasons (impending fine) or it was Verstappen’s own tactic remains unknown.

But when his pit stop went wrong, the world champion had to show his hand and reveal the real pace he was concealing if he wanted to win.

And it was considerable even allowing for different tyres.

Verstappen had to make up nine seconds lost in the stop, overtake Leclerc and then haul in six seconds to a seven-time champion with the bit between his teeth and desperate not to end a season winless for the first time in his career.

He did it easily, going from 6.4s behind on lap 36 to five seconds ahead when the flag fell 20 laps later.

That Hamilton and Verstappen now share the record for most 1-2s (32) is cold comfort to the Briton on days like this.

The Red Bull wasn’t just in another league to the rest it was in another country.

Updated: October 27, 2022, 2:37 AM
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