Carlos Sainz warned Mercedes the $30 million battle for the runners-up spot in the Constructors Championship will go all the way to a last-round showdown in Abu Dhabi – and Ferrari may have the edge.
But the Ferrari driver predicted there may be bad news before the good in the titanic tussle over who gets the biggest extra slice of the constructors' prize fund after champions Red Bull.
Mercedes are likely to have the upper hand at the next round in Sao Paulo on Sunday but the final two tracks, including Yas Island, favour the red race machines.
The Spaniard was speaking after the two F1 giants, Ferrari and Mercedes, notched up exactly the same points tally in Mexico in the knife-edge battle to see who comes out on top.
Although Lewis Hamilton finished second to inevitable race winner Max Verstappen, teammate George Russell was only sixth behind the Maranello duo in third and fourth.
That’s Ferrari’s best team result of the year after the victory in Singapore.
Although Mercedes have been the stand-out performers of the last few races as Hamilton battles Sergio Perez for the runners-up spot in the driver’s championship, it is the legendary Italians who have been firing in the crucial team performances in the constructor’s title race.
Despite the improving form of the Silver Arrows car, they have outscored Ferrari in just one of the last eight Grands Prix.
With three rounds of the world championship remaining in Brazil, Las Vegas and Abu Dhabi, just 22 points separate the two outfits, with up to 59 points up for grabs each weekend.
Ferrari have 349 points, Mercedes 371.
First stop is the legendary Interlagos on the outskirts of Sao Paulo where Russell secured Mercedes' only victory last year to end their longest winless streak since 2014, with Hamilton hot on his heels.
“In qualifying we can fight for poles but in the race it’s pretty clear Red Bull are a good step faster than us and we need to understand what we do to the car and it’s balance to make it so good for Saturday, but it's so tricky in the race,” said Sainz after Ferrari qualified 1-2 in Mexico but could not capitalise on raceday.
“Third and fourth was the maximum we could achieve [in the race].”
And he admitted Ferrari had a fight on their hands for the runners-up spot worth tens of millions more than third place in television and race track prize money.
“Also Brazil, a sprint race weekend, was a very strong track for Mercedes last year so it will be a tough one but Las Vegas should be a bit better for us, and also Abu Dhabi,” Sainz added
Rival Russell, sixth on Sunday, was equally sure Mercedes would ultimately come out on top but agreed with Sainz on their relative strengths.
“Yeah I am [confident],” he said. “We should have had it sewn up already by now. But in Brazil we will have some good pace although the last two races will suit Ferrari a little bit more than us.”
Meanwhile, Hamilton believes the Mexican race was more proof Mercedes were closer to becoming title contenders.
“I have total faith in the team,” he said. “We can build a great car. We haven’t for the last few years but we can. I’m ready. If we can get the car that can match them we can have some great battles next year.”
Mexico though was another bad day for those fighting for their place in F1 at the front of the field.
Both Perez and Russell, who are being eclipsed by their teammates, had days to forget. Things could hardly have been worse for the Mexican who crashed out on the first corner in front of his sellout home crowd.
And he has no one but himself to blame for the day ending in a shower of broken Kevlar and carbon fibre after an overly ambitious bid to go three abreast into Turn One.
Perez proved the truth of the age-old F1 adage that you can’t win a race on the first lap but you certainly can lose it. With his future swinging in the wind, Red Bull’s second driver has failed to live up to the car’s potential for the last five races.
And his troubles were doubled as Daniel Ricciardo, vying to steal his drive, returned from injury to outqualify Perez in a slower car and then notch up Alpha Tauri’s best result of the year in seventh.