Valtteri Bottas soaked up the pressure and ripped up the formbook to take a sensational pole position for the Mexico City Grand Prix, as his Mercedes team upset the odds and outpaced favourites Red Bull.
The Finn was positioned on track to give championship contender and team mate Lewis Hamilton a tow on both runs in qualifying, but it was the Alfa Romeo-bound driver who was the fastest Silver Arrows car on Saturday.
Bottas pumped in the quickest time on the first runs, with Hamilton 0.145s adrift and the Red Bull duo of Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez struggling with the rears and unable to mount the challenge their practice pace had suggested.
On the second runs, home favourite Perez ran wide when he got distracted by AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda running off in front of him, which put him out of pole contention to the dismay of tens of thousands of fans who only have eyes for him.His team mate Verstappen wasn’t far behind and had to back off slightly as a result of the Mexican’s off, but the reality is he was unlikely to have had the pace to challenge for pole anyway.
It meant Mercedes secured an unlikely front row lock out, the first time they have achieved the feat in Mexico since 2016, while Bottas took his third pole of the season and second in three races.
Verstappen ended up third – in what is only the sixth time this season that he has not been on the front row in 2021 – alongside Perez, with Pierre Gasly continuing his fine run of form in qualifying with a superb fifth, as Carlos Sainz recovered from an engine issue early on to take sixth.
Daniel Ricciardo was the leading McLaren in seventh, ahead of Charles Leclerc, with Yuki Tsunoda and Lando Norris closing out the top 10, however the latter duo will drop to the back of the grid because of engine penalties.
Williams did an impressive job to complete a power unit change for George Russell – having changed the gearbox, too – and get him out in time for qualifying, though most drivers bided their time before heading out on track.
Just seven had set a time when Lance Stroll ran wide at the final corner, getting onto the dirt and losing control of his rear, sending him sliding into the barrier with a reasonable significant impact. Fortunately the Canadian – who was set to start at the back anyway after penalties for engine component changes – walked away unaided, but took no further part in the session.
The session was red-flagged, while repairs were carried out to the barriers, with Red Bull using the extra time to do some work on the rear wings of both Verstappen and Perez. When the green light flickered on, there was a flurry of activity as drivers raced to get a time on the board with just 11 minutes to go.The initial runs for Mercedes were not sparkling, the silver cars struggling to get their soft tyres to work on the first attempt. Red Bull had no such problem, with Verstappen topping the times by 0.6s from Perez. Mercedes recharged their respective batteries and went again, with Bottas closing to 0.171s but Hamilton still 0.4s off.
The track really ramped up as the session approached its closing stages, with Sainz jumping off the bubble to go fifth, before his team mate Leclerc went quickest for Ferrari. Bottas then topped the times as he made use of the best track conditions, with Russell also making it through, thanking his team for their hard work with multiple repairs over the last 24 hours.
It wasn’t so good for Alpine, with Ocon just scraping through and Alonso just missing out in 16th. He was joined in an early exit by Williams’ Nicholas Latifi, the Haas duo of Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin and Stroll.
Medium tyres were the order of the day for the frontrunners, with Mercedes appearing to be much more competitive on this rubber to heap the pressure on Red Bull.
Verstappen made the most of a slipstream from Ferrari to go half a second quicker than Leclerc, but he was pegged back to just 0.016s by Hamilton, who had a tow from Bottas, with the cleanest lap of this session.
Yuki Tsunoda, the only driver on the softs, went third, 0.218s off the pace, with the Japanese driver – who will start from the back courtesy of engine penalties – then turning his attention to focusing on towing AlphaTauri team mate Pierre Gasly to ensure he eased through.
Sebastian Vettel has previously always qualified in the top 10 in Mexico but he couldn’t continue that run, ending up 11th, ahead of Kimi Raikkonen and Russell.
Antonio Giovinazzi, who is fighting for his future in F1, had a moment down at Turn 12 when he gently slid into the barriers. He got going again, but was only 14th fastest, forcing him out of the session along with Ocon – another driver who will start towards the back because of an engine change.
Verstappen was working hard early doors in Q3 as he had to push to get ahead of Sainz on his outlap to ensure he was behind Perez and could thus pick-up a tow.
Behind them, Mercedes were running the same strategy, with Bottas positioned just ahead of Hamilton, while McLaren had Norris doing the same for Ricciardo.
Bottas set the early pace, ahead of Hamilton, with Verstappen a surprising 0.350s behind, the Dutchman’s Red Bull sliding around and particularly aggressive across the Turn 2 kerbs, while he also was too far behind in the end to get a slipstream.
All boxed for a fresh set of tyres and while Bottas set a second time that was good enough for pole, none of the main protagonists were able to improve, leading to Mercedes boss Toto Wolff punching the air with delight.