MEXICO CITY (AP) — Max Verstappen and Red Bull were riding high at Formula One’s summer break. The driver and team have been in a funk ever since.
And returning to a favorite track in Mexico City may not get them out. Not with Ferrari and Mercedes flying around the track and Lewis Hamilton taking aim at a career sixth season championship.
Red Bull and Verstappen appeared ready to rumble with Mercedes over the stretch run of the season when Verstappen stormed to wins in Austria and Germany, then took pole position in Hungary. Only a late-race strategic move for new tires allowed Hamilton to hunt him down over the final laps to snatch victory in Budapest.
With that run of form, Verstappen and Red Bull were on the rise with an increasing powerful Honda engine.
But driver, team and engine haven’t challenged for the checkered flag ever since. Ferrari has flexed considerable muscle with three races win and Mercedes took the last two. Verstappen, meanwhile, has been stuck in neutral or worse with two retirements and one podium finish in the last five races.
The return from the summer break saw Verstappen knocked out of the Belgian Grand Prix after a first-turn collision with Sauber’s Kimi Raikkonen on the opening lap. A bolting start in Honda’s home race in Japan was scuttled when Verstappen again made contact with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and retired early.
Leclerc later said it he was fault, but Verstappen’s race was done and he lands in Mexico City having been outscored by recently-promoted teammate Alex Albon since Belgium.
The fade has led to some frustration.
Verstappen’s father, former F1 driver Jos Verstappen, has complained to Dutch media that Red Bull and Honda are not only losing momentum this season but could be facing a “lost year” behind Mercedes and Ferrari in 2020 as well.
Could Mexico City revive Red Bull? Max Verstappen doesn’t think so. He said this week that a podium finish, not a victory, is probably the best Red Bull can shoot for.
That would be quite a letdown.
Red Bull has dominated the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez the last two years. Hamilton clinched consecutive season championships in both, but it was Verstappen slicing the thin air at 7,400 feet (2,255 meters) to a pair if easy victories.
“The last two years have been pretty special there with the wins,” Verstappen said this week.
Vertstappen’s exquisite handling around the track’s twists and tight turns through its iconic stadium played to Red Bull’s strengths. But its long straight out of the starting grid sets up for a power battle between Ferrari and Mercedes this year.
“It’s a good track for us normally. I expect it to be a little bit more difficult this year because of Ferrari’s pace,” Verstappen said, “but I think we can still have a very good race,” he said.
If he can’t challenge for the win, Verstappen could be more aggressive in pursuit of the podium. He has a history of some daring moves on this track.
In 2017, Verstappen started second and bumped Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel on the first turn before going on to win.
Back in 2016 he finished third, only to get booted from the podium finishers’ cool-down room and was denied the champagne celebration when he was penalized for an illegal racing move in the final laps.
Verstappen had missed an aggressive move into the turn at the end of the long straight and went plowing through the grass. He rejoined the track and held position against Vettel as the two drivers shook fists at each other and complained over the team radios. It was a move similar to what race winner Hamilton had done on the first lap, only Hamilton wasn’t penalized.
Formula One later put curbs on the corner to prevent similar moves, but that didn’t stop Hamilton and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas from driving into the grass last year.
Follow Jim Vertuno at https://twitter.com/jimvertuno