Max Verstappen has hailed qualifying in Mexico as one of his top performances of his rookie Formula 1 year after grabbing eighth place on the grid despite his lack of running time.
The Toro Rosso driver impressively topped the timesheet in the slippery FP1 before crashing out at the start of FP2 which immediately put him on the backfoot for Saturday. After attemting to make up for lost time in FP3, the 18-year-old won the scrap for the top ten places in qualifying and then outperformed both Force India drivers to take eight on the grid for the Mexican Grand Prix.
Verstappen has pointed to the 'thriller' of a last lap in Q2 to leapfrog the Lotus pair and his team-mate Carlos Sainz as the key to his performance and beating Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg came as a welcomed bonus.
“It was one of the best to be honest,” Verstappen said. “I mean it's not our favourite track and in the end, especially if you miss FP2 which is quite crucial to set up your car, we were struggling in FP3 to find the right balance. I think we managed to turn it around very quickly for qualifying and it was a bit of a thriller in Q2 with the last lap, I'm very happy I could put that one in.
“It was very tense. I saw I was three tenths down and so I was like 'don't f**k this one up”. Then I managed to do it, so I was quite happy with that one.”
Despite his Renault power unit being considerably slower than the Mercedes in the speed traps – Verstappen was clocked with a top speed of 350.9kph, 13th fastest and over 15kph down on quickest driver Massa – Verstappen feels the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez circuit returns to his Toro Rosso's strengths due to the demands placed on downforce in the slower corners.
“You only have pace in one proper long straight, all the other corners are quite slow,” he explained. “I have to say, especially the Red Bull, and we're not that far off, we seem to also work very well in the low speed corners and we can gain some time back there."
Verstappen is expecting a tough challenge from both Force India cars in the opening laps due to its power advantage and is working on a strategy to keep them behind him until the field starts to spread out.
“Maybe not in the race itself but at the start because it's such a long straight to turn one, we have to find out how we can use all our power into turn one, because it's so long.
“If you have a Mercedes engine you don't need to use everything I think and you can use [the ERS boost] after turn three again. So probably we will struggle after turn three but we'll see, hopefully if you get a good exit there, you can defend.”