MEXICO CITY — Max Verstappen turned in a brilliant lap to snatch a surprising pole position at the Mexican Grand Prix.
Then he opened his mouth.
Three hours later, the Red Bull driver was bumped down to fourth, the Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel were back at the front, and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton was in fighting position to clinch his sixth career Formula One championship.
The changes came when Verstappen was penalized for not slowing down after Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas had a hard crash just ahead of him on his final lap of Saturday’s qualifying.
Verstappen seemed to be in the clear until he admitted in the post-qualifying press conference he didn’t slow under a yellow flag, even though the rules require it.
“I was aware that Valtteri crashed,” Verstappen said.
When pressed later whether he should have backed off, Verstappen bristled.
“Do we have to go there? To safety? I think we know what we are doing, otherwise we would not be driving an F1 car.” Verstappen said. “It’s qualifying and, yeah, you go for it. But like I said before, if they want to delete the lap, then delete the lap.”
His comments prompted an investigation from race stewards and Verstappen lost more than that.
The Dutch driver had expertly cut the thin air and slow corners at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez to perfection, and an earlier lap would have been good enough for his second career pole position.
But Verstappen was still on the track because the Mercedes and Ferraris were making their last runs. Bottas was rounding the final curve when he took a hard shunt into the wall and Verstappen zipped past. The crash ended qualifying and forced Ferrari to abort its final laps.
Hamilton said the penalty was correct.
“It’s really important that (race officials) are very strict on yellow flags,” Hamilton said. “There could have been marshals on the track. These volunteers put their lives on the line to make sure we are safe, and you have got people who are being careless and not abiding by the rules.”
Leclerc said every driver knows to slow down under a yellow flag. Verstappen is only 22, but he’s a veteran driver in his 99th Grand Prix.
“On my side, the crash was behind, so I cannot judge that situation, but yeah, I think it’s clear for every driver,” said Leclerc, who is also 22. “It’s the basics.”
Ferrari is back in No. 1 for the sixth race in a row as Leclerc and Vettel hunt for the fourth team win in that span. Verstappen won the last two Mexican Grand Prix from the No. 2 spot, and the straight-line power edge of the Ferraris should give them a huge jump out of the start in the sprint to the first corner.
The entire scenario gives Hamilton a better chance to close out the championship on a race track that has not been kind to him in recent years.
Hamilton clinched the 2017 and 2018 championships in Mexico City but ran poor races both times. He hasn’t been on the podium here since winning in 2016.
Hamilton can clinch the title Sunday with a podium finish that puts him 14 points clear of Bottas. Anything less than third for Hamilton extends the championship to next week’s U.S. Grand Prix in Texas, a race he’s won five times since 2012.
A Hamilton podium won’t be easy. Verstappen has been significantly faster than the Mercedes on this track. He’ll be seething after the penalty and will want to chase the Ferraris.
A sixth career championship would put Hamilton just one behind the record seven won by Michael Schumacher.
“Maybe we’ll do the rain dance tonight for a wet track which could spice things up a little bit,” Hamilton said.
Bottas is set to start sixth depending on repairs to his car, which Team Principal Toto Wolff said took “extensive damage.” If the car needs a new chassis or gear box, Bottas could be assessed grid penalties.
Bottas was briefly taken to the track’s medical center after the crash but was declared OK to race.
“I’m all OK, but I’ve unfortunately given the boys in the garage some extra work to do tonight,” Bottas said.