By Carlos Pacheco
MEXICOCITY (Reuters) – Last year’s race winner Max Verstappen led the way on Friday as Red Bull dominated first practice for a Mexican Grand Prix expected to crown Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton as a five times Formula One world champion.
The 21-year-old Dutch driver, who sees Mexico as his best chance of winning again before the end of the season, lapped the high-altitude Hermanos Rodriguez circuit in one minute 16.656 seconds.
Verstappen’s Australian team mate Daniel Ricciardo was second fastest, 0.483 slower, on a bright morning in the capital.
Renault engines powered the top four cars, at a circuit where champions Mercedes and Ferrari have less of a power advantage, with Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg third and fourth for the French manufacturer’s works team.
Hamilton was fifth, but nearly one and half seconds slower than Verstappen on a dirty track sure to clean up considerably before Saturday’s qualifying, with team mate Valtteri Bottas sixth.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel was seventh with team mate Kimi Raikkonen, fresh from winning in Texas last weekend, right behind despite a spin midway through the session.
Vettel is Hamilton’s only title rival but his hopes are hanging by the thinnest of threads and will end if the German fails to win on Sunday.
Hamilton, who has a 70 point advantage with two races remaining after Mexico, needs only to finish seventh to match the five titles won by late Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio in the 1950s.
Only Michael Schumacher, with seven world championships, has done better.
“The Renaults seem to be in good shape,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff told Sky Sports television. “It will be interesting to see where they are tomorrow.”
“I think the Red Bulls with the Renault (engines) made a step forwards.”
Toro Rosso’s French driver Pierre Gasly failed to set a timed lap in the session and collected a 15 place grid penalty after engine partners Honda changed components in the car’s power unit.
(Writing by Alan Baldwin in London, Editing by William Maclean)