181112 Max
Red Bull Racing's Dutch driver Max Verstappen. Image Credit: AFP

Mexico City: 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 favourite 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 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 tyres 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 chequered flag ever since. Ferrari have 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. 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 was his 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, 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 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 let-down.

Red Bull have dominated the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez the past two years. Hamilton clinched consecutive season championships in both, but it was Verstappen who claimed a pair of easy victories.

“The last two years have been pretty special there with the wins,” Verstappen said.

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.”