LEWIS ON TOP AS TEMPERS OVERHEAT IN MEXICO
HAMILTON KEEPS UP HIS WINNING STREAK
Lewis Hamilton kept his world championship hopes alive with victory from pole position in Mexico, controlling the race beautifully after an opening-lap scare, but the race ended in controversy as the battle for third place behind Hamilton and Nico Rosberg was decided by a succession of time penalties.
Max Verstappen crossed the line third on the road for Red Bull, only to be demoted immediately before he had the chance to get his hands on the trophy.
Sebastian Vettel duly stood on the podium for the first time since the Italian Grand Prix, but he didn’t get to enjoy it for long, since he was then given a penalty that handed third place to Verstappen’s team-mate, Daniel Ricciardo.
The 25 points for victory brought Hamilton seven points closer to Rosberg, who still leads the championship race by 349 points to 330 with two rounds to run.
Picking the right moment was the key to nailing an effective qualifying lap, since the layout of the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez features three very technical sections in which it’s easy to lose time when going through traffic. Throughout practice the drivers had complained about the effects of traffic and so it continued during qualifying.
There was one fewer car to contend with on track from Q1 onwards, since Jolyon Palmer had to skip the session entirely after an impact with a kerb in practice – measured at 12g – cracked the chassis of his Renault. To add to Palmer’s frustration, his team-mate Kevin Magnussen completed Q1 well clear of the drop zone.
Both Haas drivers struggled in practice and neither progressed to Q2. Romain Grosjean was the slowest of the runners, saying he had gone as fast as his car could go, while team-mate Esteban Gutierrez took too much kerb at the exit of the esses on his final flying lap and was demoted to 17th by Manor’s Pascal Wehrlein.
Daniil Kvyat was 18th, failing to make the cut after his Toro Rosso suffered a power loss early in the session after his first quick lap. Sauber’s Felipe Nasr and Manor’s Esteban Ocon didn’t improve enough to join their team-mates in Q2, ending the session 19th and 20th behind Kvyat.
Since drivers in the top 10 have to start the race on the tyres on which they set their fastest laps in Q2, the top teams’ race strategies then started to come in to focus. Both Mercedes set their fast laps in Q2 on the soft Pirellis, theoretically the best choice for the first stint of the race, while both Red Bulls went for super-softs. Ferrari seemed intent on a split strategy, running both Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen on soft tyres at first and then sending Raikkonen out on super-softs, but the Finn had to back out of his fast lap on super-softs after encountering traffic. Others – including the Force India and Williams drivers – couldn’t make the soft tyres work and had to run super-softs in a bid to get through to Q3.
If the early bath for Gutierrez wasn’t disappointing enough for the home crowd, Sergio Perez missed Q3 by just over a tenth over a second. Perhaps less surprising, given this circuit’s demands on engine power, neither Mclaren went further, although it was a considerable improvement on last year’s showing. Fernando Alonso was 11th and Jenson Button 13th, sandwiching Perez, while the remainder of the drivers eliminated in Q2 were those most accustomed to departing in Q1 this season: Magnussen, Marcus Ericsson and Wehrlein.
Traffic still played a role in Q3 as Hamilton set provisional pole with a clear track ahead of him, then just failed to improve on his time after meeting other cars on his warm-up lap for his second run. But he had still done enough to remain ahead of Rosberg, who improved to second on the grid after a scrappy first run put him a provisional fourth behind the two Red Bulls.
Verstappen and Ricciardo also went quicker on their second runs, just not by enough, lining up on the second row, and once again Ferrari fell short of expectations: Raikkonen and Vettel were edged into sixth and seventh places by Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India. The battle for fourth place in the constructors’ championship between that team and Williams – represented by Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa in eighth and ninth, ahead of Carlos Sainz in the Toro Rosso – was as delicately poised as that between Hamilton and Rosberg for the drivers’ title.
Evidence of the pressure at the top arrived in the form of Hamilton’s downbeat demeanour after qualifying, in spite of qualifying on pole. He described Q3 as “the worst session of my weekend.” Lewis had come to crush Rosberg, not to edge ahead of him…
With just half of the top 10 starting the race on the preferred soft-compound Pirelli tyre, the 900-metre run to the first corner at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez was almost inevitably going to provide drama.
And so it did, as Hamilton went too deep into the corner, locked his frontright wheel and skittled off, over the grass, resuming in the lead at Turn 3. He later put the lock-up down to a brake disc which had glazed on the formation lap, and then suddenly gripped hard at the critical moment.
Hamilton’s cause was aided by Rosberg and Verstappen banging wheels between Turns 1 and 2, which sent Rosberg on a small off-track journey of his own. He too rejoined with his position intact, and he was allowed to keep it after the stewards examined the incident.
As the field funnelled through Turn 2 there was more bumping and banging, and Gutierrez tagged the back of Wehrlein, sending him spinning into Ericsson’s Sauber. Ericsson also spun but he was able to get his less-damaged car going again, while Wehrlein was out on the spot.
Just a few metres further on, Sainz was defending his position from Alonso by edging the Mclaren onto the grass at the exit of Turn 3 as they were both flat on the gas, which sent a furious Alonso into a tankslapper he only just held. Once the stewards got on to that incident, having judged the WehrleinEricsson shunt not worthy of further action, they hit Sainz with a five-second penalty.
The safety car was deployed to enable the marshals to sweep up sundry pieces of Sauber and Manor, and during this three-lap period Red Bull brought Ricciardo in speculatively from fourth place for a change to mediumcompound Pirellis. Renault also looked to take advantage of the neutralised course to bring Palmer in for mediums, and his consistent pace over a long stint on these would enable him to bag a 14th-place finish from last on the grid.
As Hamilton pulled clear, Rosberg spent several laps with Verstappen hovering within DRS range before breaking away. As this battle stabilised, others developed behind as the Ferraris (led by Raikkonen in fifth place) looked to leapfrog fourth-placed Hulkenberg, Massa and Bottas had to fend off a determined Perez while running on the less advantageous super-softs, and Ricciardo pushed hard to break back in to the top 10.
By lap 12 Ricciardo had elevated himself to 10th at the expense of Alonso, and he gained another position as Verstappen pitted for mediums, emerging behind Alonso. But Ricciardo’s further progress looked like it was about to hit an obstacle in the form of the four-car battle for sixth between Massa, Vettel, Bottas and Perez. Hulkenberg and Massa pitted on lap 14, enabling Raikkonen and Vettel to push on, but Bottas was able to make his super-softs – which Pirelli suggested had at most 18 laps in them – last until lap 19, by which time Ricciardo was right on the tail of him and Perez. Next time around Perez pitted for mediums as well, and the way was finally clear for Ricciardo to push on.
The main loser in this pit stop sequence was Hulkenberg, who lost track position to both Ferraris but stayed ahead of Massa and Bottas, while Perez failed to jump the Williams cars in the pits and took to complaining over the team radio about the timing of his stop. The leading duo pitted on laps 17 and 19 for mediums, leaving Vettel in the lead, and rejoined in what would become a net first and second place once Vettel finally pitted.
But Vettel continued to lap at a competitive pace until long past the recommended life of his soft Pirellis (22 laps). He didn’t break for the pit lane until the end of lap 31, by which time his tyres had been around the Autodromo 36 times. Crucially, this enabled him to exit the pits ahead of Hulkenberg, now running in seventh place.
Behind Hamilton and Rosberg, Red Bull had ordered Ricciardo to let Verstappen by into third place since they were running on very different strategies, while a further six seconds down the road Raikkonen had a twosecond cushion over team-mate Vettel. The leapfrogged Hulkenberg spent much of this middle stint running on his own in seventh, with a margin of over 10 seconds to the pursuing Williams duo and Perez, until Bottas
passed Massa and tried to shut down the gap.
Ferrari gave Raikkonen some extra work to do by pitting him for another set of mediums on lap 45, a call which deposited him into the gap between Hulkenberg and Bottas. Four laps later the race up front sparked into life as Sainz baulked Rosberg at Turn 1 while being lapped, enabling Verstappen to launch an opportunist move up the inside at Turn 4, but he failed to get his car stopped in time and sailed straight on as Rosberg took the corner.
Ricciardo stopped for a new set of soft tyres on lap 50, emerging between Hulkenberg and Raikkonen, but he made short work of the Force India and set about catching the cars ahead at a rate of around 1.5s a lap. Raikkonen took a further 16 laps to find a way by Hulkenberg but when he did, he did it in style, going around the outside into Turn 4, pinching the Force India into a spin.
As the Mercedes pulled clear and Verstappen’s tyres faded, Vettel made use of his fresher rubber to reel in the Red Bull – while Ricciardo began to loom large in his own mirrors. The crunch point came on lap 67 as Verstappen overshot Turn 1, ran over the grass and shot back on to the track, still ahead of Vettel. Both cars lost momentum, enabling Ricciardo into DRS range and opening the door for him to launch an assault on Vettel at Turn 4 two laps later.
Ricciardo arrived with his wheels locked but both cars made it through unscathed, with Vettel still ahead of Ricciardo but behind Verstappen, who ignored a suggestion from the pitwall that he should “probably” move over for the Ferrari, having gained an advantage by short-cutting the course. And that was the order in which they crossed the line behind Hamilton and Rosberg two laps later, with Vettel fulminating over the team radio about Verstappen being allowed to stay ahead.
Verstappen was given a penalty for gaining an advantage when he went off-track, but after Vettel collected the silverware he was summoned to the stewards’ office to answer a charge of swerving in the braking area during Ricciardo’s Turn 4 lunge. A 10-second penalty gave third place to Ricciardo and put Vettel down to fifth, behind Verstappen but ahead of Raikkonen, Hulkenberg, Bottas, Massa and Perez.
Hamilton’s one flaw was this lock-up at the start
Vettel had a frustrating race, and then lost podium after penalty
Win has kept Lewis in the title chase
Williams’ Bottas topped the speed traps with an impressive 231.5mph