MAX SHINES ON HAMILTON’S DAY
Verstappen steals the show on Lewis’s greatest day
Max Verstappen took a third career victory in the Mexican Grand Prix as Lewis Hamilton joined the select club of four-time world champions – but not in the way he would have wanted. After a dramatic opening-lap clash both Hamilton and his title rival Sebastian Vettel had to battle their way through from the back of the pack, and while Vettel was at his very best, he fell two positions short of the second place he needed to stay in contention for the championship.
Hamilton ultimately finished ninth, making this the first time since 2012, when Vettel finished sixth in the Brazilian Grand Prix, that a world champion has been crowned without finishing on the podium.
Mercedes have been on pole in Mexico every time since the race returned to the Formula 1 calendar, but in 2017 the W08 didn’t quite have the ammunition to enable Hamilton to start from the front. Vettel and Verstappen provided the fireworks in the closing moments of the session, but it was Vettel, desperate to keep his flickering championship hopes alive, who delivered the goods.
This being the tail end of the season, engine-related penalties dictated the complexion of the back of the grid, for while Marcus Ericsson, Pascal Wehrlein, Kevin Magnussen, Romain Grosjean and Pierre Gasly were eliminated in Q1 – Gasly didn’t even run after suffering an engine failure in practice – a raft of demotions shuffled all but Gasly forwards. As a consequence, Ericsson, who just failed to make the cut for Q2 at Lance Stroll’s expense with his final quick lap after the Williams rookie also improved, would ultimately start the race from 12th on the grid.
Arguably the real star of Q1, though, was Fernando Alonso, who posted the fifth fastest time in his Mclaren as well as being quickest of all through the second sector. But it was more for honour than anything else, for both he and team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne were facing double-digit grid penalties (20 and 35 respectively) for enginecomponent changes. His Q1 time would have been good enough for seventh in Q2 had he been able to repeat it, but neither Mclaren driver set a flying lap, ending the second session 14th and 15th but destined for 18th and 19th on the grid.
Penalties therefore made Q2 at least a partial nonsense, with only 12 cars genuinely in play for the top 10. The session was briefly interrupted by double-waved yellows covering Brendon Hartley’s stranded Toro Rosso, his new engine having gone the way of team-mate Gasly’s. This caused Verstappen to abort what could have been the fastest lap so far, but upon resumption of business he rocketed to the top of the timesheets.
Of those seriously looking to make Q3, it was the Williams pairing of Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll who blew their chance. Scruffy final Q2 laps left them out of the final shoot-out.
Verstappen went fastest of all in the first runs of Q3 with a sizzling 1m16.574s lap, having had a close call with Valtteri Bottas in the stadium shortly before he embarked on it. Bottas locked up and aborted his first run as a result of that encounter, but much to the Mercedes team’s chagrin the stewards found Verstappen innocent of impeding.
Hamilton, clearly struggling to switch on the ultrasoft-compound tyres, was third quickest after the first Q3 runs and then failed to improve in his second, running very wide at the entry to the stadium section. But Verstappen, crucially, also fell short on his second run, reporting that he felt down on speed on the straight – a factor the team put down to the influence of the wind – enabling Vettel to snatch pole with a 1m16.488s final effort, 0.086s faster than Verstappen’s best.
While Verstappen described himself as “super annoyed” at missing out on a first career pole, team-mate Daniel Ricciardo was “frustrated, annoyed, helpless” after a slower second run that meant he slumped from fourth to seventh as Bottas, Kimi Raikkonen and Esteban Ocon leapfrogged ahead.
Nico Hulkenberg won the internecine battle at Renault with a flying second run that put him eighth at the expense of Carlos Sainz. Home hero Sergio Perez had been eighth quickest after the opening runs, but an improvement of three tenths on his second run wasn’t quite enough and he lined up 10th.
Post-qualifying, Red Bull elected to fit a new engine to Ricciardo’s car which dropped him to 16th on the grid, slotting in behind Grosjean – the driver who set the slowest timed lap in qualifying, now starting 15th – but at the head of the five-car train of other drivers who had collected engine-related grid penalties. Between them Ricciardo, Hartley, Alonso, Vandoorne and Gasly had accrued a drop of 115 places; perhaps they should have started the race in Acapulco.
The outcome of the 2017 drivers’ championship was all but settled within seconds of the lights going out as the top three made similarly clean getaways, but Hamilton came on strongly with a surge that took him almost alongside Verstappen and Vettel as they bore down on the first corner. He wisely hung back as the front-row duo got stuck into each other, and waited for an opportunity to present itself – which it immediately did.
Vettel tried to run Verstappen wide at Turn 1, but Verstappen hung on and claimed the inside line for the lefthanded Turn 2, seizing the initiative. Vettel lost momentum – and a portion of front-wing endplate against the Red Bull’s right-rear wheel – then found Hamilton trying to follow Verstappen through. Hamilton got slightly ahead around the outside of the right-hander at Turn 3, but at the exit Vettel’s already wounded front wing sliced into his right-rear tyre, puncturing it. Both Vettel and Hamilton duly headed for the pits, though naturally Hamilton, nursing flailing remnants of rear tyre, was the slower of the two.
That set up a fascinatingly multifaceted grand prix as Verstappen and Bottas stretched away in front (though it soon became clear that the Mercedes didn’t have the race legs of the Red Bull), a multi-car battle erupted for the final podium spot, and the displaced Vettel and Hamilton tried to race through from the back of the field. Seldom has a largely one-stop race been this intriguing.
Pace-wise, the identity of the winner didn’t seem in doubt as Verstappen
crisply pulled away from Bottas at two or three tenths per lap, but Ricciardo’s retirement with engine failure on lap five – having got as high as P7 – will have preyed on minds in the Red Bull garage and provided some succour for Mercedes.
Behind the leading duo, Ocon held an increasingly distant third for Force India, ahead of Hulkenberg, Perez, Massa, Raikkonen (who had bogged down off the start after a clean initial clutch engagement) and Stroll. The second Renault of Sainz fell out of the equation on the second lap after a spin, along with Massa, who had a puncture, leaving a five-car tussle for third. In their wake followed an unlikely bunch of top-10 contenders led by Magnussen in eighth, shadowed by Ericsson, Vandoorne and Alonso.
Worried by the swift arrival of Raikkonen on Perez’s tail, Force India pitted the home hero from fifth place on lap 18 and sent him out on softcompound tyres, a clear statement of one-stop intent. It was enough to prompt Renault to respond by pitting Hulkenberg the following lap, fearing the undercut, but then Force India seemed to react to their own gamble by pitting Ocon a lap later, also sending him out on softs.
“You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” rued team COO Otmar Szafnauer later.
Raikkonen and Stroll, though, carried on – both on ultrasofts, new ones in Stroll’s case since his Q2 elimination entitled him to a free choice. Plugging away in third and fourth, they showed no deterioration in pace. How far could they push Pirelli’s softest rubber?
Hulkenberg fell out of the battle for third when he retired on lap 25, but it was a virtual safety car close to middistance, lap 32 of 71, that decisively effected the complexion of the placings behind the top two, who by then were so far ahead that it didn’t matter to them. It enabled Raikkonen to consolidate his hold on third place, not just emerging with a greater margin over Ocon but also running on faster (supersoft) rubber than the Force Indias. Stroll, too, secured an advantage, leapfrogging Perez to run in a net fifth place.
The VSC cemented the battle for eighth, too, for the Mclarens had swapped places in a vain attempt to get past Ericsson while Magnussen scampered away, but Ericsson had pitted before the VSC so now found himself behind both Mclarens and outside the top 10. Ultimately it mattered little, though, since his car caught fire on lap 57.
Vettel and Hamilton also pitted under the VSC, and indubitably Hamilton’s need was greater. Both had swapped to soft-compound tyres during their early pitstops, but while Vettel had charged through to seventh place by lap 32 (passing Massa, Gasly, Grosjean, Hartley, Vandoorne and Alonso on-track, and benefiting from Sainz, Wehrlein and Ericsson pitting and Hulkenberg retiring), Hamilton found the tyres disagreeable and had struggled to make headway. When he broke for the pits on lap 31 he was 15th out of 17 cars still running.
Thereafter they resumed their efforts, Vettel on new ultrasofts, Hamilton on new supersofts (the only new sets still available to them). Each only lost one net position by stopping. Vettel got back on it immediately, passing Magnussen for seventh on lap 37, Perez for sixth on lap 50, Stroll for fifth on lap 54, and Ocon for fourth on lap 57. But by then, third-placed Raikkonen was over 20s up the road and there were only 14 laps to go; more than that, he needed to finish second to stay in the title hunt. “Mama mia,” was all he could say when the Ferrari pitwall apprised him of the gap.
On more favourable rubber than before, Hamilton was also making progress, passing Grosjean on lap 35, Wehrlein on lap 37, Gasly on lap 42, Ericsson (pre-retirement) on lap 45, Vandoorne on lap 52, Massa on lap 56, before the irresistible force met an immovable object in the form of ninth-placed Fernando Alonso.
For 11 tours of the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez the former team-mates squabbled over a position that by rights meant nothing to racers of their pedigree. Hamilton tried to go by Alonso at T1 on lap 65 but had the door slammed on him; he had another go two laps later and Alonso’s defence was similarly robust. But the champion-elect wasn’t to be denied, and went wheel-to-wheel around the outside at Turn 4 to stake his claim to ninth.
“He’s a bugger to overtake,” was Hamilton’s verdict.
Verstappen punched in his fastest lap with six to go and crossed the line 19.67s ahead of Bottas, Raikkonen was a further 34s down the road, 16s ahead of his team-mate. The battle for the world championship was over, 333 points to 277 with just 50 left, but Vettel was magnanimous in defeat.
“Next year will be a different story,” he said, “as we all start again, but right now, in these moments, you need to give credit to the best man and that is him this year. Overall he was the better man and did the better job, simple as that.”
Hamilton described finishing ninth as a “horrible way to win” the world championship, but that he’d had no intention of just sitting back and taking the title by default.
“I had to give it everything,” he said, “so that when I crossed the line I could be proud of myself.”