MAX SHINES ON HAMIL­TON’S DAY

Ver­stap­pen steals the show on Lewis’s great­est day

Motor Sport News - - Mexican Gp Report - BY STU­ART CODLING

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.

Qual­i­fy­ing

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.

Race

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.”

Ver­stap­pen was stun­ning at the start

More points for Ocon Vet­tel had to fight back

Max took third ca­reer vic­tory in F1

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