VERSTAPPEN WINS (SO DOES LEWIS)
Lewis Hamilton clinched the world championship regardless of yet more Mercedes’ tyre woes, while Max Verstappen took a dominant win for Red Bull
Max Verstappen scored his fifth Formula 1 victory with a dominant drive in the Mexican Grand Prix. But Sebastian Vettel’s second place – and more significantly Lewis Hamilton’s fourth – was enough to bring the drivers’ championship to a conclusion.
As they emerged from their cars in the Foro Sol stadium, Vettel cut his post-race interview short to approach Hamilton and pay tribute to his great achievement: equalling the great Juan Manuel Fangio’s five world championships.
“I congratulated him as he’s been superb all year and the title was well-deserved,” said Vettel. “Number five is something unbelievable and I told him to keep pushing because I need him to be at his best to fight against next year.” QUALIFYING
A joyful Daniel Ricciardo admitted he was “holding a lot in” as he celebrated his first pole position since Monaco, and Red Bull’s first front-row lock-out since Austin 2013 – their first of the hybrid turbo era.
Ricciardo eclipsed team-mate Verstappen by just 0.026s, upsetting the form book as Max had set the fastest time in all three practice sessions.
On his final timed lap Dan was imperious, not putting a wheel out of place to record only his third F1 pole. His team-mate was upset he’d been denied, and as he parked his car at the end of qualifying, he eased his foot off the brake to knock the second-placed marker board over in disgust.
“The whole qualifying was crap,” was Max’s verdict. “The engine braking was not how I wanted it, and I was getting a lot of rear locking on downshifts when I came off the throttle. I had to go forward with the brake balance to stabilise the car.”
Of the championship protagonists, Hamilton took third – one place ahead of Vettel. Then came the two Finns, Valtteri Bottas from Kimi Räikkönen, while the Renaults and Saubers of Nico Hülkenberg, Carlos Sainz, Charles Leclerc and Marcus Ericsson made up the top ten.
The run from the start to the Turn 1 braking zone is the longest of the year at 800 metres, with plenty of scope for slipstreaming for those behind the front row. On Saturday night, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said the grid had potential for “carnage” down the straight and through the opening corners.
In the event, the fears of chaos in the opening corners were misguided as the first five rows managed to negotiate the first sequence of bends unharmed. Hamilton made the best start, instantly getting ahead of Ricciardo, who bogged down with too much wheelspin off the line.
As Lewis split the two Red Bulls, he came alongside Verstappen, but the Dutchman held the inside line as they approached the braking zone for Turn 1 with the Ferraris and Bottas boxed in behind them. Hamilton, mindful of his need to finish, braked early and allowed Verstappen to take the lead.
Behind the front two, Bottas had made a strong start to get up to third, but he was out-manoeuvred by Ricciardo, who was scrabbling to ameliorate the consequences of his tardy getaway. As the field entered Turns 4 and 5, Vettel went wheel-to-wheel with Bottas and took fourth – but it wasn’t the cleanest of passes, and light contact between the pair put Bottas briefly off track on the run to Turn 6.
Throughout the weekend, fears about the longevity of the tyres had been growing. So while Hamilton seemed to be in a relatively comfortable position in the opening laps, threateningly dark
“ON LAP 47, HAMILTON LOCKED UP WHILE DEFENDING INTO TURN 1 AND SKITTERED OVER THE GRASS. IMMEDIATELY HE WAS ON THE RADIO TO THE TEAM: “THESE TYRES ARE DEAD, GUYS”
bands began to manifest themselves on his front tyres, particularly the front left – clear evidence of the dreaded ‘graining’. By lap 11 Mercedes called both cars in for a change of boots. In contrast the two Ferraris were the last of the front-runners to pit, delaying their stops until lap 17.
It wasn’t enough to gain track position via the undercut, but it gave both Ferrari drivers the advantage of fresher rubber in the crucial next phase of the race. After the pitstops Verstappen held an 8s lead over Hamilton, followed by Ricciardo, Vettel, Bottas and Räikkönen. But Vettel’s strong pace meant that once he’d dispatched Ricciardo, he was soon on the tail of his championship rival. On lap 38 he got a run on Hamilton into Turn 1, and although the Mercedes moved to cover the inside line, once again discretion guided Hamilton’s hands and Vettel slipped by. Hamilton’s concern now shifted to holding off Ricciardo, for eight laps later the Red Bull had closed onto his gearbox.
On lap 47, Hamilton locked up while defending into Turn 1 and skittered over the grass. Immediately he was on the radio to the team: “These tyres are dead, guys.” Mercedes called him in to fit the only useful tyres they had left: a set of used ultrasofts. Both Verstappen and Vettel took the opportunity to stop for new Pirellis, but once Red Bull looked at the condition of the race leader’s tyres, they decided to keep Ricciardo out – since he’d inherited second from Vettel.
In the closing stages – on much older rubber – Ricciardo defended brilliantly from Vettel and Red Bull looked set to achieve a one-two. But with nine laps remaining, an puff of smoke emerged from the back of Ricciardo’s car and he was forced to retire with a suspected hydraulic failure.
Verstappen took the win, but the fanfare was reserved for Hamilton, taking fourth to wrap up his fifth championship. After the race, he was asked about the achievement of matching Juan Manuel Fangio’s tally of world titles.
“Fangio is the godfather and always will be,” said an emotional Hamilton. “But I’m honoured to have my name alongside him.”
Verstappen (left) made a great start and claimed the win, but it was another DNF for Ricciardo (right). Hamilton (below) laboured his way to the title