Hamilton on the brink Briton closes in on sixth world title with victory in Mexico
Briton pulls off one-stop strategy to thwart Vettel Lead from Bottas is 74 points with 78 to race for
At a track of extreme elevation, Lewis Hamilton proved again last night that he belonged in his own racing stratosphere. Amid the technicolour chaos of Mexico City, 7,500ft above sea level, he produced a tactically faultless victory that took him within a hair’s breadth of a sixth Formula One world title.
With only 78 points available, he heads to Texas next weekend leading his solitary rival Valtteri Bottas by 74 with three races left, bearing down on history with remorseless intent. In just a few days’ time, only Michael Schumacher will stand ahead of him on the all-time list.
It is the rarest distinction, and one that could not be more richly deserved.
For all the temptation to take Hamilton’s wins for granted, this 83rd career triumph was hardly a fate foretold. In recent years, the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez has been by far Mercedes’ weakest circuit, with their cars’ downforce compromised by the rarefied air. Add to this the handicap of starting only third, behind two Ferraris blessed with superior straight-line speed, and it required a masterclass even to entertain the thought of winning. Hamilton, sensing the championship in sight, delivered it.
“It’s an incredible result,” he said, in the bearpit of the track’s stadium section, where 100,000 had assembled to salute home hero Sergio Perez. “We came here thinking we were on the back foot, but we pulled through. The race was quite a struggle.”
It was in this febrile setting that he had been anointed champion in each of the past two years. Paradoxically, he had done so despite finishing only ninth and fourth. In the glow of a first Mexican win for three years, he could happily wait for the greater glory of title No6. “I don’t mind,” he smiled. “I love racing, man.”
Bottas, third behind Sebastian Vettel, did not look too crestfallen. The Finn’s hopes of reeling in Hamilton in the championship disappeared over the horizon long ago. Indeed, it was a near miracle that he managed a podium place at all, given that Mercedes had rebuilt his entire car just to ensure that he lined up sixth on the grid. Such was the severity of his crash in qualifying, his mechanics had toiled for hours to put the machine back together. It was testament to their precision that they did so without incurring any penalty. As Bottas put it here: “I don’t think we could have done much more. I’m feeling a lot better than this time last year.”
Hamilton’s coronation next Sunday in Austin, a place where he has won four of the past five years, is all but an inevitability. Even if he finds himself outside the points – and he has not done so in 18 races to date – Bottas needs to win to stand any hope of deferring the moment.
Realistically, he can start issuing the invitations to friends and family now, in anticipation of a grand old Texas hoedown. It was a frantic opening lap, with the long run to the first corner creating a plethora of skirmishes. First Vettel put the squeeze on a charging Hamilton, almost running him off the road, before the champion-elect had a weaving wheel-to-wheel battle with Max Verstappen that pushed both cars on to the grass.
Verstappen, not unexpectedly, was driving like a dervish. He had been furious to receive a three place grid penalty, imposed for failing to slow down under waved yellow flags, and responded as only he knew, swarming over every obstacle in his way. Alas, he bit off more than he could chew with his pass on Bottas, his right rear tyre touching the Finn’s front wing and rapidly delaminating. An unscheduled pit stop to repair the damage killed off any hope he harboured of a third straight Mexican triumph.
The top five were in a holding pattern, waiting to see who would blink first. Mercedes, for their part, had a clear plan, bringing in Hamilton for fresh tyres and asking him to make the same rubber last for 48 laps. The man himself was far from convinced, complaining over the radio: “It feels like we stopped far too early.”
Marcus Dudley, standing in for Hamiton’s usual race engineer Pete Bonnington – who was back in the UK for a medical procedure – sought to be the voice of calm.
“It is going to be difficult, but we are on for a win,” he said. James Vowles, Mercedes’s strategy chief, added: “Lewis, you can do this.”
Hamilton did not need to be told twice, switching to all-out attack mode while Bottas toiled to stay in touch. The Ferraris, having started on the front row, were soon floundering, with a slow stop for polesitter Charles Leclerc bringing him
‘It’s incredible. We came here thinking we were on the back foot, but we pulled through’
back out only fourth. Vettel, likewise, was having a torrid time, almost colliding with Mclaren’s Carlos Sainz.
On a track where he has always struggled for grip, Hamilton moved ominously into the lead. Mercedes’s gamble on a one-stop strategy – one that Toto Wolff, the team principal, described as an “experiment” – meant, though, that he was being caught, and fast. Vettel sat primed, just a couple of seconds back, waiting for his old nemesis to lose performance. But a key aspect of Hamilton’s racing genius is his ability to manage tyre degradation. With the deftest touch, avoiding too much violence on the brakes, he kept his pursuers at bay.
The combination of Hamilton’s control and Mercedes’s supreme tactical nous won the day once more. Not since 2016 had he taken victory here in Mexico, a place where the Silver Arrows had expected to be beaten comfortably.
Three years ago, he had led from start to finish. This time, he played a game of patience, outsmarting the Ferraris at every turn. “Our strategy could have been a bit sharper,” Vettel lamented. Hamilton, in the end, would not be defied. This time next weekend, he will in all likelihood be a statistically greater driver than even Juan Manuel Fangio.
One more push will do it.
Nearly there: Toto Wolff, Mercedes’ team principal, congratulates Lewis Hamilton
Champagne moment: Lewis Hamilton salutes the crowd (left) before spraying the fizz with rival Sebastian Vettel (above right) after winning in Mexico, having survived a frenetic first lap (below)