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

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - By Oliver Brown CHIEF SPORTS FEA­TURE WRITER in Mex­ico City

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)

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