Hamilton cuts the grass to win in Mexico, trimming Rosberg’s lead.
Lewis Hamilton confirmed he’ll make it a straight fight to the end of the season for the 2016 Formula 1 drivers’ championship by taking a relaxed victory in Sunday’s Mexican Grand Prix. Hamilton managed to survive a high-speed off on the opening lap in both Turn 1 and 2 to take the eventual win. Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg fought off a challenge from Red Bull’s Max Verstappen to finish second, thus keeping his lead in championship points with two Grands Prix remaining. Hamilton’s victory made Mercedes the first manufacturer to win 17 races in a single season in Grand Prix history.
A majority of drivers were at a loss after qualifying as to their real pace and the dependability of their race set-ups. Most pinned the confusion on the circuit’s lack of grip. The tarmac remained mostly “green” throughout all three practice sessions as Autodromo Hermanos Rodriquez’s low-grip asphalt and the lack of a new coating of Pirelli rubber from the 2016 cars offered varying levels of grip or lack thereof over the 4.3 Km length of the circuit. It was unusual to hear a driver speak of a suitable amount of grip over their entire lap. The primary culprit was the lack of heat. Getting the tyre to “switch on” with proper bedding-in to warm the compound to race temperature just never arrived. With Mexico City’s high altitude, the air is less dense. Thus there is less air to drive through and thinner air to press the cars’ tires into the surface. With many admitting that their qualification laps felt like their worst of the season, just as many revealed their surprise at such quick times. Oh yes, and top speeds during qualifying were in the 352 Kph range.
Practice revealed that Red Bull’s long run pace was equal to Mercedes, but their single-lap pace was not. Hamilton took pole followed by Rosberg and then Verstappen. Mercedes chose to start on softs; Verstappen chose supersofts. With the cars’ starting weight 220lbs heavier, supersofts looked marginal and would need to be switched early. The start and who reached Turn 1 first would set the race.
Rosberg’s launch was incrementally better than Hamilton, but because of the long run down to turn 1, Hamilton made up the deficit and prepared to enter Turn 1 first.
Or at least, he attempted to. His greater speed and slightly cooler tires offered no grip as he applied the brakes; he chose to keep his foot planted and straight-lined both Turn 1 and Turn 2, slicing through the trackside grass. By the time he was finished mowing the lawn and back on solid tarmac, he already had considerable space between himself and Rosberg, who had bumped Max Verstappen and had taken to the grass as well. Verstappen tried to dive down the inside and also locked up, causing the drivers to make contact. Rosberg retained second place.
At the back of the pack, Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein made contact after being hit by Haas F1’s Esteban Gutierrez. Wehrlein hit the wall, resulting in a safety car period. Red Bull reacted immediately, bringing Daniel Ricciardo in for his first pit-stop at the end of lap one, while the rest of the field chose to remain on track.
When the green flag waved on lap four, Hamilton regained his momentum, solidifying his gap to Rosberg, while Verstappen continued third ahead of the fast-starting Force India of Nico Hulkenberg.
Verstappen’s super-soft tyres were wearing rapidly, and he was the first of the leaders to pit at the end of lap 12; he switched to mediums. Rosberg was now five seconds behind Hamilton, with the fast Verstappen now chasing him on much sturdier tyres. Hamilton pitted from the lead at the end of lap 17, also taking on mediums. Hamilton returned in fourth place, behind Rosberg and the Ferraris of Vettel and Raikkonen, all of whom hadn’t yet stopped.
Rosberg came in at the end of lap 20, and the field settled down to putting in laps and waiting for any weakness. With Verstappen looking the faster of the two teammates, Red Bull asked Ricciardo to give way. Once past his teammate, Verstappen put his head down and began knocking time off Rosberg’s gap.
Sebastian Vettel had taken over the lead after the Mercedes’ duo’s pit stops but handed Hamilton the lead again on lap 33 when the Ferrari ace pitted. Once on mediums as well, Vettel had tyres 30 laps fresher than those of Ricciardo and gave serious chase for a possible third podium spot, just as Verstappen had closed to within 1.5 seconds of Rosberg.
With 21 laps to go, Rosberg locked up at Turn 1 when he was held up by Toro Rosso driver Daniil Kvyat. In an instant, Verstappen closed from a long way back. He moved along side and then launched an all-out attack up the inside at Turn 4. He locked brakes, grabbed a handful of steering lock and slid across the grass, giving the position back to the thankful (and lucky) Rosberg. It would be Verstappen’s one and only chance to challenge for second as his tyres began their inevitable fade away.
Aware of his teammate’s vulnerability, Ricciardo pitted for a set of soft tyres, determined to chase down both Verstappen and Vettel. He immediately started setting faster laps; by the end of the Grand Prix, he had dissolved Vettel’s 18-second gap. Hamilton, with the gap back to second place firm at over six seconds, and Rosberg, committed to finishing P2 safely to retain his championship points lead, serenely ran out their final laps.
Behind them, though, the race was coming to a boil. Vettel’s relatively fresher tires were helping him close on Verstappen. With four laps to go, Verstappen locked up at Turn 1, opening the door for Vettel. However, the Dutchman caught his slide long enough to take to the grass, matching Hamilton’s first lap manoeuvre, and stayed ahead of Vettel.
The four-time World Champion was incensed. Verstappen’s race engineer suggested he relinquish the place to Vettel, but as the FIA Stewards hadn’t immediately called for the surrender, Verstappen held on to his position. A lap later, the stewards announced they would be investigating the incident after the race. In the midst of the kerfluffle, Ricciardo closed on Vettel, and tried to outbreak him going into Turn 4. Vettel would have none of that, vigorously rebuffing the pass attempt by moving over on Riccardo under brakes. The pair touched but managed to stay out of the barriers. The trio of amigos then ran nose-to-tail to the finish, with Verstappen crossing the line in third.
By the time Verstappen reached the podium’s cool-down room, the stewards had given him a five-second penalty, dropping him to fifth.
By then, Vettel had thankfully cooled down his on-microphone expletive messages long enough to take the third step of the podium. Over the final laps, he had directed a wicked volley of curses over his in-car radio at Verstappen, FIA race director Charlie Whiting and most likely Santa Claus.
After the podium ceremony, Vettel received news he had been penalised 10 seconds for his move on Ricciardo under braking. The finish order had to be revised yet again. Riccardo was now third, Verstappen would rise to fourth and Vettel would drop to fifth.
Raikkonen finished sixth ahead of Nico Hulkenberg. The two made contact at Turn 4, sending the Force India driver into a spin. Valtteri Bottas, bolstered by an incredible 231mph trap speed during the race, led Williams’ teammate Felipe Massa to the flag for eight and ninth respectively. Hulkenberg’s Force India’s teammate, Sergio Perez grabbed the final point in tenth, bringing his fellow Mexican fans plenty of pride.
Hamilton’s win was his first in Mexico and his eighth of the year. It also was his 51st career championship victory, bringing him into a tie for second place all-time with four-time World Champion Alain Prost. Rosberg must have let out a rueful laugh as he crossed in second, knowing he dodged a few championship-losing bullets throughout the day. Rosberg’s 19 point lead means he only needs a second and third in the final two races to win the World Championship.
The stewards chose to ignore multiple infractions during the race, and then act with inconsistency. Lewis Hamilton straight-lined Turn 1 and Turn 2 at the start due to his entry speed, as did Nico Rosberg. Verstappen was then penalised when he took across the lawn as he locked his brakes in Turn 1 due to his entry speed defending against Vettel.
Vettel remained behind Verstappen just as the entire field remained behind Hamilton and Rosberg, which arguably increases their advantage over the field. A penalty on either of the Mercedes driver’s could have altered the world championship battle but would have also made a point that exceeding the track’s boundaries will always bring a penalty regardless of the players or the consequences. Daniel Ricciardo questioned the lack of punishment for Hamilton during his post-race interview. It’s a valid point and begs many other questions about inconsistency, politics and agendas.
Sebastian Vettel must have had the FIA stewards running for the OFF switch as he had a full-tilt meltdown over his radio in the final four laps as he chased Max Verstappen, who he felt should have relinquished his position after his car left the track and ran through the trackside grass in their fight for third. Vettel eventually delivered an expletive-laden radio message meant for race director Charlie Whiting as he crossed the line. One imagines Vettel’s FIA fine will probably match his Mexican GP third-place purse winnings. Look for Arrivabene to follow up with a Scuderia Swear Jar in the Vettel garage.
Pirelli should be asked to leave their Medium tires at the factory before arriving in Mexico next season. The event is growing more spectacular each year with fans, atmosphere and speeds, but the low grip, low wear surface on Medium tires offers limited strategies and little drama for most of the race. Sergio Perez spent more than 40 laps stuck behind Felipe Massa, not the kind of excitement that the Mexican track deserves.
Now it’s on to Brazil in two week’s time.