Monday 31 October 2016

Mexican GP Report - Everything and nothing

For more reason than one, there wasn't much to say about this race. Just like last week Lewis Hamilton was for much of Mexican Grand Prix weekend on another level to the rest, not least his team mate. Just like last week his team mate Nico Rosberg did what was required to keep this year's world championship well under his control, by following Lewis home.

Just like in Austin, Lewis Hamilton won at a canter
Photo: Octane Photography
And for much of the way to getting there - and back to where we started in effect - there wasn't much to distinguish things. Sadly this popular Mexican stop-off with its numerous and passionate support hasn't been well-served by entertainment since it returned to the F1 itinerary last year. It hasn't helped that both races have been tyre economy runs, with extremely stretched out strategies the norm. Strangely too for a track dominated by two long straights ended by big braking zones overtaking here seems for the most part about as presentable as at Monaco.

Well, this was the way of it much of the way. Between lap two and lap 67 of 71. The bookends were rather different. They managed to squeeze in plenty for us to say. And the discussions are ongoing.

Appropriately it all started at the start. As anticipated the race's first turn was the major - perhaps only - hurdle to be cleared by Lewis on his way to the win, and this time he took the fact rather literally it seems. His launch was decent enough to retain his lead, but then under not much pressure with cold brakes and a Mercedes fat with fuel, and after the sport's longest run to the first braking point, he got it very wrong and speared across the grass, straight-lining the turn 1-3 complex before continuing on his merry way.

Following the Fernando Alonso vs Carlos Sainz case in Austin a week ago it seems such things are kosher so long as you've got any moves or defence done before your braking point, and Lewis in fairness just about had. Reflecting as much the stewards didn't even investigate. Crucially too he got out of the throttle afterwards to ensure he got no 'lasting advantage' (and an immediate Virtual Safety Car made the point moot anyway).

The Mercedes pilots each had
their own controversy attached
Photo: Octane Photography
But still it was perhaps asking for trouble - and not just via the stewards who aren't known for consistency, as had he for example got grass in his air ducts it would have been regrettable too. And of course it all provided plenty of grist for the conspiracy theorist mill. That unlike in Austin it was to do with first place and, yes, that it involved Lewis guarantees additional froth. Whatever though it did the trick for the Englishman.

Lewis noted later too that his worries didn't end there. "I hadn't even thought about the stewards," he said, "I was more concerned about the fact of [having] the biggest flat spot, that was rattling my brain for 16 laps...I really couldn't see the braking zone for turn one...I was worried the suspension was going to fail or something."

It wasn't Lewis blarney - his boss Toto Wolff confirmed later that matters in the first stint were on an absolute outer edge.

And Rosberg provided some intrigue of his own in the same moment. He had his own trip across the opening complex grass the first time through, albeit it was a much more modest adventure - yet crucially it looked on first viewing as if he'd passed Max Verstappen in the manoeuvre. Therefore it appeared a slam dunk for a penalty initially too though subsequent replays suggested that Max nudged Nico on his way, which muddied the waters sufficiently, and the stewards after looking at it again took no action. As was the case with his team mate though he might also have done more to take the turn but seemed to conclude (in a way not unreasonably) that keeping his place was the priority.

Amusingly, again after this haphazard route it was only the third race this season - and only the second after a green flag start - that the Mercs had led in a 1-2 at the end of the opening tour. It also, as outlined, went a long way to ensuring the rather standard-looking 1-2 result.

Just like in Austin, Nico Rosberg did what he had
to for the championship
Photo: Octane Photography
As also anticipated that Lewis had the lead, one way or another, after the opening complex meant he was quids in. Sure enough he ticked off the laps a lot like last week. A lot like last week the gap to the next up fluctuated, but never did it get closer than around four seconds; never either did you think Lewis was under any threat. He won by eight. Even like last week he apparently had a reliability matter to manage - this time exhaust temperatures - but again it didn't outwardly threaten his place.

He quipped later that he'd controlled matters "from the grass to the finish!"

"I had a lot of pace in the car," he went on, "I didn't even have to push and I was pulling away.

"It has gone very well in these last two…I'm driving with every ounce, ever bit of energy and heart that I have."

He added though: "It's a shame that these results are coming so late in the season, possibly too late."

Which reflected that just like in Austin Nico did what he had to as well and followed him in for second place, and all of a sudden if Nico wins the next round, in Brazil in two weeks' time, the title will be officially all his. And Lewis has never won there...

"It's been a good day", said a sanguine Nico on the podium. "Lewis was a bit too fast this weekend, so I just have to accept second place." In a few words he communicated about a thousand.

Lewis, perhaps grimacing, took up the same theme. "Nico's doing a great job to pull in the position where he has to finish" he noted.

It's the advantage of being the leader as the rounds count down, that the number of points available to hunt you with inevitably will diminish. Mathematically Nico could have wrapped it up in Mexico, but a fortnight hence will really be match point.

Max Verstappen was at the centre of controversy
Photo: Octane Photography
And afterwards there was not the least outward sign of nerves at his impending chance, instead Nico was relaxed; jovial even. Is he relieved to have got away from this weekend with things still in his hands, given for much of the time he struggled? Is he even someone who knows now he has the title in his pocket?

Not even the Red Bulls and their starting on gumball supersoft tyres could provide brief fireworks. Their plan of getting among the Mercs early never materialised, and it seems Red Bull decided just after the launch indeed that their contra strategy wasn't going to work, as Daniel Ricciardo pitted for mediums at the end of the first lap under the Virtual Safety Car mentioned. It put him on an effective one-stopper, but starting from P17...

Max however pedalled hard and as is his way did his best to provide intrigue. This he did initially by clinging to Rosberg's coattails and indeed at one point had a desperate lunge for the place at turn four, after Nico had been delayed in traffic then locked a wheel into turn one. Max got ahead, but only momentarily as not even he could gather up his lairy late-braking RB12 that time and Nico nabbed the place back as Max ran wide. Still it provided much-needed diversion at that point.

Sebastian Vettel was another to try to add to the interest, in his case by staying out for a whole 32 laps on his original set of soft tyres, and showing good pace in doing so (he even led impressively for a time).

For third place at least, this one was a slow burner. In another echo of Austin last week what fun there was happened late, and further down. The diverging strategies of those in third to fifth places got interesting. A more freshly booted Seb started to hunt down Max in third, and further up the road the even more freshly (and softly) booted Ricciardo was hunting down the pair of them and even more quickly. They came together - metaphorically and literally - with but a few laps left. As Ted Kravitz summed up, "we had one hour 47 minutes of not a lot today; then we had five minutes of absolute pandemonium and fantastic racing."

Sebastian Vettel turned the air blue...
Photo: Octane Photography
It started with Seb attacking Max, and with three laps left Max under pressure became the latest to straight-line the opening complex. This one looked for all the world a slam dunk foul, and even Max's engineer told Max pronto to give the place up. But Max, as is also his way, didn't. In fairness to him there's usually something to be said for having your arguments later.

Meanwhile Max staying ahead of Seb was allowing Daniel to get with both. The steam emanating from Seb's cockpit was almost visible as he turned the air blue not only in the direction of his foe but also, curiously, at the sport's policeman Charlie Whiting... The steam got more dense as on the penultimate tour Ricciardo tried to send one up the inside of the Ferrari, all wheels locked, at turn four. After some rubbing between the Ferrari and Red Bull it didn't come off and the trio finished in the same order.

But in that move mentioned... "I felt that Seb did what everyone has been complaining about lately, moving under braking," Ricciardo said afterwards, "for me he doesn't deserve to be up there [on the podium] with that move he pulled."

So perhaps typical for F1, we seemed to end with each pointing fingers at the other. The stewards though acted with impressive haste in giving Max a five second penalty, which dropped him to fifth and gave us the sight akin of Ayrton Senna in Suzuka 1989 of Max being told in the ante-room he couldn't go out onto the podium, and Seb legging it there so he could take his place.

Max though as is also his way went on the counter-attack in front of microphones. "At least I can do it in a good way, he [Vettel] doesn't know how to do it because it's ridiculous what he did," he said of Vettel's contretemps with Ricciardo.

Even Daniel Ricciardo ended the race in an unhappy way
Photo: Octane Photography
"Daniel is alongside him, and he just turned into him" the young Dutchman continued. "They touched, and then he just starts shouting on the radio. I don't know how many times he's using bad language in general. I think he has to go back to school or something to get some language."

With Max, like him or not (and I know some of you don't), that sort of sheer effrontery and self-assurance you cannot manufacturer, and it likely will serve him well all in. Whisper it, but it is another thing with a touch of Ayrton about it.

And as if to demonstrate that nothing succeeds like an F1 argument a few after Max's penalty started to wonder anew why Lewis had not got one right back at the start. Ricciardo indeed weighed in with: "I saw Max cut the chicane trying to defend Seb, he got a penalty. So I don't know, to be honest, what was that different with his move and Lewis's."

The difference likely reflected two things - one that Lewis wasn't under such immediate attack from an opponent at the time; the other that we've seen repeatedly that drivers get more leeway for stuff on the first lap. Such considerations will probably get lost amid the heat though.

Vettel apologised to Whiting promptly after the race but still in the immediate aftermath appeared in little mood otherwise to be conciliatory. "It was not the right thing to say," he said, "equally in my defence emotions and adrenaline is pumping high so I don't understand why you are trying to push me in a corner and make me answer something that then you try to make into another loop."

His mood no doubt got darker when some time later he got a ten second penalty of his own which dropped back him down to fifth behind Max again and shifted Ricicardo up to third - the places changing afterwards like the display on a fruit machine. It was a day indeed for reaching sedate-looking outcomes from haphazard routes.

The sanction was for the move under braking rather than the swearing (albeit some suggested it may not have been entirely unrelated…) and irony of ironies reflects the recent push to have such things punished heavily, brought about mainly in response to the on-track antics of…Max Verstappen. And partly due to the lobbying of…Sebastian Vettel. Funny old world.

It grimly summed matters up that Verstappen thought he was getting onto the podium; Vettel did get onto the podium; then Ricciardo officially got onto the podium (which also ensured Danny Ric third place in this year's championship table). Perhaps we got more than the five minutes of fun that Kravitz suggested, if we are to include the post-race frolics. Mark Gallagher noted too it should all provide a few future pub quiz questions.

Nico Hulkenberg converted a fine result in
seventh, despite a late spin
Photo: Octane Photography
But still in another depressing aspect of modern F1 it seems we can't have on-track battles without recrimination and what the late Northern Ireland politician David Ervine coined as 'whataboutery'. It's particularly galling given in the cold light of day almost all of us like to say we want to let racers get on with it. As the sage Will Buxton has since noted rather than this being a black and white matter it's a one instead of deciding at which point on the scale we want to strike the balance, and then sticking to it. And stopping whining (that last part may be too much to ask though).

In another thing that mirrored last week Kimi Raikkonen was put onto a multi-stop strategy that seemed mainly inspired by getting him out of Seb's way on track. Certainly it did little else for him, though at least he salvaged P6 near the end from the impressive Nico Hulkenberg. The Hulk though blotted his copybook from a fine weekend by spinning as Kimi made his way by (thought the Hulk said it was in avoidance and complained about the Finn's aggression). Still the German didn't lose any more places as a result. His team mate Sergio Perez though had a frustrating day at home, spending the whole race virtually it seemed trying and failing to get past Felipe Massa. He indeed ended up P10 to Massa's P9. Valtteri Bottas completed the scorers in P8.

Still, also for more than one reason, and despite the inimitable Mexican welcome that we are growing used to, this is one that most will be glad that it has been got through. Aside perhaps that is from the one who in the main kept his head down - Nico Rosberg.

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