Monday 29 October 2018

Mexican GP Report - Doing it all over again

And so it is now done. As always seems the way when Lewis Hamilton has a title to claim, things in this Mexican Grand Prix weren't entirely straightforward. But fortunately for him he was by now in a place where he almost couldn't lose. In fact as it turned out he literally couldn't lose as his pursuer Sebastian Vettel didn't get the race win he needed to have a chance of keeping the title open. But whatever was the case in this one, using the worn phrase, 'the history books will show' that Hamilton's fifth world championship is unequivocal. Level with Juan Manuel Fangio and only Michael Schumacher ahead. For all that it has long seemed inevitable, and the conclusion inaptly messy, the magnitude of the achievement should not be understated.

Lewis Hamilton sealed his fifth title -
though it was not straightforward
Photo: Octane Photography
The 2018 championship fight has had plenty of parallels with that 12 months previously and it continued that way in its conclusion. Again it was resolved in Mexico. Again Hamilton did just about enough. Again his chaser Vettel battled hard but did not quite get the result he needed. As again the deciding race was dominated by Red Bull. Or rather, again, by Max Verstappen's Red Bull.

He was the fastest out there all weekend, his only partial stumble missing out on pole position at the last against expectations, to his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo – Verstappen complained afterwards about excessive engine braking. Whatever he swiftly righted things with a better start to lead. And was never seen again.

For all that we assume Red Bull's victory chances come only on the tight and twisty Monaco and Singapore street circuits, the not-especially tight nor twisty Mexico track falls very much in the same Bull-favouring category. It seems counter-intuitive with the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez's long straights combined with the oft-cited power deficit of its Renault engine. But what's crucial is the altitude - at 2,225m the highest on the calendar.

Some say the thin air goes a way to equalise the engines - particularly in Renault's main weakness of the internal combustion part. Also F1's chief discriminator of downforce is harder to put into effect. With the low drag teams maximise their wing angles but achieve only grip levels akin to that at Monza where they trim the cars out. And Red Bull can in almost any circumstances be counted on to find grip that no-one else does.

Max Verstappen eased to his second Mexican
Grand Prix win in a row

Hamilton meanwhile slotted in behind leader Verstappen at the off and looked set-fair. But he soon, as at Austin last week, hit tyre troubles, this time mainly in the form of graining. He pitted earlier than ideal, then encountered more graining on his second set and began to fall into the clutches of those behind.

Ferrari meanwhile, also like at Austin, stuck to its programme and got the rewards. Having pitted later Vettel in far less tyre peril started to move forward, past Ricciardo then past Hamilton for second. Yet, needing a win as outlined, that was as far as he got. Verstappen by now was a long way away - some 15 seconds. Vettel trimmed the gap for a while, indeed it came down to 8s, but after the leading pair both pitted for a second time Verstappen looked more comfortable particularly when Vettel spent some time bottled up behind Ricciardo. Again just like here 12 months ago it was clear that Verstappen was enjoying himself out front and had conspicuous pace in hand. He won by 17s.

You have to by now make a conscious effort to remind yourself of the open season on Verstappen earlier this year, which now seems like something from another age. You could even make the case that had the campaign started in Canada it would be a close call between him and Hamilton for driver of the year. After his Mexico win Verstappen admitted that he'd in his turnaround learned to rein it in a bit.

"The difference is I just listen to myself," he said. "I do my own thing, even if there are a lot of things written, I really don't care. My dad always told me in go-karting, back in the day, if I was maybe overdriving or something, he would always tell me 'Max, even if you think you are not going fast enough, it's still fast enough'. So basically, for my feeling, I just backed it out a little bit and that seems to make me a bit faster.

Sebastian Vettel fought hard to the end
Photo: Octane Photography
"The only option was to win today for me. That was in my head and, of course, that's why I was very disappointed yesterday [to miss pole] but we made it up today, so of course I'm very happy with that."

Hamilton had a frustrating run to the end. Even after stopping for a second time he made no progress, in part as his team didn't have a new set to give to him rather one he'd done a qualifying run on. He crawled in a rather underwhelming fourth, over a minute off the victor. But he soon was cheered up - as noted it was more than enough for the title. Even had Vettel won seventh would have been enough.

"It was a horrible race!," Hamilton reflected. "I got a great start and really was working my way up. I really don't know what happened after that. We were struggling, both Valtteri [Bottas] and I, but I was just trying to hold; just trying to bring the car home.

"Through the year there were a lot of testing times for us. Even on weekends where we didn't have the package and we were on the back foot but then came away with that belief within the team, still, that we could come away with something good. We'd come away with wins, even though we weren't the quickest.

"It took some special laps, it took some special moments in the car and I honestly could just re-live those moments all the time. Some of those experiences I had in the car were really magical. I truly believed that we could win this championship but it has been the toughest battle that we've had collectively as a team."

Daniel Ricciardo experienced sheer frustration
Photo: Octane Photogrpahy
As also noted Vettel fought to the end but runner-up in the race - and the championship for that matter - was no good to him. And from his demeanour afterwards it was clear that Vettel was one of the very few who did not consider the title as good as done before this one. Yet he took the defeat with dignity, congratulating the new champion.

"It's a horrible moment," Vettel said of losing the title, echoing Hamilton's own adjective. "You put a lot of work in and OK, I get your point that you saw it coming. I did pay attention in maths so I could make the numbers, but still, you hang in there as long as you can.

"I've had three times now in my life that sort of disappointment, where you realise that you can't win the championship anymore and those are not happy days. You reflect not on one moment but the whole year, the work that goes in, the effort that goes in from the end of the last year until now and yeah, I think we had our chances. We used most of them, some we did not. But in the end we were not good enough."

In between times Ricciardo experienced the galling frustration of his sixth technical retirement of the year - this time with a likely clutch problem, similar to that Verstappen had in practice. He spoke afterwards of his car being "cursed" and questioned the point of him turning up for the final two rounds of his Red Bull career - underlining the accumulative effect of his foul fortune.

Kimi Raikkonen continued his good form by taking third, being the only one of the frontrunners to make a one-stop strategy work. Valtteri Bottas had similar problems as his Mercedes team-mate Hamilton as noted and was even so notably off his pace, and finished a lapped fifth.

Nico Hulkenberg was excellent in heading 'Class B'
Photo: Octane Photography
As if to emphasise that F1's 'Class A' and 'Class B' distinction isn't coming together any time soon this time the Class B leader was lapped twice, though Nico Hulkenberg in that place drove very well to sixth - the works Renault team throughout benefiting from the same boost as its engine customer Red Bull. Hulkenberg with the result also bolstered his position at the head of Class B in the points table. Charles Leclerc drove very well too in following Hulkenberg home in seventh.

Stoffel Vandoorne provided a belated hint of his oft-cited potential by finishing eighth - his first points since Baku - having put together a stretched-out one-stopper that impressed his team. Leclerc's Sauber team-mate Marcus Ericsson stayed out of trouble to bag ninth, and Sauber's double-score also meant it leapfrogged Toro Rosso in the constructors' standings. Vandoorne's McLaren team-mate meanwhile, Fernando Alonso, had another race that barely started, him encountering Esteban Ocon's errant front wing in the opening complex then retiring after three laps with a water pump problem.

Toro Rosso's Pierre Gasly completed the scorers with an attacking strategy, pitting very early on a two-stopper. He beat Ocon in the scrap for the place, whose race was tainted at the start as intimated  by losing half his front wing clipping Hulkenberg. Unusually Force India got nothing as homeboy Sergio Perez stopped with a brake seal failure.

Which leaves Hamilton. Few drivers divide opinion like him, but as his numbers pile up doubt will be harder to sustain. Now even Schumacher's race and title records - long thought untouchable - are within sight. More pertinently, of his five championships this was the most impressive yet. One that Hamilton's personal contribution can be said to have been crucial. What we have here is an astonishingly skilled driver at something like his peak.

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