Tuesday 23 October 2018

Mexico City Preview: Unfinished business

So reports of the championship battle's death were greatly exaggerated. Or rather, they were premature by a week. Lewis Hamilton heading into the Mexican Grand Prix this weekend still has a little bit of work to do.

Barring the unusual, Lewis Hamilton will clinch the
world championship this weekend
Photo: Octane Photography
Despite everything though Austin's result from last Sunday ratcheted up the certainty of his fifth drivers' title. Now he needs only five points - or to put it another way a seventh place - to make it official. Surely barring a non-finish or very severe delay he'll get it this time. Even a small delay shouldn't stop him - we've seen time and again that these days members of the six-car Class A can polish off all of Class B with minimum fuss.

And perhaps it's just as well for Hamilton and Mercedes that the mathematics are straightforward, as at this Magdalena Mixhuca parkland venue in Mexico City it emphatically cannot expect a walk in the park.

For one thing in the Austin round Ferrari suddenly rediscovered the pace it had apparently mislaid down the back of a sofa since Monza. Kimi Raikkonen won as we know and Sebastian Vettel likely would have beaten Hamilton (and everyone else for that matter) with a trouble-free weekend. And for all of the talk in Texas of tyres and strategy the chief contributor to Merc's defeat was that it barely had the legs of the red cars. Also hardly helping was that Mercedes had reliability and tyre wear problems plus revised its wheel rims in fear of a protest. Hamilton hinted at problems even over and above these.

And in what may seem something from another age in last year's visit to Mexico the silver cars were markedly off the pace. They qualified four tenths off pole and in the race Valtteri Bottas - who unlike Hamilton wasn't delayed by events - finished almost 20 seconds behind a cruising Max Verstappen.

Might Max Verstappen be celebrating again this weekend?
Photo: Octane Photography
It was Vettel meanwhile who took that pole and the Ferrari was likely the fastest car and should have won. Both Maranello men had their race tainted at the start - Vettel needed a new front wing after an opening complex clash with Hamilton while Raikkonen dropped into traffic in the same moment.

Then there's Red Bull. Boss Christian Horner a few weeks ago said that Mexico is his team's only realistic chance of victory remaining this year and we can understand why, given Verstappen won at a canter 12 months ago. Granted he was aided by the Hamilton-Vettel clash but the Bulls looked right on the frontrunning pace anyway and he was only just pipped for pole. In the thin air - at 2,250m this venue has the highest altitude on the itinerary - and on the 'low grip' track Red Bull can find grip that no one else does.

As for why this place is unusual, while you might assume the altitude combined with the circuit's long straights would aid those with more power, its manifestation instead has been to close the field up. F1's chief discriminator of downforce is harder to put into effect and teams feel free to run maximum wing as there's a much lower drag penalty.

This has wider implications, not least for the number of runs and the tyre compounds used in the qualifying hour. Adding to the difficulties, tyre warm-up for a qualifying lap can be tricky here and the track evolution can be sharp. Mercedes has had more frequent trouble than its rivals getting tyres into the 'window' generally across recent seasons

Can Ferrari extend its swansong?
Photo: Octane Photography
Shifting attention to Class B, Esteban Ocon will be worth watching as last year he was clearly best of the rest in qualifying and the race here - he might even have finished on the podium had he held off pitting and stopped under the subsequent Virtual Safety Car. With it reported that Williams may offer him a 2019 race seat lifeline a good showing would be well-timed.

Kevin Magnussen put in what some thought was the best drive of anyone anywhere here last season, to finish eighth holding off none other than Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. Magnussen and Lance Stroll got good results - in Stroll's case sixth - after the mid-race Virtual Safety Car played into their hands.

In previous Mexico visits tyre degradation has been minimal due to it being a 'low energy' track. Some races have been akin to an old Bridgestone race - last year Felipe Massa and Pascal Wehrlein did virtually the entire race on single set of softs while the ultra-softs easily went to half distance. A long pitlane next to an extended 1.2km start-finish straight means a large pitstop loss time which also encourages conservative strategies minimising stops, as does that track position often is king here as it's hard to get close to a car ahead without temperatures soaring. Undercuts can be weak due to slow tyre warm-up; the thin air means the DRS effect is weak too.

Pirelli has attempted to spice things up by bringing yet softer compounds this time - indeed the softest of all - the super-soft, ultra-soft and gumball hyper-soft. Add that compounds generally are one softer than 12 months ago and overall the compounds are in effect two steps softer than in '17. The theory is that it'll facilitate multi-stop strategies but in previous rounds in these circumstances drivers have instead cruised to stretch out the hyper-soft over the opening stint to achieve a one-stopper nevertheless. Given the difficulties passing here mentioned we might expect similar again.

Esteban Ocon will be worth watching -
and a good result will be timely
Photo: Octane Photography
Still this track can surprise - degradation was higher than expected in the '15 race while in '16 Daniel Ricciardo needed to make an extra stop near the end for similar reasons. Indeed the notorious Vettel vs the Red Bull pair rumpus in the late laps that time was set up by three divergent strategies converging.

It can also be the case at this late stage of the season that there is an clash of teams which have nothing to lose and therefore are able to roll the strategy dice against those which have something to lose and therefore go safety first.

Another aspect of the low air density is that cooling is more marginal - as noted this also means running in traffic is even more regrettable than usual - and turbos work harder. Mechanical attrition in Mexico can therefore be higher than we've grown used to. Last year five of the 20 starters didn't make the end due to technical woes; Nico Hulkenberg's engine failure was thought related directly to overheating in another car's wake.

Another local variable is the lengthy 900m run off the start with plenty of slipstreaming possible ended by a tight complex. We witnessed last year that it can contribute to frolics and that the race can have a very different look as a result.

The Mexican round, returning in '15, has been a welcome addition. Or rather re-addition. Mexico has considerable F1 heritage as indeed does this very venue. It's shown also that it bows to few in the size and passion of its crowds, particularly in the astonishing baseball stadium section. And this time, for the second time in a row, it'll likely have a Hamilton world title confirmation to mark.

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