What happened at the Mexican Grand Prix?

Max Verstappen takes his fifth career win in dominant style, while fourth place for Lewis Hamilton wrapped up the Briton’s fifth world title.


The build-up
Season 2018 has been one, from its mid-point at least, of metronomic predictability; Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton on top, Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel falling away from the front, and Red Bull Racing in a league of one, unable to mix it with the top two teams on raw pace, but comfortably faster than everyone else. Which made practice at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico all the more baffling, with Max Verstappen just ahead of teammate Daniel Ricciardo, eye-catching performances coming from the likes of Renault and Toro Rosso, and Mercedes and Ferrari looking all at sea.

Why? The altitude of Mexico City (2225 metres above sea level, three times higher than Interlagos in Brazil, the next-highest track) played a part, as the reduced air density decreased the amount of oxygen in the air, which meant less engine power was available than normal. For Mercedes and Ferrari, their renowned ‘qualy modes’, where both teams are able to turn up the power delivery from their engines for one mega qualifying lap, didn’t have the same effect, while for Red Bull, the benefits of its sweet-handling chassis wouldn’t be negated by its usual lack of punch in a straight line. The tyres also played a part on a hot and slippery track surface, Mercedes in particular struggling to keep any life in the Pirelli hypersoft rubber, the ideal tyre for one stopwatch-chasing lap on Saturday.

If practice painted a surprising picture, qualifying was even more of a shock when the Red Bull on pole was Ricciardo rather than Verstappen; the Dutchman has comfortably had the Australian’s measure on Saturdays this year, and looked in the box seat for pole when he led the timesheets after the opening laps in Q3 from Vettel and Hamilton, Ricciardo a quarter of a second behind. But on his final lap, Ricciardo found nearly three-tenths of a second, and when Verstappen and the rest couldn’t improve, a third career pole – and his first not at Monaco – was his.

Months of frustration – and some unexpected jubilation – poured out in Ricciardo’s reaction afterwards.

“Max led the way through the practices, I knew there was a bit more in it and I just squeezed it out at the very end,” he said.

“I’m holding a lot in. I let a bit out once I heard I got pole, but I’ve got to save some energy for tomorrow. We’ve got to finish the job tomorrow, but to confirm our pace in qualifying is really good.”

Verstappen was second, 0.026secs adrift, and less than impressed after his practice pace didn’t translate into becoming the youngest pole-sitter in the history of the sport. “The whole qualifying was crap,” he said after Red Bull took its first front-row lockout since the US GP of 2013, therefore its first in the V6 turbo hybrid era.

Hamilton was third and, crucially, ahead of Vettel in fourth as he looked to cement the world championship in Mexico; with a 70-point lead with two races remaining, the Mercedes man only needed to be ahead by 50 points after the Mexican GP to head to the next race in Brazil as a five-time world champion. The Brit didn’t expect to be able to match Ricciardo and Verstappen in the race, but wasn’t about to play it safe at the start and the lengthy 890-metre run into the first corner, either. “Everyone’s going to be barrelling into Turn 1 to gain places,” he said. “It’s a very, very fine line. If you go easy, you can get hit. If you go too aggressive, you can get hit. You’ve got to race it like normal.”

Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas and Vettel’s fellow Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen were fifth and sixth on the grid and never featured in the fight for pole, while Renault and Sauber each placed two cars in Q3, Nico Hulkenberg (seventh) two-tenths ahead of Renault partner Carlos Sainz, and Charles Leclerc a similar margin ahead of Sauber teammate Marcus Ericsson in ninth and 10th.

Elsewhere, Brendon Hartley’s promising practice pace didn’t translate to qualifying when he was just 14th for Toro Rosso, while teammate Pierre Gasly was at the back after yet another engine penalty for the Honda-powered squad.

Renault’s threat to fourth in the constructors’ championship, Haas, had a miserable run in qualifying, Romain Grosjean starting way back in 18th, and Kevin Magnussen only marginally better in 16th. For Grosjean, staring at a race ban for penalty points on his licence after clattering into Leclerc a week earlier in Austin, Mexico was a “shit situation”. “When you are on a fast lap you do your best, and when you are on a slow lap you always watch twice more in the mirrors and make sure you don’t block anyone,” he said, admitting he would be cautious in the race.

Caution would be the last thing Ricciardo and Verstappen would be considering when the lights went out for 71 laps on Sunday, with both drivers spying a chance at a rare race win. Hamilton had his title to think about, Vettel had nothing to lose … it promised to be an explosive start.

The race in exactly 69 words*
Verstappen nailed the start and got to turn one first, and was largely untroubled from there as he won by 17 seconds from Vettel, who was comfortably ahead of teammate Raikkonen in third. It was Verstappen’s second consecutive win in Mexico. Fourth for Hamilton was enough for the Mercedes driver to win the world title, while pole-sitter Ricciardo’s wretched luck continued, retiring from second place with 10 laps left.
(* 2018 is the 69th season of Formula One)

Ricciardo recap
The Australian didn’t even get a chance to defend his hard-earned pole into the first corner, getting a tardy getaway off the line and being immediately swamped by Verstappen, while Hamilton sailed between the Red Bulls to demote Ricciardo to third before the cars even hit the brakes. Ricciardo was always on his back foot from there, and with Verstappen careering away and Hamilton, at least initially, looking to have his measure, Ricciardo’s focus was more on Vettel behind him as the Ferrari driver desperately attempted to claw onto the back of his title rival.

Encountering lapped traffic in the slow stadium section of the track on lap 33 didn’t help Ricciardo’s cause, Ferrari’s 10-15km/h speed advantage on the straight seeing Vettel sail by for third, but second place still looked achievable for Ricciardo when Vettel pitted five laps later, and even more so when he forced Hamilton into a mistake at the first corner on lap 47 to slot in behind Verstappen, albeit a long way behind.

Ricciardo tried to make his second set of tyres last to the end of the 71-lap race, employing a one-stop strategy where most of the other front-runners pitted twice, and seemingly had Vettel covered before a tell-tale puff of smoke came from the back of his car on lap 61, which ground to a halt with hydraulics failure at the first corner on the next lap. He’s now retired from eight races this season, more than any other driver.

“I don’t think ‘frustration’ is the word anymore,” Ricciardo said. “Everything feels hopeless. I haven’t had a clean race or weekend in so long. I’m not superstitious or any of this bullshit, but … the car’s cursed. I don’t have any more words.”

What the result means
It was high-fives all round for the two biggest winners in what became a bizarre Mexican GP, with the altitude, tyre wear and performance spread throughout the field seeing most of the drivers tip-toe home, not looking to endanger their fragile cars in one of the more taxing races of the year.

Winner number one was, of course, Hamilton; while he only needed to finish seventh or better to confirm his fifth world title, the Briton battled tyre blistering and intermittent pace throughout, but was under little pressure of falling out of the top six with the performance gap between the top three teams and the rest of the field.

With five world titles, he now equals the great Juan Manuel Fangio as the second-most successful driver in the sport’s history; only Michael Schumacher (seven) sits ahead of him. After Will Smith came onto the team radio to congratulate him on his slow-down lap, Hamilton was more interested in talking about his title than one of his least convincing races this year.

“It’s a very strange feeling right now,” he admitted. “It was a horrible race. To complete this, when Fangio had done it with Mercedes, is an incredible feeling and very surreal at the moment.”

Hamilton’s achievement was momentous and overshadowed Verstappen’s drive to a degree, as it did last year when the Dutchman won the race and Hamilton took the title at the same Grand Prix. But for one lap on Saturday afternoon, Verstappen was in a class of one in Mexico, and a man on mission to record his second win this year, and fifth of his career.

While Ricciardo’s retirement in the sister Red Bull raised alarm bells, Verstappen asking his team repeatedly what he needed to do to preserve his car to ensure it saw the flag first, he needn’t have been concerned.

“I didn’t sleep very well last night,” Verstappen admitted after the race, kicking himself after losing out on a pole position that looked nailed-on after practice.

“I was very determined to win, and we’ve done that. We had the right tyres and the car was working very well.”

For historical purposes …
Verstappen’s second win this season made it four victories for Red Bull in 2018; you have to go back to 2010 for the last time three different teams won at least four races in the same season. For the record, the 2018 scorecard stands at Mercedes nine (all Hamilton), Ferrari six (five to Vettel and one to Raikkonen), and two each for Red Bull pilots Ricciardo and Verstappen.

The number to know
5 to 4:
Verstappen now leads Ricciardo in race wins since they became teammates at the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix.

Under-the-radar winner(s)
Vettel’s dream of ending Ferrari’s 11-year drivers’ title drought is over, but the German was gracious in defeat, and forthright about what Ferrari – and any other team – need to do to unseat the team that has won every drivers’ title since F1 entered the V6 turbo hybrid era in 2014.

“They did a superb job all year,” he said of Hamilton and Mercedes. “We need to stand there, accept that and send congratulations.

“It is an absolutely horrible moment (to lose the title), you put a lot of work in. I did pay attention in maths so I knew the numbers.

“Three times in my life I have had that disappointment when you realise you can’t win the world championship, and those are not happy days. We had some chances, we used some and did not use some. In the end, we were not good enough.”

Largely overlooked in the statistical post-race avalanche was that Ferrari’s double podium with Vettel and Raikkonen, allied to the 22 points scored by Hamilton and a lapped Bottas in fifth, means the constructors’ championship is still alive with two races left, Mercedes leading it by 55 points with a maximum of 86 available in Brazil and Abu Dhabi.

On that very subject, sixth place for Hulkenberg meant Renault added eight points to its tally, stretching its lead over Haas to 30 points for fourth in the teams’ race. Hulkenberg’s teammate Sainz was a mid-race retirement, but Haas were nowhere to capitalise, Magnussen and Grosjean finishing at the very back in 15th and 16th, the final two cars classified.

Two other drivers left Mexico happy; McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne, who ended a 14-race run without points by finishing eighth, and Gasly, who guided his Toro Rosso from last on the grid to 10th, seeing off French rival Esteban Ocon in a fight that got feisty more than once as they scrapped over the final point on offer.

Those who lost out
The massive crowd at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez groaned when Sergio Perez’s Force India retired on lap 40 with brake failure; starting 13th, the Mexican had used his renowned tyre-preserving style claw his way into the points, only for his car to let him down. It was a bad day all round for the Spanish-speaking drivers, Sainz and Perez joined on the sidelines by Fernando Alonso, whose McLaren inadvertently ran over a piece of Ocon’s front wing in the hectic opening corners after the Force India driver was hit by Sainz’s Renault.

And Ricciardo. No further explanation needed.

What’s next?
With the title fight over, Hamilton will have plenty of time for a celebration or three before the penultimate race of the season at Interlagos in Brazil in a fortnight’s time.


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