The Grand Prix report from Mark Hughes, as controvesy hits the Mexican Grand Prix late on
Max Verstappen and his on-the-edge judgement of braking distances, tyre grip and etiquette shaped the spectacle of this race. And his Turn 4 launch down the inside of Nico Rosberg’s second place Mercedes just as the race was on a strategic pivot defined the race’s shape – behind Lewis Hamilton, that is, who took career victory number 51 to draw level with Alain Prost and keep his title hopes alive.
Shaping the result was Hamilton’s untypically large performance advantage over Rosberg. But although it may not have looked it from the outside, Hamilton gave himself a race of jeopardy – at least for the first 17 laps, after which he was able to get off the tyres he’d flat-spotted within seconds of the start and that were creating such vibrations as to threaten to destroy the tyre’s casing. The resonance had increased 25%, on the extreme limit, by the time he was brought in. “Normally, we would have brought him in long before then, for reasons of safety,” said Toto Wolff, “and that would have lost him the race and the championship. We felt we couldn’t do that.”
Ballsy but accurate – right on the edge.
At this track, where bringing the tyres in was such an intricate and crucial business, Hamilton had rather got sidetracked by that requirement on the formation lap – giving not enough attention to his brake temperatures, which were mismatched as he headed down to the 220mph braking zone for the first time, with the right front disc around 250-degrees C cooler than the left as he stood on the brake pedal. The cold disc snatched; and Lewis was grassward-bound.
So the first of many controversies, as Hamilton ran off track but retained the lead, now with “vibrations that were rattling my brains out,” while just behind, Verstappen banged wheels with Rosberg. The Rosberg-Verstappen fight would run and run. As Hamilton eked out a handy gap over his team-mate and monitored the gap at will, even while backing off early into the turns to save stress on the engine, Rosberg could neither make an impression on the other Merc nor untangle himself from the pesky teenager in the Red Bull.
Lap 50 was the race’s fulcrum. The piece of track that Rosberg and Verstappen happened upon Carlos Sainz as they were lapping him snagged the Mercedes slightly more than the Red Bull – and Verstappen knew he had to pounce: it was now or never for his tyres were eight laps older than Rosberg’s and surely about to lose their performance. So he launched a very bold move down the inside of Turn 4 and it almost worked. But there was so much dust and marbles off line this late into the race that he found himself gathering up a car attempting to spin and Rosberg took up his normal line, now finally free of his tormentor.
Just as this was happening Sebastian Vettel – having used the opportunity of not being under threat from behind to stay out long on his first set of tyres – was using his young second-stint tyres to catch fourth-placed Daniel Ricciardo (who had pitted under a safety car on the first lap and was still on those tyres) fast. Before it was too late, Red Bull brought Ricciardo in. It lost him a position he was going to lose anyway but put him on newer and softer compound tyres with which he could come back at the Ferrari. So Vettel was now chasing the old-tyred Verstappen down and they were both being caught by the flying Ricciardo. The trio were set to meet up by around lap 66, just five from the end. What happened then was desperate, thrilling, messy, controversial stuff and resulted – once the stewards had waded through the footage – in three different third-place finishers. Across the line it was Verstappen, on the podium it was Vettel and in the final results it was Ricciardo.
At the heart of the controversy was again Verstappen, in at least three ways. In retaining his position from the attacking Vettel by running off the track he should probably have been ordered to immediately surrender the place. But he wasn’t; there was delay for a lap or so before it was announced that the stewards would investigate the incident post-race. Vettel raged as this all played out and this only intensified as Verstappen appeared to back up the Ferrari into Ricciardo. Finally, as Verstappen gave what Vettel swears were a couple of brake tests through Turns 1 and 2, Ricciardo pounced down the Ferrari’s inside into Turn 4 – and Seb defended by changing his line in the braking zone. Since Austin, this has been specifically forbidden by regulation – a regulation triggered by… Verstappen, of course.
There was just too much emotion, history, pride and clashes of values to be fitted into such a small timeframe, all exacerbated by the human politics milieu behind the scenes in race control. It burst out in Vettel’s sweary tirade, directed at both Verstappen and race director Charlie Whiting.
The very specific conditions of the Hermanos Rodriguez track made it all play out in an unusual way but the grid ended up looking much as it usually does, with Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes on pole from the sister car of Nico Rosberg and an all-Red Bull second row.
But it was a session of crazy track temperatures (up to 55-deg C) and a tyre – the super-soft – way out of its temperature range. That made it incredibly difficult to turn on. If you went too quickly on the preparation lap the surface would overheat wildly and you’d get no lateral load into it. Already there was very little vertical load because the thin air – 23% thinner than sea level – meant less than Monza levels of downforce for Monaco levels of wing. So the core would remain cold while the surface overheated. The trick was in making a very gentle preparation lap, or more commonly two preparation laps, and gradually building up the core temperature without overheating the surface. Doing this, it was still a significantly faster tyre over a qualifying lap than the soft so it had therefore to be used.
Mercedes and Ferrari used the soft to get through Q2, allowing them to start the race on it, but everyone reverted to the super-soft for Q3. Hamilton was riding the wave right from when the wheels began turning on Friday and he continued to surf it even as the track temperatures ramped up so spectacularly on Saturday afternoon. His task in these last few races is appealingly simple; only race wins will do and he seems to have tuned back into a good place of confidence and equilibrium.
Although Friday had suggested the Ferraris would be Mercedes’ chief competition, that turned out not to be the case. Into Saturday Red Bull had trimmed wing from its car – even deleting the monkey seat on that of Max Verstappen – and found a better balance. Ferrari was caught out in a major way by the change in track temperatures, exactly as happened in Barcelona and Monaco. So in the final analysis Red Bull was 0.35s adrift of Mercedes (about what the Mercedes engine mode advantage gives over the Renault) and Ferrari was over 0.6s away – and out-qualified by Nico Hülkenberg’s Force India.
Hamilton’s pole lap came on his first Q3 run. The track was even hotter – and therefore slower – by the time everyone was making their final runs. The tyres now weren’t coming in until mid-way into the lap, giving a faster final sector time but not by enough, in most cases, to overcome to time lost in the first. The exception to this was Rosberg – who finally made sense of how to bring the rubber in on his last run, and only then did he leapfrog past the two Red Bulls, albeit only by a tenth or so.
Verstappen made two relatively clean Q3 runs to secure third, though neither were quite as fast as he’d gone when he headed Q2. “My Q2 lap was really good and felt quick but I just couldn’t find the same grip levels in Q3, which meant I was slightly slower. I struggled in sector one which is usually my best sector; that shows how the grip can change in a matter of minutes.”
Team-mate Daniel Ricciardo was a little on the back foot and 0.1s slower in fourth place. “My last lap was terrible. I was fighting it already out of Turn 1 and by Turn 6 I was nearly four-tenths slower than my previous lap. We managed to recuperate some of that but looking at the gap to pole it was only four tenths so it could have been a lot better but it also could have been a lot worse. It’s just like that with a new surface, it’s still very slippery here and it’s hard to find that happy medium.”
Hülkenberg produced what he reckoned “might’ve been my best qualifying lap of the season,” to put the Force India fifth, just a couple of tenths shy of Ricciardo, 0.4s off the identically-powered Rosberg. The time came on his first Q3 run after a two-lap preparation (like the Mercs and Ferraris, with the Red Bulls able to do it in one). Team-mate Sergio Pérez left his many fans disappointed by failing to make Q3, lining up 12th-fastest with a soft-tyred lap. Realising the car wasn’t quick enough to make Q3 on this tyre he switched to super-softs but locked up at the first turn and ran wide, ruining the lap before it had barely begun.
Not for the first time, Ferrari lost its way on the super-soft as the track temperatures ramped up. Vettel had done a soft-tyred lap in Q2 just a couple of tenths off Hamilton’s similarly-tyred lap and reckoned it had been ‘a walk in the park’ so was deeply disappointed as everyone else found half-a-second or more from the super-soft in Q3 but the Ferrari found nothing. It left him back in seventh, a few thousandths slower than team-mate Kimi Räikkönen, who only managed to complete one Q3 run. He abandoned his second attempt after suffering a sudden loss of power.
Williams was only marginally slower, with Valtteri Bottas putting together a good lap to go eighth, half-a-second and one place better than team-mate Felipe Massa. They’d each tried to get through Q2 on the soft but weren’t fast enough. Final Q3 qualifier was Carlos Sainz, putting the Toro Rosso there for the second successive weekend. Key to the achievement was very quickly arriving at a baseline set-up in that morning’s practice and then responding with his engineer in just the right way to the increase in track temperatures. Daniil Kvyat didn’t get out of Q1 in the other car, back in 18th after a sudden power loss. It was fixed, but not in time to get back out.
Fernando Alonso professed himself delighted with qualifying 11th rather than 10th in the McLaren-Honda (on account of the free tyre choice it gives). The McLaren wasn’t an easy car to balance through the weekend and required a very intricate preparation for the tyres. Jenson Button didn’t manage it as well, finding the fronts still not switched on in the first part of his final Q2 lap, leaving him 0.4s off his team-mate – all of it in the first sector – and back in 13th.
Kevin Magnussen, in 14th, was Renault’s only representative as Jolyon Palmer’s car was hors d’combat after cracking a chassis around the seat belt mounts as he hit a sausage kerb in Saturday morning practice. He’d be starting from the back of the grid in a car rebuilt around a fresh tub.
Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein did well to manhandle their respective Sauber and Manor through to Q2, where they were 14th and 15th respectively, separated by a couple of tenths. They were helped in this not only by Kvyat’s problems but also a disastrous session from Haas that left Esteban Gutiérrez 17th and Romain Grosjean 21st and last. Still chasing a fix for their braking problems brake ducts that were last tried in China were used on Friday, with disastrous effects on the car’s front-end grip. They effectively started again with set-up on Saturday but were nowhere. To cap it all, Grosjean’s final attempt was ruined by Gutiérrez spinning in front of him. Grosjean’s car was found to have a damaged floor. It was replaced by one of a different spec, entailing a pitlane start. Felipe Nasr could make no sense at all from his Sauber and was transferred to Ericsson’s set-up for Saturday but still found the car gripless. He lined up 19th. Esteban Ocon, 0.5s off Wehrlein, was similarly afflicted with his Manor, having no confidence in its handling.
The 130,000-plus wildly enthusiastic fans cheered in the pleasant warmth of a Mexican dry season afternoon. Something about the track surface here sees its temperature rocket up with only the slightest encouragement from the sun. Even with a bit of cloud cover by the 1pm start it was at 48-deg C and climbing. That had an influence on likely race strategies. The medium tyre was so durable it was probably capable of doing the whole distance, albeit with a lot of pace management. For those in the top 10 starting on the soft (the Mercs and Ferraris), they would likely be able to go long enough on that initial tyre to make just a single stop, using the medium to get to the end. Those starting on the super-soft may not have been able to get far enough on the first stint to make a single stop the faster strategy. But in the race’s early stages, with the track temperature still below 50-deg C, the super-soft just might be encouraged to go long enough to get you onto the faster one-stop. That was Red Bull’s hope. With both their drivers starting on the super-soft, they’d assessed that in the event of an early safety car it would be 50/50 whether to stop and change immediately to the medium, or to stay out.
Hamilton was untroubled off the line, getting away clean ahead of Rosberg who was quickly caught by the super-soft tyred Verstappen, Max getting himself fully alongside but on the outside, trying to squeeze Rosberg towards the pit wall. Then the Mercedes’ stronger ers deployment kicked in, the Merc surging ahead as the Mercedes-powered Hülkenberg now got alongside the Red Bull. Max switched sides, braked late, and re-appeared on Rosberg’s inside!
At just this moment Hamilton was locking up because of his snatching cold brake disc and taking to the grass. Once there he floored it, coming out still ahead. The race director takes a softer approach to such things when it’s the opening lap and he didn’t refer to the matter to the stewards. Just behind, Verstappen locked up trying to out-brake Rosberg, couldn’t quite keep it under control and barged into the side of the Mercedes wheel-to-wheel. “It was a big hit,” said Nico afterwards, “and I thought my race was finished right there.” Rosberg missed out some track and clung onto the place, with some steering offset but otherwise undamaged. They were both already some way behind the short cut-taking Hamilton, with his flat-spotted right-front tyre. Hülkenberg had got ahead of Ricciardo. Behind them, Massa and Vettel made light contact and Vettel was mistakenly convinced he had a puncture, Massa about to accelerate past the Ferrari. At Turn 2 Bottas had taken a hit on the right-rear from Sainz, the damaged rear floor of the Williams costing a calculated 0.3s per lap of performance. As Sainz exited Turn 3 he had Alonso’s McLaren to his outside but was unsighted as cars to his right moved him left – leaving Alonso nowhere to go, giving him a big but beautifully collected moment on the grass. Towards the back Gutiérrez tried for a gap that wasn’t there and snagged Wehrlein into Ericsson. The former crashed out hard, while Ericsson limped towards the pits for a new nose. The stationary Manor brought out the VSC, which shortly afterwards became a full safety car.
This triggered Red Bull’s contingency plan of splitting its strategies – and as the lower placed car, Ricciardo was brought in to have his super-softs replaced by a set of mediums which might just get him to the end. He rejoined way back in 17th, but the time saved on pitting with the pack at safety car speeds would partly compensate any delays he suffered making his way through the pack, which they’d reckon he’d be able to do quite comfortably. Also taking advantage of the safety car was Jolyon Palmer who took the opportunity to ditch the super-softs for a set of mediums – with the intention of going through to the end.
The safety car was in at the end of the second lap and Hamilton sprinted away from Rosberg, Verstappen, Hülkenberg, Räikkönen, Massa, Vettel, Bottas, Pérez, Sainz, Alonso, Magnussen, Button, Gutiérrez, Nasr, Ocon, Ricciardo, Kvyat, Grosjean, Palmer and Ericsson. Hamilton was out of Rosberg’s DRS reach by the end of the next lap, Nico more preoccupied with Verstappen behind than Hamilton ahead.
The super-softs were fading fast though and soon there were four battles of super-soft cars trying to fend off cars on softs: Hülkenberg-Räikkönen from Massa-Vettel from Bottas-Pérez from Sainz-Alonso. “I think I probably could have passed Hülkenberg at this stage,” said Räikkönen later, “but we knew he’d be coming in soon and we had to preserve our brakes.” Vettel meanwhile was reporting that he was essentially stuck behind Massa because the Williams was so quick down the pit straight, even the Ferrari’s DRS not enough. This would come to be a strategic blessing.
Alonso meanwhile was complaining he was stuck behind a car that ‘shouldn’t even be in the race’ on account of Sainz’s pushing him out onto he grass. The Toro Rosso driver would subsequently get a 5s penalty, to be added onto his race time. Ricciardo was scything his way through the backmarkers and by lap 12 was up with Alonso.
Those couple of safety car laps had been good news for those on super-softs, enabling them to bring the tyres in more sympathetically, extending their life. But from the 10th lap the rears were on their way out and Verstappen began falling off the back of Rosberg. He was brought in for a switch to mediums on the 12th lap, rejoining 11th – now two places behind Ricciardo, who’d made short work of the McLarens, Sainz and the battling Perez and Bottas.
Hamilton by now had extended his advantage over Rosberg to 4.2s, this gap getting around a potential nightmare dilemma for the Mercedes team. Because the new tyres were not necessarily going to fire up immediately, it wasn’t known with certainty if the undercut (gaining by coming in earlier and being quicker on your new tyres than your rival on old) or the overcut (gaining by coming in later and being quicker on your up-to-temperature old tyres than your rival on his slow-to-warm new ones) would play out. Had Rosberg been right up with Hamilton, it would have been no easy thing to call who to bring in first. Hamilton’s advantage had made it a non-issue.
The super-soft-shod cars of Hülkenberg, Massa and Sainz were in soon after Verstappen. But Bottas managed to keep his intact for a further five laps or so and his pace was good enough that he obliterated Massa’s advantage, Felipe being asked to move aside a few laps later so Valtteri could set off after Hülkenberg.
Hamilton had pitted for his mediums at the end of lap 17. Rosberg stayed out for a further three laps and emerged 3s ahead of the nose-to-tail Red Bulls of Ricciardo and Verstappen. By running longer on his softs than Hülkenberg could do on his super-softs, Räikkönen had overcut the Force India for sixth. But the yet-to-stop Vettel was now leading the race. This would prove key to his afternoon. Because there was no undercut threat from behind, and his softs were still in good shape, it made sense to stay out as long as possible, thereby shortening the subsequent stint, which could be run more aggressively. He was lapping slightly faster on his 20-odd lap old softs than Räikkönen could manage on his new mediums and was almost able to extend a pit-stop’s worth of advantage (22s) over him. But just as he was on the verge of doing so, the advantage began to swing Kimi’s way. No matter, Vettel was comfortably more than a stop’s-worth ahead of Hülkenberg and so stayed out for as long as the tyres held up – which they did until lap 32. Ferrari was all for bringing him in on the 26th lap but not for the first time this season he reasoned them into a more logical strategy from the cockpit.
Hamilton, having made his stop, was running a few seconds behind the Ferrari and in no hurry to pass it on track, just saving tyres and engine, keeping out of Rosberg’s reach. He assumed the lead once more as Vettel pitted and emerged just behind his team-mate but on mediums that were six laps newer. Räikkönen was not enjoying the mediums at all and wasn’t particularly quick on them. Vettel began to close the gap. Verstappen was given an easy passage by the older-tyred Ricciardo under team instruction and was generally keeping Rosberg within a couple of seconds. Ricciardo was having to conserve his old tyres and was being gradually reeled in by the Ferrari pair.
Hülkenberg was having a now lonely race some way behind the Ferraris but well clear of Bottas, who had gained a big chunk of time over his earlier pursuer Pérez by pitting earlier, Sergio with no pace to respond and falling behind the other Williams of Massa after his stop. Much to his frustration.
Approaching the halfway stage Verstappen was making steady inroads into the gap to Rosberg. Vettel caught Räikkönen before Kimi could get close to Ricciardo – giving Ferrari a potential headache. It was resolved, as in Austin, by bringing Kimi in for an extra stop. “It was my choice,” said Kimi. “I didn’t like this set of tyres and we thought we would try something different.” He came in for the second time on the 45th lap and rejoined behind Hülkenberg once more but quickly closing him down.
Vettel was flying. Yes, he’d given himself an advantage by being on fresher tyres than the cars ahead courtesy of his long opening stint, but it was more than just that; the Ferrari was every bit the car it had looked on Friday and not the unresponsive, tricky thing of qualifying. “I think that had we started from the second row we could maybe even have been able to put pressure on the second Mercedes.”
By the 48th lap he was within four seconds of Ricciardo and lapping between a half and a second faster. It was obvious what Red Bull needed to do. Daniel was told to make his way to the pits where a brand new set of softs awaited him. It would put him 18s behind Vettel – and he’d need to pass Hülkenberg – but he’d be super-fast.
Before that got to play out, however, Verstappen had made his wonderfully opportunistic move on Rosberg and oversteered way out wide of Turn 4. It hadn’t come off, but it had been worth trying – especially given that there was ample run-off on which to recover. But he’d shot his bolt with these tyres and Rosberg was off the hook. Verstappen (38-lap old mediums) was now being caught by Vettel (18 lap-old mediums), who in turn was being relentlessly pulled in by Ricciardo (brand new softs), who had made short work of Hülkenberg. Vettel was onto Verstappen’s tail by the 66th lap, Ricciardo would be joining them soon.
But before that, Räikkönen, having despaired of getting by Hülkenberg down the pit straight on account of not being able to get the power down well out of the final corner, instead pounced upon the Force India around the outside of Turn 4. Side-by-side they entered there, but it was too tight for Hulk’s old tyres – and he deliberately spun the car to avoid contact. He was far enough clear of Bottas not to lose a further place as he got going again.
Ricciardo had now arrived on the tail of Vettel. Into the 68th lap, with just three to go, Vettel got a DRS run on Verstappen, who braked very late for Turn 1 to keep him behind – too late for the old tyres and Max ran off across the grass, much as Hamilton had done on the first lap. The race director this time reported the incident to the stewards. It would be unconventional to issue a ‘surrender position’ instruction for not having lost a position – as opposed to gaining a position. It arguably should have been applied to Hamilton this year when he’d edged Ricciardo towards the wall exiting the chicane, and it arguably should have been awarded to Verstappen on this occasion. But it seems a step the officials are reluctant to take.
“You’re probably going to have to surrender position,” Verstappen was told over the radio. What didn’t go out over the broadcast channel though was the further instruction from his team to retain position while they sought further advice. Vettel, meanwhile, was livid, demanding that Verstappen move aside. Two laps later, with Vettel still cursing, Verstappen checked his rival’s momentum out of Turn 3, slowing him onto the short straight to four. “Am I the only one who can see what is happening? He’s backing me up into the other Red Bull.”
Vettel was all too aware of Ricciardo’s proximity. “I know Daniel in these situations. He jumps into a gap; I know exactly the situation in my head like in Barcelona, where he dived down inside at last minute and I gave him room.” This time Vettel began moving across on him in the braking zone – the move that’s been specifically banned following Verstappen’s practising of it. Ricciardo locked up; they banged wheels as they each desperately and skilfully tried to keep from taking each other out.
The positions remained unchanged on track. Verstappen headed the trio across the line 16.3s after Hamilton had recorded his crucial victory, with Rosberg halfway between them. Vettel’s ire reached a previously unchartered peak. “No I will not stay calm,” he retorted to the request from the pit wall. “He’s a ****. That’s what he is.” A few moments later as his engineer tried to explain that Charlie Whiting had said a decision about whether to apply a post-race penalty would be made before the podium ceremony, Vettel cut him off with: “No. Here’s a message to Charlie, **** off. Honestly. **** off.” It took Arrivabene to finally insistently calm him.
A 5s penalty was applied to Verstappen – who was told in the green room as Vettel took his place on the podium. But there was more to come. Ricciardo finally inherited third as Vettel was awarded a 10s penalty for moving in the braking zone, dropping him to fifth.
Räikkönen was a very much less demonstrative sixth, Hülkenberg’s seventh probably the maximum possible on the day, ahead of the damage-compromised Bottas, Massa and the frustrated Pérez, who never did find a way by. Marcus Ericsson drove strongly to 11th, beating Button by effectively non-stopping after the first lap nose replacement. Alonso couldn’t make his tyres last for a one-stop and thus finished behind Button. Palmer also effectively non-stopped in an impressive drive that completely eclipsed team-mate Magnussen’s three places back.
“I’m fighting for something I don’t know if I can make,” said Hamilton later. “It’s an unusual situation. I know I’m in a scenario where there’s more chance I lose it than win it. All I can do is keep turning up with great pace, like I did this weekend.”