Hamilton tactics defeat Ferrari's 'peachy' position: 2019 F1 Mexican Grand Prix report

by Mark Hughes on 28th October 2019

Lewis Hamilton is within four points of taking the F1 world championship after winning the 2019 Mexican Grand Prix with a "risky" strategy by Mercedes

Lewis Hamilton is raised onto the podium with his car after winning the 2019 F1 Mexican Grand Prix

Photo: Motorsport Images

It’s always a funny old race, this one. The altitude plays with all the variables in a way F1’s clever people - who try to impose order upon the crazy technology and intense competition - are not used to. The effects on the airflow and engines of 25 per cent less air are easy enough for them to predict, but the wild variation in track temperature that’s also a consequence of the thinner air, and the effects of that upon the remaining black art of F1 - the tyres - is not.

Practice running suggested that because the soft (the C4 at this race) would fall to pieces so quickly, its compound way too delicate for the loads imposed upon it, and the hard was too slow, it would inevitably be a two-stop race. Even for the top three teams who’d be able to qualify in Q2 on the medium and thus start the race on it.

But that’s not how it went at all. The Friday long runs were conducted on a track with a temperature of 34C. The race began with the tarmac at 44C. That 10C difference changed the pattern completely, requiring those clever people to interpret the new patterns in live time – and make crucial time-sensitive decisions based upon them. They always do that of course but the variables were swinging much more wildly here.

So what had looked like a nailed-on two-stop race gradually seemed to be migrating to a one-stop. That’s the direction it seemed to be heading as they carefully monitored the tyre degradation. The direction, but not yet the definite transition, as the chancers began to apply early undercut pressure. If it was a two-stop, you needed to respond. If it was a one-stop you absolutely must resist that temptation. So Red Bull pulled the plug with Alex Albon, running in third close behind the two Ferraris on lap 14. Which was too early to really know what the right thing to do was. Charles Leclerc was pitted from the lead in response. Both pitters had been fitted with the same medium compound tyre on which they’d started and so were therefore obliged to pit a second time.

Prioritising Leclerc’s track position over Albon and thereby leaving Vettel out for an extra lap ensured the latter would have lost track position to the Red Bull if he’d followed in the lap after Leclerc. Which, with such ambiguity about which was the better strategy, pushed him toward the one-stop and neatly split Ferrari’s options, now with a car in each camp.

The further the laps unfolded and the lower than expected the tyre deg continued to be, the better it was looking for Seb. Except, damn it, there was now a pesky Mercedes big in his rear mirrors. It was Lewis Hamilton. And Vettel couldn’t shake him. This despite much of the right-rear floor of the Mercedes being missing, courtesy of a first lap hit with Max Verstappen’s Red Bull.

Sebastian Vettel leads Lewis Hamilton during the 2019 F1 Mexican Grand Prix

Hamilton loomed large in Vettel's mirrors as the race went on Photo: Motorsport Images

Verstappen himself, with what looked like potentially the fastest car in the field, was out of contention not only from the multiple place loss following the contact with Hamilton but also a lap five stop to replace a tyre punctured against a Valtteri Bottas endplate as he tried to recover.

So what to do on the Ferrari and Mercedes pitwalls as the one-stop window opened with Hamilton tracking Vettel well within undercut range? Mercedes, not leading the race, could afford to be braver. But at what point did brave transition from silly?

Tracking the still-low tyre deg – and watching how quickly both Daniel Ricciardo and Verstappen were managing to go on the hard tyre - Mercedes was feeling more bullish than Ferrari. Their strategy man reckoned that so long as they could get past 19 laps, it was game on. Ferrari reckoned 30 laps.

For Mercedes, once past lap 19 it was just about waiting for a suitable gap to drop into, and hoping Ferrari didn’t take it. Ferrari didn’t and Mercedes pitted Hamilton at the end of the 23rd lap – implying a formidable-sounding 48-lap final stint. Not do-able surely? Hamilton didn’t think so. Ferrari didn’t either – and they’d already effectively lost the position if it brought Vettel in on the next lap. So they kept him out there for an extra 13 laps after Hamilton’s stop.

They’d lost track position but surely with a 13-lap tyre advantage Vettel could catch and pass Hamilton. Except he couldn’t.

Partly it was because Vettel was low on fuel by the end and not able to run as aggressive an engine map as Hamilton. More importantly, there was virtually no degradation on the hard tyre and it made next to no difference how many laps it had done. And, last but by no means least, because Hamilton was doing a brilliant job in juggling all the variables in his damaged car. His 83rd victory was one of his very best – and also one of the Mercedes strategy team’s best.  

But still Hamilton hasn’t quite clinched the championship. With Bottas taking third (pressing Vettel to the end) Hamilton still needs another four points to secure that Fangio-beating crown number six.

 

Qualifying

Max Verstappen parked in the pole-sitters position after qualifying for the 2019 F1 Mexican Grand Prix, flanked by two Ferraris

Both Ferraris were promoted after Verstappen's penalty Photo: Motorsport Images

Max Verstappen was going to be on pole anyway from his first run time. As last man of the top six on track in the second run, and with no-one on-course to beat his first effort, he didn’t need to stay on the gas as he passed the yellow flags for Valtteri Bottas’ crashed Mercedes between the final two corners.

He bettered his previous sector three time by 0.001sec, for a 0.2sec improvement on the lap overall. So, his second pole of the season hung in the balance as the FIA looked at the Red Bull’s telemetry. It was found that he hadn’t lifted, had remained flat throughout – which tallied pretty well with his own account beforehand. The lack of contrition may not have made any difference to the outcome. But it certainly didn’t help. “I was aware Valtteri had crashed.” Yes, but had he backed off? “It didn’t really look like it, did it? No.”

But aren’t you supposed to back off for a yellow? “I think we all know what a yellow flag means.”

So why didn’t he back off? “Well, it doesn’t matter, does it?”

How so? “Well they can delete my second lap. The other lap was fine as well… I think we know what we are doing otherwise we would not be driving an F1 car. It’s qualifying and, yeah, you go for it. But like I said before, if they want to delete the lap, then delete the lap.”

It seemed a remarkably petulant attitude. And he seemed to be forgetting that the stewards could do more than merely delete his lap. A three-place grid drop duly followed and just like that, Red Bull and Honda lost their second pole of 2019.

Which gave an all-Ferrari front row, Charles Leclerc ahead of Sebastian Vettel, though the latter had been on-course to beat the former before the Bottas yellows frustrated his lap. Leclerc, like Alex Albon, had completed his second lap as the Bottas accident happened behind. Hamilton, Vettel and Verstappen were the first three on the accident scene – in that order. Hamilton passed before the flag came out and improved his time, Vettel dutifully backed off for the flag by 0.4sec, spoiling the potential front-row lap.

Valtteri Bottas's destroyed car in the barrier during qualifying for the 2019 F1 Mexican Grand Prix

Final corner crash for Bottas had a major impact on the grid Photo: Motorsport Images

Albon’s second lap wasn’t as good as his first and stood as fifth-fastest, over half-a-second off Verstappen. Bottas had gone too deep into Turn 16, understeered onto the marbles and snagged a rear wheel on the barriers, this drawing the front of the car in like a magnet and it continued, front left no longer attached, until it reached the transition point between single barrier and Tec Pro, hitting it hard enough to wind the driver. His first run time put him sixth. Bottas’ crash severed the cable which triggers the yellow cockpit lights in the cars, which may have been a contributory factor in Verstappen not lifting.

Had Bottas not crashed, the order would almost certainly have been Verstappen from Vettel, with Bottas, Hamilton and Leclerc too close to call behind, then Albon a further 0.3sec off them. In other words, the Bottas accident had done Leclerc a massive favour – and Verstappen’s subsequent attitude may well have been the factor that converted Leclerc's initial boost into pole.

So, what was with the Red Bull’s resurgence after such a disappointing recent run? The answers probably lay in the thin air of Mexico City, aerodynamically and mechanically.

Like the Mercedes, it has got good downforce even though a little draggy. Every extra bit of downforce you can find where the thin air makes it such a valuable commodity finds you more lap time than the increase in drag costs – because that drag has also been reduced by the thin air. The changeover point where adding downforce becomes neutral to lap time moves massively up the available downforce scale here – to a point beyond what the cars are capable of generating.

Then there are the engines. The Honda, like the Renault, uses a turbo smaller than that of the Mercedes, one which can more easily compensate for the thinner air by spinning faster to further compress the thinner air. At its lower homologated burst point speed, the Mercedes turbo is not quite compensating fully for that 25 per cent reduction in air density. The Ferrari seemed to still carry a power advantage over everyone, albeit smaller than usual over Honda and Renault.

Charles Leclerc during qualifying for the 2019 F1 Mexican Grand Prix

Ferrari maintained its power advantage in Mexico Photo: Motorsport Images

Although the Ferrari’s naturally lower drag will have counted for less than usual, that and its power advantage still saw it rule through sector one, which essentially comprises two straights interlinked by the Turn 1-2-3 switchback. By the time it reached the end of the straight, it was already 0.4sec up on the Mercedes and Red Bull, this increasing to 0.5sec before the braking zone for Turn 4 that ends the sector. The Mercedes and Red Bull would then claw time back on the Ferrari through the downforce-rewarding sectors two and three, but the Mercedes by not quite enough. That’s how the very different downforce and power hierarchy played out in the thin air.

Besides that, Red Bull and Verstappen had found a very happy set-up that worked the delicate soft tyre very well, allowing it to be up to temperature by the first turn and not quite in shreds by the end of the lap. The Mercedes, by contrast, was always caught between a rock and a hard place in those conflicting requirements. The Ferrari looked somewhere in between the two on tyre usage.

Leclerc could only be relieved the way things had panned out, as his second run was poor.

“I think the last few races we have been really hurt on straightline speed and on most of the tracks you can’t gain enough in the corners compared to what you lose on the straights,” said Max, “and I think here it’s still big but this track has very low grip so it’s not only aero, it’s also mechanical grip, which is a little bit more important and good kerb riding and stuff like that and I think traditionally our car has always been very good.

"We just made a mistake in Singapore with the set-up, otherwise I think we could have been really quick there as well. For us it didn’t work out there. We learned a lot from it and I think we came here with a car which was very well prepared already on the simulator.”

Leclerc could only be relieved the way things had panned out, as his second run was poor. “Yes, I went for a bit more front for my second run which helped me in sector one but it gave me a big oversteer moment in sector two.” Vettel made an error on his first run – a lap that would stand for the front row behind Leclerc - but his second was shaping up beautifully before the Bottas incident. He probably wasn’t going to beat Verstappen’s second run time, but may have shaded the first.

The Mercedes were generally a couple of tenths behind the Ferraris, with very little to separate Hamilton and Bottas. On split times, at the end of sector two on their final runs, Hamilton was 0.011sec ahead and because Leclerc had messed up his second run, third place on the grid was up for grabs. Then Valtteri took just a little too much speed into 16 – and everything changed. All of which put Hamilton third after the Verstappen penalty, Bottas sixth.


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Albon had nestled between the Mercedes pair on his first run but failed to improve on his second with a couple of oversteer moments through the middle sector. Still feeling a little under-prepared after crashing out early in second practice at the esses, he felt that had he managed to thread it all together he could’ve been on his team-mate’s pace. So to be over 0.5sec off ultimately was very disappointing. All of the top six were able to graduate from Q2 using the medium tyre, keeping them from having a strategy-compromising short opening race stint on the soft.

The McLarens always looked best of the rest, albeit 1sec off the ultimate pace. Carlos Sainz grabbed the ‘Class B’ pole for the third consecutive race, seventh overall, 0.3sec faster than eighth-fastest team-mate Lando Norris who, like Albon, admitted to not quite putting it all together on his first visit here.

The Toro Rosso, a car with decent downforce but high drag, went better than usual, helped also by the Honda’s suitability to the venue. Both Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly graduated to Q3 and went ninth and 10th there, the latter feeling very unwell, suffering – like dozens of team members at that end of the paddock – with a nasty stomach bug.

Toro Rosso during qualifying for the 2019 F1 Mexican Grand Prix

Honda power helped Toro Rosso into the top ten Photo: Motorsport Images

In putting his Racing Point 11th, local hero Sergio Perez was actually probably in a better position than any of the McLaren or Toro Rosso drivers, all of whom were committed to start on the very short-life soft tyre. His team mate Lance Stroll was a chunky half-a-second adrift of him in Q1 and failed to graduate from there, 16th overall. He’d actually lapped faster than that on a slightly damp track in practice 3 that morning.

The Renaults had missed that practice session altogether after what was described as a ‘pollution of the water in the cooling system’. Which may have been a diplomatic way of explaining a somewhat embarrassing error within the garage. The cars were not in great shape here, light on downforce and therefore unsuited to the track. Nico Hülkenberg edged Daniel Ricciardo by 0.1sec to take 12th on the grid, creating a furious self-recrimination from the latter.

The Alfas followed on – Kimi Räikkönen comfortably quicker all weekend than Antonio Giovinazzi. Behind Stroll in the Q1 part of the grid were the Haas and Williams teams in the order of Kevin Magnussen, Romain Grosjean, George Russell and Robert Kubica.

This is always a terrible track for Haas and with this car’s difficulty in working the tyres, the shortfall in downforce created by the thin air was disastrous. Grosjean was only a couple of tenths faster than Russell’s Williams. The FW42s both had the new front wing here – with its cut-down outboard ends designed to aid the outwash around the tyres. But only Russell’s had the new floor and barge boards – on account of Kubica having destroyed the new-spec floor in his Suzuka qualifying accident. In percentage terms, for Haas and Williams this was the furthest off the pace they’d been all season.



 

Race

Two Ferraris at the front of the grid as the 2019 F1 Mexican Grand Prix starts

Leclerc leads Vettel into Turn One Photo: Motorsport Images

The foundations of this race were Sunday’s much higher temperature in this moody, warm but sometimes rainy weekend – and the choreography of the leading cars down to Turn One.

Leclerc got away cleanly from pole on the outside, Hamilton from directly behind using the tow to gain on him. But before he quite got there Vettel, from the inside, swooped across for Leclerc’s tow, without having quite cleared Hamilton’s gaining Mercedes, which was in his blind spot. As Vettel moved left so Hamilton was on the escape apron and thereafter partly onto the grass. Vettel later apologised and insisted he simply hadn’t seen him. “I checked the mirrors on the right and the mirrors on the left and that’s when I saw Lewis and then I tried to go right but before that point I didn’t see him. We see quite well in the mirrors but there is still obviously an angle that you can’t see.”

Hamilton: “So Seb is coming across, coming across, coming across and I’m thinking ‘I’m on the white line, I don’t have anywhere further to go’. And he just keeps coming. So I had to avoid crashing with him, going on the grass. Avoid his wheels as well, otherwise I could have caused a big collision for him. Then I was surrounded by a bunch of cars. I braked into Turn One and all of a sudden Max is alongside me. If you’ve seen races before, I always leave Max a lot of space – it’s the smartest thing you can do. But there wasn’t a lot of space for me to give him…”

Hamilton hung on around Verstappen’s outside, ready for the switchback of Turn Two, but got a big oversteer moment as Verstappen aggressively hung him out. The two cars became intertwined, rears then fronts, and each was forced to take to the grass before they could untangle themselves, allowing Albon and Sainz (the McLarens fast-starting on their soft tyres) past before Hamilton merged back into the pack, his right-rear floor damaged. Verstappen, further out on the grass, lost places also to Norris, Bottas and Kvyat – running all four wheels well off the circuit in repassing the Toro Rosso on the exit of Turn Five.

Verstappen/Hamilton clash cost both drivers positions Photo: Motorsport Images

Following on were Gasly, Perez, Ricciardo (the only one starting on hards, with all those outside the top 10 otherwise starting on mediums), Hülkenberg, Stroll, Giovinazzi, Raikkonen, Magnussen, Kubica, Russell and Grosjean. Kimi had been squeezed between Magnussen and Stroll, causing damage to the area around the radiators for which the Alfa would later be retired after a gripless struggle in the lower midfield. On the exit of Five, Leclerc was slow from the defensive shallow line he took and the closely-following, wider-arcing Vettel, going faster, made light contact, luckily without damage to either car.

A VSC was imposed to clear the Turn Three Hamilton/Verstappen debris. They were released part-way through the second lap, at the end of which Leclerc crossed the line 1.6sec ahead of Vettel with Albon hanging tight onto the Ferraris and pulling quickly away from Sainz who was soon demoted by Hamilton.

 

Critical moment 1, Verstappen’s doomed pass on Bottas

This is where the fastest car of the race was taken out of contention. Strike Verstappen from Hamilton’s possible barriers to victory.

On the fourth lap, Verstappen pulled an outrageous move on Bottas, down the inside of the Turn 13 hairpin in the middle of the stadium section, not conventionally considered an overtaking spot. Valtteri was turning in from the outside and saw him late, but even so didn’t appear to try too hard to avoid contact, the Red Bull’s right-rear making contact with Bottas’ front wing endplate. “I couldn't disappear from there,” said Bottas. “He got a puncture from that, so… yeah, I couldn’t really avoid him, so I think he earned his own puncture.”

Max Verstappen's Red bull with destroyed right rear tyre after a puncture at the 2019 F1 Mexican Grand Prix

Puncture extinguished Verstappen's hope of victory Photo: Motorsport Images

Verstappen’s tyre was already going down as Bottas made a spectacular-looking, sparks-flying repass on the pit straight. As Verstappen’s sidewall collapsed, he was running on the rim back to the pits where he’d be fitted with a set of hard tyres. He rejoined at the back, a minute off the lead, with only damage limitation possible from there on a day when he had the pace to have dominated. When he rejoined he was for a long time lapping 2sec quicker than the leaders. Later he’d be matching their pace on tyres that were 30 laps older. The audacity that can win you races had lost him this one.

Bottas picked off the McLarens of Norris and Sainz quickly enough – under DRS at the end of the pit straight – to be running fifth, 6sec behind Hamilton. So that’s how the first stint settled down, the Ferraris out front, running at a constrained pace, keeping temperatures under control, saving fuel, a bit of lift and coast. Albon hung comfortably onto their coattails with Hamilton, in turn, staying just out of the Red Bull’s turbulence zone.

Both Mercedes drivers were having to carefully manage their brake temperatures. Their front ducts were fully open but even so very marginal on cooling when there’s 25 per cent less air. It was felt that to have switched to bigger ducts would have lost them any chance of race-winning performance. Conceived in the assumption of running at the front, the Mercedes traditionally have less brake cooling than their rivals and where the cooling demands are extreme, such as here, they rely more on their drivers managing them.  

Increasingly far behind Bottas, the McLarens of Sainz and Norris led best of the rest from Kvyat but on their short-life soft tyres this trio weren’t getting themselves sufficiently clear of the medium-tyred Perez to prevent the Racing Point from being in a position to leapfrog them at the stops. Just behind him ran the likely even-longer running Ricciardo, both he and Hülkenberg having passed the soft-tyred Gasly.

 

Critical moment 2: Albon applies the undercut pressure

Here’s where Ferrari’s race leader Leclerc was pressured onto what turned out to be the wrong strategy. Which, in hindsight, struck another Hamilton opponent aside.

Having hung on close behind the Ferraris for a dozen laps, Albon was suddenly left a little breathless as Leclerc and Vettel were let off the leash and upped their pace by half-a-second on lap 13, the team seeking to take themselves out of the Red Bull’s undercut range. The only way Red Bull had of preventing that from happening was to pit Albon immediately – and he was brought in at the end of the following lap. In doing this, Red Bull was committing him to an aggressive two-stop – and so he was fitted with another set of mediums.

Alex Albon follows Carlos Sainz at the 2019 F1 Mexican Grand Prix

Albon's early pitstop put him behind Sainz, but still a threat to Vettel Photo: Motorsport Images

This move split the Ferrari strategy apart at just the moment it had no concrete answers on whether a one-stop was going to be feasible. If it left Leclerc and Vettel out there — and it did turn out to be a two-stop race — then they would lose track position to Albon and Ferrari was still thinking that two-stop was indeed going to be the faster strategy. As such, it had to pit Leclerc immediately – with Vettel already sacrificed — as Albon was too close, despite being passed by the old soft-tyred Sainz as he exited the pits and taking a few corners to repass him, costing him as much as 4sec. Leclerc, like Albon, was fitted with a second set of mediums, thereby committing to a two-stop. Leclerc was not at all convinced about his strategy, having reiterated that his tyres felt fine.

By contrast, Vettel was quite happy. “At the moment, everything’s peachy,” he said when asked about whether he wanted to stay out, given that if he pitted he’d come out behind Albon. So he stayed out and Ferrari had itself a split strategy. Steadily, the evidence was mounting that actually a one-stop was going to be better. The medium tyres were just not degrading significantly. Furthermore, Verstappen and Ricciardo were demonstrating that the hard was absolutely not as slow as it had seemed during the practices. Therefore a one-stopper became even more attractive. 

Leclerc exited in fourth with his gap over Albon extended from 4sec to 9sec, courtesy of the Red Bull’s delay on its out-lap. Vettel now led by a couple of seconds from Hamilton, with Bottas a further 7sec back.

Hamilton began closing down Vettel. The Mercedes may not have had the Ferrari’s qualifying pace, but its downforce advantage and reduced race day power deficit combined to make it probably a marginally faster car on Sunday. Even with part of its outer rear floor missing. “The balance was quite a lot different,” related Hamilton. “The rear end was quite weak so I was sliding around a lot in the high-speed, so I had to change my settings quite a lot and had to drive it a little bit differently because I couldn’t attack the same way on the entry of corners because the rear stability wasn’t the same.” He was improvising a pretty tune from it regardless.

In Class B, the Toro Rossos pitted early to be rid of their softs, forcing McLaren to respond with Norris on lap 12. Unfortunately the right-rear wheel nut was not properly secured and he left with it loose. He stopped before the end of the pit lane and the car was pushed back. But he was effectively out of contention and was later retired. This all delayed Sainz from being brought in until the 15th lap – which resulted in him being undercut by Kvyat.

Verstappen by this time was well into his recovery drive and about to devour the Kvyat/Sainz/Hülkenberg/Gasly group, having taken a hit with Magnussen’s Haas along the way. Hulk was one-stopping, the Toro Rossos were wedded to two-stops and Sainz was undecided. Or at least he was until he felt how bad the hards were. “I pushed hard to catch [Kvyat] when I came back out and I think I must’ve overworked the tyres because very quickly I had no grip, which was putting me onto the marbles, giving me even less grip and the whole thing began to spiral down.” He would convert to a compromised two-stop and the slow stint on the hards would drop him well down the field, finishing between the struggling cars of Stroll and Giovinazzi, a disastrous outcome after convincingly qualifying as ‘best of the rest’.

Max Verstappen overtakes Nico Hulkenberg during the 2019 F1 Mexican Grand Prix

Verstappen spent the race industriously overtaking to sixth place Photo: Motorsport Images

Perez and Ricciardo meanwhile were together going in the opposite direction. Checo made his stop for hards on the 20th lap and emerged just behind Kvyat but on his new tyres overtook him into Turn One a lap later, putting the Racing Point at the head of ‘Class B’, the reward for not having made Q3 and therefore not having been obliged to start on the soft. Ricciardo would stay out on his hards for many more laps yet but would be dicing with Perez subsequently.

At the back was a terrific dice between the Williams drivers. Kubica had led this battle throughout the first stint and was brought in first. But a delay attaching a rear wheel allowed Russell to overcut him on the following lap. Kubica immediately launched a counter-attack and scraped back ahead in a super-close move, to retain the upper hand. Grosjean had passed them earlier on but could make no further progress, the Haas diabolically bad. Stopping much later than the Williams pair, he was repassed by them. Magnussen at least kept himself out of their reach but was left far behind by Giovinazzi’s struggling Alfa, even after the latter had been delayed by being dropped off its rear jack at the pit stop.

 

Critical moment 3: Hamilton’s undercut

This was where Mercedes’ strategy got Hamilton ahead of Vettel, his only remaining barrier to victory.

By the 22nd lap, Hamilton had turned what had been a 5sec deficit to Vettel to one of just 1.6sec, ie well within undercut range. But it was too early to stop if you were one-stopping, surely? Even while monitoring the race live, Ferrari reckoned lap 30 as the earliest feasible time to stop, giving a 41-lap final stint on the hards.

"I think we realised only very late that the one-stop was definitely better," said Mattia Binotto... "Maybe we should have taken more risks."

So Ferrari was surprised when Hamilton was brought in on the very next lap. It was a tactical masterstroke but didn’t look it at the time. Especially from inside Hamilton’s car. Forty-eight laps on a set of hards? “You brought me in too early, man,” related Hamilton to his stand-in race engineer. “That’s way too many laps for this set of tyres.” He kept repeating this until reassured by chief strategist James Vowles that all was under control.

“I think we realised only very late that the one-stop was definitely better," said Mattia Binotto. "When Charles stopped for us it was still too early to gamble on the one-stop, it would have been too risky, not only for tyre degradation but for tyre wear as well. But with Seb, certainly the gamble [Mercedes] did today was the right gamble; they took some risks to win and I think the risks played to their merit. Maybe we should have taken more risks.”

With the place already lost if he came in, Ferrari left Vettel out – with the plan to stay out as long as possible, so as to give a big tyre advantage over Hamilton after he finally stopped. Hamilton had emerged from his stop in between Leclerc and Albon, both of whom needed to stop again. Mercedes covered its bases by leaving Bottas out. He was running 7sec behind Vettel but beginning to close.

The reason why Hamilton’s strategy worked was that there was virtually no difference in pace between new hards and those 13 laps older. With Vettel on his old mediums unable to maintain a pit stop’s-worth of gap over Hamilton on his new hards, he was going to come out behind him with the hope of then passing him on track by using his much newer tyres. But it didn’t work like that.

Bottas – his mediums finally hitting the cliff with no tread left — pitted from 4sec behind Vettel on the 36th lap, triggering Ferrari into responding the next lap. Vettel rejoined now 7sec behind Hamilton. This put Leclerc into a temporary lead until he made his second stop six laps later, rejoining fourth around 11sec behind Bottas. Vettel meanwhile was eating into Hamilton’s gap but not at anything like the rate Ferrari had expected. “They were just a bit faster than us today,” related Vettel. “Lewis did well managing his tyres in the second stint, and was just cruising up to the point where we arrived. It worked finally but neither them nor us expected the tyres to last that long. We saw a lot of graining on Friday and so did they actually, they saw a bit more than us, so it was a bit of a surprise that today we didn’t have any and that made the difference.”

Sebastian Vettel behind Lewis Hamilton at the 2019 F1 Mexican Grand Prix

Vettel's fresher tyres weren't enough to overhaul Hamilton Photo: Motorsport Images

“Yes, on Friday we were a long way away from these guys and from Red Bull,” confirmed Hamilton. “On Friday their pace, particularly the Red Bulls, was stronger than ours and Seb went like eight or nine laps further than I could make the tyres go.” But race day conditions had changed all that. The degradation of the medium was so low that it made virtually no difference whether you stopped on the 23rd lap, like Hamilton, or the 36th/37th like Bottas and Vettel. 

Leclerc’s second stop had not gone well, with a 4sec delay getting the right-rear attached. But he was fastest man on track now, chasing down Bottas at up to 0.8sec per lap. He and Albon were vying for fastest lap at this stage, the Red Bull having also just rejoined on fresh rubber. In the end, Leclerc would just shade it. In the space of 13 laps he got an 11sec deficit to Bottas down to 3.5sec. But a big lock-up into Turn Four and a trip to the run-off area signalled the end of his charge. Thereafter, he couldn’t quite get the tyres back into their working range. Without the 4sec delay, he’d have been right up with Bottas before reaching this point and maybe could even have passed him, given the Ferrari’s straightline advantage. But that’s likely as far as he’d have got.

Vettel meanwhile was caught between chasing Hamilton and keeping a wary eye on Bottas just behind. A couple of times Valtteri got DRS on the Ferrari, “but even with DRS, my speed was only about the same as his without DRS.” Vettel waited in vain for Hamilton’s tyres to hit ‘the cliff’.

Verstappen was still around a minute off the leaders on his ancient tyres, but at this stage that was enough to have him in sixth place, albeit well behind team-mate Albon.

Ricciardo meanwhile had got his hards to last for a full 50 laps. He rejoined on his mediums 5sec behind Perez and comfortably ahead of team-mate Hülkenberg, who’d moved up as the Toro Rossos had made second stops. Daniel quickly closed down on the crowd’s favourite but the Racing Point was fast in a straight line so even with the help of DRS on lap 62 Ricciardo wasn’t really in a position to try for the pass at the end of the pit straight. But he tried it anyway, locked up badly and was forced to take to the escape area. Perez regained the place and Ricciardo never got quite close enough again on his flat-spotted tyres. 

Kubica had retained the upper hand in the Williams battle but picked up a slow puncture on the 62nd lap, a piece of carbon debris subsequently found in there. The pit stop for a replacement put him last, behind Grosjean.  

Going into the last lap, Kvyat on his fresh tyres was closing down on Hülkenberg’s ninth place. He tried an optimistic move at the last corner, punting the Renault into a spin, allowing Gasly to pass it too before he could get going again. Kvyat would be awarded a 10sec penalty for the move, dropping him out of the points, putting Gasly and Hulkenberg ninth and 10th respectively.

That’s what was happening behind as Hamilton finally won at Mexico. The bigger prize awaits.

 


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