Mark Hughes’ in-depth report on the 2017 Mexican Grand Prix
Max Verstappen stood in even thinner air than everyone else atop the podium – as a championship celebration played out around him that was only tangentially related to him, Lewis Hamilton sealing title number four with a quiet ninth place. Those two things – the unstoppable force that is Verstappen, full of youthful energy and refusing to yield to anyone, and the thin Mexico City atmosphere – were what prevented Hamilton sealing the deal in the manner he’d have preferred.
The stakes were vastly different between the first three on the grid, their perspectives formed partly by their circumstances: a title to confirm for Hamilton needing only a fifth place, the tiny slivers of a championship chance to eke out for Sebastian Vettel who really needed a victory from his pole position. For Verstappen, absolutely nothing to lose and motivated to hit back after the events of Austin – and in a Red Bull that was just made for this heady place and its outlier demands.
So as they fanned out three-abreast after that long, long run down to turn one and the switchback that follows, with something having to give, all that was certain was Verstappen was not going to back out of anything. For him, there was absolutely none of the ambiguity of task facing the other two – and that’s a situation that suits his style and instincts perfectly. Knowing that the other two had much more than he to lose, he was either coming out of there with damage or, much more likely, in the lead.
So, as the meat in a Vettel-Hamilton sandwich, Verstappen leant on the Ferrari through the right-hander, and at the crossover point where the outside line of Turn 1 becomes the inside for Turn 2, Vettel tried sitting it out – but from a much more vulnerable position than that of Verstappen. The left-front endplate of the Ferrari was damaged against the sidepod of the Red Bull – carbon fibre flicking up past Vettel’s cockpit. Hamilton’s instincts overrode the contingency of the moment. With those two guys way over on the right slowing each other down, it was just hard-wired in to use his greater momentum to try for the outside of them both. The resultant contact between Mercedes and Ferrari as they exited the turn – Vettel’s title hopes almost certainly left behind with the carbon shards that now littered Turn 2 – had the two championship contenders limping to the pits and Verstappen on his way to a dominant victory.
Hamilton, with his punctured tyre, lost 14 seconds more than Vettel with his damaged wing, in getting back to the pits. That, how much better the Ferrari is in traffic than the Mercedes and a seriously damaged diffuser on Hamilton’s car, allowed Vettel’s recovery drive to take him further. But not far enough. Even in one of the fastest cars in the field against tail-enders, passing around here is extraordinarily difficult. Air only 75% as dense as at sea level means greater straight-line speeds, lower cornering speeds – and therefore much more work for the brakes to do, yet those brakes are being cooled 25% less than usual. Keeping them alive is a huge challenge and you can’t just go in for any old tow that might present itself. Sit in there for too long and either the brakes or the engine fry. So without the tow, it takes longer to reach the car ahead. Then, when you get there, the DRS has very little effect (there’s far less drag to dump than usual). The long straight only makes things worse for engines and brakes. Run tight in someone’s slipstream at Monaco and the engine temperature may rise 2-3 degrees Celsius before it’s time to slow again. Do it here and the oil and water are running at more like 5-7 degrees too hot; mechanically dangerous territory.
So as Verstappen pressed on ever-more distant from the vainly chasing Valtteri Bottas, despite the team controlling his pace very tightly and turning his vulnerable Renault engine right down, Vettel and Hamilton made their progress through the pack, Vettel pressing on knowing the situation was almost hopeless, Hamilton regularly asking for updates on where Seb was and what he needed to do. They finished fourth and ninth respectively – and now each have four World Championships to their name.
At a track where the thin air firstly puts every extra scrap of downforce at a premium and secondly reduces the power differences between engines, the form cars were the Ferraris and Red Bulls, not the Mercedes.
But there was more to it than just those over-arching driving factors. The super-smooth, but very hot, track surface places a lot of emphasis on mechanical grip and makes the whole tyre preparation quite tricky. The fronts take a long time to prepare, and by the time they are ready the rears can be too hot. It’s the usual 2017 tyre conundrum but intensified. Vettel and Ferrari were more on top of this challenge than anyone else – and Vettel thereby took a terrific pole position, on the second of two single-lap Q3 runs. The Red Bull may have been potentially even faster than the Ferrari but Max Verstappen was disappointed not to have been able to nail his second two-lap Q3 run, having gone fastest in the first of them.
He’d actually stumbled on how much more effective the two-lap run was by accident – in Q2, when he’d been on an attack lap but had to slow for yellow flags for Brendon Hartley’s broken-down Toro Rosso. Cruising for the remainder of that lap and then attacking in the next one produced a spectacular improvement.
The Ferrari – back to the pre-Spa front suspension, but Vettel’s with the new front wing and floor introduced in Austin – took some massaging through the practices to get it into shape, but right from the start of qualifying, Vettel could feel he had the car under him, despite the slippery conditions. With a suitably hard out-lap, he was always able to nail the time in one lap, in contrast to the Merc and Red Bull. So it could have a better combination of new tyre grip and minimal fuel load. All that remained was for Seb to nail the lap in the dying moments – and that’s what he did. “I almost lost the car in Turn 6,” he revealed, “and I had to take first gear, but I still kept the momentum.”
That lap eclipsed Verstappen’s first Q3 run by 0.086sec – and with Max not able to quite get the tyre temperatures balanced on his second run and thereby failing to improve, it was pole position number 50 for Vettel.
Verstappen was crestfallen at having been pipped for the place. “I’m super annoyed. Actually, in Q3 it just got a bit more difficult, couldn’t really get the tyres to work.” There was also an inopportune de-rate that cost a few hundredths. But generally, the RB13 was flying around a track and in conditions that could’ve been made for it.
Hamilton, almost half-a-second off pole, reckoned his lap, “could’ve been a couple of tenths faster but that wouldn’t have been enough.” The Mercedes was just not quite as responsive through the slower corners as the Ferrari or Red Bull. Bottas qualified fourth, within a few hundredths of Hamilton, conforming to a pattern of comparing well with his team-mate whenever the track surface is low-grip (see also Sochi, Baku and Monaco). “It just seems to suit the way I drive for some reason,” he said. His first Q3 run was aborted after Verstappen got in his way exiting Turn 12. The stewards looked at it but took no action.
Fifth fastest Kimi Räikkönen with the new front wing and old floor was almost 0.8sec off Vettel’s time, “I struggled to put any decent laps together. I just tried to put one lap together in the end, but it was not easy. I made a mistake here, a mistake there and was lacking grip.”
Esteban Ocon responded superbly to Force India finding a much better balance from the updated car into Saturday, with a beautifully poised and precise lap that might even have challenged Räikkönen’s spot but for a small mistake.
There was something amiss with Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull, as it qualified almost a full second slower than Verstappen in seventh and was understeering wildly into the slow corners. He’d been nip and tuck as quick as Verstappen through the practices. “We have been strong all weekend but in qualifying, we just didn’t have any grip. We didn’t really touch the car from yesterday, but every time I left the pits today I just had no grip.” It seems that the set-up he’d developed through the practices had the car quite ‘on the nose’ and the increased track grip in qualifying made it too much so, obliging him to lift and losing front tyre temperatures. Once he’d qualified out of position it was decided to take a new engine and take the hit here in order to improve his prospects at subsequent races.
Nico Hulkenberg shaded Renault team-mate Carlos Sainz Jr only on the last run, the heavily updated cars going eighth and ninth, ahead of the Force India of Sergio Perez, the latter disappointed to be so far back in front of all his home fans. “We changed our tyre warm-up routine and I lost all my feeling with the car. Getting the tyres in the right window was difficult and I was unhappy with the balance.”
Williams was a couple of tenths from qualifying for Q3 – and that just seemed to be its natural place around here, with Felipe Massa 11th after what he described as close to a perfect lap. Team-mate Lance Stroll was struggling on the low-grip track, constantly rescuing emergencies, and was over a second slower.
Had Hartley’s turbo not let go just after turn one on his first Q2 lap he reckoned he’d have been ahead of both Williams in the Toro Rosso. He’d split them in Q1 and there was a lot more to come. “I hadn’t really nailed it in Q1,” he said, “but the braking into Turn 1 was spot on and I was pumped up for the lap, then bang. My confidence has been building all the time, lap after lap, and I was really looking forward to Q2 to really give it a crack. I’m feeling better and better in the car and, if Austin was a tough ask, I’ve come here a lot more prepared.” Team-mate Pierre Gasly suffered an apparently identical failure on Saturday morning and the unit couldn’t be replaced in time for him take any part in qualifying. Both had their engines replaced and would be taking the subsequent penalties.
McLaren was taking the usual Honda engine penalties – 35 for Stoffel Vandoorne, 20 for Fernando Alonso – and so they completed laps only in Q1. Alonso’s in that session was a beauty – only a couple of tenths shy of Hamilton (albeit the Merc was running with at least seven laps-worth of fuel in it). “I think we had the best chassis out there today,” said Alonso.
Marcus Ericsson was slightly quicker than Pascal Wehrlein at Sauber but both were faster than the Haas pair, Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean. The Haas was simply awful around here, visibly gripless. “There’s no excuse,” said Grosjean, who had crashed heavily on Friday afternoon. “We’ve got a 2017 Ferrari engine, which is more powerful than the Sauber one. We’ll need to find a way to make the car faster at the circuits where we need extra downforce.” At the maximum cooling levels required here because of the thin air, the Haas bodywork is remarkably inefficient aerodynamically – and even coming into the weekend they were expecting to struggle, but not to this extent.
Three abreast into Turn 1, Ferrari, Red Bull, Mercedes fanned out with Vettel on the inside. Verstappen’s rev limiter had been set too low and he’d initially cursed as he felt it kick in. But it had actually done him a favour: “It put me behind Seb and that gave me a big tow and put me on the outside.”
An unstoppable force going around Vettel into Turn 1 and refusing to yield, Vettel resisting but from a more squeezed-in position, the Red Bull already grinding ahead. Where determined meets stubborn – and the blink-brief window where one becomes the other – Vettel’s front wing endplate was already damaged. Now here was Hamilton trying to pounce, going around the outside into Turn 2 but squeezed out over the kerbs by Verstappen who was now clearly in the lead and taking time out to say ‘just beautiful,’ over the radio. Hamilton tried as hard as he could to then give the Ferrari room, letting it all hang out as he got as far over the exit kerb as possible. Vettel – who had Bottas to his right, but still with room to manoeuvre – remained stubborn and arrow-straight and as the kerb ended and the Mercedes rejoined the track, so its right-rear wheel snagged the remaining part of Vettel’s front wing that hadn’t already gone.
A racing incident. Yes, that’s how it was adjudged. Hamilton commented that he was surprised that Vettel hadn’t found the room to avoid contact, that he was a good enough driver to have done that. But ultimately, he said, he didn’t care – albeit from the perspective of having just clinched the title. Vettel, as usual in such situations, cleverly deflected. “I’d rather not rise to fuel the controversy. It’s not the time. It’s time to congratulate Lewis on his championship.”
Verstappen ran already 1.7sec clear as he exited the baseball stadium for the first time onto the pit straight, with Bottas, Ocon, Hulkenberg, Sainz, Perez, Massa, Räikkönen (a terrible run to the first corner, flicking left out of the train early and losing the tow as a consequence) and Stroll. Magnussen had made a great start and benefitted from the carnage to run an early 10th, soon demoted by the charging Ricciardo from his penalised grid slot.
In the pits, Vettel’s nose-cone and accompanying front wing were changed and he was quickly underway again, now on the soft tyre rather than the ultrasoft on which he – and almost everyone else – started. Hamilton arrived 14sec later and he too was fitted with softs, the idea being to get to the end on them – feasible, as the degradation rates were very low. The left-hand half of his diffuser was badly damaged from the flailing punctured tyre, but he resumed anyway, now at the back. Sainz wasn’t liking how his Renault was feeling and on the second lap spun at high speed, flat-spotting all four tyres. He was in for replacements and rejoined behind Vettel but 13sec ahead of Hamilton. He would later retire with a power steering problem, which was, in fact, the origin of the strange sensations that caused him to spin.
Massa was in on the third lap (a slow puncture from first lap contact) and he’d rejoin just ahead of Vettel. Ricciardo was charging along; having just passed Stroll, he was closing Räikkönen down when the ERS-h failed. He’d lasted just five laps, by which time the sister car of Verstappen was leading Bottas by 3sec – and already his engine was being turned down. The Renault units seemed particularly vulnerable this weekend (five failures in total), particularly around the turbo and ERS-h area. To get equivalent power to that produced at lower altitudes, the turbos have to spin around 4000rpm faster in Mexico. The Renault’s compressor, being on the small side compared to Ferrari and Mercedes, produces excess heat due to the strain. “We turned it down so much that we were eventually seeing temperatures no higher than those we saw in Suzuka,” said Christian Horner. Being out front in clear air also helped enormously of course – and there was no-one looking remotely like a threat. “Yeah, I was just cruising,” Verstappen admitted afterwards.
Räikkönen was being punished every lap for that poor start as he was forced to run at the pace of the Ocon-Hulkenberg-Perez train, with no way of getting past. Force India brought Perez in early, on lap 18, in an attempt at undercutting Hulkenberg. It didn’t work, as Renault responded next lap – which in turn forced Ocon in. All three were fitted with new softs on which they planned to run through to the end. Finally in clear air, Räikkönen began to pump in laps quick enough that he’d be able to overcut ahead of at least Perez and maybe the others too, depending upon how long the tyres stayed in shape. But by this time he was half-a-minute adrift of the lead.
Vettel had made his way past Massa, Gasly and Grosjean – and was now chasing down Hartley. Hamilton had only just caught up with Sainz at the back and was struggling to pass. The Merc’s understeer through the final turn was losing him time onto the straight and so even DRS was only getting him back what he’d lost – then he’d have to back off to cool everything down again. Had the team had the impossible foresight of knowing he’d be up against a fairly quick car (the Renault) first, they’d have put him on another set of ultra-softs and accepted the extra stop that would’ve entailed. By lap 22 Hamilton suffered the indignity of receiving a blue flag, warning him to get out of Verstappen’s way…
Vettel meanwhile had just DRS’d his way past Hartley and was now chasing the McLarens. Vandoorne had just been asked to let Alonso past and had complied. Fernando was able to close up on the Sauber of Marcus Ericsson, so enabling him to use DRS – and thereby keep Vettel at bay once the Ferrari had gone by Vandoorne. Ericsson – like Magnussen three places ahead of him – had capitalised on the carnage and was hanging onto his elevated position (ninth) tenaciously. Hamilton meanwhile had yet to find a way by Sainz, who was using Wehrlein in a similar way to how Alonso was using Ericsson, allowing him to use DRS defensively. It was a brain-frying race for Hamilton as he tried to progress while keeping temperatures and tyres under control with a damaged car.
Bottas in the other Mercedes was having a very lonely race – “The balance was OK but it was just sliding around a lot,” – further behind Verstappen each lap but well out of reach of Räikkönen, who was on course to overcut Perez and Hulkenberg after stopping, but not yet Ocon. The Renault took care of itself on lap 24, Hulk pulling off with an ERS-h failure. Two Renault motors down, one leading the race. Hartley’s Renault motor had been consuming a lot of oil for several laps and eventually, some found its way into the exhaust, causing a failure. He pulled off on lap 30, the Toro Rosso coming to a halt in an awkward place and bringing out the VSC.
This was the obvious time to make the pitstop if you hadn’t already done so. It also changed the not stopping plan for Hamilton. Depending upon where you were relative to the pit entry, the VSC was great news for some, bad for others. It was certainly bad for those who’d already stopped – the Force Indias – relative to Räikkönen and Stroll. By pitting while the Force Indias stayed out restricted to VSC speeds, they made around 8s on them. So Räikkönen got out ahead of Ocon for third while Stroll exited in front of Perez in fifth.
Verstappen was fitted with super-softs. Ferrari fitted Vettel with ultras, with 39 laps still to go – which seemed a stretch. But there were no new super-softs left. Räikkönen was forced to equip softs for the same reason, while both Mercs were fitted with super-softs. Hamilton had finally got past Sainz a few laps earlier and was now set to chase down Grosjean. He passed the Haas and Wehrlein in quick succession, with Gasly the next target.
Ericsson had pitted a couple of laps before the VSC (which lost him many places) – paving the way for Vettel to put a pass on the now-defenceless Alonso. Next in Seb’s sights: Magnussen’s seventh place, Kevin not putting up any resistance as the Ferrari came through on lap 37. Perez’s sixth place was 13sec up the road at this point, but Vettel was breaking and re-breaking the lap record and would be there soon enough.
Verstappen would occasionally better even Vettel’s time – until being urged by the team to slow it down. “OK,” he’d reply mischievously. “That lap was as fast as the last one,” said his engineer a lap later. “OK, really sorry,” he laughed. This was just a nice day out for Verstappen, his only two potential rivals accounted for in the opening seconds. He had, though, noted that many of the cars that were no longer running were Renault-powered – which made him slightly nervous. “It was turned down, it was a new engine and that probably helped – but so was Daniel’s, so I was thinking, ‘Please, don’t let this happen to me.’” He was going fast relative to the others – but could have been going considerably faster. It would’ve been fascinating to have seen how he’d have fared against an untroubled Vettel and Hamilton.
Gasly, Ericsson and Vandoorne fell victim to Hamilton over the next few laps, Ericsson then retiring with his engine ablaze. “What position am I in?” queried Lewis. On being told he was 11th he asked if there was any way Vettel could finish in the top two. “Negative Lewis.” The championship was essentially in his hands now as he chased down Massa. Felipe put up a stern defence but it was as nothing compared to that which would be shown by Alonso as Hamilton sought to deprive him of his ninth place. Carbon dust would pour from the Merc’s front wheels as he braked as late as he dared on the outside for Turn 1, but Alonso would brake equally late. Side-by-side they went around there on several occasion, even rubbing wheels at one point. The Mercedes eventually scrabbled past under braking for Turn 4. “Oh, he’s one tough cookie!” said Hamilton of his old sparring partner. “It was amazing. That’s pure racing and I so hope that with a better engine next year we can have Fernando up where he should be.”
As the extravagantly-spaced Verstappen, Bottas and Räikkönen breezed along on their own, Ocon in fourth was being pressured by the much newer-tyred Stroll. By lap 50 Vettel had caught Perez’s sixth place and nailed a super-late move from a long way back into Turn 4. With nothing to lose, Perez was brought in and fitted with a set of ultras. Before too much longer, he’d made up the 22sec pitstop time loss. Stroll allowed Vettel through, with the Ferrari then using DRS to put a pass on Ocon. That fourth place was as far as he was going to get – unless, of course, Ferrari got Räikkönen to make the switch. But there was little point in that, as third wasn’t going to be enough to keep Vettel’s title hopes alive even if Hamilton didn’t score.
Ocon, Stroll and the fresh-ultra-shod Perez got close in the last few laps but remained in that order. Magnussen held onto his eighth place – a gritty performance that flattered the Haas – and Hamilton clinched the title with a lapped ninth place a couple of seconds ahead of Alonso. Hamilton was in a generously-spirited mood in his elation afterwards. But after thanking the team and his family and reflecting on his battle with Alonso, he picked out particular praise for Verstappen, winner now of two of the last four races. “He’s the brightest young star we’ve seen for some time… seeing his racecraft through the first few turns was phenomenal. He’s still got things to learn but I look forward to many battles with him.”
And the race-winner’s verdict of the new champion? “In general this year he’s been the strongest and also the car was the most reliable between the Ferrari and Mercedes and if you combine those things you can achieve great things.”