2018 Mexican Grand Prix report

by Mark Hughes on 29th October 2018

The Mexican Grand Prix in comprehensive detail, direct from Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez

Max Verstappen didn’t enjoy being P2 in qualifying, with the fastest car and only his team-mate to beat. The knocking over of the P2 bollard in parc ferme told you that even without his moody response afterwards. “I’m not here to finish second or third,” as he put it later. He put that right emphatically on Sunday, taking control into the first corner and never even looking like relinquishing it.

Red Bull and Ferrari both had the legs of the Mercedes, which suffered terribly with graining front and rear tyres for reasons the team didn’t understand. So while Verstappen was controlling the race, Lewis Hamilton was fighting a losing battle to be competitive. But his fourth place was enough to clinch him his fifth world championship. After Daniel Ricciardo went out late in the race with yet another mechanical failure, Sebastian Vettel scored a solid second place for Ferrari, a long way ahead of team-mate Kimi Räikkönen.

Afterwards, in parc ferme there was a touching and very genuine-looking exchange between Hamilton and Vettel, eye-to-eye. “I congratulated him,” said Vettel. “He has driven superbly all year, he was the better of us and he deserved it.”

Qualifying

The high altitude demands of this place brought out some fascinating anomalies – which this year were only exaggerated by Pirelli bringing the hypersoft compound, two steps softer than the 2017-spec ultrasofts used last year.

Combine that with a 45 degC track temperature on Friday afternoon and Mercedes and Ferrari couldn’t even keep the pink-walled tyre alive for a single lap – but Red Bull, Renault and Toro Rosso could. The lap time gap between Red Bull and those two smaller teams was much as usual, but with the silver cars and the reds in trouble, it made for a bizarre competitive order. Had the weather stayed that way into Saturday, there’s every chance we’d have had a repeat of the Renaults on row two, comfortably faster than the title combatants. The high temperatures also meant the Merc’s cooling levels were not adequate and the motors were running in detuned form.

An oxygen content 25 per cent lower than at sea level penalises each of the engines differently. At the most basic level, the lower oxygen content of the incoming air is compensated in a turbocharged engine by the turbine spinner faster. But there’s a limit to how fast the turbines are allowed to spin – with each engine manufacturer having to provide to the FIA, pre-season, the ‘burst point’ of the turbo, ie the revs at which it remains safe and will not break through its casing in the event of failure, scattering high-speed hot debris in its wake. If the safe burst point revs for a particular power unit’s turbo fall some way short of fully compensating for the lower oxygen content, and another one doesn’t… then the competitive order between them will change. That’s one possible explanation of why the Renault was apparently much better relative to Mercedes and Ferrari than usual. Others believe the Renault gets more from its ERS-H than the others and as that’s not effected by the altitude, it becomes more apparent.  

Another reason might simply have been the lower power engines were stressing the super-delicate tyres less, allowing the hypers to stay alive longer. That would also have tallied with Brendon Hartley’s Toro Rosso and its old Spec 2 Honda being sixth fastest on Friday afternoon.

As it happened, a heavy thunderstorm Friday evening brought a complete change of climate, with Saturday overcast and cool. That and the analysis of Ferrari and Mercedes overnight, brought them back into competitive play. “Overnight, we did good work on the engine side to post a competitive level of power in the thin air,” said Merc’s James Allison, “while the chassis engineering team recovered the slow corner competitiveness that was missing yesterday.”

But still the Red Bulls looked the cutting edge of the field – both in Saturday morning practice and into Q2. Would the Q3 engine modes of either the top two teams be enough to overcome the superior downforce of the RB14?

Well, the C-spec Renault has a Q-mode of its own and although not as potent as the others, it turned out to be enough. The front row was all-Red Bull and analysis of the three sectors showed the following:

Sector 1 (two straights):  1. Ferrari 2. Mercedes + 0.67% 3. Red Bull (+0.91% to Ferrari)

Sector 2 (eight corners):   1. Red Bull. 2. Mercedes + 0.62%. 3. Ferrari (+1.14% to Red Bull)

Sector 3 (tight stadium/hot tyres): 1. Red Bull 2. Mercedes +0.34%. 3. Ferrari (1.31% to RB)

Given that everyone runs maximum wings here (but get only Monza levels of downforce in return), it gives a good reading on the comparative total downforce of the cars, suggesting that Red Bull heads it from Mercedes and Ferrari. That downforce costs drag, of course, hence that order is transposed in sector one, comprising the two straights, where Ferrari was dominant. Where the Ferrari usually scores is in aero efficiency, but the thin air means that’s not particularly rewarded here.

It played out the way it did with Ricciardo stealing a sensational pole from team-mate Verstappen, thereby maybe denying the latter his last realistic chance at becoming the youngest-ever pole sitter. Up until the final Q3 runs, Verstappen appeared to have a comfortable couple of tenths advantage. But Ricciardo’s a wily fox. Had he been holding something back in the last two sectors? “That time came out of nowhere,” said Christian Horner. “Just a sensational lap.”

Verstappen was deeply hacked off – and summarised it as, “A crap qualifying. The same problems as FP2 [in which he’d been fastest by 0.15sec). Engine braking not like I want to, just rear-locking the car. We tried to make the best of it.”

It was not an actual malfunction, but just a trait. The auto blipping on downshifts isn’t precise enough for the level of corner commitment Verstappen carries in qualifying and gives him sudden instability. Ricciardo’s smoother style was able to smother the problem.

Hamilton seemed more relieved at being in the ballpark – around 0.15sec off pole – than disappointed at being on the second row, which he shared with the Ferrari of his title combatant Vettel. Both felt they’d pretty much maximised their cars and were split by less than 0.1sec.

Just as in Austin, Mercedes had decided to cover up the rear wheel spacer holes that had got Ferrari so agitated, this despite the FIA giving a clarification to the feature on Friday. Ferrari meanwhile again back-to-backed its latest floor with the standard one on Friday – and again decided to stay with the old one for both cars.

Mercedes decided to play it safe and covered up the holes, just as it had done in Austin for the same reason

Hamilton and Vettel’s respective team-mates Bottas and Räikkönen were around 0.3sec adrift and sharing the third row. Bottas had his Austin engine re-installed as a precaution after the newer unit suffered a hydraulics failure on Saturday morning. Räikkönen was finding his Ferrari to be inconsistent as the tyre temperatures came in and out of their ideal window. The hyper was a tricky tyre – and a short-life one. Hence all the Red Bulls, Mercs and Ferraris had qualified in Q2 on the ultra, which was only around 0.8sec slower but a lot more durable.

The Renaults remained the best of the rest, but with Ferrari and Merc recovered, they were back in their more usual seventh/eighth slots and needing to use the hypers to graduate from Q2. Nico Hülkenberg edged Carlos Sainz by a couple of tenths. With Force India choosing to avoid the hypers in Q2, it effectively gave the Sauber team a free passage into Q3, where Charles Leclerc and Marcus Ericsson went ninth and 10th respectively, separated by 0.35sec, with Leclerc just a couple of tenths off Hülkenberg.

Ocon’s ultra time wasn’t quite good enough for Q3, leaving him 11th. Team-mate Serio Pérez also chose not to use the hyper and was 0.3sec slower. This was enough to allow the hypers-shod McLaren of Fernando Alonso to split them, in 12th. Team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne had been within 0.1sec of Alonso in Q1 but that wasn’t enough to graduate from there, leaving him 17th.

Pierre Gasly’s Toro Rosso was taking an engine penalty, as Honda had refitted the Spec 2 motors while the Spec 3 is further tweaked. It was Brendon Hartley’s turn this week to have the new aero package that Pierre Gasly enjoyed in Austin, with Pierre reverting back to the old spec. Hartley looked to have Q3 potential but blew his final Q2 lap and lined up 14th. Gasly didn’t do a lap in Q2 and would line up at the back.

Just as in 2017, the Haas was just not competitive around here. Last year it was how much performance it lost by the necessary opening up of the bodywork to increase the cooling. But the team reckoned that wasn’t it this time. “We just couldn’t get the tyres working at all,” said Kevin Magnussen, who was two places and six tenths adrift of team-mate Romain Grosjean (who took a three-place grid penalty for his Austin incident with Leclerc).

Williams brought up the rear, Lance Stroll ahead of Sergey Sirotkin on this occasion. 

Race

Amid the mariachi and costumes of the carnival, the teams and cars were getting set for the contest, as in and out the pits on reconnaissance laps went the throaty Ferrari engines, popping Hondas, blaring Mercs and raspy Renaults. Twenty sets of madly intricate procedures, monitors plugged in and out, wheels removed and refitted, tyre blankets on, generators running. Ricciardo flew off the track at Turn One, practising his braking points for the first turn – slightly earlier than that, then!

The celebrities, media and costumes cleared, the mechanics and engineers too, until it was just a grid of cars, heat hazes rising – and off they set on the grid lap. Purple-sidewalled cars in the first six places, short duration pink-walls for the next four. Those outside the top 10 were roughly split between the supersofts and ultras, with Gasly, starting last and with nothing to lose, gambling on an early safety car by starting on the hypers. The tyre picture was largely unknown though. The long runs had been done on a track temperature of 48 degC. Now it was 28 degC. The heat ranges of the three compounds are totally different.

From the front row, Verstappen got a superb getaway, Ricciardo got a little too aggressive with the clutch and wheelspun away his advantage to his team-mate – and to Hamilton too, who almost immediately thrust himself between the Red Bulls, with Verstappen on the inside and going neck-and-neck with the Merc down to Turn One. Vettel slipstreamed Verstappen, Ricciardo did the same to Hamilton, with Bottas going it alone on the outside. It was going to be awfully busy when the track funnelled them into turns 1-2-3. What was going to give?

“Max told me this morning that he’d had only three hours sleep last night,” said Christian Horner, “as he wrestled with what had gone wrong yesterday, but he came in today with a look on his face that said there was only one person coming out of there in first place.”

So it proved.

It was a relatively simple matter for him to out-brake a cautious, title-chasing Hamilton – and the rest could make their own arrangements.

Those arrangements included Vettel backing off early, obviously not wanting to get involved in yet another incident, but also hoping this might give him momentum as the others tripped over themselves. This obliged Räikkönen to lift in sympathy – and Sainz took advantage to nip by Kimi’s inside for sixth. Ricciardo grinded his way ahead of Bottas for third through the switchback, and their dice allowed Vettel to get a run on Bottas as they exited onto the short straight down to Turn four, the Ferrari going through there side-by-side so as to be on the inside for five. Bottas tried clinging on, way out over the kerbs, and they rubbed wheels, but the Ferrari was past.

Ocon had lost part of his front wing against Hülkenberg – and the debris flew into the path of Alonso, lodging itself into the McLaren’s barge boards. The Force India would be into the pits for a new nose at the end of the lap.

It became increasingly obvious that a one-stop was going to be very unlikely.

Behind Hülkenberg was a mad first-lap scrap involving Leclerc, Pérez, Ericsson, the limping Alonso, Stroll, Magnussen, Sirotkin, Gasly, Grosjean and Vandoorne. Joining Ocon in the pits was Hartley, who’d flat-spotted his valuable super-softs avoiding an impact into Turn One. As with Ocon, it took him out of any sort of contention – and the pair would later have a niggly collision for which Hartley was held to blame and penalised 5sec.

Verstappen already had a 1.1sec advantage over Hamilton as they crossed the line. Räikkönen slipstreamed by Sainz to retake sixth – and from there the tail of ‘Class A’ and the head of ‘Class B’ diverged sharply and would be separated by two laps at the end.

Verstappen appeared fully in control and was able to eke out his lead over Hamilton even while managing the rubber, the aim being to have a long enough opening stint to one-stop. Ricciardo and Vettel tailed Hamilton, just out of each others’ wakes, while Bottas and Räikkönen fell steadily back into support positions. If it stayed like this Hamilton would comfortably clinch the championship. Vettel needed to win with Hamilton lower than eighth to take the contest to the next race.

Alonso was forced to pull off on the fourth lap. The damage inflicted by Ocon’s debris included a radiator leak. After a lap, the VSC came out. Gasly took the opportunity to be rid of his hypers and this would be the foundation of a strong recovery drive that would ultimately net him a point.

But even the break of a lap at 40 per cent reduced speed wasn’t enough to rescue the ultras on either of the Mercs. As Verstappen took off into the distance once more as a man on a mission, the front lefts of Hamilton and Bottas began graining quite badly. The Mercedes was just not well balanced enough to keep the tyres in their delicate sweet spot. Red Bull and Ferrari – and pretty much everyone else – suffered front graining too, but it was light and it was recoverable after a few laps of backing away from the edge. But the grains on the Merc fronts were deep and there was going to be no bringing them back. Before too much longer the rears began graining too and Hamilton was complaining about the resultant vibration.

Much had been made coming into the weekend of the cooling holes in Merc’s rear wheel spacers and whether they – as Ferrari suggested – conferred an aerodynamic benefit. Mercedes had requested a ruling for the weekend, and the FIA agreed with Merc’s contention that the holes were primarily for cooling.

But, as a team looking to seal Hamilton’s title here, Mercedes decided to play it safe and covered up the holes, just as it had done in Austin for the same reason. Was this a contributory cause to the rear graining? Probably not. Graining, unlike blistering, is not generally caused by excessive heat but by too big a temperature difference between the tyre’s core and its surface. It certainly had nothing to do with the extreme front graining.

By the 11th lap, Ricciardo was closing fast on Hamilton while Räikkönen was doing the same to Bottas. The Mercs had almost no front rubber left and increasingly graining rears. Hamilton headed for the pits and was fitted with the more robust supersoft. He was sufficiently far clear of Bottas that Merc could bring the sister car in on the same lap, for the same change of tyre.

Red Bull responded by bringing in Ricciardo a lap later, whereas Ferrari – with nothing to lose and its tyres in reasonable shape – decided to run Vettel and Räikkönen a few laps more. They had just been on the point of going for the undercut on Bottas with Räikkönen when the Merc stops made them react in the opposite way. Ricciardo didn’t quite manage to overcut Hamilton, while Verstappen was brought in the lap after, putting Vettel into an artificial lead.   

The ultras on the Mercs hadn’t lasted any longer than the first of the hypers-shod Q3 runners to pit, Sainz coming in on the same lap from the ‘Class B’ lead, with Hülkenberg and Leclerc following on successive laps. This left Pérez – who had passed Ericsson – in an artificial Class B lead on his robust supersofts, but what they gave in durability over the hypers of the Renaults and Leclerc’s Sauber wasn’t enough to offset their lesser pace. Sainz and Hülkenberg continued to hold sway here.

The early stops left Red Bull and Merc trying to do almost 60 laps on supers. Was that possible? No one had done much running on this tyre in practice, and no one had chosen many examples of it – but coming into the race Verstappen did have two rather than the one of the others. Merc had surrendered one of Hamilton’s after FP1, which they wished they hadn’t in hindsight. But it wasn’t a question of wrong tyre selection but of an unbalanced car.

It became increasingly obvious that even the supersoft was graining up on the Mercedes and that therefore a one-stop was going to be very unlikely. But at Red Bull, maybe it was feasible. “Being at the front, I was able to do my own race,” said Verstappen, “which helps a lot with tyres that are easy to grain. I had no pressure from behind, and no car in front. So that helped me control the tyres.”

Ferrari kept both its cars out long (17 laps), with Räikkönen delaying Verstappen as best he could before pitting. Hamilton had to do a ballsy move into Turn One to pass the yet-to-stop Räikkönen, with Ricciardo taking advantage of that dice to also pass. Both Ferraris then pitted. The top six order was the same as in the first stint but Verstappen’s lead was already out to 8sec – and almost immediately Ricciardo and Vettel together began to close on Hamilton. On the Mercedes pitwall was the dawning realisation that they were just bad on the tyres and there wasn’t much strategically to do. And, furthermore, when they inevitably did stop again all they had left were the short-life ultras. None of this was imparted yet to Hamilton, who kept pressing on, only to be constantly frustrated by the gaps and lap times of the Red Bulls and Ferraris.

Meanwhile, increasingly far back, the Renaults still dominated the secondary class. Prior to his lap 31 stop, Pérez was still only around 4sec clear of Sainz and rejoined just behind Leclerc’s Sauber, which in turn trailed Hülkenberg by a few seconds.

Even the Red Bulls were beginning to suffer a little with front-left graining by now and Vettel caught Ricciardo before the latter had quite caught Hamilton. A long DRS-aided fight between the Red Bull and Ferrari ensued, giving Hamilton a bit of respite. Ricciardo had great traction out of the final turn and so even with DRS, Vettel’s task wasn’t easy. On one occasion Ricciardo managed to hold Vettel off only through getting DRS of his own as he lapped Ocon. They diced on up to Turn Four and only by perfect placement did Ricciardo hang onto the place.

The Ferrari’s fresher rubber was telling. On lap 30 Vettel had his former team-mate lined up again and this time the Red Bull had no backmarkers to get DRS from. It looked like Vettel was about to pounce. But at that very moment the VSC was triggered – Sainz had pulled the Renault off track with a sudden and total loss of power.

“Are we coming in?” radioed Hamilton, keen to get on fresh rubber and to take advantage of the 10sec saving over a normal pitstop. No, he was told, stay out. There were simply too many laps left to get a set of ultras to the end if he came in now. Had they had that extra set of supers they’d used in FP2, it would’ve been the perfect time to come in.

 

 

As racing got underway again, so Vettel relaunched his attack on Ricciardo. Into the 34th lap, with full deployment and DRS, Vettel nailed a decisive move to claim the third place. Hamilton, who was visibly struggling to get the power down through Nigel Mansell corner onto the pit straight, was just 4sec up the road and lapping up to 1sec slower. Verstappen’s lead over the Mercedes at this time was out to 12sec.

Vettel’s move on Ricciardo had happened just a few metres behind the similarly dicing Leclerc/Pérez, a lap down. Pérez got ahead eventually, but it was a short-lived bit of glory for the local hero. After a few more laps the Force India’s brake pedal suddenly went very long, giving him a bit of a moment into the baseball stadium. He immediately made his way to the pits to retire the car – leaving the vast, wildly enthusiastic crowd without their man. Had the team been a little over-ambitious with brake cooling levels around a track where the thin air means it’s always very marginal? That hadn’t been established at the time of writing.

Vettel hunted the struggling Hamilton down and Lewis was defenceless once the Ferrari got to within DRS range, Vettel taking second place going into the 38th lap. Verstappen was 14sec up ahead, probably too far and probably not pushing to the maximum, but Vettel set chase anyhow, leaving Hamilton now trying to fend off Ricciardo.

Hamilton was by now being instructed to drive to a delta time, to keep his tyres going long enough that he could get a short enough stint for the ultras that awaited him in the pits. “You’re giving me the wrong times, man!” he said, after hearing how much Ricciardo had cut into his gap. “How can he gain 1sec in one lap?” He was also beginning to suffer vibrations again as the rear graining pattern repeated.

He was defending as hard as he could as the Red Bull got DRS on him on the 47th lap. Braking late, the front left momentarily locked and as he took to the grass escape route, Ricciardo breezed by. “These tyres are dead,” Hamilton radioed in. He was finally brought in for his second stop and his (used) set of ultras were fitted. In response, Ferrari brought in Vettel, clearly not feeling confident they could get him to the end as his front left was beginning to grain.

This gave Verstappen – leading Ricciardo by 25sec – a free stop for no loss of position. It allowed him to use the extra set of supersofts he’d saved. At just this time Räikkönen pressured Bottas into locking up at Turn One, just as Hamilton had done. Valtteri too was brought in for fresh ultras.

Red Bull looked at the supers that had just come off Verstappen’s car – and realised they were still in good shape. Thus informed, they decided to leave Ricciardo out.

So with that flurry of second stops, new-tyred Verstappen led the very old-tyred Ricciardo by 5sec, who was just 3sec ahead of the new ultra-shod Vettel and the one-stopping old-tyred Räikkönen – with Hamilton a distant fifth, around 15sec ahead of team-mate Bottas.  

Vettel set chase for Ricciardo all over again and initially it seemed inevitable that he would catch and pass the second Red Bull. But he needed to do it before the ultras had given their best – for Ricciardo was still conjuring great pace from supers that had been on since lap 12.

By the 56th lap Ricciardo was having to take defensive lines – and again he was helped by the Red Bull’s great traction onto the straight. “Let’s open up the gap in the high-speed,” he was told. “You can do it.”

Even on old tyres, the Red Bull had a grip advantage. As Vettel’s times began to drop away, it looked like Ricciardo had contained the challenge. Then, with 10 laps to go, there was a sudden loss of power – a sickeningly familiar feeling for him. He pulled to the side of the track for the second time in a week. Initial analysis suggested the failure was clutch-related. He didn’t take it well, might have even suggested Gasly could have the car now…

Vettel was no threat to the imperious Verstappen by now. On seeing his team-mate’s parked car, he suggested they might turn his engine down. Even after that, he was chasing the fastest lap. But eventually he had to give best in that endeavour to Bottas who, under the VSC for Ricciardo’s car and under no positional threat, came in for a third stop – for hypers. It was on these that he eclipsed Verstappen’s times, but the stop put him a lap down from the dominant Red Bull, which crossed the line more than 17sec ahead of Vettel and almost 50sec ahead of third-placed Räikkönen.

Hamilton’s difficult fourth sealed him that remarkable Fangio-equalling fifth world championship. A further lap down from Bottas, Hülkenberg’s Renault cruised home a comfortable winner of the unofficial best of the rest category, albeit benefitting from the misfortune of his team-mate. Leclerc followed on, while Vandoorne drove a strong recovery drive from the back to get ahead of Ericsson for eighth, with Gasly’s Toro Rosso-Honda taking the final point.    

View the full result

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