Mexico's return its good to be back

With the probable exception of CVC’s bank manager, it is a struggle to find anyone who is entirely at ease with the modern F1 calendar.

The myriad causes of its current form are by now well-known, as are the various manifestations. The world’s oldest Grand Prix, the French – long thought untouchable – has now been gone for years. Many popular stop-offs – Spa, Montreal, Suzuka – were threatened and even dropped for a while. Imola has been dropped definitively. Plenty of new venues where not many of the locals appear interested, and/or are hosted and bankrolled by a rather unpleasant regime, have in their stead parachuted in. 

As if to prove that there is no outer limit on the absurdity more lately Monza of all places has had Bernie’s gun pointed at its head. And with startling ironic timing we’ve had it confirmed in recent weeks that another new host in Azerbaijan – one that appears to share at least one of the characteristics outlined above – is apparently to land on the itinerary in 2016.

But – and though missing this fact is understandable – it’s not all bad. The return of Austria this year was an undoubted success for one, as has been the presence of Austin since 2012.

And in among all of the Azerbaijan storm it was again easy to be distracted from another spot of bright amid the gloom. That is after being rumoured for a while it’s been confirmed that Mexico is indeed to be another addition to the calendar, probably for late in the 2015 campaign.

Why a spot of bright? Well it’s a large country with a strong motorsports heritage and plenty of local support and enthusiasm for F1. There are right now two Mexican F1 drivers of course, and a look at the liveries on their overalls confirms that there are a good few Mexican sponsors and other sources of investment behind them. And like the Austrian race it appears to have the benefit of being funded by a moneyed individual – thus immediately clearing the usual and often large obstacle of where the hosting fees are coming from.

One of those Mexican drivers Sergio Perez beamed at the news that his home gig is to be established: ‘They've been really pushing for so many years, since I came to Formula One four years ago. The spirit of the fans is massive back home. It's great for my country…I'm just very proud and excited.’

The other local pilot Esteban Gutierrez was similarly approving: ‘I have good feelings about it…It's really a dream come true.’

Sauber’s Monisha Kalterborn meanwhile looked at the big picture presented by all of this: ‘It’s very good news for us because we know that our partner Telmex and Carlos Slim particularly has had this long-term vision to establish motorsport in Mexico…And we also know how important that is for the other partners we have. 

‘So, such a race, which has so much heritage, returning now is fantastic for the sport and I’m sure we’ll see how many fans we have.’ 

And underlining the support for F1 in Mexico she added: ‘We were there a couple of years ago doing a show run and we couldn’t believe that 200,000 people came out to see that. That tells you what a strong fan base it is – and that’s a very positive sign.’

Of course, this new round – and new venue of the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez to give it its latest title – is not actually new.  Next year will actually be the start of its third spell on the F1 schedule, which by my reckoning makes it only the third venue ever to have a third spell after an extended period away (Buenos Aires and the various incarnations of Austria’s Österreichring are the others, since you’re asking. At a stretch you could include the Nurburgring too). 

The Mexican track’s F1 history goes all the way back to 1963, indeed to 1962 if we are to include the sport testing the temperature of the local water with a non-championship race there first. Indeed with this Mexico’s pre-dates by years races that are now thought of as fixtures such as Canada, Brazil and Japan. F1 didn’t really leave Western Europe much at all back then; in the 1950s there was an Argentine round for a few years, a US round (not including the oddity of the Indy 500 being awarded World Championship points) started in 1959, Morocco appeared for one time only in 1958 while South Africa debuted in 1962. But at the time that was your lot.

But the fraternity quickly got settled into the place, despite the sad death of the promising local hero Ricardo Rodríguez after a crash in practice for the debut 1962 gathering mentioned, which resulted in the circuit taking his name subsequently. The F1 folk visiting Mexico liked the warmth of the sun as well as the friendliness and (in many cases) glamour of the locals. The thin air from upwards of 2000m altitude meanwhile challenged both drivers and engines, but it was thought a meagre downside. And while at around the same point in history both the Summer Olympics, in 1968, and the World Cup two years later, set up camp in Mexico City and apparently found little other than problems, F1 perhaps unusually made the best of things.

The circuit layout was a pretty good one too. The track started with a lengthy, kilometre long, pit straight which at this point ended with a curious, tightening and banked right hander which slightly switched back on itself. Then another straight and some slower stuff, before the track opened out with a seemingly never-ending and ever-quickening esses section. That which I recall Murray Walker in his BBC TV commentary some years later – in that inimitable Murray way of his – title ‘the wiggle-woggle’.

But this was all mere build-up; quickening the tempo gradually for the crescendo. The final turn that – probably appropriately – was the track’s crowning glory. The Peraltada, a corner that deserves rank among the finest and most pulse-quickening the sport has ever known. It was a long, 180 degree, banked turn, taken at something close to full pelt and containing like the rest of the track plenty of bumps to unsettle the car. There further was scant room on either side before hitting something for those who got it wrong. 

But what the F1 crowd liked most were the facilities. As the 1963 Autocourse gushed, in so doing rather underlining how things in F1 used to be done very differently: ‘Each pit is a permanent lock up workshop, equipped with electricity and airlines so that the mechanics are not obliged to shift their equipment at all during the course of the whole meeting.’ 

There indeed were a few parallels with what would come later in Montreal. While it may not be the most obvious comparison (the two layouts are very distinct) in both cases the track was situated in a municipal park cheek-by-jowl with the hustle and bustle of a major city, a track which all-comers – cyclists, kids playing football – had access to between times. Both had backdrops dusted with distinctive architecture, in Mexico’s case various buildings that were venues for the 1968 Olympics popped up over time (and a baseball stadium inside the Peraltada has been added since). Which – given that the Montreal track is next to an Olympic rowing strip – provides yet another parallel.

It was the scene of good races as well as, given its position often as a season-closer, a few championship showdowns too. This included a particularly dramatic one in 1964 when Jim Clark’s engine seizing on the final lap combined with Lorenzo Bandini responding to frantic gesturing from his Ferrari pit to let team mate John Surtees past ensured the title for the latter at the very last gasp.

But despite all of these positives the venue developed something of an ill-starred quality. As the sport has found again in other countries in the modern age, the veneer of charm and respectability that it seemed to enjoying during its visits in fact hid rather a lot of problems underneath.  A student movement and series of protests and subsequent unrest known loosely as ‘Mexico 68’ commenced in the latter part of that year, in response to what were viewed as various repressions and injustices in the country.

And it was to have an indirect but as it transpired devastating impact on the Grand Prix. In the 1968 and 1969 Mexican races there were some reports of batches of spectators sitting in front of barriers while the cars circulated, but it was in the 1970 Grand Prix that it all really came to a head. 

Local enthusiasm couldn’t be faulted as some 200,000 turned up on race day that year. But that turned out to be a lot of the problem, as they decided to break down the safety fences and settle next to the edge of the track for a better view, with now literally nothing between them and where the cars were going to be proceeding at full clip. In previous visits they had been deterred from this by the presence of armed soldiers, but an upshot of ‘Mexico 68’ was that they were no longer anywhere to be seen.

Lengthy imploring by world champion Jackie Stewart and their countryman Pedro Rodríguez had limited effect, and fearing the cancellation of the race would result in a riot it went ahead, as that year’s Autocourse put it, ‘lined with human guardrails’ (some of the humans in question ran across the track on occasion too). It was sheer merciful fortune that unimaginable carnage and death among the unguarded hordes watching on didn’t happen.

With some sang froid Autocourse further noted that ‘a great deal of reorganisation will have to be done if there is to be a Mexican Grand Prix next year.’ As it was it was some 16 years before the venue – or even the country – was to return.

A consortium of businessman got together to ensure the return of the Grand Prix in 1986 to the same stage, now called the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez to include the sadly departed in the meantime Pedro. There were only minor revisions to the layout, the opening turn by-passed by a more standard chicane and the hairpin at the far end of the track also dodged by an earlier sharp turn, both due to the lack of available run-off, allied with a general sizeable revamp to the facility. 

The chaos of the 1970 race wasn’t repeated, but the ill-starred nature was still in certain ways hard to shake.

Somehow what appeared by now to be the mass throng of humanity and in many quarters the conspicuous poverty – as well as the noise, smells, traffic, smog, dilapidation and the general tumult (and sometimes Montezuma's revenge) – of Mexico City rather chafed uncomfortably against the haughty view of itself that F1 had since developed. A few sought to make the best of it – some embraced the vibrancy of it all indeed – but plenty did not. 

The track though remained challenging and there was some good racing also – the first race back had a surprise victor and debut triumph for both Gerhard Berger and the Benetton team, benefitting from a non-stop run on durable Pirellis (yes you spotted the irony). And of course we all remember Nigel Mansell passing Berger around the outside of the Peraltada in the last breaths of the 1990 race – perhaps though Alain Prost’s victory from 13th on the grid that day is even more deserving of praise.

The crowds weren’t quite as big as before (the 1986 crowd was only about a quarter of the size of the 1970 version), although in mitigation the ticket prices by now were beyond the incomes of many locals and those that did attend remained passionate.

But the altitude remained exasperating for both drivers and engines; the bumps seemed if anything more of a problem than previously – and apparently unresolvable as the track was built on geologically active ground meaning it literally moved beneath everyone’s feet. And related to this latter point was the circuit’s biggest problem – safety. Which even by the looser standards of the age was considered highly perilous.

There was a series of accidents – many related to cars losing it on bumps – at the notorious and hemmed-in Peraltada. Philippe Alliot smashed into the pit wall on the inside of the turn’s exit in practice in 1988, bits of Lola and team personnel scattering in all directions. Derek Warwick had a crash of similar violence on the outside in the race a year earlier; Ayrton Senna crashed and flipped on the outside of the turn in 1991 practice (an accident that featured in the Senna movie).

Prior to what turned out to be the final visit in 1992 there were murmurings that the Peraltada was to be replaced with two slow 90 degree turns. Thankfully not borne out, but the ‘solution’ instead was to flatten the banking.  The ubiquitous Autocourse reckoned that ‘if anything, it made the Peraltada more treacherous than before’. Without the incline to help, cars were more prone to loss of control as well as now Frisbeed towards the barriers even more quickly. 

But in the Friday practice of that meeting Senna crashed after losing control on another bump, not this time at the Peraltada but rather in the esses section. When he smashed into the close-by barriers the pain he experienced was so intense that he was convinced that he’d broken both legs. As it was he merely had sustained heavy bruising, but Senna – a man as ever with a sharp and eloquent voice that tended to travel long distances – let rip on the Mexican circuit with what felt a lot like stinging finality. ‘This accident is the result of…having to run on a track which, year after year, has proved completely incompatible with F1 cars’ he said.

‘I have nothing against Mexico, but I really don’t think we should be coming here until the track is resurfaced and the run-off areas improved.’

Given all of this, it barely caused a ripple when the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez was dropped quietly from the 1993 calendar. 

The track however lingered on despite much of the world now having turned its back on it. Champ Car arrived in 2002 and stayed for a few years – and confirming the extent of local enthusiasm in 2003 set a CART record of 402,413 being in attendance over the weekend – though managed to neuter the Peraltada with a detour of tight corners through the baseball stadium that had since sprung up on the inside of it. NASCAR appeared in 2005 and decided to stick a chicane along the pit straight. A1GP in its visits in 2007 and 2008 however ran on the same configuration that F1 had used. It seemed though that despite these ripples the sport’s most prestigious category never was again to return. That was until now.

Of course, as these days is de rigueur, Hermann Tilke will get carte blanche to revise the place for its impending F1 pair-up, almost from the ground up if needed. And – though I say this with a heavy heart – it’s hard to see how the Peraltada will survive it all. The only route presumably will be if space is found for run-off and from what I gather there isn’t much around. One hopes whatever is the case the character of the old layout is yet retained.

Sergio Perez believes it will be: ‘Yeah, there are a lot of things to be changed. The circuit is quite old. I mean, the last time you raced there was 22 years ago. They already started to build a new circuit. It will be fantastic once again; you are all going to be surprised. I'm sure it will become a very popular Grand Prix very soon.’

So am I Checo. So am I.