Feature: Conclusions from the 2018 Mexican Grand Prix
Max Verstappen ruled once more at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez as Lewis Hamilton’s status as World Champion for a fifth time was confirmed. Motorsport Week presents its winners and losers from Formula 1’s Mexican Grand Prix.
For 2018 read 2017: Lewis Hamilton clinched the world title without a podium finish as Max Verstappen provided a glimpse of the future by dominating the race. It was a well-deserved triumph for Verstappen, who has flourished through 2018 after a tough series of events in the opening third of the campaign. Verstappen has stressed that he has not changed, but there was a little hint that a slight tweak in approach has paid dividends. “My dad always told me in go-karting, back in the day, if I was maybe overdriving or something, he would always tell me “Max, even if you think you are not going fast enough, it’s still fast enough”,” he said. “So basically, for my feeling, I just backed it out a little bit and that seems to make me a bit faster.” Verstappen was braver on the brakes into Turn 1 and controlled a tyre-limited affair thereafter, even pushing for fastest lap, a throwback to the Sebastian Vettel approach that often infuriated Red Bull in 2013. It was a well-deserved win for Verstappen, his second of the campaign, and he is now within 20 points of third-placed Kimi Raikkonen in the standings. Aiming for wins, rather than the title, provides a difficult mindset, but the post-Monaco-spec Verstappen is surely now ready for a championship challenge. Let’s hope Red Bull-Honda can deliver.
There was a bittersweet feeling to the Mexican Grand Prix for Mercedes, as Hamilton’s performance was one of his weakest of a peerless season, while the team also lacked pace, accentuated by tyre struggles. It led to Hamilton admitting he was “conflicted” at the celebrations, aware that the Constructors’ fight is as important, if not more important, for his team. It is a prestigious title and one on which bonuses rest too. It would need a disaster for Mercedes to be overhauled by Ferrari (it has a buffer of 55 with 86 up for grabs) but that is not a mindset that the team adopts. “We had a very bad race, we really struggled with the tyres, I don't think we actually switched the tyres on,” said Toto Wolff. “We don't know yet what the issue was, but we will dig deep.” Part of Mercedes’ strengths has been its reaction and application after defeats – most notably in Monaco last year, Austria in June, and Belgium in August. It has plenty of evidence from a lacklustre race in Mexico – but you’d be a brave person not to expect a strong fightback in Brazil.
Gracious in defeat
Athletes are sometimes remembered for their reaction to defeats as much as their victories (witness the everlasting respect earned by Felipe Massa 10 years ago), and only a handful of Formula 1 drivers have ever experienced the extinguishing of a dream. Vettel is not stupid – he knew the title was a long shot pre-Mexico – but as long as there was a chance, the chance was still there. Sunday’s race mathematically put paid to his ambitions, and he was gracious in defeat, magnanimous in his comments. “I told him well deserved and to enjoy it – number five is something incredible,” said Vettel. “I mainly congratulated him and asked him to keep pushing for next year, I need him at his best to fight him again.” Vettel later went to Mercedes’ engineering room to offer further congratulations and was met with a round of applause for his gesture. This year’s Formula 1 title battle has largely been fought with respect, and Vettel deserves enormous credit for his recognition of and attitude towards Hamilton and Mercedes in their moment of triumph – and his moment of dejection.
Ricciardo luckless, despondent, broken
In the context of Formula 1 history, six mechanical retirements in a year is not a lot. But in 2018 it is an enormous outlier. Daniel Ricciardo has had nearly a third of his races wrecked by a gremlin, several other weekends were also compromised, while even his dominant Monaco display was compromised by an MGU-K failure that cost him 160hp and left him sweating. Red Bull team-mate Verstappen has retired twice through a problem, the Mercedes duo and Kimi Raikkonen just once, while Vettel’s Ferrari has not broken down once. Ricciardo’s devastation, having been on course for second in a race where he bogged down from pole, was hampered by traffic and brilliantly managed a one-stop strategy, was completely understandable. “I honestly don’t know, where I am, I honestly don’t see the point of coming on Sunday, I don’t see the point in doing the next two races,” he said. “I haven’t had a clean race, weekend, in so long. I’m not superstitious or any of this bullshit but the car’s cursed… it won’t… I don’t know. No words. I don't know, the car's... I'll let [Pierre] Gasly drive it. I'm done with it." A podium is the least Ricciardo deserves from the last two races.
The Haves and the Have-nots
Nico Hulkenberg continued Renault’s mini-revival to score a healthy haul of points that has surely put fourth in the Constructors’ scrap out of Haas’ reach, while honours in that midfield category should have gone to team-mate Carlos Sainz Jr., who was superb until his R.S.18 shut down. Much has been made of the fact that 14 drivers are in effect fighting for seventh at each race (without retirements ahead), but Mexico marked a new low. The short lap and lack of Safety Car meant Hulkenberg came home two laps and 20 seconds behind Verstappen – in effect three minutes. That adds up to a rough deficit of 2.5 seconds per lap – and that’s the best midfielder! It also meant that even struggling desperately and in a complete cruise mode, Mercedes was assured of fourth and fifth. The sooner the regulations change to reduce the gap the better it will be for the health of the championship. It is now a ludicrous chasm.
That an eighth-placed finish is regarded as an outstanding result and display by a McLaren driver emphasises the team’s fall from grace, but Stoffel Vandoorne’s performance was highly impressive. Vandoorne was competitive – by 2018 standards – through the weekend, falling just a tenth shy of beating Fernando Alonso in qualifying, which proved the difference between Q1 and Q2. A terrible start hampered Vandoorne further but from there he stayed out of trouble and masterfully executed a one-stop strategy to move into eighth. It acted as a timely reminder of his inherent ability, and a case of ‘what might have been’ had his graduation to F1 not coincided with McLaren’s lowest ebb.
Last year Haas struggled in qualifying in Mexico but its blushes were saved by Kevin Magnussen’s superb recovery to the points. This season there was no such repeat. Any hopes of points were gone due to an inability to get the most out of the Ultrasoft tyre, in a race which was ultimately dictated by the rubber. “The only good thing about this weekend is that it ended,” said team boss Guenther Steiner. “There’s nothing good to take away from here. We were just too slow and we couldn’t get the tyres to work.” If this week’s appeal against Romain Grosjean’s Monza exclusion does not fall in its favour then its lingering hopes of beating Renault to fourth will surely be over.
Home fans unrewarded
The fanatical home spectators cheered Sergio Perez’s every lap and mobbed him in the paddock at every turn, but such support went unrewarded after his VJM11 suffered a brake failure. It was a cruel blow and cost Perez a likely seventh, squandering what had been a fine drive from 13th. It also leaves Force India’s hopes of overhauling McLaren hanging by a thread. And the home fans couldn’t even switch allegiance to the other native Spanish-speaking drivers – both Sainz Jr. and Alonso had already had their races run.
Celebrity Voice Messages
No. Just no. Absolutely not. DJ sets post-podium? Yeah, that works. But next time let’s hear a driver celebrating clinching a world title as opposed to a cringe-fest of a message.