30 Oct 2018
Settle in, as Matt 'Trumpets' Ragsdale brings us another of his fantastic race reports....
Ambient 19° Track 32° Humidity 38% Wind 2.5 m/s
Another grey day to plague the photographers at the 2018 Gran Premio de Mexico, as the madness intensified with the race start growing ever closer. With Hamilton all but certain to clinch another WDC, the weather did its best to counterbalance any anticipatory celebrations, a perfect reflection, in fact, of the leery mood at Mercedes, as the closer they got the more they had to fear around every corner. Particularly, in this case, T1, a noted site of intramural demolition derbys and with the immovable object of Verstappen starting next to the unstoppable force of Ricciardo, despite Horner's protestations to the contrary it would be a minor miracle (or a terrible start for one of them) for the pair to exit T1 without at least one of them on the wrong side of the white lines. Or not, which is why they actually run the race. Still, it will be a moment of great anxiety for Merc until Hamilton sees the back of lap 1.
AS if that's not enough, with the high altitude come extra challenges in terms of managing temperatures, with brakes and engines both prone to overheating in the thin air. Without a Vettel win it's all done, and he will want to do everything possible to salvage whatever shred of pride he can from the remainder of the seasons. Fortunately for him, the Red Bulls are both fairly slow in a straight line and if he gets a good tow then all the shenanigans become possible.
Strategically, the midfield is more interesting, with Force India chasing on the Super Softs with Alonso wedged in between on some Ultras whilst all those ahead Renault and Sauber, will be on the rapidly degrading Hypers, meaning an early stop and potentially 2 to get through the race. Last time that happened, those in the top 10 suffered maximum pain.
Lights Out!!!! Great Start by Hamilton as Ricciardo got bogged down. Down the straight they went into T1 with Hamilton almost a full length ahead until Verstappen, on the inside took the lead back in the braking zone, as Hamilton trailed safely through behind him. This bottled Vettel a bit and allowed Ricciardo and Bottas through dropping Vettel to P5, which was definitely NOT a part of Ferrari's strategy. . Ocon and Hulkenberg had some contact behind, and Vettel wasted little time redeeming himself, passing Bottas less then half a lap later. Ocon had come off worse in his tangle and missing a huge chunk of his front wing was into the pits, deranging his strategy thoroughly as well. Raikkonen, having momentarily lost out to Sainz, retook the place into T1 as lap 2 got underway. AS the dust settled. Hartley pitted as well and ominously, Bottas was already falling off the lead group, while Vettel was just over a second back of Ricciardo, and with all the work to do.
Lap 4 and it was Kmag with an off trying to get round Stroll, emerging in front on track and having to give the place back. Alonso then parked, race over having picked up bodywork from Ocon though whether that was the terminal event had to be determined and the VSC was deployed lap 5. This opened the door for the midfielders to pit and rid themselves of the Hypers, for the cost of half a pit stop, but this didn't happen and off they swept, as the VSC was in. With Verstappen at the front, and Sainz leading Formula B the race was on...
Next lap and the tyres reports began to trickle in, led by Hamilton saying the tyres were "fragile". 2.5 seconds was the gap, and as his engineer suggested a differential change, he requested that he be left alone for the moment to get on with it. Perez, trailing Ericsson, was on the attack, within DRS as lap 10 rocked on. On the radio, Hamilton's tyre woes continued to dominate, as the fronts were graining and he was picking up savage understeer as a result. This let Ricciardo back into the race and into the meat of lap 11 he drew ever closer.
Perez had continued to edge closer and he had his first proper go into T1, which was close but Ericsson defended well. 2 corners later and he had another go, but again Ericsson covered him off. Hamilton was in for a set of Supers and Bottas followed him on, both on lap 12 as the tyres were done. P5 for Lewis on the way out and P8 for Bottas, with both Leclerc and Hulkenberg to get round. Ricciardo covered off the move for Red Bull, and the undercut had been neutralised by Mercedes move. Lap 13 an in came Verstappen, out in front of Hamilton, with all rocking onto the Supersofts. The open question now, could anyone get them to the end without another stop.
Whilst that drama ensued, Perez finally got the job done and with Sainz and Hulkenberg having run through the pits, it was P7 for the hometown hero. Verstappen, on a mission, was by Raikkonen and on the radio, it was Vettel, arguing to not rush the job as Ferrari clearly were thinking of a 1 stop. Relative to Verstappen, Hamilton caught Raikkonen in a fairly bad spot and there was definitely time lost as Kimi seemed to be a bit more spirited in his defense and it was a T1 and T2 job for Lewis to get round. But the job was done and now Ricciardo was dead on Hamilton's gearbox, having gone through with the Mercedes once the battle was over.
Lap 18 and Vettel was in, and out behind Ricciardo. Raikkonen followed suit and was shuffled out behind Bottas as the next phase of the race was underway. Leclerc rocked by Grosjean the following lap, and Kmag was next in his sights as the HAAS pair ran long on Supers to their strategy. At the front, Hamilton continued to bleed time, even on the Supers, and it was almost 9 seconds now to the lead of the race. With Vettel now catching Ricciardo, and Ricciardo just 2 seconds back of Hamilton all the elements were coming together for some seriously entertaining racing.
Lap 22 and as they ran, best of the rest was Perez, Sainz, Hulkenberg and Kmag, with the first and last yet to pit. Sure enough, stealing focus, Hamilton again was on the radio, saying the Supersofts were also not feeling great. Raikkonen was fastest of the sharp end, followed by Vettel. 5 laps later and Hamilton was still in for plan A, with Mercedes promising an update as he continued to lose massive chunks of time to Verstappen and hold up both Ricciardo and Vettel behind. Looking back in his pit window he seemed like he would just clear Raikkonen, but with many many laps left he was already out of fresh tyre options. Perez was still managing decent times on his tyres, howeve asn as they headded to lap 30, he was maintaining a nice lead, though there would be lots of work to be done once he came in.
Complicating the picture for Mercedes, was the fact that the big train of midfield cars had been caught, and both he and Verstappen were in the process of lapping them. Ricciardo was on it, sensing the weakness and having a go into T1. Vettel, behind had a go around T4 as now Ricciardo was suddenly trapped. Lap 31 and a sudden reprieve, as the VSC was deployed for Carlos Sainz, who was out at T13 looking to be the victim of a dodgy PU. As he approached T13 the rears just locked and he spun, engaging the clutch and rolling it to a stop off the circuit. Perez took advantage and rocked in for his new set on lap 32, while Mercedes demanded Lewis stay out.
With the VSC off, Ricciardo had a decent start leaving Vettel a bit behind. Vettel rocked it down the straight behind him, but wasn't able to get close. HAAS were now also the lone team to have not pitted as the Ricciardo Vettel battle caught Perez having a go at Leclerc. down the straight and Vettel went for it. Ricciardo didn't cover and couldn't stay with him around the outside as Sebastian squeezed him and then into P3 went Vettel. The following lap, Perez got the job finally done, into T1 and decisively showing the door to the Sauber and starting the chase to Hulkenberg, 15 seconds up the road.
Also chasing was Vettel, cranking down the lap times, nearly a second a lap faster than Hamilton. At this point, a pitstop would put the Mercedes' driver out behind Raikkonen and in 6th place. So still in it for the championship, but the Silver Arrows clearly not all the way on it at this circuit. Lap 39 and Vettel went blazing down the straight with DRS, and into T1 he took the place from Hamilton, who frankly didn't really make too much of an effort, properly so as he had a championship to win.
Ricciardo's race engineer noticed this, and was on the blower, encouraging the Aussie to take advantage of Hamilton's tyre woes. Tragedy for Perez then, he had a big twitch and then drove straight on, rocking it round to the pits and his day truly done with what appeared to by some kind of rear suspension damage. At the same time, Ocon was having a go at Hartley, and together they came, with Ocon and Hartley both looking to lose some bits and pieces in the exchange.
Vettel had quietly kept the wick turned up and was more than half a second a lap faster than Verstappen at the front, with 13 seconds and 25 laps to go. Hamilton sounded less and less happy, wanting to know how Ricciardo had gained a second a lap on him, as he was hitting the targets Mercedes was giving him. Not much in it other than the obvious, that Ricciardo's tyres were working and his weren't. Astonishingly, Magnussen still had yet to pit and then Ricciardo was into DRS on lap 45. Ricciardo had his first go, and wasn't quite close enough into T1 but it looked to be just a matter of time as the last step on the podium was on the line. The next lap and not close enough into T1, saving his fire for T4. Again, he decided to wait and as the battle raged, it was HAAS finally pulling the trigger and pitting their drivers on lap 47.
Ricciardo finally got the job done, defending fiercely into T1 on the inside, then locking it up, bouncing across the grass before carrying on, the last step on the podium receding into the distance. Even as Hamilton was brought for a set of used Ultras, Bottas, defending against Raikkonen did exactly the same, locking up and going straight on. Ferrari had taken advantage of the Mercedes missteps and brought Vettel in for a new set of Ultras. So the new order at the sharp end was Verstappen, Ricciardo, Vettel, Raikkonen, Hamilton and Bottas. Raikkonen was one stopping so potentially vulnerable if Hamilton could catch him but the interest now ws at the front, with Vettel on new tyres now 2 seconds back of Ricciardo, with another 6 to the race lead, which was the minimum for him to extend the championship.
The problems continued for Hamilton, still unable to match the times of the frontrunners, but with 18 laps remaining, he was well in it to walk off with the WDC at the end of the race, so perspective. Lap 55 and Ricciardo was into the thick of the traffic, which just opened the door for Vettel. Lap 57 and into DRS for the Ferrari driver, with Ricciardo taking advantage of Ericsson, getting a tow and maintaining his advantage over Sebastian.
Clear of traffic, Ricciardo began to rocket off, as Vettel had either burned up his tyres or overheated his engine and was forced to go through a management phase. Verstappen continued to put in fast laps and as the 61st lap rolled into the books he was nearly a half a second faster, stretching his lead out to over 11 seconds. Despite having 45 lap old tyres, he began to look at closing in, and then, a plume of oily blue smoke erupted from the back of his car and that was that. Ricciardo parked the car on lap 63 and out of the race he went, the cruelest of blows. Again the VSC was called into action and immediately the Mercedes pit crew were out. Bottas was in from what was now P5 and onto the Hypers he went as that was pretty much all that was left. He was out just before the VSC was removed and off they went, 7 laps to go.
The gap to Verstappen had gone out for Vettel, 14 seconds between them and the engineers at Red Bull on maximum alert for any irregularities in the data. Verstappen was on the radio, out of character a bit and suggesting he'd be more than happy to turn his engine down if necessary. But there was no need, as Vettel was at best matching his times, whilst behind, Hamilton had turned on float home mode, nearly 3 seconds off the pace. Bottas was enjoying a fast lap or two with his quicker tyres, but both he and Lewis were fairly large bubbles with no one to race. HAAS plan to chase with fresh tyres had come to naught, and having not been ordered to turn down the power, Max had instead decided he would try to outdo Bottas with the his Hypersofts. This brought his race engineer onto the radio to politely ask him to slow down. When that failed, it became "We have turned the engine down" and the fun was all over.
Formula B was led by a fairly untouchable Hulkenbeg, nearly 11 seconds up the road from Leclerc. Vandoorne had managed to work his way into P8, and Ericsson and Gasly rounded out the top 10. No points again for HAAS and the pendulum had surely swung once again in favour of the team from Enstone. With the checquers went the champoinship and even before Vettel hit the line it was done, Lewis Hamilton with his 5th WDC. The glories and honours awaited Mercedes as their driver ascended into some fairly rarefied air and once again, Ferrari were left shaking their heads at what might have been. Oddly, the mood at Mercedes seemed to be more one of relief than celebration, perhaps because the Constructor's championship was still in the balance, though at Ferrari's rate of progress the maths still favoured them. Still, a bit of champagne and probably all would be better.
Congratulations then to Mercedes and Hamilton, whose 5th WDC equals Fangio, with just Schumacher looming in the gloaming, and condolences to Ferrari and Red Bull as next season starts it all over.....
And remember to play nice in the comments!!