Lewis Hamilton may not have clinched his sixth Formula 1 World Championship at the 2019 Mexico Grand Prix, but his drive from third place to the top step of the podium was a champion's drive. The reigning world champion drove a measured race, nursing his tyres to squeeze a win at a circuit where Mercedes were not expected to reign supreme. In fact, in Saturday's qualifying session, Mercedes were only the third-fastest car of the field " a not-so-common phenomenon in this hybrid-turbo era of Formula 1. Accordingly, credit also goes to Mercedes for choosing a strategy that gave Hamilton the best possible chance to claim his 83rd career win in Formula 1.
Ten wins in 2019 **********
And tantalisingly close to that sixth world title *
- Formula 1 (@F1) October 27, 2019
At the 2019 Mexico Grand Prix, Mercedes claimed their 100th win in Formula 1 and their 100th podium with Hamilton " strong numbers that validate their dominant partnership. The other Mercedes driver, Valtteri Bottas, drove well from fifth place and after his crash in qualifying, to claim the third position. In the Drivers' Championship, Hamilton added to his lead on Bottas and needs to out-score his teammate by only four points to clinch this year's Drivers' Championship. Given Hamilton's love for America, there's a very good chance that he might clinch the title at the 2019 United States Grand Prix this Sunday.
Red Bull Flounder
Apart from the numbers that prove Hamilton-Mercedes' dominance in this era, it is their sheer ability to not give up without a fight that separates them from their rivals. In Mexico, Red Bull Racing and Ferrari were faster than Mercedes. They were also better poised for victory, in terms of track position and data from the race simulations. After all, Max Verstappen claimed pole position, while the Ferrari drivers qualified second and third (Leclerc-Vettel).
For Red Bull Racing, they lost their best chance to win the race on Saturday, a few hours after qualifying. In the last few minutes of qualifying, Bottas made an error and crashed his Mercedes into the barriers. The yellow flag was out " ruining everyone's final chance to register a faster lap time in Q3. Instead of lifting off, Verstappen's stayed full throttle " an error he was honest enough to admit post-race while arrogantly dismissing the lack of safety around his act. The FIA awarded the Dutch prodigy a three-place grid penalty for ignoring yellow flags. As a result, Verstappen was demoted from P1 to P4 on the starting grid.
"It is very disappointing ... but we have a really good race car so it should be a close fight"
Max Verstappen will start from P4 instead of pole after his grid penalty for ignoring yellow flags in #MexicoGP qualifying
- Formula 1 (@F1) October 27, 2019
The Opening Lap
At the start and on the opening lap, the Ferraris maintained their 1-2 position " with Vettel defending very hard on Hamilton while they sprinted to the braking zone of Turn 1. Between Turns 1 and 2, Hamilton had a mid-corner moment that saw him go off at Turn 2, taking Verstappen with him. The front wing damage picked up by Verstappen meant that his chances to challenge for the race win ended entirely and this was further impacted by his early race puncture, one that he picked up while pulling off a bold move on Bottas. As for Hamilton and Bottas, they were fending off a charge from the Mclaren duo of Sainz-Norris. Also on the opening lap, Leclerc-Vettel touched " but luckily, neither picked up any damage to their cars.
The 2019 Mexico Grand Prix was one where multiple tyre strategies were at play. In fact, this race reminded one of those from the yesteryears where fuel strategy meant that different strategies would be used. Just that in Mexico, teams-drivers used the same tyres differently. At one point, the top-six drivers were all on different tyre strategies! Vettel joked, "If you are a woman on this planet and you have this guy (Hamilton) giving you a massage like he's treating the tyres, it's pure magic. Really well done to him that he made the tyres last."
Ferrari Flounder Too
The first to blink among the front runners was Red Bull Racing's Alexander Albon, who was running third after a good opening lap. To cover Albon, Ferrari decided to pit Leclerc, the leader of the race. While their reason to pit may be justified, Ferrari's decision to continue Leclerc on the medium tyre meant that they made an early race commitment to the two-stopper. In hindsight, had Ferrari shifted Leclerc to the hard tyre, he could've attempted the one-stopper, like Hamilton, and retained track position for the win.
The longest stint on hard tyres was Verstappen's " 66 laps, and Leclerc would've required just 53 laps, after stopping on Lap 18. What made Ferrari's strategy for Leclerc seem worse was that as the race evolved Albon faded into oblivion, eventually finishing 5th and 21 seconds behind the race winner.
Leclerc's early stop meant that Vettel was in the lead and Ferrari decided to split strategies among their drivers. For Vettel, the team-driver exchanged interesting radio messages to try and gauge the best time to pit. In fact, they confidently let go of their pit-window to Hamilton (one where they could've pit and still come out ahead of Hamilton) to try and reduce their stint on the hard tyre. Strange that Ferrari thought it wiser to cover Albon but not Hamilton; either way, they squandered track position with both drivers at different times in the race.
After everyone's pit stops played out, Vettel was on 14-lap fresher tyres and within six seconds to Hamilton, who inherited the lead of the race. The Ferrari driver had over 30 laps to chase down his Mercedes rival. Ferrari's strategy was clear: Use fresher tyres to attack Hamilton in the closing stages of the race and they were certain that Mercedes had pitted their star driver a bit too early. After laps of a build up, the challenge from Ferrari-Vettel never came " the end to the 2019 Mexico Grand Prix was an anti-climax in every way! Hamilton cruised to victory without much of a challenge.
Ferrari's Mattia Binotto admitted after the race, "I think what we did was right. Our mistake was not to consider the early one stop possible. But that's the kind of gamble that you can do when you're behind, not when you're ahead." Ultimately, it was the longevity of the tyres that caught everyone by surprise. Funnily enough, tyre degradation was the most discussed topic after Friday's Free Practice sessions.
"Still I Rise"
- Formula 1 (@F1) October 27, 2019
This was the third race in a row where Ferrari failed to capitalise on their pole position and convert it into a race win. Their 1-2 at the start ended up in a 2-4 at the finish. As for Mercedes, their strategy helped them convert a 3-6 at the start to a 1-3 at the finish. Hamilton's 10th win of the season (out of 18 races) came despite his regular race engineer (Pete Bonnington) being unavailable for two races (Mexico and the USA). The ease with which his substitute engineer (Marcus Dudley) handled Hamilton's mid-race radio pressure shows another dimension of Mercedes' strength as one of the best operating teams on the grid.
After the race, Mercedes' team boss Toto Wolff said, "We were not convinced (of their tyre strategy). There were two main factors. We knew we had to take a risk. When you are starting third and sixth it is easier to come up with bold strategies provided you have a good car and fantastic drivers. So we knew we needed to do something different and then we saw (Daniel) Ricciardo going well on the hard tyre. We had quite some discussion and in the end what James and the strategy department opted for " to go long " worked out."
Fan Power For Perez
The most-spirited drive in Mexico was from local hero and Racing Point's Sergio Perez, who finished in the best of the rest (seventh) position. Perez was engaged in a race-long battle with Renault's Ricciardo but did well to fend off his rival. It was joyful to see the Mexican fans cheer every move of Perez's, who started 11th, and climbed up through the order after aggressive overtakes. The packed atmosphere at AutÃ³dromo Hermanos RodrÃguez circuit hopefully offered a reminder to the local organisers and Formula 1 to work together to have the Mexican Grand Prix on the calendar even post 2020.
- Formula 1 (@F1) October 26, 2019
Ricciardo, who started 13th, made the reverse strategy (hard-medium) work to his advantage. In fact, it was Ricciardo's hard tyre stint that Mercedes used as a reference point while running Hamilton's tyre strategy. Toro Rosso's Daniil Kvyat crossed the finish line in 9th place, but it was a 10-second post-race penalty for his 'torpedo' act on Renault's Nico Hulkenberg that saw the Russian be demoted out of the points. As a result, his team-mate Pierre Gasly finished 9th and Hulkenberg picked up the final point for Renault.
Mclaren's No Score
The most notable exclusions from the points were the Mclaren duo, who started seventh and eighth and also ran in the top-5 in the opening few laps. Mclaren's resurgence is one of the highlights of the 2019 Formula 1 season, as will be their failures in conducting clean pit-stops. For yet another race, the team's faulty pit-stop took away their chances of a good result.
This time, it was Norris who had an incorrectly fitted front-left tyre. In the case of Sainz, his Mclaren ate up the hard tyre at almost the same rate as the softs! After Friday's Free Practice, Norris was quick to point out the apparent disadvantage for the mid-field drivers who would start 7th and 8th on the soft tyres. Prophetically ironic for Norris and Mclaren!
- Formula 1 (@F1) October 28, 2019
Sainz explained post-race, "It's been a very frustrating afternoon because I kept fighting through the whole race but unfortunately after such a great start and managing pretty well the soft tyre and managing to get into lap 15-16, which was the target, I realised we had no rear grip on the hard and I started going backwards."
Up next is the 2019 United States Grand Prix at the fantastic facilities of the Circuit of the Americas. In simple math terms, just finishing ahead of Bottas should give Hamilton his sixth Formula 1 World Champion " do catch history in the making!