Can Vettel & Hamilton Start At The Back In Brazil & Abu Dhabi?
The 2017 Mexico Grand Prix was a phenomenal motor-race in every sense. For starters, we had a non-Mercedes and non-Ferrari victory. Although this would mean a disservice to the talent and domination of Max Verstappen that we witnessed on Sunday, we saw Red Bull Racing win at the hands their young prodigy. Verstappen’s race was won on might, pace and an opportunistic opening lap — one that he’s most famous for. Such was Verstappen’s domination, that barring the top-four finishers, he lapped everyone en route to his third career win.
It all started during Saturday’s qualifying session. We witnessed a pole position shootout between three of the sport’s most-talented qualifiers — involving Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel aside from Verstappen. In what was expected to be a Verstappen vs. Hamilton battle, Vettel stole the limelight by clinching pole position, his 50th career pole in Formula One. The Vettel-Verstappen-Hamilton sequence was expected to serve an interesting start and opening lap on Race Day, and it did.
The long straight (roughly 800m) from the start line to Turn 1 of Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez circuit further added to the fun of the race start. While all three drivers had a clean getaway, Verstappen managed to slipstream his way to Vettel’s outside into Turn 1, a move which would then have him on the inside of Turn 2.
Mithila Mehta and I have partnered with Firstpost for the 2017 Formula 1 Season and will feature in their Firstpost Pole Position videos all through the season. Basically, we’re now available in text, audio and video!
In the Verstappen-Vettel battle that banged wheels at the exit of Turn 1, Hamilton found himself capable of taking the inside of Turn 2 and lining up just ahead of Vettel, but behind Verstappen. However, through the sequence of corners, Vettel lost chunks of his front wing in the Verstappen battle and then nudged Hamilton at the exit of Turn 2. This meant that at the end of the first lap, Hamilton had to pit to replace his punctured right-rear tyre, with Vettel following suit for a new front wing.
After this incident, Verstappen dominated the race till the chequered flag. He commanded the pace of the race to win comfortably ahead of Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas (by 19.9 seconds) and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen (by 54 seconds). On the other hand, the title protagonists, who had first lap issues, found themselves at the back of the grid while Force India’s Esteban Ocon was in third place, ahead of Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg.
More often than not, the race livens up when we have a Ferrari or Mercedes fighting back from the bottom of the grid to the podium, and in Mexico, we had two. The battles that ensued as Vettel and Hamilton attempted to fight back were noteworthy, and made for interesting viewing.
Vettel managed to fight back to finish fourth, but 70 seconds off Verstappen’s race pace. In the complex math of the title battle, the simpler part was that the German needed to finish second or higher to keep his championship challenge alive, but he couldn’t. Hamilton, however, could manage only ninth (Mercedes’ simulations indicated that he could’ve finished eighth) and a lap down on Verstappen. Their respective fightbacks were good indicators of how different the Ferrari and Mercedes cars are. The Ferrari was able to climb its way higher and faster through the traffic, but the Mercedes found it difficult to deal with the dirty air caused by the same factor, and this hampered Hamilton’s progress. Nevertheless, the Briton clinched his fourth Drivers’ Championship title, which also happens to be his most impressive.
Interestingly, Hamilton’s ninth-place finish meant that he wouldn’t be on the podium and that the crowds wouldn’t get to witness him being announced champion. However, Liberty Media had plans in place, unlike the years under Ecclestone’s reign. Hamilton’s car joined the cars of the podium drivers and was instantly interviewed by David Coulthard for the global broadcast feed and the public announcement system in the circuit. This was then followed by interviews with podium drivers. We already like the subtle but crucial changes the new owners have made to the sport. The other one being a congratulatory radio message from Brazilian footballer Neymar Jr to Hamilton minutes after he clinched his title.
Elsewhere, Ocon clinched fifth (the ‘best of the rest’) ahead of Lance Stroll and team-mate and local hero, Sergio Perez. On the formation lap, Perez too put the new public announcement service to use, thanking the fans for their support in a radio message.
Force India sealed the fourth spot in the Constructors’ Championship, while the battle for sixth, seventh and eighth between Toro Rosso (53 points), Renault (48 points) and Haas (47 points) got more intense. Apart from honour, the increase in prize money will certainly drive teams to push their boundaries to outscore each other.
Renault should’ve scored big in Mexico, but they had a paradoxical race. While their engine powered the winning Red Bull Racing car, four out of the six cars that run Renault engines retired from the race. In fact, Hulkenberg’s Renault retired when he was running comfortably in the top five. Luckily for Verstappen, who has usually been at the receiving end of Renault’s unreliability, he didn’t have to deal with any issues other than nervousness during the course of the race.
But does this bode well for Mclaren-Renault in 2018? The Honda engine seemed better in Mexico than it has in the last few races. Alonso was closer than he’s ever been to pole position and had he continued in the session (he chose against it because he had an engine penalty anyway), he should’ve qualified seventh. While both Honda-powered cars finished the race and Alonso even managed to score a point, the question of Renault’s reliability might continue to worry Mclaren. Has Honda come good just when Mclaren have decided to pull the plug on their partnership? It would be too early to make assumptions, but the fact that a Renault-powered car won the race should please Mclaren as well as Alonso.
For Red Bull Racing, Ricciardo’s retirement (again thanks to the Renault engine) means that both Verstappen and Ricciardo have had four car-related retirements this season. In the races they finished, Verstappen has been ahead of Ricciardo — somewhat indicating Red Bull Racing’s preference towards him. In the last four races, Verstappen has won two and scored 80 championship points.
Finally, the other two podium finishers — Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen, had no answer to Verstappen’s pace. For them, it was the case of making the most of the situation of Vettel and Hamilton no longer being in contention for the podium after their opening lap incident. For the Raikkonen fans though, this was his 90th career podium!
With the Formula One Championships now decided, should one tune into the remaining two races in Brazil and Abu Dhabi? Of course! With Red Bull Racing, Ferrari and Mercedes seemingly evenly matched, the entertainment and fun quotient is only going to go up as we near the end of the 2017 Formula One Season.
This column was first published on Firstpost and was co-written with Mithila Mehta