Would the hot, thin-air environment of Mexico City provide the backdrop to the F1 title decider, or would the world championship journey onward one more round?
In qualifying, the Red Bull of Max Verstappen offered up a possible wildcard, top of Q1 and Q2, yet it was Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel who took pole with a huge lap in Q3, just piping the young Dutchman to the front. Directly behind Vettel was his title rival Lewis Hamilton, parking his Mercedes in third. With seven world titles plus one highly rated young man starting in the top three, the stage was set for a feisty opening lap, which was duly delivered.
At the start Hamilton exploited the slipstream of Vettel’s Ferrari, who initially got clear of Verstappen, who then also attempted to use the slipstream of Vettel, tucking in right behind the Ferrari, with Hamilton going out wide, the three of them almost abreast heading into turn 1. Verstappen dove into the first corner with Vettel immediately to his right, squeezing hard but fair, however Verstappen was equally as aggressive, and Vettel ended up clipping his front wing on the rear-right tyre of the Red Bull. Hamilton attempted to surge past his title rival and Vettel, struggling in the wake of that initial contact with Verstappen, did more damage to his front wing on the rear-right tyre of Hamilton’s car.
Whereas Verstappen escaped without any problems, Hamilton suffered a puncture, effectively ruining any hope he had of competing at the front. He limped back to the pits, but so did Vettel, who had no choice but to replace his mangled front wing. This meant the two title contenders were reduced to the back of the pack! Up ahead, Verstappen was starting to pull away from the second Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas.
Vettel and Hamilton would start to climb back up the order, though Vettel had an easier time of it, with Hamilton asking on the radio if his car had damage, as he was finding it difficult to get close enough to attack anyone. Both of them had their quest to rise up the field aided by a number of problems for Renault-powered cars, with Daniel Ricciardo suffering engine failure (with a brand new engine no less) in his Red Bull, Nico Hulkenberg retiring his Renault following a battery pack issue (that required him to exit the car very carefully, lest he get a shock), newcomer Brendon Hartley forced to pull out over when his Toro Rosso started billowing smoke, and Carlos Sainz withdrawing his Renault from proceedings at the urging of the team.
Hartley’s exit from the race triggered a virtual safety car, under which Hamilton pitted, exchanging his soft tyres for super-softs. At this point his race changed, and he was able to start gradually climbing past some of the cars in front. The title would still be his unless Vettel could somehow reach second place, which was looking more and more unlikely. Bottas was some 30 seconds clear of the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, and by the time Vettel had made it to fourth, he was some 30 seconds behind Raikkonen with only a few laps to go.
Both Hamilton and Vettel enjoyed some battles as they moved up the field. McLaren’s Fernando Alonso was quite happy to try and hold them up as best they could and briefly succeeded, before the stark lack of power in the Honda engine was exposed. Succumbing to Hamilton didn’t mean a complete disaster for Alonso – he finished tenth and in doing so, took a point, something of a rarity for himself and the team.
At the front, Verstappen was serene and supreme. Despite being asked by Red Bull to take it easy, he kept setting faster lap times, opening up a 20-second advantage on Bottas. He was dominant, taking his second win of 2017 and his third overall. With second place Bottas shrunk the gap between himself and Vettel, whose fourth place was not enough to extend the world championship fight for another round – Lewis Hamilton, despite only managing ninth, joined Vettel on four world titles.
The magnitude of that achievement cannot be overstated. Hamilton can now say he is, without question, the most successful British F1 driver of all time. He is now joint third on the list of champions, alongside Vettel and Alain Prost, with Juan Manuel Fangio (five) and Michael Schumacher (seven) still to be caught. To claim the title with a ninth place finish is unusual, but Formula 1 is often quite unusual!
The day itself though, belonged to Max Verstappen, who put in a powerful, controlled performance to win by a very clear margin over Bottas. It was in some ways reminiscent of the dominant drives Vettel enjoyed for Red Bull, and possibly a mark of what’s to come. On a day where an established F1 great won the world championship, it was a potential challenger to the throne who asserted his authority, right from the start. It makes for an intriguing 2018, even as the 2017 is yet to end.