By Sean Kelly, C4F1 Statistician
It wasn’t quite the way he had planned it, but Mexico did indeed see Lewis Hamilton crowned champion of the world, as he moves into increasingly rarefied air among the Grand Prix greats.
What Hamilton experienced on Sunday – winning a fourth championship – has only ever been sampled by four other men in history, they being Juan-Manuel Fangio (1951, 1954-57), Alain Prost (1985-86, 1989, 1993), Michael Schumacher (1994-95, 2000-04) and latterly Sebastian Vettel (2010-13).
However, Hamilton probably hadn’t envisaged ending the day after the first man to clinch the title as a lapped finisher since James Hunt memorably snatched the title from Niki Lauda in the last round decider at Fuji in 1976. For a while he even looked set to be the first driver to win the title without scoring since Michael Schumacher’s notorious collision with Damon Hill gave him his first championship at Adelaide in 1994.
In any case, Sebastian Vettel was unable to score the top-two finish necessary to have a chance of keeping the title chase alive, giving Hamilton a 17th world championship for British drivers, easily the record for any one nation (Germany is next, on 12 titles). Three of those British titles have been won at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, with Hamilton joining John Surtees (1964) and Graham Hill (1968).
All the Hamilton-related hullaballoo rather overshadowed Max Verstappen’s dominant race victory, continuing the scarcely-believable stat that all of Verstappen’s F1 wins have come in the aftermath of Daniil Kvyat being demoted by Red Bull (it was less than 18 months ago that Kvyat was sent back to Toro Rosso in order that Verstappen be promoted to his current drive).
The Dutchman has hit a rich vein of form, and is the top scorer in the last four Grands Prix (80 points). He would have been on the podium in all four races but for his contentious post-race penalty in Austin. Red Bull had not won as many as three Grands Prix in a season since 2014, but they will finish third in this year’s Constructors’ Championship, one place lower than last year.
Valtteri Bottas ended a three-race streak without a podium and extended his point-scoring streak to 13 straight races, in a relatively-distant second place. It was a result that may yet be more of consequence than it first appeared.
Bottas is only 15 points behind second-placed Vettel in the championship, and Mercedes could yet have their drivers finish 1-2 in the championship for a fourth consecutive season, an achievement unprecedented in F1 history.
While Bottas was making his second trip to the Mexico City podium, his compatriot Kimi Raikkonen had never previously scored a top three on this track. This was his sixth podium finish of 2017, the most he has scored for Ferrari since 2008.
Teammate Sebastian Vettel staged yet another fightback drive from lowly beginnings, just as he did in Malaysia at the start of this month. Just like at Sepang, he came up just short of the podium in fourth place, and again setting the fastest lap.
It was scant reward after a sensational lap in Q3 netted the 50th pole position of his career, remarkably giving Ferrari their first Mexican Grand Prix pole since Clay Regazzoni in 1970. They hadn’t even had a front row start here since the death of Enzo Ferrari in 1988.
For Vettel, Mexico City is becoming something of a jinx circuit. It is the only circuit on the current F1 calendar on which he is still yet to finish on the podium. Furthermore, two years ago he crashed out on this track – condemning Ferrari to their first double-retirement in nine years, and this season it saw the end of his title challenge. It ensures 2017 is the first drivers’ championship Vettel has led without going on to win it.
Esteban Ocon continues to be Formula 1’s resident finishing machine. The Frenchman increased his record of finishes without ever retiring from a race to 27, and tied his career-best result in fifth place – having ran the first 20 laps in a podium position. For the last four Grands Prix in a row he has both out-qualified Sergio Perez while lining up in the top six on the grid.
Teammate Sergio Perez was lauded by the home crowd throughout the weekend, especially as the Guadalajara native has used his charitable foundation to raise funds for victims of the Mexico City earthquake less than six weeks ago. Unfortunately, Perez doesn’t seem to have the best form on this track – he’s still never beaten a teammate here, and he came home two places behind his teammate in seventh.
While he may not have been on absolute top form this weekend, this was still a weekend of celebration for the whole Force India team, as they confirmed themselves in fourth place in the championship for the second consecutive year. Theirs is a triumph of perseverance – they failed to score a single point in their first season back in 2008, but they have become Formula 1’s resident giant-killers.
The meat in the Force India sandwich this week was Lance Stroll, who celebrated his 19th birthday by scoring the first top six finish for a Williams since Stroll himself was on the podium in Azerbaijan.
This put Stroll ahead of teammate Felipe Massa in the championship for the first time in 2017 – not exactly what Massa needed as Williams move closer to deciding their 2018 plans. This looks set to be the first time in Massa’s career that he does not score at least one top five finish in a season.
Speaking of close championship battles, Kevin Magnussen gave Haas a big boost with eighth place, on a track at which they’ve still never got a car out of Q1. The gap between Renault and Haas in the race for seventh in the constructors’ championship is down to one point, as Renault saw a promising race degenerate into a double retirement.
Nico Hulkenberg had yet another sniff of a podium finish early on, before a mechanical failure condemned him to three consecutive retirements for the first time in his F1 career. Teammate Carlos Sainz saw his day end due to an unrelated failure with 12 laps remaining.
Fernando Alonso had a spirited battle with Lewis Hamilton in the closing stages, and his third points finish of 2017 was his reward. The lack of straight-line speed – forever part of the McLaren Honda narrative – saw the team send Vandoorne out ahead of Alonso to give him a tow during qualifying. That gave Alonso an extra 5mph in the trap, which proved a worthwhile investment – Vandoorne’s best trap speed was 12.2mph slower than the fastest trap speeds.
The pre-race predictions of mechanical difficulties were borne out by Sunday’s action. There were five retirements due to car trouble on Sunday, compared to just two mechanical retirements in the previous two Mexican GPs combined. Of those five, only one (Marcus Ericsson) was not Renault-powered, which must have given Max Verstappen some palpitations in the later stages, especially considering his own teammate Daniel Ricciardo was out after only five laps.
With Hamilton sewing up the drivers’ championship, it means the 2017 Brazilian and Abu Dhabi GPs will be just the 12th and 13th “dead rubber” F1 races in the last decade, but with Sebastian Vettel’s second place still not in the bag – as well as many other battles unresolved – there is still plenty to play for in the final two Grands Prix.