On a race weekend where Formula One fully embraced the Mexican holiday of ‘Día de Muertos’ – the ‘Day of the Dead’ – the battle for the 2017 world drivers championship met its end.
The sole survivor, Lewis Hamilton, joined the upper echelons of Formula One’s greats by taking a fourth world title and, in doing so, matched the man who he had fought a season-long campaign against.
Sebastian Vettel, fighting until the very last, would taste the defeat of losing a competitive championship battle for the first time in his career.
But as an enthralling title fight between two of the sport’s greats drew to its conclusion another driver, Max Verstappen proved once again he is set to be a contender for the ultimate prize for many years to come.
Championship rivals clash
The thousands of passionate Mexican fans who had packed out the Autodromo Hermanos Rodríguez on Saturday had been treated to one of the most competitive qualifying sessions of the season.
With Vettel on pole, Verstappen alongside and Hamilton directly behind, the 900-metre run down to the first corner looked set to be one of the most explosive prospects of the 2017 season. It didn’t disappoint.
As the lights went out, all three got away well, with Vettel leading the field down to the tight right-hander. Verstappen was right in his slipstream, however, and pulled left to take the outside line while Hamilton fanned out even further as the field hit the braking zone for turn one.
Vettel tried to fend off Verstappen’s assault but the Red Bull had the inside line for turn two and swept through into the lead. Vettel, out of position, was helpless to prevent Hamilton from bolting past him into the outside of the right-hander of turn three.
Vettel, seeing his already slight chances of a world title potentially slipping away from him, tried desperately to not let Hamilton escape and aggressively tried to fight back at the Mercedes. The Ferrari clipped the right-rear of the Mercedes. The contact seemed relatively minor, but the consequences for the championship were major.
Hamilton immediately fell back, his right-rear tyre punctured by the Vettel’s front wing. This looked like the nightmare scenario Mercedes had dreaded.
But Vettel’s Ferrari was also damaged, missing large chunks of the front wing. In an extraordinary turn of events, both championship contenders arrived in the pits at the end of lap one to have their wounded cars seen to.
Vettel arrived home first and was soon on his way again with a new front wing, but already the odds for the Ferrari ace seemed insurmountable. Hamilton followed his rival into the pits, only to emerge ten seconds adrift of Vettel in last position. It would be the closest Hamilton would ever get to the Ferrari.
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Vettel makes his way to the points
Through the drama behind, Verstappen was now clear out in front ahead of the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas. Next came Esteban Ocon who had skilfully navigated his Force India through the mayhem to assume third position.
Felipe Massa and Carlos Sainz Jnr had also both suffered punctures of their own and had pitted and resumed ahead of the two championship contenders. The question of whether the title battle would stay alive into Brazil became a question of how much Vettel could make up ground on the field.
By lap 11, Verstappen had pulled out an advantage of five seconds over Bottas, which was 10 seconds clear of Ocon. Vettel’s recovery had seen him catch up to Massa’s Williams in 15th place. Vettel used DRS to get a good run on the Williams heading to turn four as Massa covered the inside line, forcing Vettel to the outside and over the white lined confines of the track.
Vettel kept his inside line into turn five, forcibly taking the position with a move that looked clumsy at best, potentially illegal at worst. Despite the unconventional nature of the move, the stewards saw no need to investigate the incident.
Soon Gasly and Grosjean were despatched by the charging Ferrari, but behind all of them, Hamilton was having major difficulties passing a single car and was still stuck in last position behind Sainz’s Renault.
Ever since its return to the Formula One calendar in 2015, the Mexican Grand Prix had proven to be one of the sport’s most enthusiastic and impassioned venues with hundreds of thousands of local fans flocking to the circuit each year.
But this year the race carried extra significance following the devastating earthquake that had struck Mexico just one month prior. To commemorate and celebrate the memories of all those who had died on September 19th, the crowd all stood on lap 19 to salute in tribute to the victims.
Renault’s mass breakdown
Hamilton was still struggling for pace and unable to make progress anywhere near the progress that his rival Vettel was. On lap 21 the absurd prospect the world championship leader being lapped by Verstappen became reality. Meanwhile Vettel took 12th off Hartley.
In the high-altitude setting, no engine supplier had more troubles over the weekend than Renault. The Toro Rosso pair both had their Saturdays severely compromised by turbocharger failures and come Sunday, there were more troubles.
Despite a fresh set of power unit elements installed into his Red Bull, Daniel Ricciardo only lasted five laps before he was forced to retire to the pits with another engine related problem. With the sister car of Verstappen out front, you could forgive Red Bull for feeling nervous.
That anxiety heightened when Nico Hulkenberg became the second Renault powered car to drop out of the race on lap 26. The hapless Renault driver, who had now retired with mechancial failures in four of his last five races, was forced to pull over on the long main straight with warnings that ‘the car is not safe’ strongly suggesting the problem was ERS related.
Then, the Renault-powered troubles were compounded further on lap 32 when Brendon Hartley became the third car to be forced out with smoke seeping from the rear of his Toro Rosso. Not even half distance had been reached, yet half of the Renault-powered cars were now out of the race.
With Hartley’s car on the side of the track needing recovery, the Virtual Safety Car was deployed. Hamilton took advantage to box immediately for super soft tyres, with Vettel later following suit to switch back to the ultra soft compound.
Not long after the race resumed, Verstappen, Bottas and Raikkonen all pitted for their one and only stop, all reclaiming their positions on pit exit. Already, Verstappen seemed in complete control of the race, with his advantage over Bottas having grown to over 12 seconds.
Red Bull knew they were in a dominant position, with Verstappen the fastest man of anyone on the circuit, bar Vettel with his ultra soft tyres. Running in the mid 1’20s, Verstappen was told that all he needed to do was match Bottas behind, who was lapping in the high 1’20s.
By now, Vettel had passed Kevin Magnussen to take seventh place and was using his ultra soft tyres to good use to set about catching Perez in sixth place. On the other hand, Hamilton was still having difficulties making progress and was still sitting in 15th place, behind Pascal Wehrlein’s Sauber.
With Renault-powered cars dropping like flies, Red Bull were now having to remind their race leader not to go too fast.
“Okay Max, that was the same time as the previous lap,” the team warned. “I’m really sorry,” replied Verstappen, sounding like a mischievous schoolboy.
Hamilton easily motored past Wehrlein, Gasly and Marcus Ericsson to move up to 12th place. With Mercedes forecasting an eighth place finish for the championship leader, it seemed like the title battle would be determined more by where Vettel would finish.
Seeing his chances of a fifth world championship slip ever further away, Vettel was continuing to fight for ever second he could make up over the cars ahead.
Having eventually caught Perez, Vettel was able to scythe past the local hero into the first turn to relieve him of sixth, before taking fifth from Lance Stroll a handful of laps later.
With Ocon dispatched, Vettel had, remarkably, managed to recover up to fourth place. But having done so much, there was still so much more time to be made up and not many laps left in which to do it in.
“Kimi is 23 seconds in front,” Ferrari informed their challenger. “Oh mamma mia,” came the reply from Vettel, recognising the sheer magnitude of the challenge he now had to keep his hopes alive. “That’s a little bit too much.” It had been a valiant effort by the Ferrari driver, but he rose no further.
Back out front, any nerves that Red Bull may have had over Verstappen’s car will likely have reached their peak when Carlos Sainz became the fourth Renault-powered driver to retire from the race with only a handful of laps left.
Verstappen took it upon himself to try and calm the team’s concerns – by promptly lowering the fastest lap of the race.
With Vettel facing the impossible task of overcoming his delta to Raikkonen and Bottas ahead, Hamilton could almost afford to enjoy his late scrap with his former sparring partner Fernando Alonso over ninth place in the closing laps.
The McLaren driver was enjoying what he felt was the ‘best car of the weekend’ around the Mexico circuit and had moved up ten places from the start to find himself in ninth with the world champion-elect behind him.
Not one to just roll out the red carpet for anyone to pass him, Alonso fought hard to keep the Mercedes behind him, expertly fending off Hamilton’s attacks through the opening sector, before he managed to eventually force his way past in turn five.
It was, as Alonso’s engineer characterised it, ‘good but fair racing’ and a poignant reminder of how exciting it would be to see these two champions fighting against each other for regularly once again.
Title number four for car 44
And so it was that the Mexican Grand Prix, and indeed the world championship battle, had now run its course. Verstappen duly crossed the line to secure a dominant victory. His second of the season and second in the last four races to go a long way to helping to put the disappointment of his 2017 campaign behind him.
Valtteri Bottas finished 20 seconds later and, in doing so, made it official that Vettel was now unable to catch Hamilton in the championship and meaning that Lewis Hamilton was the 2017 Formula One world champion.
Raikkonen finished a lonely third, almost a full minute behind Verstappen, with a defeated Vettel crossing the line fourth and having to reconcile that his fifth world title would have to wait for another day.
But it was all about car number 44, which secured a fourth world championship in ninth place to cement Hamilton’s position as one of the very best to ever step into the cockpit of a Formula One car.
Hamilton’s joy at becoming champion once more was more subdued than in previous years, but the terrific atmosphere of the stadium section provided the perfect setting to crown a world champion as Hamilton saluted the crowd and soaked in the reality of becoming the fifth man to taste championship glory on four separate occasions.
“Honestly it doesn’t feel real,” Hamilton said.
“Obviously that’s not the kind of race that I want when you’re 40 seconds behind or something. But I never gave up and that’s really what’s important – what’s in my heart. I kept going right to the end. I’m grateful for today and I just want to lift it up to my family and to God and thank my team.”
Despite being beaten in a championship battle for the first time in his Formula One career, Vettel was gracious in defeat, embracing Hamilton in the press pen and extending genuine congratulations to his season-long rival.
“It’s disappointing, obviously,” Vettel said. “Lewis has done a superb job all year round and deserves to win the title, so congratulations to him. It’s not about anybody else. Today is about him. It’s his day.”
Verstappen, untroubled throughout the race, took everything in his stride and put any nagging disappointment from last weekend’s post-race penalty firmly behind him.
“I was cruising. It was great,” he admitted.
“The start was very crucial and I went around the outside and that worked out well. From there on, I was basically just looking after the tyres and the car just performed brilliantly in the race. Of course big thanks to Red Bull because without them, this was not possible. After last week, this is a perfect race.”
The focus on the conclusion to the championship battle masked a series of excellent performances in the top ten.
Force India secured fourth place in the constructors’ championship for the second year running with a strong double points finish for Ocon and Perez, while Lance Stroll produced his best drive since Azerbaijan to move from 11th on the grid to sixth at the chequered flag for Williams.
Kevin Magnussen kept his nose clean to turn around a horrible start to the weekend for Haas into a solid eighth place finish, while Alonso showed that the McLaren really was quicker than its endless engine penalties suggested by taking the final point in tenth from almost the rear of the field.
But the most important result in Mexico was that one of the most intriguing championship battles in the last decade had finally come to an end.
It may have concluded sooner than the neutral observer may have liked, but despite the controversial nature of the opening lap clash it was great to see that the two men who had relished the opportunity to finally compete head-to-head at the start of the season were able to respect each other as equals once their fight had ended.
The depth of talent at the sharp end of the Formula One grid has rarely been this competitive. It is an exciting prospect to consider just how many drivers we could potentially see battling to etch their name on the world drivers’ championship trophy in 2018.
2017 Mexican Grand Prix
- Alonso “cries like a baby” and the stewards always listen – Steiner
- 2017 Mexican Grand Prix team radio transcript
- 2017 Mexican Grand Prix weekend Star Performers
- Top ten pictures from the 2017 Mexican Grand Prix
- ‘Race director, look at the race please’: Mexican GP team radio highlights
2017 F1 race reviews
- Rosberg denies Hamilton a winning end to his championship year
- Rosberg frustrates Hamilton as Vettel gives hope to Ferrari
- Rosberg gets his revenge as Hamilton holds back
- Hard-fighting Hamilton pounces on Rosberg error to seal third title
- Rosberg’s misfortune brings Hamilton within touching distance of title