This weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix was packed full of controversy from start to finish, and the fallout from it went on long afterwards.
Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team driver Lewis Hamilton needed to keep his winning streak going in Austin, and that is exactly what he did, reducing the gap to team-mate Nico Rosberg in the drivers’ standings to nineteen points, with two more races of the 2016 Formula One season remaining.
Hamilton, having worked on his starts since his woeful launch in Japan, once again made a good getaway off the line, but locked-up heavily going into the first corner, due to glazing of the brakes sustained on the formation lap, and went flying onto the grass before re-joining the track still in the lead, a cause for much debate after the race.
It led to nervous times for the Mercedes engineers, as they hoped and prayed that the vibrations and high suspension loads that Hamilton was now receiving from the resulting flat spot, would not cause a race ending failure. A quick decision had to made on whether to pit the Brit early, potentially denying him the crucial win he needed to keep his championship hopes alive, or leave him out and hope for the best. They chose the latter, which miraculously worked in their favour!
Meanwhile just behind, team-mate Rosberg had Red Bull Racing driver Max Verstappen to contend with when the Dutchman dived up the inside of the German. The 19-year-old locked up approaching the apex and slid into the side of the W07. The ensuing contact pushed Rosberg wide, causing the German to run off track at Turn 2, before returning to the action ahead of Verstappen and retaining second place.
Further down the order, more mayhem was in the offing, when Haas F1 Team driver and local boy Esteban Gutierrez caught the Manor Racing MRT of Pascal Wehrlein, sending the rookie cascading into the side of Sauber F1 Team driver Marcus Ericsson, before careering into the barriers at Turn 3.
That incident ended the German’s race immediately, whilst the Swede trudged back to the pits for repair, and the Virtual Safety Car (VSC) was activated whilst the MR05 was recovered.
Let the games begin…
Daniel Ricciardo took the opportunity to make a very early pit stop and switch to the medium tyre, which was thought possible to last for the entirety of the race, having gambled with the super-soft compound at the start.
Fernando Alonso meanwhile had been on team radio to complain about being run off the track by Scuderia Toro Rosso driver Carlos Sainz Jnr, as they accelerated through Turn 3, causing the McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team driver to save a spin.
Whilst the VSC was still in progress, he stewards deliberated over the numerous first lap incidents, but four laps later had made up their minds and the action got back underway.
The Rosberg/Verstappen and Ericsson/Wehrlein collisions were deemed racing incidents with no further action required, but Sainz Jnr found himself with a five second penalty for his move on Alonso.
On the re-start Hamilton was caught slightly off guard and did not immediately pull away from Rosberg, but that was not a problem for the Brit, as the German had pressure from behind in the form of Verstappen to deal with. On lap 12 the Dutchman pitted to take the medium tyres his team-mate had been steadily advancing back through the field on.
If you can’t beat them, outsmart them…
Hamilton increased his lead over Rosberg to 5.7 seconds before making his one and only pit stop for the hardest available rubber. Three laps later the German followed suit, but both Scuderia Ferrari drivers kept on going.
Running longer allowed Kimi Raikkonen to get ahead of Sahara Force India F1 Team driver Nico Hulkenberg who had got a flying start from fifth on the grid.
Team-mate Sebastian Vettel, who had led the race following the pit stops of his rivals, chanced his arm further by getting twelve more laps under his belt on the soft tyre before pitting for the medium tyre on lap 32, allowing him to also jump Hulkenberg and claim sixth place.
Whilst Rosberg began to home in on Hamilton, the advancing RB12 of Verstappen, who had been let through by team-mate Ricciardo at the request of the team, had crept to within 0.6 seconds of the German and was looking to get by.
When Rosberg locked up at Turn 1 trying to negotiate a backmarker, the Dutchman saw his chance to pounce, having now closed right in behind the W07. At Turn 4 the 19-year-old attacked Rosberg down the inside, but carried way too much speed into the corner, running wide and onto the grass, which allowed Rosberg back passed and to steam ahead.
Nice try from the Red Bull man, but to no avail.
From there on in it was plain sailing for the top two runners, with Hamilton cruising to victory in the end, but with an air of perhaps being rather lucky to get through that first stint of the race unscathed. It also sealed the 51st win of the Brit’s career, equalling the record of Alain Prost, a special achievement indeed.
Vettel vents his frustration…
For the rest however, there was about to be a showdown. Having dropped away from Rosberg, Verstappen became vulnerable to the advancing Vettel, who had inherited fourth place when both Ricciardo and Raikkonen pitted for a fresh set of rubber.
At the start of lap 68, the German had closed right in on Verstappen, putting him in DRS range, as he primed himself to pass the RB12. Vettel put on the pressure, and with much older tyres Verstappen locked up at Turn 1, running wide and across the grass before returning to the track, still in third place.
Despite advice from the Red Bull pit wall over team radio that he should give the place back to Vettel, he did not and this angered the German deeply.
The disregard for the rules by the brash Dutchman, sent Vettel into a frenzy of anger over team radio, continuing his rant which included a torrent of abuse, not only directed at Verstappen, but at F1 Race Director Charlie Whiting too.
The German was still fuming from the incident, which had possibly caused him to drop off the pace, and now on the penultimate lap, the other Red Bull of Ricciardo was now on his case.
As the pair headed for Turn 4 the Australian began his attack, some solid wheel-to-wheel action was on the cards, but instead of fairly defending his position, Vettel in his already frustrated mind frame blocked Ricciardo, squeezing out the Red Bull man. There was some contact, but thanks to Ricciardo, they both luckily managed to avoid a more serious accident.
How many F1 drivers does it take to claim third place?
Verstappen made it over the line in third place, followed by Vettel and then Ricciardo, but whilst in the backroom waiting to go out onto the podium, the Dutchman was informed he had received a five second time penalty for his move on Vettel, demoting him to fifth, behind both the German and his team-mate.
Un-amused Verstappen left, whilst Vettel received the news he had been promoted to third, legging it down the pitlane to take his place on the podium. The German was however also under investigation for his dubious defending from Ricciardo, which the stewards were taking their time to deliberate over.
A number of hours later and a stance had finally been taken on the matter, with the stewards concluding that Vettel had moved under braking and would receive a ten second time penalty for his error. That pushed him down the order to fifth, moving Verstappen back up to fourth, and leaving Ricciardo as the rightful third place trophy recipient.
And the rest…
The second Ferrari of Raikkonen took sixth place, after edging out the Force India of Hulkenberg, having caught the German with five laps to go. On sixty lap old tyres and little grip available to him, the German had managed to fend the Finn off for some time, but having now had enough of being stuck behind the Force India, Raikkonen decided it was time to make a move around the outside at Turn 4.
Unable to stop the VJM09, Hulkenberg was forced to take evasive action, spinning the car to avoid a collision with the Ferrari as it turned in on him. Had he not been so quick to react, a crash was more than likely. Luckily for Hulkenberg, he only lost out on the one place to the Finn, seeing home in seventh, but crucially from a team perspective ahead of Williams Martini Racing driver Valtteri Bottas in eighth.
The Finn’s team-mate Felipe Massa held off advances from the second Force India of home hero Sergio Perez for ninth, with the Mexican completing the top ten.
The luckless Sauber F1 Team once again finished in eleventh place and just out of the points with Ericsson, ahead of McLaren Honda pairing, Jenson Button and Alonso.
Renault Sport F1 Team driver Jolyon Palmer, was fourteenth, which was a solid bad effort from the Brit considering he had stopped on lap 1 for his sole pit stop, doing well to make his tyres last.
Felipe Nasr was fifteenth ahead of Sainz Jnr, who was back down the order due to his first lap time penalty, with Kevin Magnussen taking seventeenth place ahead of the Spaniard’s team-mate Daniil Kvyat. The Russian also received a sanction for running off track when attempting to pass Haas driver Romain Grosjean, completing a bad day at the office all round for Toro Rosso.
Gutierrez was a lowly nineteenth place in the end on home soil, but did manage to beat team-mate Grosjean, on what was a woeful weekend for the American squad who struggled for performance in the VF16, especially with the brakes.
Manor driver Esteban Ocon brought up the rear, with team-mate Wehrlein the only retirement following his first lap incident.
Sunday’s result see’s Hamilton reduce Rosberg’s lead in the Driver’s standings to nineteen points with just two more races to go, putting the German firmly in the driving seat and the most likely of the two to take the championship crown.
It is Rosberg’s title to lose most certainly, but we all know what pressure can do to even the greatest competitor, so it is by no means over just yet.
Red Bull further stretched out their lead over Ferrari for second place in the Constructors’ Championship, with both drivers finishing ahead of the Italian squad’s pairing, thanks to Vettel’s penalty, inching the gap up to sixty-two points. It also now confirms third place in the driver’s standings for Ricciardo.
Now with a serious edge on their Italian rivals, despite Ferrari closing the gap performance wise in the race, the Milton Keynes based team still look likely claimants of the second position spoils.
The final result also confirms third place in the driver’s standings for Ricciardo, with Vettel now unable to catch him with two races remaining.
The gap between Force India and Williams for fourth and fifth remains extremely close. With just nine points in it and little to choose between the teams on race day, this battle looks set to continue all the way to the chequered flag in Abu Dhabi.
The gap to Toro Rosso from McLaren in sixth place has stayed at nineteen points, after both teams were unable to take any home any points in Mexico, whilst further down the order the Haas F1 Team remain twenty-one point’s clear of Renault, and Manor keep their one point advantage over Sauber, who are still looking for their first point of the season.