When Max Verstappen joined the Formula One merry-go-round at the age of seventeen, the prophecies read that it wouldn’t be long before he made grand prix racing look easy. And the 2017 Mexican Grand Prix may well have been the first instance of him doing just that as the Dutchman dominated like at no other point in his young career.
Indeed, according to Red Bull Racing boss Christian Horner, Verstappen was so dominant at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez that he got “bored”. A shame then, for both Verstappen’s entertainment and for the fans, that the Mexican Grand Prix was a thriller for just the first three corners.
Those first three corners teased us with the potential for an epic race and what Formula One of the near future will likely look like: two of the sport’s elite drivers mixing it with arguably the most exciting young prospect to enter the sport in a generation.
Sebastian Vettel, who narrowly stole pole-position from Verstappen in qualifying, held the lead on the long run to turn one as Verstappen and champion-in-waiting Lewis Hamilton challenged him into the harsh turn one braking zone.
Verstappen, knowing the two around him had more to lose, stood firm on the outside of turn one, banging wheels with Vettel’s Scuderia Ferrari and snatching the lead into turn two, despite running wide.
For Vettel, the opening complex of corners were somewhat frantic. The wheel-to-wheel contact with Verstappen made for a good spectacle but he clipped the rear of the Red Bull as he lost the lead, ever so slightly damaging his front wing.
Hamilton meanwhile, was restraint and opportunistic as the two leaders squabbled and tripped over each other. The championship leader was first to hit the turn two apex and swept behind both Vettel and Verstappen as the two accompanied each other wide of the racing line.
Verstappen emerged narrowly ahead of Hamilton at the exit of turn three but Vettel’s front wing stabbed into Hamilton’s rear right tyre, instantly puncturing it. A deliberate and desperate attack by Vettel? Or just one of those racing incidents?
With a championship on the line, coupled with Vettel’s previous misdemeanors when under pressure – think of his deliberate contact with Hamilton in Baku earlier this season – it’s no wonder the contact at the start of the Mexican Grand Prix came under scrutiny. So, was it a desperate attempt by Vettel to keep his title hopes alive?
Unlikely. When fragile front wing meets rapidly rotating rear wheel there’s always a guaranteed loser; the shards of Ferrari-red carbon fibre scattered across the track in Mexico demonstrated that.
Vettel was always going to suffer in the contact therefore, and with the German needing to finish in the top two in order to have any chance of extending the championship fight, it would have been far too foolish for Vettel to try such a thing deliberately.
As it was, Vettel’s damage and subsequent pit-stop for a new nosecone still saw him ahead of Hamilton, who struggled around the first lap with the destroyed tyre. With Vettel now over a minute behind the leading two of Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas, only a sensational drive could rescue his championship challenge…a safety car would have helped too.
Indeed, Vettel did drive brilliantly, stopping for a second time on lap thirty-two for Ultra-Soft tyres and making them last thirty-nine laps until the finish, where he crossed the line in fourth place, two short of where he needed to be.
Hamilton meanwhile struggled to fight his way through the field, the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team‘s W09 still proving difficult when in traffic. A spirited battle with Fernando Alonso was doubtless a highlight as the Spaniard reminds the world that he’s still here, still fighting. But ninth place and a lap behind at the finish was good enough for Hamilton to become a four time world champion.
For many, it may have been a somewhat deflating way for Hamilton to become the most successful British driver in history, given that for a while it looked like the title fight would go down to the wire, but few could argue that it isn’t deserved.
Ferrari and Vettel’s challenge faltered in the second half of 2017 as Hamilton has driven faultlessly, many observers suggesting Hamilton is in fact in the form of his life. Roll on the title fight for 2018 then, as both Vettel and Hamilton strive for title number five.
Elsewhere, behind a somewhat muted championship decider and a dominant Max Verstappen, Bottas held on to second, over half-a-minute ahead of Kimi Raikkonen, and Sahara Force India F1 Team secured a remarkable fourth in the constructors’ championship.
But while Mercedes and Force India celebrated their respective achievements, Renault were left concerned and embarrassed in Mexico as continuous reliability issues plagued various Renault powered cars throughout the weekend.
Despite powering the winning car, Renault power units in both the Renault Sport F1 Team and Scuderia Toro Rosso cars, as well as the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo, suffered weekend ruining and race ending issues.
Renault F1 managing director, Cyril Abiteboul admits that the French firm made a mistake in Mexico.
“We’ve made an error in the judgement in our preparation in the way we have been trying to balance performance versus reliability,” Abiteboul told Autosport.
The discussion on social media, away from Hamilton and Verstappen talk, was of future Renault customer McLaren, and whether the McLaren-Honda F1 Team are beginning to second guess their decision to part ways with an increasingly competitive Honda as the Japanese firm begins, ever so slightly, to show improvements.
It’s likely that no, they aren’t. What’s more, McLaren will be encouraged by their chassis performance in Mexico and will have their sights set firmly on challenging Red Bull in 2018…add Fernando Alonso to the Vettel/Hamilton/Verstappen mix and you’ve got yourself a pretty potent and enticing concoction.
There are of course two races of 2017 remaining and much to look forward to in Brazil and Abu Dhabi; the championship is sewn up, meaning the gloves can come off between Vettel and Hamilton at the head of the field – although Vettel will have one eye on Valtteri Bottas, just fifteen points behind him.
Plus, there’s a lot at stake in the constructors’ championship too; just six points cover Toro Rosso in sixth and the Haas F1 Team in eighth. Those six points symbolise many millions of Euros in prize money, and perhaps Williams Martini Racing aren’t safe in fifth yet, just twenty-three points ahead.
The championship may have been decided in Mexico, but there’s plenty of life left in the 2017 Formula One season…