Max Verstappen humbled the field in the high altitude of Mexico City.
He really should thank his favourite FIA stewards from Austin because he turned up in Mexico a few days on from his Texas podium demotion with a clearly renewed determination.
The Dutch lad has quickly become a reassured man. I was so looking forward to the first few laps in a Vettel/Verstappen/Hamilton duel but some early clumsiness largely spoiled that and the race. For Verstappen, it must have felt like any one of hundreds of karting starts where he had to be aggressive and confident bouncing off rivals to break clear, but he was fortunate not to get a puncture from the two guys who would by the end of the day be combined eight-time world champions.
Having suffered front wing damage in the opening lap of the Mexican GP, Sebastian Vettel then punctured the rear-right tyre of Lewis Hamilton
In the 890-metre run to turn one there was lots of slipstreaming going on and by turn two the three main contenders were more or less as one. Hamilton saw a clear opportunity as the two Vs squabbled over the lead and left plenty of space but Vettel still managed to hit him.
Seb has connected with Verstappen twice now when starting alongside him – Singapore being the first – and many fans tweeted that they felt Vettel hit Hamilton on purpose, and even Lewis was on the radio asking. It was a high-risk strategy if Seb did because he couldn’t know if there was any significant damage from his first skirmish with Max, and risking 100 per cent damage of your front wing against a 50 per cent chance of puncturing someone else’s tyre rather than hitting the wheel rim is a poor gamble. I don’t believe he did that on purpose, but Hamilton did leave him plenty of room.
Hamilton still daring to be different
Hamilton hailed by fellow drivers
The stewards take a more lenient view on first lap contact as the pack squabbles, partly due to the inevitable contact and running wide, and also because they could spend a considerable chunk of the race reviewing everything unless there is a clear misdemeanour and fault.
Vettel was lucky not to attract a penalty from hitting the Mercedes and later passing Massa while off track.
Verstappen somehow escaped unscathed, but Hamilton didn’t as he successfully endeavoured not to run into the pack as he three-wheeled into turn four. There was limited bodywork damage on the Mercedes but Hamilton would go on to deliver a curiously low key and underwhelming comeback drive, albeit with little incentive as Vettel wasn’t likely to achieve a necessary victory or second place.
Both Hamilton and a storming Vettel needed a Safety Car to bring them back into play but in the end they only got a neutralising ‘Virtual Safety Car’ while clearing Brendon Hartley’s once again broken Toro Rosso away.
Reminding us very much of Schumacher, Vettel, and Hamilton, Verstappen was so comfortable out front he amused himself trying to set the fastest lap, which he ultimately failed to do. It was all ‘simply lovely’ as he might say, although everyone of his team and supporters had everything crossed such that his Renault power unit would survive intact, unlike many others.
Vettel made some trademark bold moves to climb to fourth but there was little point in Ferrari making a speedy Kimi Raikkonen yield third because it would have made no championship difference. Seb has never lost a championship he led at some point but this one got away from him and Ferrari in very short order. Now he has to defend second place in the championship from Valtteri Bottas.
What’s changed for Hamilton in 2017?
Hamilton, meanwhile, seemed hesitant following many cars he would normally dismiss like annoying flies despite his wounded Mercedes, and then suddenly he would be in a dramatic and risky scrap with the likes of Fernando Alonso who scored points for the third time this season.
A word for Force India and their drivers. The team comfortably secured fourth in the championship and Ocon finished his 27th straight race since entering F1 in 5th place. Local hero Sergio Perez has only retired once in the last 48 races when he tripped over his team-mate Ocon in Baku. Those numbers speak for themselves for a team which spends significantly less than half what the top three teams spend.
Lance Stroll did a fine job for Williams in sixth and Kevin Magnussen somehow got his off-the-pace Haas up to eighth ahead of the recovering Hamilton.
Lewis fully deserved this championship as he joins Fangio, Prost, Schumacher and Vettel with four or more titles. Other than Mexico he has been simply outstanding especially since the summer break, and he’ll take some stopping over the next few years too. If Ferrari and Red Bull can close the gap then 2018 should be something to behold in F1 as the multiple champions try to contain the wonder kid and Daniel Ricciardo.
F1 in 2018: Dates and line-ups
Danny Ric has been very unlucky of late, as his team-mate was earlier in the season, but Verstappen has stolen the team from him, just as he did from Vettel. He either has to steal it right back which is easier said than done or have a move cemented early for 2019 with Mercedes, Ferrari or McLaren where possible.
Post-championship deciding races can be great fun and Brazil, in particular, can throw up some weather challenges and great surprises. The gloves will be off now as Hamilton will want to shine as champion, Vettel will be determined to show what might have been, and Red Bull could once again beat the pair of them.