Sergio Perez was right; we were pretty amazed at the reception that Formula One received at his home race (he actually comes from Guadalajara but who’s counting?) in Mexico City last Sunday. After a succession of races that were somehow disrupted, and the disappointment of Austin due to weather, to have that passion for country, home hero and the sport was astonishing and greatly invigorating.
I was commentating with former Formula Ford and Formula Three driver Jorge Koechlin from Peru (he was doing the Spanish bit) and it seemed that he just had to mention Checo Perez or Mehico every five minutes to keep the crowd’s passion inflamed. Of course that passion has always been there. Emerson Fittipaldi joined us in the commentary box for qualifying and reminded us that
in 1970 the 200,000 crowd invaded the circuit and only moved back – still in front of the barriers – after appeals by Jackie Stewart and Pedro Rodriguez. They would have cancelled the race but for fears of a riot. As it was, the race wasn’t held in Mexico again for another 16 years.
Thankfully, we had no such problems this year. There were loads of grandstands around the circuit and while we lost the great Peraltada final corner, we gained a twisty infield section through a baseball stadium, disappearing through the middle of a grandstand into the renamed Mansell corner after our Nige who spectacularly overtook Gerhard Berger around the outside of the original corner. That massive stadium also hosted the podium – set in the middle of the Paddock Club – which was a great deal better than the original podium overlooking the start/finish straight – as usual – but overlooked by a much smaller grandstand. It almost outshone Monza’s podium but in my opinion, not quite.
The circuit is set within the city in what is normally a park. It is still on the site of the Grands Prix that took place in the sixties/1970 and eighties/nineties. However, visitors to the Formula BMW finale and the A1 GP races held there in the noughties report that it had been pretty rundown but an initiative by Jose Abed of the local federation and the richest man in the world, Carlos Slim who supports Sergio Perez, saw the circuit remodelled and the paddock area rebuilt. The latter, incidentally, while not elaborate, was just the right size, like Singapore, engendering its own atmosphere.
Mexico City sits at 2200 meters, which is higher than most alpine villages. Zermatt is one of the highest in the alps; Mexico City is situated at the same height as one of the stations somewhere up the mountain railway that climbs above the smart Swiss skiing village.
This, in itself, promoted some interesting challenges. The air, of course, is much thinner, costing a normally aspirated internal combustion engine some 22 per cent of its power. To compensate, the turbos had to spin eight per cent faster which caused its own reliability worries. The thin air also meant that cooling was at a premium, not just engine cooling but brake cooling as well. We saw Nico Rosberg’s rear brakes – not even the fronts – on fire during the weekend and the team reported that he was using the biggest brake ducts allowed. However, I think only Felipe Nasr retired with brake problems during the race itself.
But the thinner air had other effects; it gave less downforce and less drag. So when the track was wet for Friday’s first practice and teams were experiencing the new, oily tarmac for the first time, not even maximum Monaco-level downforce prevented the cars from sliding massively. It was a track that evolved progressively throughout the weekend. Max Verstappen’s fastest time in FP1 was 1m 25.990s; Nico Rosberg’s pole position was 1m 19.480s; 1.5s quicker than his own fastest time two hours earlier in FP3 on the same tyres.
And of course less drag meant higher top speeds on the massively long pit straight, eventually peaking at 366kph/227mph for Sebastian Vettel in the race itself using DRS while Felipe Massa clocked 352kph/218mph without DRS.
Finally helping the grip was the warm sun when it came out. Initially we had cloud and the threat of rain for raceday, but actually when the sun came out it was pretty hot, again thanks to the altitude. And fears of Mexico City’s pollution were thankfully not realised; we had pretty extensive views to the mountains that surround the city and sometimes help to contribute to the pollution by hemming it in. Not on this occasion, so that the new, black tarmac rose to 56 degrees during the race which is Malaysian levels.
Mexico City is a massive place, the largest metropolitan city in the western hemisphere, a place of 21 million people so if you can’t get a decent crowd there with the right promotion, where can you? Sure enough, there were great crowds on all three days but this massive city has traffic problems to match and sitting on the free shuttle buses for an hour and a half – going via other (limited) car parks – was one of the downsides. On other days, the same trip would take half that or even less.
The city itself is friendly although you have to pick the safe areas. The hotel in which I stayed had 700 rooms although it never seemed like it was full. Within walking distance was a great, friendly little restaurant, beside one of the most impressive off-licences I’ve ever seen. It was decorative, incredibly well-stocked with every conceivable liquor including massive 4.5 litre bottles of gin, vodka, whisky etc. I was only window shopping of course.
And then there was the race. In front of another six figure crowd, Nico Rosberg had taken his fourth consecutive pole position on the Saturday. Question was, could he finally win from there, something he’d failed to do in the previous three races? This time the answer was yes, he hung on to his lead and stayed there throughout. There didn’t seem to be any doubt about this one, even if the chasing Lewis Hamilton did suggest that he could stay longer on his tyres than his teammate. You have to remember that when we hear pit radio, we don’t always hear the full conversation, maybe only a snippet so the actual conversations may have had a different slant to the ones we were hearing.
Nico, then, took the victory ahead of his teammate. We had another clash of Finns, this time the boot being on the other foot as the driver on the inside line – Valtteri Bottas on this occasion – again came off better than the one on the outside, which characterised a miserable weekend for Ferrari, including an engine and gearbox change for Kimi Raikkonen. Red Bull might have hoped to have done better but a fourth and fifth were not to be sniffed at.
Finally, local hero Perez was the only one to do a one stop race, remained on a set of mediums for 53 laps but was beaten by his teammate. Higher temperatures and track evolution made the tyre strategy a moving target which was yet another challenge but on this occasion, Perez’s legendary tyre conservation didn’t quite work to his advantage.
So the return of Grand Prix racing to Mexico was a massive success, with Bernie Ecclestone being variously quoted as saying that European promoters had a lot to learn and how superbly the Mexicans had done things. This was a bit disingenuous from someone who is called the promoter and has never done any promotion. I felt particularly sorry for the Americans who had had a miserable and financially disastrous weekend – there had been an even bigger rainstorm in Austin a day before the action got under way in Mexico – but make a big effort and yet Mr E was now being rather fickle in praising Mexico and his NBFs to the hilt to the detriment of others.
But then that is another political discussion which I shouldn’t get involved in. Well done to Mehico, Nico Rosberg and others for a great weekend. Brasil next!
By Bob Constanduros