2017 Mexican GP Preview – By Bob Constanduros
It’s only Tuesday when I write this and I’m still in Austin, recovering from last weekend, digesting all the action and controversy from the US Grand Prix, and looking forward to the Mexican Grand Prix. It was one busy weekend with plenty to look at as Liberty Media gave us a glimpse of their idea of the future with more ideas to come.
Don’t believe that we shall be having that kind of race intro at every race, however. It was fantastic that they got Usain Bolt to the race; not only was he there on the grid but he got a high speed lap or two with Lewis Hamilton in a Mercedes SLS (not the safety car), and of course, got to interview Lewis on the podium.
For some – purists or not – the race intro was a bit too much but it was typically American and the locals loved it even if it wasn’t well received by all the drivers; it’s not the sort of bullshit that they favour but they get paid shedloads and can put up with this stuff once in 12 months.
In case you’re wondering, it didn’t all go according to plan but you had to look closely to notice that. Legendary announcer Michael Buffer – a friend for 30 years of FOM’s Sean Bratches, in case you’re wondering – made the driver introductions with a script written by NCB’s reporter Will Buxton – although that wasn’t to everyone’s liking. Some even thought it insulting to the drivers.
If the Americans liked the razzmatazz, there were certain aspects they didn’t understand. For instance, the penalty at the end of the race that cost Max Verstappen his podium place didn’t go down well anywhere. Max and to some extent Red Bull Racing believe this was part of a vendetta against him by one of the stewards.
Leaving that aside, there were two important aspects to this decision. It had to be made super-quick, the eyes of the world were on this Grand Prix and an ex-US president was waiting to present the awards. So the decision had to be made quickly for the podium’s sake, just as it was last year in Mexico. Similarly, the important aspect here at turn 17 was that Max was judged to have gained an unfair advantage allowing him to overtake Kimi Raikkonen; it wasn’t the four wheels off the circuit but that he gained the unfair advantage. Of course, Max had been the star of the Grand Prix, so demoting him from the podium didn’t go down well. I’m afraid in this instance the stewards were very far in the minority; no one – from the humblest of spectators to Niki Lauda – was in favour of that decision.
Something else that the FIA has to explain is the thinking behind applying power unit penalties to drivers who have taken over a car to which that penalty is being awarded. This happened to Brendan Hartley, of course, who found himself with the Toro Rosso which Carlos Sainz had left with a power unit penalty, so he was penalised on his debut. This was incomprehensible to many, although there is a logic to it somewhere. The penalty system could be abused tactically if other critera were in place so it has to be applied somehow. Of course, banning these power unit penalties – or even the cause of them – would be the ideal course of action to many.
However, Scuderia Toro Rosso continue to surprise. Having had an entirely new team of drivers at Austin to that at Suzuka, they have now replaced the driver who scored a point there with the guy who raced at Suzuka but didn’t manage to clinch the SuperFormula championship in Japan due to the weather, Gasly, while retaining the newcomer, Hartley. I guess they are exploring all options, while not necessarily giving themselves the best chance of clinching fifth in the Constructors’ championship.
Mercedes clinched the Constructors’ title and it won’t be long before they will surely win the Drivers’ title too. We virtually forgot that Kimi Raikkonen might have finished second, but for letting Sebastian Vettel through – and then losing out to Verstappen. So Vettel kept his hopes alive while the politics fly around the Scuderia as to who is to blame for the Asian debacle and this current lack of performance which saw them unable to complete with Mercedes. At least Sergio Marchionne has re-iterated what I said in my last column, that changing the team’s management etc would be disruptive.
So we move to Mexico and its peculiarities. I’m now here at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, at 4.3kms the second shortest circuit on the calendar to Monaco. But at 2200 meters altitude it is by far the highest circuit we visit – three times the next highest which is Interlagos in Brazil, next on the calendar. Not only is the air thin here but very often it can be dusty and dirty, although flying in yesterday gave a fabulously clear view of this enormous city which is built on an almost dried-out lake but which is sinking at four inches per annum! Today is no different, sunny with a track temperature of 50 degrees but then cool at night.
There is no loss of power from the fact that the air is thinner but the turbocharger – which makes up for that lack of power – has to work harder. However, the thinner air means that the teams have to wind on more downforce to get as much as they would get at sea level. The maximum speed down the 1100m straight last year got close to the near 360kph record set by Juan-Pablo Montoya at Monza a few years ago but the wider cars and tyres mean that while the lap time may be less this year, the speed will also probably be less too.
This is only the third Mexican Grand Prix of this era so there’s not a lot of form to go on but it has been won by Mercedes on each occasion, Nico Rosberg in 2015 and Lewis Hamilton last year, both from pole position. Ferrari’s drivers, on the other hand, have only finished once on each occasion; and neither has been classified higher than Vettel’s fifth post-penalties a year ago. Indeed, Red Bull’s pair have a better record here than Ferrari.
So the Italians have it all to do but surely the likelihood is that Lewis Hamilton will be crowned World Champion on Sunday afternoon. He will have deserved it; even Valtteri Bottas has agreed that his teammate has really upped his game since the second half of the season.
The one thing that could throw a spanner in anyone’s works is the tyre choice that drivers have made. This was a two stop race last year and might have been expected to be a one stop this year, but for the fact that Pirelli have bought their softest range. But this has resulted in some odd choices. Ferrari and Mercedes have never been in favour of the soft compound tyre, so have limited themselves to just one or two sets per driver – which might come into their own if the track temperature stays high. Red Bull, on the other hand, have three sets per driver.
Verstappen and Ricciardo have opted for more supersofts at four sets than anyone as well – apart from Vettel who has five sets. Bottas has only two, Massa and Alonso only one. Which plays havoc with the ultrasoft choice. Red Bull’s pair have only six sets, the Ferraris seven sets while the Mercedes pair have nine sets. These different tyre strategies will have to be closely watched throughout the weekend.
There are still two races to go after Mexico, of course, but this could be the one where it’s all decided. There’s going to be a huge, friendly crowd here and hopefully they will enjoy this race. Mexico has had a rough time recently thanks to its geographical position which has caused two earthquakes in the last month or so. Let’s hope that a lively race will take the locals’ minds off their tragedies and give them a good race.