A festive atmosphere greeted Nico Rosberg as he stood on the top step of the podium following a commanding victory at the Mexican Grand Prix. Unlike a traditional podium setup overlooking a grandstand on the main straight, the podium was set up in front of the crowd at the baseball stadium complex of the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez. Throughout the weekend, the Mexican fans have been raucous, cheering on hometown hero Sergio Perez whenever he passes through a grandstand complex, and were equally loud when the top three finishers Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton, and Williams’ Valtteri Bottas made their way up to the podium ceremony.
Rosberg effectively led the entire race, only losing it whenever he pitted ahead of teammate Hamilton. Things got interesting with around 25 laps to go when Mercedes, both cars far enough ahead of then- third placer Daniil Kvyat, elected to call their drivers in for a second pit stop to replace their tires. The rationale behind this “Plan B” strategy was because they feared that the Prime Medium tires wouldn’t last what would’ve been 40 or so laps to the end, after Nico and Lewis made their initial pit stops. Lewis questioned this decision as he stayed an extra lap out after Nico obeyed the orders for his own stop. The 2015 champion eventually relented and changed into a fresh new set of Mediums, not without argument.
Shortly after, the safety car was brought out with less than 20 laps to go when Sebastian Vettel crashed at Turn 7, the same corner where he previously spun on his own many laps previously. It is believed that some sort of problem with Vettel’s Ferrari was the cause of his two offs on the same corner but the German driver insisted that he was at fault. Vettel tangled with Ricciardo during the start at the first corner, resulting in a puncture for the Ferrari ace, quickly dropping him down the order. His first spin off at Turn 7 warranted an early second pit stop, eventually dropping him a lap down by the time he crashed.
Most of the top ten drivers at that time made their respective second pit stops under the safety car except for Perez, who stayed out to consolidate his track position. On the restart, Bottas easily overtook Kvyat to take third place while Perez held off Max Verstappen and Romain Grosjean to finish in eighth place. His most notable incident came when he collided with Kimi Raikkonen at Turn 5, which broke the Ferrari’s rear-right suspension and led to an early retirement. It was eerily similar to the incident in Russia when it was Raikkonen who took Bottas out. The television feed was live on-board Bottas when the collision occurred and I agree with the commentators’ opinion in thinking that Raikkonen left no room for Bottas on the inside. Bottas went around the outside at Turn 4, meaning he had the inside line for Turn 5 and was already more or less alongside Raikkonen. However, the Ferrari driver still took a sharp line and thus the collision. The Williams walked away unscathed and fought the rest of the way to claim third place. For Bottas, it was a happy return to the podium, surprisingly his first since the Canadian Grand Prix last June, although he would have been third place in Russia if not for the controversial final lap incident.
Moving on to Brazil in two weeks’ time, Rosberg hopes to keep his momentum going to deliver a strong finish for 2015 even if he isn’t fighting for the championship anymore. An authoritative set of wins to cap his season off could potentially kick start his championship attack for 2016. However, being the three-time champion that his teammate Hamilton is, the British driver is expected to be relentless in chasing more wins to put an exclamation point on a season that he has claimed rightfully his.
A more opinionated view of the race
First of all, I was expecting a chaotic start to the race, with the long straight going into the Turn 1 braking zone. On the front row, Nico got a perfect start and so did Lewis, but the man on pole position got off the line well enough to hold his teammate off. Nico took a proper defensive line to keep the slipstreaming Lewis at bay as they approached Turn 1. Thankfully, there was no contact between the two teammates unlike the previous week in Austin. Nico took the inside line while perfectly ahead of Lewis, both drivers came through the first corner with no extra drama, and the German proceeded to dominate the rest of the race.
Happening behind the two front-running Silver Arrows at the start was the contact between Vettel and Ricciardo. That incident, along with the Raikkonen-Bottas tangle later on in the race were deemed as racing incidents by the stewards, and rightfully so. Contact between two racers is never really ideal but these two incidents were unavoidable and were the result of some hard-fought competitive racing. It was unfortunate for both the Ferraris becoming the victims but I think Ricciardo and Bottas should nonetheless be recognized for sticking their noses in to make their respective passes. It was still exciting to see the very few instances of breathtaking close-quarters racing in this race.
Otherwise, the race was pretty straightforward. There really wasn’t much more competitive overtaking that went on as teams were very wary of the conditions of the venue itself, with warm air temperatures and thin air thanks to the altitude of Mexico City. The Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez was an interesting track to analyze the engineering that goes with Formula One cars even for the non-engineer that I am. In my previous post, I talked briefly about how the altitude of Mexico City affected the performance of the cars in terms of brakes, aerodynamics, and turbo. DRS was hardly effective because the thin air already provided low-drag conditions to begin with. I was a bit surprised that some cars struggled to get close to the ones ahead despite DRS assistance unless of course, they possessed an engine power advantage. Nonetheless, the Williams of Felipe Massa clocked at 365 km/h with DRS at the Turn 1 speed trap early in the race, while the Lotus of Pastor Maldonado reached the fastest speed ever recorded this season at 366.4 km/h.
The main concern for most teams was management of brake temperatures. Sauber’s Felipe Nasr retired shortly after the safety car period due to a brake failure. Otherwise, teams instructed their drivers to follow the cars in front of them with caution, being careful not to let the hot air get to their front brakes. Thus, the race saw most drivers holding station unless they got close enough to use DRS for overtaking down the long main straight.
It’s ironic how the advancement of technology in modern day F1 cars has brought about these typical race-engineer-to-driver orders whenever following a car in front and attempting to actually race that car: No, you can’t follow the car in front too closely—your brakes will heat up. Drop back now or else you’ll shred your tires because you lose downforce. Formula One cars, as sophistically-engineered as they are, actually can’t do well in turbulent air. Aerodynamic packages are mostly crafted for clean, uninterrupted air but it becomes a problem when they run into turbulence in the wake of a car in front. This may have even been the reason behind Romain Grosjean’s scary high-speed crash at Sochi, when he inexplicably lost control of his car while he was behind Jenson Button.
Hence, the race in Mexico saw some quite large gaps between runners, as they were all cautious not to overheat their brakes and incur tire degradation on a track that lacks historical data, at least for the modern F1 cars. Even if drivers wanted to get close to the car in front and attempt a challenge, there’s nothing much they could have done. Although the relative lack of overtaking and position-swapping has been prevalent in F1 throughout the past few years, I couldn’t help but notice that this was magnified during the Mexican Grand Prix race. I couldn’t help but surmise then, whether the racing in Formula One has become a victim of its own progress.
Photo credit: Mercedes AMG Petronas Official Facebook Page