This was my own written commentary while watching the Friday practice sessions. I offer a survey of the track and its conditions, as well as my thoughts on a notable news story broken over the weekend.
On the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez
The Mexican Grand Prix is officially back on the Formula One calendar for the first time since 1992, on a remodeled Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez (“The Brothers Rodriguez Circuit?”). I wasn’t born yet when F1 last raced on the circuit so I’m not familiar with the original layout but the revamped version has nonetheless stayed faithful, with only modifications for safety. Concrete walls line the circuit on a majority of its sections, similar to Sochi and Melbourne. The circuit map made it appear as if it had similar characteristics with Monza, featuring long straights and high-speed corners. I expected the cars to be faster through the middle sector but seeing them start their FP1 runs on a damp but drying track revealed that the section was rather twisty and tricky with the slippery tarmac. The similarity to Monza is most evident with the main straight, featuring a very long run leading up to Turn 1 and it’s one of two DRS zones.
The high altitude and thin air meant the teams found aerodynamics challenging. Mercedes ran the aero package they use in Monaco, the track with the highest demand for downforce because of all the tight and twisty corners. Despite being heavy on aero, cars are widely reported to experience speeds close to those achieved in Monza, the fastest circuit on the calendar. On the speed trap at the end of the main straight, Lewis Hamilton reached a top speed of 362.3 km/h during FP1 according to official timing from Formula One. Another cause of the high top speeds is that the turbocharger spins faster due to a lack of oxygen feeding the internal combustion engine.
The relatively high-speed nature of the track meant that there are also numerous hard-braking zones: Turn 1 the end of the main straight, Turn 4 the end of the back straight, Turn 7 the first corner of the Esses (at least according to Nico Rosberg and his engineers), and Turn 12 going into the baseball stadium complex. During FP1, Rosberg ran off at the entrance to Turn 12, just saving his car from hitting the barriers. He went straight to the pits though, after his rear brakes overheated and were visibly set ablaze. Several other drivers were advised to wisely manage their brake temperatures.
The track seems to pose some interesting characteristics, most notably the altitude, as well as the slippery surface of the freshly- laid down tarmac. It will be important for teams and drivers to find the right car set up in terms of aero, turbo, and brakes to take on the challenges posed by running a Formula One car on thin air. Furthermore, the weather could play a role during the weekend, with rain forecasted for both Saturday and Sunday. The first Mexican Grand Prix in 23 years could prove to be a compelling race given the conditions.
A fiesta for the Mexicans
What a feeling it could be for Sergio Perez hearing the crowd roar every time he weaves his way around the stadium complex. Checo has looked strong through all the practice sessions so far, with the Force India package working well on the track. He brings with him a consistent streak of race results going into his home race weekend, so he’ll look to ride on not only his momentum, but also the showering of support he has been getting from a festive crowd.
Another Mexican who has had a delightful weekend is Esteban Gutierrez. Ferrari’s reserve driver, after being without a race seat for a year, is set to return to Formula One as Romain Grosjean’s teammate in the new Haas F1 Team. Gutierrez brings with him the experience he has with the Ferrari power unit, which Haas will be running in their maiden season.
Not meaning to rain on Gutierrez’s parade but I found him underwhelming in his first two seasons with Sauber. Nico Hulkenberg was his 2013 teammate and the German largely outperformed the then-F1 rookie in terms of points and results. Just last season, both Gutierrez and Adrian Sutil were uncompetitive, toiling at the back of the grid as Sauber struggled on its first year with the new engine regulations.
The Haas team has received significant hype because of their seemingly close partnership with Ferrari but it’s still quite early to predict exactly how well they’ll fare within the grid next season. Whatever happens to the development of the Haas team from now until Australia next year, I hope to see an improved Gutierrez at the helm of one of two of the American squad’s maiden F1 challengers alongside teammate Grosjean.
The news of Gutierrez’s appointment to Haas meant that Jean-Eric Vergne and Kevin Magnussen are still without their own race seats for next season. Magnussen, let go by McLaren as reserve driver last month, is set to take part in the FIA WEC young driver test in Bahrain later this month for the Porsche LMP1 squad. Vergne was rumored to be a highly likely candidate for the Lotus team due to an impending Renault takeover. However, the Frenchman’s hopes for a race seat for that squad are dashed after the appointment of Jolyon Palmer as teammate to Pastor Maldonado for next season. The 2014 GP2 champion waited in the wings as test driver for the Enstone team this season and will finally receive his F1 race seat.
With time and available race seats running out for next season, it’s disappointing to see two talented racers in Vergne and Magnussen sit on the sidelines, still waiting for a team to come calling. This extended time off is slowly endangering their respective once-promising F1 careers and I really hope they fight their way back to a spot on the grid sooner rather than later.
Photo credit: Sahara Force India F1 Team Official Facebook Page