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ANALYSIS: Points Mean Prizes in Mad Mexico Grand Prix

ANALYSIS: Points Mean Prizes in Mad Mexico Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton joined a very exclusive club when he clinched his fourth Formula One World Drivers' Championship with a collision-affected ninth place in the Mexican Grand Prix.

Valtteri's second place, behind race winner Max Verstappen, helped to secure Lewis' Championship, with Vettel needing to finish first or second to keep his Championship hopes alive. Lewis joins Alain Prost and 2017 arch-rival Sebastian Vettel with four titles, with only two drivers in the history of the sport to have won more than the Brit - Juan Manuel Fangio with five and Michael Schumacher with seven.

That fourth title to add to his crowns in 2008, 2014 and 2015, means that Lewis now stands alone as the most successful British driver of all time in terms of Championships, having already achieved that honour in terms of race victories.

The track, at 7500ft above sea level, did not play to the strengths of the W08 - a factor compounded by Lewis' first lap brush with Vettel at Turn 3, which dropped both title protagonists to the back of the field.

Team engineers believed that the greater the maximum downforce you have on the car, the more you reap the benefits in Mexico. Ferrari had already demonstrated its capability in such trim at high-downforce circuits such as Monaco, Budapest and Singapore, taking pole position at each, and Red Bull's development of its RB13 has also put the team at the high end of downforce.

The team did not manage to put a car on the front row, as Vettel's Ferrari took pole on his final Q3 run with a lap in 1m16.488s, pipping Verstappen's Red Bull by just 0.09s. Lewis and Valtteri shared the second row, more than three tenths adrift but separated by just 0.02s.

The thin air in Mexico City has quite a dramatic effect on car performance. Although the circuit layout demands a high downforce aerodynamic package, the rarefied air means that the cars actually generate less downforce than at low-downforce Monza!

Add to that challenges for engine and brake cooling, plus the thin air making the DRS zones much less effective as cars develop less drag, and you have a track on which both following another car closely and overtaking are particularly difficult.

"It's actually the most difficult circuit on the calendar for that," Lewis explained.

That being the case, the run down and through the first two turns took on even greater significance. As Vettel attempted to protect his pole position from Verstappen, the young Dutchman surged around his outside into Turn 2 to sneak ahead, the Ferrari suffering front wing damage in the process. Lewis saw his opportunity to go through as well but, on the exit of Turn 3, was hit by Vettel, suffering a punctured right rear tyre and a damaged diffuser. Both Championship rivals were forced to head for the pits, Lewis at a much slower rate on his deflated tyre. Valtteri, meanwhile, had taken full advantage to run second behind Verstappen.

"Did he (Vettel) do it on purpose?" Lewis queried on the radio. The stewards decreed that no investigation was necessary and, by the end of the race, his fourth title in the bag, Lewis was past caring.

Toto too, was not pointing fingers: "I'd just like to look at the positive that Lewis has won the Championship, and not get into some sort of controversy that's not necessary."

The upshot was that both title contenders faced recovery drives. Across the line at the end of the second lap, Vettel, his Ferrari fitted with a new nose, was 19th, 35s behind leader Verstappen, while Lewis was dead last, a further 24s in arrears. At their pit stops to attend to the opening lap damage, both the Ferrari and the Mercedes had been fitted with the hardest compound Pirelli tyre on offer in Mexico, the yellow-walled Soft, giving both the capability to run to the end of the 71-lap race.

For Lewis, though, there was further bad news when Carlos Sainz, who had been running fifth, spun his Renault on the second lap and pitted for a replacement set of tyres, also going onto the Pirelli Soft. He re-joined 11s behind Vettel and 13s ahead of Lewis.

By lap 16, Lewis had closed down the gap to Sainz but the Renault was now on the tail of Wehrlein's Sauber and unable to get past. Compounding Lewis' struggle was Sainz picking up the DRS from Wehrlein each lap, making the Renault almost impossible to pass.

"Jeez, I can't get past these guys..." Lewis said on the radio, the frustration evident in his tone. Whereas initially Vettel and Lewis had been able to lap within half a second of leader Verstappen's Ultrasoft-shod Red Bull on their Pirelli Softs, the pace was now 2.5s slower than the leading Red Bull, forcing Lewis to have to react to blue flags and let the race leader lap him after 21 laps! Vettel, meanwhile, was making progress - the Ferrari up to 13th after 20 laps.

The characteristics of the Mexico lap and the relative ineffectiveness of slipstreaming in the reduced drag thin air meant strategists calculating that one of the biggest speed deltas of the season was needed in order to mount an effective overtaking bid - something in the order of 1.3-1.4s. And, looking at their respective Q3 times, Lewis only had a 0.86s margin over Sainz, so it was hardly surprising that he was unable to pass. It would have been tough enough anyway, even without the Renault picking up DRS from the Sauber ahead.

This was as frustrating for Mercedes strategists as it was for Lewis. When they put Lewis onto the Soft compound tyre at his opening lap stop, they did not know that Sainz would spin on the next lap, stop, and pit out in front of them. Had they known that, they would have fitted Lewis with the UltraSoft and accepted that they were going to have to make a subsequent stop.

At the front, Verstappen was in control, leading Valtteri by 6.3s at the 20-lap stage.

"I don't think the car was quite good enough here," Valtteri said. "We couldn't keep up with Max and fight for the win today, which was unfortunate. Handling-wise it wasn't too bad, just sliding around a bit and missing grip in the corners. I think that's where Red Bull is still at an advantage at places like this."

On lap 28 Lewis finally made it past Sainz at the end of the main straight and, two laps later, was past Wehrlein. Vettel, by this stage, was up to eighth, 10s behind Kevin Magnussen's seventh-placed Haas.

Spending so much time in traffic was not good for even the hardest compound tyre and Lewis reported his scepticism about his Softs actually making it to the end. They didn't need to, though, with a brief Virtual Safety Car on the 32nd lap affording the opportunity for a relatively cheap pit stop.

More than half the field took advantage, including Vettel and Lewis. The Ferrari went onto UltraSofts, while Mercedes bolted a fresh set of the red-walled SuperSofts onto car No.44, the team believing there was precious little to choose between the two compounds.

At half distance, Verstappen led Valtteri by 7.5s, with Räikkönen's Ferrari - delayed behind Pérez's Force India in the early stages - 24s further behind, ahead of Ocon, Stroll, Perez, Magnussen, Vettel, Alonso, Vandoorne, Ericsson, Gasly, Wehrlein, Grosjean and Lewis.

"It sucked being back there!" Lewis admitted. But the team was putting his mind at rest as regards the Championship, with Vettel still over a minute behind Valtteri's second place.

"Vettel is P8 and he needs P2," Lewis was told. "Our best projection for him is P4, so just keep doing what you're doing and get up into the points."

"Understood," Lewis came back. It wasn't the way he wanted to win it, but he was doing all he could.

He passed Grosjean on lap 36, Wehrlein on lap 38, Gasly on lap 43, Ericsson on lap 46, and Vandoorne on lap 53 to put himself into the points for the first time. Massa's Williams fell to Lewis four laps later and he set his sights on the eighth place that would mean Vettel needing to win the race to keep his slim hopes alive. The next car up the road, though, was Fernando Alonso...

The Spaniard was himself trying to pass Kevin Magnussen's spiritedly driven Haas, as the American team battled for every point in its fight with Renault in the Constructors' Championship.  As with Sainz / Wehrlein earlier in the race, Lewis was faced with Alonso picking up DRS from the Haas. Vettel, by now, had passed Ocon for fourth and Räikkonen could be counted on to move over for him if need be, but the Ferrari was still more than 50s behind Valtteri's second place.

The racer in Lewis could not resist indulging in an entertaining scrap with Alonso. The tactical approach was to attack hard, costing Alonso time in defence and breaking his DRS assistance from Magnussen, with the idea of then picking off the McLaren-Honda when it was on its own. It took a while for the strategy to work, Lewis finally nailing Fernando around the outside of Turn 4 and into Turn 5 in what some of the team thought was one of the best passes of the year.

"Was that okay or did he have all four wheels off the track?" Alonso asked his team on the radio.

"It was okay, Fernando," they told him, "just good, hard racing!"

"Fernando... this is one tough Mofo!" Lewis laughed afterwards, reflecting on his hard-earned ninth place. "Wait 'til this guy gets a good engine... McLaren has a special place in my heart and I hope next year they have a better engine and car." A sentiment his team-mate of 10 years ago will no doubt endorse!

After 71 laps, finally it was done. Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport had its fourth successive World Drivers' Championship to add to the four consecutive Constructors' titles, with the Brazilian and Abu Dhabi Grands Prix still to run.

On the day, a mouth-watering three-way fight between the sport's current leading teams had not quite materialised. Toto, however, commented, "I think in a clean race Lewis would have won, because our pace with a damaged car was very good. We would at least have been in the race for the win."

Predictably, over at Red Bull, the opinion was different. Verstappen, they said, was cruising. As for Ferrari, Mercedes engineers suspected that they, too, had possibly a tenth or a tenth and a half in hand over the Silver Arrows in Mexico.

But none of it mattered. Lewis was left to thank the team for their tremendous year-long efforts and get philosophical as his achievement began to sink in. For him, racing and life is about the positives.

"I wonder what the people at my school are thinking..." he mused. "When I was growing up there were a couple of teachers who said, 'You're never going to amount to anything.' I wonder what they're thinking now? For sure, they were probably watching, or at least will read the news tomorrow.

"I wonder if they're thinking, 'I helped that young lad,' or, are they thinking, 'You know what, I regret what I said and I've grown from it.' I hope that's really the case. I hope that whoever's kids they are teaching today, they're encouraging them rather than pulling them down. It's about you finding your centre, your core. Because we're all unique. We're all bright stars."

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