Not what it says on the tin
It was new. But of course it was far from new. It also was far from the usual sort of round that parachutes onto the modern F1 calendar.
Not only has Mexico considerable F1 heritage. Not only either did it have already a considerable F1 presence both in drivers and investment. Last year at the start of its latest run as an F1 host it confirmed too that it bows to few when it comes to both the number and the passion of its fans.
Yes – 12 months ago the sport returned to Mexico for the first time since 1992 and indeed to the same, albeit revised, venue in Mexico City. And it was not just for these reasons that it shared little with the typical new-fangled round.
Some 335,850 came through the gates across the three days with 134,850 there on race day – including 40,000 packing out the astonishing baseball stadium section, which hosted the podium ceremony too – and provided a football crowd-type atmosphere. It moved even Niki Lauda to describe it as the best F1 event he had attended.
Sadly though what happened on track didn’t live up to it all, with that part being tepid. As was anticipated the altitude – at some 2,250m the highest on the itinerary – suited those with Mercedes power. Cars with the grunty unit in the back flew through the thin air, related to spinning the turbo harder to make up for the internal combustion shortfall. That the tweaked layout of the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez was rather dominated by two long straights – particularly a 1.2 km start-finish stretch – added to that advantage.
The layout tweaks meant the old track suddenly was one thing here that did have a ‘typical Tilke’ air about it – long straights book-ended by slow turns, with a bit of twisty quicker stuff elsewhere. Inevitably but sadly the old Peraltada was neutered by the intricate baseball stadium detour mentioned.
And sure enough in last season’s Mexican result eight of the first 11 home had Merc power. And the works team toured around impressively at the front for a one-two finish.
That might be an over-simplification though, as a less anticipated consequence of the altitude was that it appeared to close the field up – presumably a consequence of the chief discriminator of downforce being harder to put into effect here. In the first part of qualifying indeed first to 17th was separated by just 1.3 seconds. This of course has implications not least for the number of runs and the compounds used in the quali hour.
Red Bull put in a strong showing last year here and Daniil Kvyat looked well on for a podium finish until a late safety car appearance scuppered him. There had even been speculation based on practice running that the Bulls could get among the Mercs, though this wasn’t borne out. Whatever is the case though Red Bull usually can be counted on to find grip no one else can. The team has been threatening to finish among or ahead of Merc in recent times, and this one might just be its best chance.
Twelve months ago too Sebastian Vettel in the Ferrari qualified third within four tenths of the pole time, before putting in by his own admission a ‘*****’ showing in the race.
The big question in Mexico this weekend for the title chase of which Merc will emerge on top is about as hard to read, given we have but the one reference point of last year’s visit. And then although Nico Rosberg was ahead in both qualifying and the race it was but a week after Lewis Hamilton clinched his latest world title, which some reckoned meant it was rather ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’.
Tracks with low grip and big braking zones usually suit Lewis well, but as we know Nico this season hasn’t always respected that sort of convention.
Lewis of course won out in the Austin weekend just passed with Nico following him in, though both Merc pilots seemed at pains afterwards to state that it didn’t tell us much in itself. Lewis insisted that there’s nothing different just for Austin in terms of his approach, while Nico reiterated he wasn’t planning on winning the title by finishing second everywhere – which still would get him the title – and in Mexico will still be chasing the win.
Another aspect of the low air density though is that cooling of things such as the brakes becomes more marginal; we know the Mercs often run these things more marginally than most, and Rosberg’s brakes were briefly on fire in last year’s practice. Of course a DNF for either Merc will considerably re-fame the championship fight.
As for the rest, as noted those with Merc power will likely show up well, which means Sergio Perez – often near or at the front of the Mercedes customer class – should have a good chance of a strong result at home. The Force India tends to be quick in a straight line at the best of times, while Perez alone stopped just once in last year’s race to finish eighth.
On the flipside to these considerations though for McLaren with its Honda power unit the Mexico weekend is likely to be something to be got through. Whatever though it almost cannot be worse than the team’s nightmarish visit in 2015, replete with grid penalties, woeful pace and unreliability.
For much of the weekend last year it looked a typical debut event in another way – a new and therefore glass-like track surface with bitumen still near the top they thought would result in easy one-stoppers all round with minimal degradation. However degradation proved higher than expected in the race, related in part to higher ambient temperatures than earlier in the weekend, and most had to make an extra stop. It caused a minor intra Merc rumpus as well, with Lewis wanting to stay out instead.
This year adding to the fun Pirelli’s brought the supersoft as its additional compound, one softer than the soft and medium brought last year as this. In Austin the supersoft didn’t last all that long though starting on it didn’t result in huge strategy variation from those starting on the soft, with most still stopping twice and having similar lengths of first stints. While there is rather a lot of hedging bets about the compound selections for this weekend, with most going for a fairly even distribution of the three tyre types available.
As noted the track temperature can matter a lot here, and indeed last year it was damp for the first part of practice while the opening runs in Q3 set much of the top 10 of the grid as a subsequent drop in temperature lost the track some pace. Forecasts currently have it dry and warm all weekend this time though.
While in an auxiliary consideration the lengthy straight combined with the altitude meant the modern F1 power unit set stunning marks in the speed trap last season. The race day needle touched 366km/h, blowing away anything from the V8 era and getting close to the sport’s all-time speed record of 370.1km/h (229.97mph) set by Kimi Raikkonen in the 2005 Italian Grand Prix, when all had V10s. It could be beaten this time.
But it’s one of the few things about the Mexico visit that can be beaten.
Author: Graham Keilloh
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