Blog 3 - Mexican Grand Prix Preview
There are a couple of questions on most people’s lips this week: 1. When will Lewis Hamilton clinch his 6th Formula One World Championship? 2. Will it be this weekend?
Here we look at the permutations, and what is needed for that to happen as well looking at who we think can go well, who might struggle, and we have a cursory glance towards the 2020 season.
Lewis Hamilton will have his first chance to clinch that sixth F1 world championship in Sunday's Mexican Grand Prix. As we know, Hamilton is ahead of Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, the only man that can challenge his push for the title, by 64 points with 4 races to go. There are a maximum of 78 points up for grabs in the three races after Sunday - meaning Hamilton will have to outscore the Finn by 14 points or more on Sunday evening to be crowned champion - a 78 point advantage as he walks through departures at Mexico City International Airport will mean celebrations on the plane home for the Englishman, as he is guaranteed to win should there be the need for a victory countback having amassed six more race wins than Bottas.
Here come the ifs, buts and maybes…. for Hamilton to be champion at the Mexican GP, one of the following permutations has to happen:
· If Hamilton takes 25 points with a victory and 1 point for the fastest lap, he will be champion if Bottas finishes fourth or lower.
· If Hamilton takes victory without the fastest lap, he will be champion if Bottas finishes fifth or lower.
· If Hamilton takes 18 points for finishing second and 1 point for fastest lap, he will be champion if Bottas finishes eighth or lower.
· If Hamilton finishes second without the fastest lap, he will be champion if Bottas finishes eighth without the fastest lap, or lower.
· If Hamilton takes 15 points for finishing third with and takes 1 point for the fastest lap, he will be champion if Bottas finishes ninth or lower
· If Hamilton finishes third without the fastest lap, he will be champion if Bottas finishes 10th or lower without the fastest lap
If Hamilton finishes fourth or lower, he cannot be champion this weekend and the title duel rolls on to Austin at the USA Grand Prix next weekend.
So how, do we see things unfolding?
MERCEDES The Mercedes engine seems to struggle more than most in these conditions, with Hamilton only taking 9th and 6th spots in 2017 and 2018 respectively. Indeed even the champion-elect is highly sceptical about his title chances this weekend, as he told Sky Sports after Suzuka:
"I don't anticipate it will be Mexico,". "I think we will be battling for a good few races."
Moreover, Bottas is obviously full of confidence and will be on a high after his win in Japan, his 3rd of the season, and will be fighting tooth-and-nail to keep his title aspirations alive for as long as possible. I don’t foresee a strong Mercedes performance in Mexico, with perhaps only one of the silver arrows finding the podium. Should that be the case, I expect it to be Bottas as Hamilton may just be content to bag as many points as he can inside the top 6, and stay out of trouble at a track that isn’t a happy hunting ground for Mercedes.
FERRARI Ferrari as we know have had the fastest car in a straight line at the majority of races this season, but only really capitalised on the high speed circuits at Monza and Spa (which was to be expected), but were found to struggle at Silverstone, Montreal and Suzuka, where they would have expected to go well. Charles Leclerc was the victim of team orders and dubious strategies early in the season with the team favouring Vettel, a favouritism that seems misplaced in hindsight.
So having failed to win their fair share of races despite having the fastest car, should they go well in Mexico? The short answer is simply: yes. After first lap misfortune for the mighty impressive Leclerc at Suzuka, and after more haphazard piloting from Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari will be desperate to bounce back here in Central America.
Of course it would take a monumental and unprecedented collapse from Mercedes to afford Ferrari a shot at the constructors title, and Ferrari are, in the words of Mattia Binotto "racing race by race, trying to win each single race. It's not a matter of looking at the championship”, as they prepare for 2020. With this approach I fully expect an all out assault from the Italian outfit, culminating with a Ferrari victory in Mexico. They have gone well here in the past and the engine seems to deal with the thinner air (more on that later) better than Mercedes and Red Bull. Leclerc is now perhaps Ferrari’s number 1 driver after 15 months of unforced (and surprising) errors by the previously unflappable Vettel, for whom the pressure of not delivering Ferrari a world title after his move from Red Bull seems to be hitting hard. Perhaps he’s on borrowed time at Marinello…? I think a Leclerc victory is the most likely outcome here, barring any contact or misfortune early on.
RED BULL It's very obvious that the truly excellent Max Verstappen is carrying Red Bull at the moment, with Christian Horner and Helmut Marko seemingly undecided between Albon, Gasly, Kvyat or anyone else as to who should get the 2nd seat. Verstappen is, as we’ve seen time and time again, a fabulous racing driver and has curbed his over-zealous approach this year, resulting in some thrilling driving and more consistent points hauls. He also seems to enjoy hurling himself around this circuit and will push his rival of this year, and in former years in the lower formulas, Charles Leclerc all the way should conditions and strategy allow it. Personally, I can’t wait for this duel! We here at The Hard Compound are huge fans of Leclerc and Verstappen, and if they can get some clear track ahead of them then this circuit sets up for an exciting, thrill-a-minute battle between the Red Bull and Ferrari, both of which love the high speed, high downforce circuits. Leclerc to win, Verstappen second. But a reversal of that wouldn’t be a surprise by any means at all.
MCLAREN Behind the “Big 3”, perhaps the happiest story this season has been the continued stellar improvement of McLaren from where they were 2 years ago. Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris have got them unexpectedly ahead of engine suppliers Renault in the standings with a series of impressive drives and going into the final races they can clinch 4th spot in the constructors championship after the team's strongest campaign for at least five years. Sainz boosted McLaren's tally to 111 points with his excellent fifth place in Japan, leaving them 34 points clear of their French engine suppliers’ factory team. McLaren should go well at Mexico, especially in the complex at the end of the lap, and I certainly think both cars will be ahead of Renault this weekend, although the altitude will be a great leveller.
RENAULT Personally, Renault have been the biggest disappointment this season. A factory team with a factory engine should surely be doing better, shouldn’t they? I certainly thought Danny Ricciardo (a favourite here at The Hard Compound) knew something we didn’t when he joined, and with him and the consistent Nico Hulkenberg in the cockpits Renault have fallen way below their pre-season expectations. Perhaps the issue has been the power unit rather than the engine itself, but it’s been reliability issues that have bitten French bottoms this year. With the altitude hindering mechanical performance this weekend, I can only see further disappointment for the yellow machines, which has only been added to today (Wednesday 23rd October) by their disqualification from the Japanese Grand Prix - a decision taken after Racing Point protested against an illegal brake bias system (which counts as a driver aid) with the desired outcome for the former Force India outfit. More disappointment to come here in a pretty miserable season. Bottom end of the top 10 at best.
ALFA ROMEO Well what can you say? Since Sauber became Alfa Romeo and Kimi Raikkonen joined the team post-2018 their steady progression as been excellent. Nobody thought they would be challenging Haas or Racing Point this year, but the old stager from Finland in particular has got plenty out of the Ferrari powered car (at least as much as the Haas drivers have got out of theirs). Antonio Giovanazzi has showed good pace in patches of his debut season but needs to up his game a little in the final 4 races if he’s to set his seat for 2020 in concrete. Strong showing predicted here, perhaps splitting or even getting ahead the Renaults.
RACING POINT Following closely behind Renault in the disappointment stakes, Racing Point would definitely have expected better this year. Although Lance Stroll obviously brings big bucks to the team through his father, at Formula One level he is one of the poorer drivers on the grid in my opinion. Unfortunately for Esteban Ocon, money talks, which is why he lost his seat to the aforementioned Stroll this year but it will be great to see Ocon back next year. In my book Formula 1 is a results business, and Racing Point have taken an immediate cash injection over continued long term progression, and it’s backfired. Sergio Perez should go well in front of his home fans and might force his way into the top 10, but that’s as good as it’ll get for the Pink Panthers.
HAAS A funny old bunch, the Haas team. After being the 5th best team last year they’ve slumped to a disappointing 9th this season. It’s admirable that they say “just go and race eachother and everyone else” to their drivers, in true NASCAR Southern-States style as befits their hometown, because of course we all want to see good hard racing… but sometimes there has to be a decision taken on the pit wall to protect what they have out on track. Too often their “aggressive” drivers have dropped the team points by doing daft things (Mr. Grosjean, I’m looking at you!). I have a sneaky feeling that Kevin Magnussen could go really well in Mexico and could even get into the top 8. The same could be said of Grosjean, but there’s always that risk that he’ll go and say hello to a concrete wall or tyre barrier…
TORO ROSSO Little is expected of the Toro Rosso team because, as we all know, they play the role of feeder team to Red Bull. This makes it very difficult to call what they’re going to do every week. They’ve already confirmed Kvyat for next season, but you never know who is going to take the 2nd seat, or indeed the Red Bull seat. Toro Rosso will always generally be at the tail end of the middle of the pack, that’s just where they are, and it’s where I expect them to be come Sunday.
WILLIAMS My favourite team ever since 1986, it breaks my heart to see their decline to where they are this year. A shambles of a pre-season has left them with a woefully underpowered car. While they have a top quality young driver in George Russell (who is getting more out of the car than he has any right to), you can’t help but feel that the admittedly popular sympathy vote and PR-friendly appointment of Robert Kubica hasn’t worked out at all, although it has been nice for him to prove to himself that he can still drive an F1 car. The biggest news of recent weeks from Williams is they brought new front wing concept to Suzuka, that says it all really. Great to see Nicolas Latifi getting more testing time ahead of this weekend, and even better to see Jamie Chadwick getting some well-deserved car time too – she’s a very talented young lady, and her addition to their driver programme will do wonders for her, and for women racers. The fact is, I’m just padding this section out a bit because barring major difficulties for another driver, Russell and Kubica will be last and second-last. You pick the order!
SUMMARY If I’m being totally honest, any of the permutations listed at the beginning of this piece seem unlikely in my humble opinion. Mercedes have struggled recently in Mexico due to the thinner air (as mentioned earlier). Situated at 2,240 metres (or 7,340 ft) above sea level, the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez is the highest on the calendar and the thinner air causes cars to overheat, reduces efficiency of the mighty engines that power these beasts, and offers up more opportunity for mechanical maladies. To that end, I’m predicting a podium of Leclerc, Verstappen and Bottas, and the title race to roll on to the United States Grand Prix in Austin next week. The best of the rest may be headed up Vettel in fourth leading home Hamilton, the McLaren pair and surprisingly Kevin Magnussen, before Albon and Perez round out the points positions. Further down if all are to finish (unlikely!), I’m going for Raikkonen, Giovanizzi, Ricciardo, Hulkenberg, Gasly, Stroll, Grosjean, Kvyat and the Williams pair.
Again, we all have our own opinions – these are mine, what are yours? I’d love to hear them!
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Enjoy the race!
Rich - THC