Mexican Grand Prix: Too little, too late for Lewis Hamilton?

Lewis Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton is behind only Michael Schumacher in the all-time race winners' list

Lewis Hamilton strolled to the sort of almost error-free victory from pole position he could have done with a couple more times this season - but the action, and much of the story, at the Mexican Grand Prix was behind him.

Hamilton's eighth win of the season was the 51st of his career, putting him level in second place on the all-time winners' list with the great Alain Prost - who posted a message of congratulations on social media - with only Michael Schumacher ahead of them.

But, behind Hamilton, all hell broke loose as what had been a fundamentally dreary race turned into a potty-mouthed, high-speed version of dodgems between Max Verstappen, Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo in the closing laps.

Verstappen and Vettel nearly collided; Vettel and Ricciardo did. Each was equally unhappy with the other. All three were at one point classified third. Verstappen was told he was not on the podium while waiting to go out on to it with Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.

And Vettel, who did go out there only to lose third place a couple of hours later, felt the need to apologise to one of the most respected figures in F1 after using a torrent of four-letter words over the radio to tell him where he should go.

Even Hamilton was dragged into it obliquely, but he has more pressing concerns.

Dominant though he was all weekend - just as he had been in the US Grand Prix a week before - it does not much help him in the championship.

His Mercedes team-mate Rosberg finished second and so can still win the title by finishing at least second and third in the last two races in Brazil and Abu Dhabi, even if Hamilton wins them.

More worryingly for Hamilton, if Rosberg wins the next race in Brazil on 13 November, he will be champion regardless of where the Briton finishes.

Hamilton v Rosberg graphics showing their race results so far this season: For full results, go to the results tab on the F1 homepage
Hamilton v Rosberg: The season so far

A season of regrets?

It is absolutely true to say that Hamilton would be leading the championship now - by nine points - had his engine not failed while he was dominating the Malaysian Grand Prix last month.

The engine failures in qualifying in China and Russia early in the year also probably cost him another hatful of points, depending on how those races would have gone had he started at the front as would otherwise have been expected.

And the same goes for the Belgian Grand Prix, which he had to start from the back as a result of grid penalties that were a direct consequence of the failures in Shanghai and Sochi.

Equally, however, had Hamilton got away from pole position properly in Australia, Bahrain and Italy, and had he not made a pig's ear of qualifying in Azerbaijan, he probably would be leading regardless of his reliability problems.

Drama seems to follow Hamilton around. And even on a weekend such as Mexico, where he was on another level throughout, there was one scary moment. Braking for the first corner, he locked a wheel and ran wide, cutting over the grass at the chicane of Turns One and Two and rejoining still in the lead.

He flat-spotted a tyre so badly that he thought he would have to stop straight away, and feared that by carrying on the suspension might fail. But the team assured him it would be OK, he managed the tyre well until his first pit stop, not locking up once more, and when that was done the race was won.

As for his feelings about the championship, Hamilton said: "It is great to be performing as I know I can perform and not having car problems and being able to show that pace out there. It is a great feeling. I feel I have been doing that most of the season.

"I am fighting for something I don't know if I'll be able to make. It is an unusual scenario to be in. But I just have to push all the way to the end.

"In one way it could be painful and in one way it could be a great thing. But all I know from the beginning of my career is that, in F1, up to the last minute, it could change and that's why I can't give up."

Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton said his error-strewn qualifying session at the Grand Prix of Europe was the worst of his career, qualifying in 10th position

Penalty decisions justified

Hamilton's trip across the grass on the first lap was brought up by a number of drivers afterwards as the paddock discussed the rights and wrongs of the penalty imposed on Verstappen for doing the same when defending third place from Vettel's Ferrari in the closing laps.

It is hard to find someone without a vested interest. That certainly applies to Verstappen and Red Bull team-mate Ricciardo, who said they did not understand why one incident deserved a penalty and the other did not.

Force India's Nico Hulkenberg, who started fifth and was up to fourth on the first lap, said: "I am actually very surprised about that. Massive advantage; he was going well of the track. He was far, far from making Turns One and Two. That that is not even looked at is very surprising for me because on any other track it might be a shunt or losing positions."

There is, however, a logical explanation for what may appear on the face of it to be different interpretations of similar incidents.

For one thing, because it is so hectic, with so many drivers all in the same place at the same time, the start is treated by FIA F1 director Charlie Whiting as different from the rest of the race. Drivers can move in ways they would not be allowed to in more open racing. And incidents like Hamilton's are viewed differently, too.

And, although they are also biased, Hamilton and Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff summed up this position well.

"I was a car length ahead going into Turn One," Hamilton said. "I didn't impede anyone."

"It was lap one, to our defence," Wolff said. "So that's different. It wasn't in defending a position, and I think that's why the stewards were pretty liberal because they did not penalise Max either."

That last remark was a reference to Verstappen's collision with Rosberg, which sent the second Mercedes driver on to the grass, too.

Verstappen also brought this up in his argument for why he believed he had been unfairly treated. But it's clear Rosberg went wide only because he was pushed wide by Verstappen. That's just racing. It would take a one-eyed steward with a penchant for a certain caffeine-laced soft drink to penalise Rosberg for that.

Max Verstappen
Max Verstappen has been criticised by his fellow drivers this season for his defensive driving tactics

Vettel boils over

Verstappen, continuing the trend of a season in which he has been both refreshing and controversial in equal measure, was also the focus of the other main talking point after the race.

In two bizarre hours, first Verstappen was third, then Vettel was and finally it was Ricciardo.

Verstappen had the ignominy of having to leave the pre-podium room just before going out to face the crowds with Hamilton and Rosberg, when he learned he had been given a five-second penalty for gaining an advantage by going off the track while defending against Vettel with a handful of laps to go.

Verstappen was warned by his engineer he probably should give the place to the Ferrari driver, a message Ferrari relayed to Vettel, who became angry when it did not happen, and apoplectic when Ricciardo then caught them a couple of laps later.

Vettel's defence from Ricciardo's attack into Turn Four on the penultimate lap looked on the edge at the time - it was clear he had moved across on his former team-mate in the braking zone.

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Formula 1: Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel on poor season

Coming just a week after a specific rule was announced to outlaw this - ironically after complaints, many of them from Vettel, about Verstappen's driving this year - it was hardly a surprise when Vettel was penalised.

Vettel said he "had reason to be angry". And angry he certainly was - so much so he directed a tirade of four letter words at Whiting over the radio, and had to be told to "calm down" by team boss Maurizio Arrivabene. Even so, he gesticulated at Verstappen after drawing alongside him as soon as they had crossed the line.

It is likely this anger was partly the cause of his aggressive defence against Ricciardo - Vettel felt he should not be in that position because Verstappen should not still be in front of him.

He said he felt Verstappen had backed him into Ricciardo, and also complained that the Dutchman had "brake-tested" him - slowing the car in unexpected places.

This is another beyond-the-pale driving tactic, like moving under braking and 'wait-and-move' that Verstappen has brought with him to F1 from karting and which to some reminds them of Michael Schumacher, who 25 years ago was another precocious talent who rattled the establishment.

That is not to excuse Vettel's rant. He clearly lost control of his emotions. And he may yet face further action from FIA president Jean Todt, although the Frenchman takes a much less antagonistic approach to these matters than did his predecessor Max Mosley.

For all Verstappen's provocative words after the race, one suspects he may have been close to the mark when he said of Vettel: "He is just a very frustrated guy. He is shouting on the radio like a child and after the finish to do things like that is even more childish."

Sebastian Vettel
Vettel was promoted to third place and then dropped to fifth after becoming the first driver to be punished under a new dangerous driving rule

Some will think it a bit rich that a 19-year-old who, for all his talent, clearly has a few lessons to learn about right and wrong on the race track is accusing a four-time world champion of being childish.

Frustrated, though, Vettel certainly is. At Ferrari's winless performance this year, their inability to maximise the pace they do have, at his own over-driving as he seeks to get more out of qualifying than the car will give, and at the apparent souring of his relationship with Arrivabene.

It is less than a month since Arrivabene used an Italian TV interview to publicly admonish Vettel, saying he needed to focus more on his driving and less on areas for which the team had responsibility - and that he would need to "earn" a new contract beyond the end of 2017.

Mexico was another weekend on which Ferrari underperformed, Vettel qualifying seventh when the second row - or even the first - had looked a possibility.

Vettel looks like a man who needs a winter to get himself back together again and find some peace of mind.

If Ferrari are struggling again in 2017, it is hard to see the relationship between the team, and the man who only last year was viewed as their saviour, lasting much longer.