Six things we learned from the Mexican Grand Prix

Formula 1 visited the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez last weekend for round 19 of the 2016 season, with Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton set to continue their duel for the title of world champion.

The race saw a sizeable and passionate crowd pack the venue to capacity, which added to the excitement surrounding what was already a highly-anticipated race. With drama, controversy and edge-of-the-seat racing taking place right up until the chequered flag, it should come as no surprise that there were several things to learn from F1’s visit to Mexico…

Just in case

Hamilton back within striking distance
Lewis Hamilton picked up in Mexico where he left off in Texas, producing a top-tier performance over the course of the weekend. The Briton looked imperious during qualifying on Saturday and duly pipped teammate and title rival Nico Rosberg to pole by a handy 0.2 seconds. On Sunday, a slight error into the first turn saw Hamilton cut over the grass, but from there on he was in complete control and never looked likely to finish anywhere except in first place. The result gives the world champion the 51st victory of his career, bringing him level with the great Alain Prost.

More importantly, however, his second consecutive victory sees him cut Rosberg’s points advantage down from 26 to 19 points. Of course, Rosberg’s second-place finish was perfectly adequate for his title aspirations, but an important psychological safety buffer has been removed now that his advantage has been reduced to less than a full race win.

Hamilton appears to be in a strong and positive state of mind at the moment. It will be Rosberg’s ability to withstand the pressure from a three-time world champion in top form that will be tested as he comes ever closer to joining the sport’s elite group of champions.

Just in case

Red Bull continue to be a factor
Red Bull’s podium in Mexico was a just reward for the Austrian team’s strong overall performance around the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez. Both Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo placed immense pressure on the Mercedes duo for much of qualifying, especially the second Silver Arrow of Nico Rosberg.

In the race, Verstappen piled the pressure on Rosberg for much of proceedings and even tried to launch his RB12 challenger up the inside of the German at one point. Although he ultimately couldn’t make the move stick, Red Bull continue to grow as a concern for the Mercedes pair. Of course, Red Bull’s main bid for success will only occur next season, but they are continually trying to find new ways to put Mercedes under pressure as the 2016 season draws to a close. While the Austrian team is not yet able to challenge the Silver Arrows squad on raw pace, they are close enough to have an impact on the way the title race pans out.

Mercedes have so far enjoyed the luxury that the outcome of the 2016 title battle has only depended on the respective performances of Hamilton and Rosberg. However, if Red Bull continue to apply pressure on the German manufacturer in the last two races of the year, mistakes may begin to creep in, which could dramatically alter the final outcome of the season.

Just in case

Vettel returns to form
Sebastian Vettel has found the going tough of late, with a ten-race stretch without a podium behind him heading into last weekend’s race. In addition, the German has been coming under increasing pressure from teammate Kimi Räikkönen recently, with the Finn out-qualifying him six times in the last eight races.

In Mexico, however, the four-time world champion produced a top-drawer performance for the majority of proceedings before losing focus towards the end of the race, earning a penalty for moving under braking against Daniel Ricciardo in the process. On the positive side of the spectrum, Vettel’s pace was impressive all afternoon and his ability to make his soft tyres last in the first stint while maintaining strong lap times was critical to his strong position towards the end of the race. Of course, the German’s expletive-filled rants towards the end of the race as he and Max Verstappen duelled for third place were unnecessary and unbecoming for one of the most successful drivers in the sport’s history.

However, Vettel will certainly regret his outbursts after calming down, and his desperation to finish in P3 is likely at least partly due to the tense atmosphere within a Ferrari team that has often appeared rudderless of late.

Just in case

Nico Hülkenberg has a new lease on life
Nico Hülkenberg enjoyed a strong weekend in Mexico, handily putting teammate and local hero Sergio Perez in the shade. The German has found it difficult to live with the pace of the Mexican so far in 2016, but since announcing that he would be joining Renault next year, he has been enjoying some of the best form of his career.

In Mexico, it all began when he defied expectations to out-pace both Ferrari drivers over one lap on Saturday and line up in fifth place on Sunday’s starting grid. While he couldn’t quite resist the superior race pace enjoyed by the scarlet cars, he did more than enough to easily claim seventh place despite a late-race spin while tussling with Kimi Räikkönen.

Despite starting more than 100 grands prix, Hülkenberg has yet to stand on the Formula 1 podium, and it appeared that his career had somewhat stalled at Force India. Of course, Renault aren’t a front-running team by any stretch of the imagination, but the French manufacturer has big ambitions to move forward over the next couple of seasons.

For Hülkenberg, the prospect of joining a full works team that are willing to spare no expense in their quest for eventual success must be more than enough incentive to drive the wheels off his car.

Just in case

Sauber are knocking on the door
Sauber’s 2016 season has been something of a disaster, with the Swiss team struggling for survival due to financial pressures at the halfway point of the season, as well as languishing in last place in the Constructor’s Championship, with zero points in their account.

However, the recent purchase of the team by investment firm Longbow Finance brought a much-needed cash injection to the embattled team, which has allowed them to put some of the planned updates to their C35 Challenger into action. The improvement in performance has been noticeable with Sauber moving forwards from the rear of the grid in recent races. In Mexico, Marcus Ericsson finished in P11, just shy of securing the single championship point that would see them draw level with Manor in tenth place.

The difference between finishing in tenth or eleventh place will equate to a healthy helping of prize money come the end of the season, which is why the Swiss team will be eager to break into the top ten at all costs in the final two races of 2016. The inherent raw pace to achieve this objective is probably lacking, to be frank, but if Sauber can place themselves in the general vicinity of the top ten, there is no telling what may happen.

Just in case

Wehrlein wins the Manor battle
Pascal Wehrlein was expected to have his work cut out for him to deal with new teammate Esteban Ocon after the young Frenchman replaced Rio Haryanto at Manor after the summer break earlier this year. While Ocon has shown flashes of strong pace during his short stay in the sport so far, Wehrlein will ultimately end the 2016 season on top in the intra-team battle at Manor.

The German has out-qualified the Frenchman 5 – 2 during their seven races together, and with only two races remaining this season, and with neither driver likely to score points in either of them, this advantage will likely stay intact until the end of the year. Of course, it must be considered that Ocon was required to jump into an unfamiliar car halfway through the year, but with Mercedes reportedly considering finding one or both of the Manor youngsters a more competitive seat for 2017, Wehrlein’s success places him in a strong position.

The German’s debut season has been one of steady progress coupled with occasional flashes of excellence, such as when he finished in P10 in Austria. He has also progressed to the second segment of qualifying several times in 2016, an impressive feat in a car that generally did not belong anywhere near Q2. On the whole, Wehrlein’s debut season will do to be going on with.

Adriaan Slabbert

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