Finishing ninth in the Mexican Grand Prix was perhaps not the glorious denouement that Lewis Hamilton’s near impeccable 2017 season warranted. However, a fourth drivers’ championship was the least that his overall driving deserved.
Hamilton, now the most decorated Formula One driver from the UK, had been by his own admission “not feeling great” during Saturday’s qualifying sessions when finishing with the third quickest time behind title rival Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull's Max Verstappen.
The 32-year old would have needed to finish in fifth place to reclaim his crown if Vettel had won and many in the paddock surmised that he might drive conservatively to achieve his historic goal. Needless to say, Hamilton does not do the orthodox and the Mercedes man only had designs for P1 in Sunday’s race.
Bold starts from Verstappen and Vettel only stoked Hamilton’s fire and he attempted an in-and-out overtaking manoeuvre on the pair at the third corner. Hamilton had got the inside run on Vettel but the German’s front wing caught his back-right tyre, leaving both cars requiring unscheduled stops in the first lap.
Hamilton was blameless but took a puncture to his right rear and Vettel needed to change his damaged front wing. Both cars emerged at the back of the pack but Hamilton’s flat left him severely down in time and a race victory out of his grasp. Hamilton asked his team whether Vettel “hit me deliberately” but neither the stewards nor Mercedes concluded that the Ferrari driver was to blame for what was deemed a racing incident.
The race at Mexico City’s Autódromo Hermanos Rodriguez was eventually won by Verstappen, who took his second victory of the season and a third in his short career, while Vettel recovered from 19th place to a credible fourth, which was ultimately not enough to keep his own hopes of a fifth world championship alive.
Hamilton became only the fifth driver in Formula One’s long history to reach four drivers’ championships but admitted that “it was a horrible way to do it”.
"Four is a great number but I want number five," stated Hamilton. "Each championship has felt different in its own way, I guess because I've been in different place of my life, I've gone through different things.
"This one does feel like one of the best and that's with fighting another team. Ferrari is such an iconic team, Sebastian is a four-time world champion so if I was winning the championship against someone who doesn't have a championship, it wouldn't feel as great. You want to be compared against the guy who is the most decorated."
Vettel is, of course, another of that heralded quintet - which is completed by France’s Alain Prost, Argentinian Juan Manuel Fangio and German Michael Schumacher - and he was quick to praise his British opponent’s overall driving in 2017 in an interview with UK broadcaster Sky Sports.
The 30-year-old, who led the world championship standings for the first 12 races, said that his title rival had “done a superb job all year round and deserves to win the title”.
Vettel was keen, however, to make sure that his wonderful achievement of winning four back-to-back titles with Red Bull between 2010 and 2013 was not diminished by Hamilton’s recent triumph.
"He's on a par [with me], if you can count,” noted Vettel. “I don't fear him, I like racing with him but I would have liked a little bit more of that this year.
“Overall they [Mercedes AMG Petronas] were just the better bunch."
Hamilton has scored points in all 18 Grands Prix in 2017 and was, as Vettel put it, “the better man” over the entire season. The new champion, who now seems certain to be classed as a legend of the sport for years to come, made an immediate beeline to the pugnacious Vettel post-race to show his respect for the beaten man.
"Great job, dude,” said Hamilton. “Thank you man, I appreciate it. Next year, yeah? Cheers dude."
New grid layout pondered
To many viewers, the highlight of a Grand Prix is the opening lap, when all 20 drivers throw caution to the wind and take exciting risks in close proximity of each other. This weekend’s opening lap and the first corner crash between Vettel, Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen at Singapore are point and case to that theory.
According to German newspaper Bild, wheel-to-wheel racing at the start of Grand Prix will become more commonplace in the sport’s future. It reports that Formula One owner Liberty Media wants to change the traditional 'two by two' formation on the race grid.
The report says that grid rows in the future could alternate between two and three cars, which will make for an increase in competitive racing from the get go and, of course, the potential risk of contact.
Proposed USA Grand Prix venues receive opposition
The American takeover of Formula One brought in record TV ratings stateside for the US Grand Prix and the event showed global viewers what the future of Formula One could look like under John C Malone’s Liberty Media, which is believed to have deemed last week’s ‘home’ race to be a great success.
The US is currently home to only one Grand Prix - at the Circuit of the Americas on the outskirts of Austin, Texas - but Liberty has said that it hopes to add more on the streets of American “destination cities”, with Miami, New York and Las Vegas heavily mooted as possible hosts.
A proposed race in Miami, which is believed to be furthest down the line, appears to have run into trouble. The Florida city had previously held a Formula E race in 2015.
Last week local newspaper the Miami Herald ran an advertisement criticising the plans for a street race through the city. The venture is thought to be backed by billionaire Stephen Ross, who owns National Football League (NFL) franchise the Miami Dolphins.
The advert - said to be paid for by Florida-based conservative group Better Florida Alliance - ran the inflammatory headline: ‘Say No To Formula One Closing Miami Streets’.
‘Elected officials and their corporate fat cat friends want to turn our taxpayer-funded streets into a race track,’ read the advert. ‘It will cost us all to subsidise big business. Closing city streets - streets that are for our use not for race cars.
‘But what do we get? Months of construction, street closures, big-time noise pollution, emergency routes blocked, an expensive headache for our community.
‘Tell the mayor & commissioners ‘no’ to a Formula One race through our neighbourhoods. Taxpayer money should go to repairing roads for our community not closing roads for race cars.’
Elsewhere in the US, a mooted Grand Prix venue near Silicon Valley in California has also received criticism. In July, WY2M owner William Yao presented the County of San Benito with plans for a proposed purpose-built motorsport facility named the Motor & Technology Center of Excellence, intended as a host for a Silicon Valley Grand Prix.
However, residents in San Juan Bautista, which has a population of just 1,975, have started a petition to stop the development. The appeal says that the track will ‘will irreparably damage the culture of our small town and bring in many unnecessary complications to our local economy’ and ‘our lack of police department, lack of drinkable clean water, distressed roadways, and high traffic issues, is all evidence to support our inability to support the influx of people this project would bring’.
Bernie throws “a hand grenade”
Formula One’s chairman emeritus Bernie Ecclestone turned 87 on Saturday. Despite being conspicuous by his absence at many Grands Prix this year, the series’ evergreen continues to make headlines.
Ecclestone, speaking to Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, appeared to agree with Jos Verstappen’s insinuation that the International Automobile Federation (FIA) - motorsport’s global governing body - had been favouring Ferrari.
After last week’s US Grand Prix, Verstappen, a former Formula One driver himself and father of Red Bull pilot Max, tweeted an image of the FIA logo captioned ‘Ferrari International Assistance’ after stewards doled out a harsh five-second penalty that saw his son concede third place to Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen.
The diminutive Ecclestone was no less subtle when shooting his arrows at the organisation but did absolve race director Charlie Whiting of any blame, instead accusing former FIA president Max Mosley of aiding the historic Italian team in the past.
"Max [Mosley] has often helped Ferrari, and I too wanted them to win,” said Ecclestone. “There can be a season won by others, but even the other teams have an interest in challenging a competitive Ferrari. It's one thing to win against Sauber and quite another to win against a red car.
"But certainly at one point they had help with this engine. It's the same for Mercedes as it is for the others - a world championship win against Ferrari is always worth more. If Mercedes decided to transfer technology to Maranello, I say it was a good move.
“What is certain is that this friendly situation between the two teams is the best thing for Mercedes. It means Red Bull did not have the most powerful engines and Ferrari was competitive enough to be a credible rival to beat.
"The teams are important to F1, but Ferrari is more than that. So many things have been done over the years that have helped Ferrari to win.”
Ferrari are yet to comment on the somewhat unfounded accusations but Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff did offer a wry rebuttal to Ecclestone's inflammatory comments about his team.
"He's the only one who is able to sit on the other side of the world and throw a hand grenade and it actually lands in the paddock," said Wolff. "And I like it. These stories are fantastic and I've missed them a little bit.
"I've missed the hand grenades and the pop-up meetings and the crisis situation and the rule and divide."
That said, Christian Horner, Wolff’s counterpart at Red Bull, agreed with the former Formula One supremo, saying that there is a "tight relationship" between Ferrari and Mercedes and that the teams appear “very aligned in all of their thinking".
Horner added that “one [team, Ferrari and Mercedes] won't lift their hand up without the other one being in agreement these days".