DiZinno: Mexico’s Grand Prix return proved a welcome showcase for country, and F1

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Considering my tally of race weekends attended this year is pushing 30, if not exceeding it, generally speaking I enjoy race weekends at home when I can.

That said, for the first time this year, I actually had envy of a track and an event that I wasn’t at, that I wanted to be at.

Because Mexico City absolutely rocked this weekend. And all it took was merely watching on TV and on social media.

Unfortunately I wasn’t around in the ’80s for the most recent incarnation of the Mexican Grand Prix, from 1986 to 1992.

Still, I at least understood the history of the race – and the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez circuit – going back as far as the days growing up when I’d play the old brilliant “Grand Prix Legends” computer game, which chronicled the 1967 Formula 1 season.

The track was a challenge then, trying to balance the mastery of the super-long front straight, the esses coming off the hairpin at the top of the course, and then nailing the balance through the Peraltada back onto the straight. All with no aero and skinny tires.

So as a kid, I knew the names Rodriguez, and the passion the Mexican fans had for this race.

When Mexico City made its re-appearance on the CART calendar in 2002, it just seemed otherworldly compared to the other races that year.

That race had three Mexican drivers in the field – race winners Mario Dominguez and Michel Jourdain Jr. and then-CART debutante Luis Diaz filling in for the country’s national hero, a then-injured Adrian Fernandez. Yet the hundreds (yes, hundreds) of thousands of fans managed to out-roar the scream of the turbos at times, particularly when Jourdain led that first year on an off-sequence strategy before fading outside the top-10 by the finish.

Take that energy that had been present back in the day, combine it with the desire for the Mexican Grand Prix to return after the 23-year hiatus, and stir in a helping of a native son returning home (Sergio Perez) and the prospect of a second driver returning next year (Esteban Gutierrez), and suddenly the Mexican Grand Prix atmosphere was mental. Bonkers. Ridiculous. Pick your superlative.

Some quick thoughts from the ground from NBCSN’s Will Buxton – linked below, via Twitter – said all you needed to know in a series of 140-character spurts.

But don’t just take his word for it. In the “Piranha’s Club” that is F1, you rarely see all teams noting how incredible the atmosphere is, all in unison.

Yet they all did. It almost became a competition to see “who best captured the awesomeness.”

Taken on the whole, the atmosphere was incredible, the race less so. However, to be fair, the combination of a low grip track, a conservative tire choice (Pirelli had to make its call weeks in advance) and the fact there was little at play in the grand scheme of things – Lewis Hamilton had clinched the title last week in Austin – were all factors that conspired to make this less than the most intriguing Grand Prix from the off.

And the passion and fervor of the fans made up for it.

Compared to the dull, often soulless Tilke-dromes that have sprouted up over the last, say eight or nine years, the fact F1 returned to a country where it had proper roots meant there was bound to be a greater reaction to the homecoming.

What Mexico featured is something that India, Korea, Turkey, Sochi, and perhaps Abu Dhabi, among others, have lacked: soul.

Baku’s debut next year is unlikely to match the flare, and the fact it enters the calendar clashing on the 24 Hours of Le Mans weekend has already given it a black eye in the court of public opinion.

The return to Mexico showcased a sport that can still ignite a fan base when a motorsports-starved country gets the chance to properly eat it up. Tavo Hellmund’s efforts must be hailed to have made this happen.

And F1’s better off for having a race of this passion magnitude return to the calendar.

Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consecutive year

24 Hours of Le Mans

LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.