Hamilton continues F1 title fightback with Mexican GP victory

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Lewis Hamilton continued his fightback in the race for the 2016 Formula 1 drivers’ championship by taking a confident victory in Sunday’s Mexican Grand Prix, leading Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg home in second place.

After winning the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas last weekend, Hamilton arrived in Mexico City trailing Rosberg by 26 points in the drivers’ standings with three races remaining.

The defending world champion swept to pole on Saturday before dominating proceedings in the race, looking comfortable up front with the exception of a scare on lap one.

Rosberg initially made a better start than Hamilton, but the long run down to Turn 1 meant that the pole-sitter could get up to speed and retain his lead. Hamilton mis-judged the braking point for the first corner, causing his tires to lock up and sending his Mercedes across the grass. Rosberg was unable to take advantage, though, as Max Verstappen tried to dive down the inside and also locked up, causing the drivers to make contact. Rosberg was pushed over the grass but was able to retain second.

Further back,  Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein made contact after a side-swipe from Esteban Gutierrez, leaving Wehrlein in the wall and resulting in a safety car period. Red Bull moved quickly, bringing Daniel Ricciardo in for his first pit stop at the end of lap one, while the rest of the field opted to stay out.

The race returned to green on lap four with Hamilton leading the pack. However, concern was raised on the Mercedes pit wall when he reported that there was a 100ºC difference between his brakes. Nevertheless, he began to go about creating a gap to Rosberg, while Verstappen remained third ahead of the fast-starting Nico Hulkenberg in P4.

Verstappen was the first of the leaders to pit, coming in at the end of lap 12 to ditch his super-soft tires and make the switch over to mediums. As was the case in Austin one week ago, Rosberg now found himself at risk of losing a place as Verstappen began to find time on his fresh medium tires on the undercut. Up front, Hamilton had put any concerns about his brakes or tires behind him to open up a five-second lead over his teammate. The race was moving in his direction.

After being given the call to push, Hamilton dived into the pits from the lead at the end of lap 17, making the switch from the soft to the medium that would take him to the end of the race. A swift turnaround from the Mercedes crew brought Hamilton back out in fourth place, with Rosberg and the two Ferraris – all of whom still had to pit – ahead.

Rosberg may have picked up the mantle up front, but his focus was on the Red Bull pair of Ricciardo and Verstappen. Both were around 24 seconds behind the leader in sixth and seventh respectively, making it touch-and-go as to whether he would emerge from the pits ahead.

Home favorite Sergio Perez ran ahead of both Red Bulls after making a good start, and played his part by holding them back as he defending his position. When Rosberg came in at the end of lap 20, the gap was large enough for him to switch to mediums and come out ahead of the Red Bulls; a bullet dodged for the championship contender.

Verstappen was less than impressed to see Rosberg come out clear. “What do I do now? I’m stuck,” the Dutchman asked the Red Bull pit wall, growing increasingly frustrated behind Ricciardo, who looked committed to a two-stop race. Red Bull gave Ricciardo the call to move aside, which he duly abided by to give his teammate the chance to chase down Rosberg ahead.

Rosberg was told to remain calm by the Mercedes pit wall, who insisted that he would be good to the end of the race on his medium tires. Hamilton was also raising concerns, telling the team his tires “didn’t feel that great” as Rosberg reduced the gap between them to under five seconds.

Hamilton regained the lead on lap 33 when Sebastian Vettel dived into the pits for Ferrari at the second time of asking. With his soft tires now ditched and a set of mediums that were some 30 laps fresher than those of Ricciardo, the German was coming into the fight to complete the podium.

Verstappen, meanwhile, had designs on Rosberg’s second place, lurking around 1.5 seconds behind. His engineer reminded him to “keep it clean” in case of trouble hitting Hamilton at the front, with the gap subsequently stabilizing. Traffic as Rosberg came to lap Kevin Magnussen allowed Verstappen to close to within a second and get DRS momentarily, only for the gap to swell again when they hit clean air.

Traffic began to hinder Rosberg again with 21 laps to go when Toro Rosso driver Daniil Kvyat failde to move aside under blue flags. Rosberg locked up at Turn 1, allowing Verstappen to close up before the Dutchman attempted a lunge up the inside at Turn 4 from a long way back. The move, while admirable, was unsuccessful as he ran across the grass, handing Rosberg a much-needed reprieve.

Red Bull’s attempt to get Ricciardo through all but one lap of the race on the medium compound tire did not work as hoped, with the Australian driver coming in just moments after his teammate’s opportunistic move for soft tires. Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen had also switched to a two-stop strategy, fitting another set of meiums a few laps earlier. Their pace would give the leaders a guide as to whether or not it would be worth coming in again.

Ricciardo duly lit the timesheets up purple, but the moment to pit appeared to have passed for the leading drivers. Hamilton had no reason to come in, the gap to second standing at over six seconds, while Rosberg could not risk losing P2 and his chance for a winless run to the championship in the process.

As a result, the final stages of the race proved to be a slow burner. For Hamilton, though, a race without drama was precisely what his title bid required. With 71 laps in the books, the Briton crossed the line to record his first victory in Mexico and his eighth of the year.

The result also marked the 51st win of Hamilton’s career, drawing him level with four-time world champion Alain Prost in second place on the all-time win list. Only Michael Schumacher lies ahead for Hamilton, the German claiming 91 victories through his F1 career.

Rosberg was left to settle for second, acting as damage limitation after a weekend that saw him struggle to match Hamilton in every session. The German is still on-track to win a maiden F1 title regardless of Hamilton’s results, needing a second and a third in the final two races.

The race for third offered some late interest as Vettel’s long first stint meant his tires were fresher in the closing stages. Verstappen was warned of the threat by Red Bull, telling the team: “I see him coming!” Verstappen locked up at Turn 1 with four laps to go, giving Vettel the chance to pass, only to mirror Hamilton’s move on the first lap and take to the grass, ensuring he stayed ahead.

Verstappen’s engineer gave him the call to give up the place, but the Dutchman refused to move aside. The stewards confirmed they would be investigating the incident after the race. The incident gave Ricciardo the chance to close up and attempt a move at Turn 4, causing him to rub wheels with Vettel. Both managed to avoid spinning, with Vettel staying ahead and growing increasingly frustrated on his team radio.

Come the checkered flag, it was Verstappen who finished ahead, seemingly happy to plead his case to the stewards after the race. Vettel ended up fourth with Ricciardo fifth, although the Ferrari driver was far from happy, sending a series of expletive messages over the radio to his team and for the attention of FIA race director Charlie Whiting.

The FIA stewards were quick to act on Verstappen, confirming not long after the checkered flag that Verstappen had been given a five second time penalty for going off-track and gaining an advantage. With that applied, Vettel finished third ahead of Ricciardo, with Verstappen now fifth.

Kimi Raikkonen crossed the line sixth in the second Ferrari after going wheel-to-wheel with Nico Hulkenberg for sixth late on. The two made contact at Turn 4, sending the Force India driver into a spin. Raikkonen moved ahead, leaving the German disgruntled, but he ultimately had to settle for seventh place.

Valtteri Bottas led Williams’ charge in eighth, finishing ahead of teammate Felipe Massa, while Sergio Perez gave the home fans some joy by crossing the line 10th for Force India.

Marcus Ericsson narrowly missed out on his first point of the year, crossing the line 11th for Sauber. Jenson Button was 12th in the lead McLaren ahead of teammate Fernando Alonso, while an aggressive strategy lifted Jolyon Palmer up to P14 for Renault.

Felipe Nasr finished 15th for Sauber ahead of Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz Jr., with Kevin Magnussen 17th in the second Renault. Daniil Kvyat finished P18 for Toro Rosso ahead of the Haas pair of Esteban Gutierrez and Romain Grosjean, while Esteban Ocon was the last classified finishers for Manor in P21.