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.

A deep dive into the new GR Cup as Toyota branches into single-make sports car racing

Toyota GR Cup
Swikar Patel/Toyota Racing Development

MOORESVILLE, N.C. – Inside this former textile mill, a retro building built in 1892 with massive floor-to-ceiling windows and sturdy brick, Toyota has planted a future seed with the GR Cup.

Once a hub for making cotton dye, the first floor has been turned into a factory that churned out spec sports cars for the past year as Toyota Racing Development prepares to launch its first single-make series.

The inaugural season of the Toyota Gazoo Racing GR Cup will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway, the first of seven SRO-sanctioned events (each with two races) featuring a field of homologated GR86 production models that have been modified for racing with stock engines.

Under the banner of its Gazoo Racing (a high-performance brand relatively new to North America but synonymous with Dakar Rally champion Nasser Al-Attiyah), Toyota will join Mazda, Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini as the latest automaker to run a single-make U.S. series (with Ford recently announcing plans for its own in the near future).

It’s grassroots-level amateur racing for manufacturers that are accustomed to racing at motorsports’ highest levels, but there are many benefits through competition, driver development and marketing despite the lower profile.

“It’s not the easiest thing or cheapest thing to do,” TRD executive commercial director Jack Irving told NBC Sports. “But there’s massive value to be a part of it and have our DNA in the cars. You get to race a bunch and get a bunch of data. You get to engage directly in feedback from the people beating those cars up.”

The GR86s being raced are very similar to the street versions that retail for about $35,000 at dealerships that annually sell several thousand.

“It’s a test of the car and your design,” Irving said. “We take an engineered vehicle designed to spec for the road and then apply our resources to make it race ready. Some of those things cross over.

The first floor of Toyota Racing Development’s Mooresville facility that finished the vehicles for the new GR Cup (Swikar Patel/TRD).

“Everyone approaches it differently. It’s a marketing piece for us. It’s a development piece for drivers. We’re supporting grass roots racing. This is a very long-term deal for us. This isn’t something we’re doing two years and done. It’s got a long-term vision. There’s big value in it, and there’s a lot of responsibility with that, too.

“You’re ultimately supporting it. You’re not just selling cars into a series and hoping it goes well. You have to be involved in a very material way to make sure it goes off well and has your fingerprints and represents the brand.”

Early indications have been solid. The GR Cup cars were rolled out on iRacing in January and immediately became one of the platform’s most popular vehicles (with 212-horsepower engines, the cars handle well and are difficult to spin).

TRD’s GR86 factory floor (Swikar Patel/TRD).

TRD has sold 33 cars for GR Cup with 31 racing in Sonoma, easily surpassing initial expectations.

“Our target was to sell 20 cars in the first year, and we could have sold 50 if not for supply chain issues with some vendors,” TRD president David Wilson told NBC Sports. “We basically came up with the idea of taking the GR86 and looking at what it would take to turn that into a little race car and do it affordably and competitively, and what’s come along with that is just a tremendous interest level. It seems like a market that perhaps has been underserved right now.”

Here’s a deeper look at the Toyota Gazoo Racing GR Cup and how the manufacturer built the new series:


The race cars start as production models that are shipped directly from the factory in Japan to a port in Charleston, South Carolina. After being trucked to the Mooresville facility, they are stripped and sent to Joe Gibbs Racing to be outfitted with a roll cage.

Upon return to TRD, the transmission and stock engine is added. The body remains virtually the same as the street version with a slightly altered hood, decklid and splitter for ride height and aerodynamics.

Jack Irving (Swikar Patel/TRD)

The cars mostly are customized to help manage the heat – the stock versions aren’t designed to handle the oil that sloshes around in the high-speed left- and right-hand turns on the road and street courses of the GR Cup schedule. TRD puts about two dozen parts on the cars, using Stratasys 3-D Printers to manufacture many on site (which allows flexibility for adjusting on the fly during R&D). In addition to help with cooling, many of the tweaks focus on allowing a limited number of setup changes.

“You don’t have a lot of ability to adjust these cars,” Irving said. “It was done on purpose. The intent was you have three spring sets, and you can adjust the shocks and do air pressure. That’s it. We seal the engine and components of it. We dyno everything. Everyone is within range to create as consistent a series as we can.

“Some of that is to mimic what Mazda did. They’ve done a really good job with their series. Porsche, Ferrari and other OEMs have done it very well. We had a learning that was easier to go through their book and see the Cliffs Notes version to get where we are.”

After taking delivery, GR Cup teams are responsible for transporting the cars to each track (and can buy up to three sets of Continental tires per event). Toyota brings two parts trucks to each track


After Sonoma, the GR Cup will visit Circuit of the Americas (May 5-7), Virginia International Raceway (June 16-18), the streets of Nashville (Aug. 4-6), Road America (Aug. 25-27), Sebring International Raceway (Sept. 22-24) and Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Oct. 6-8).

Though Nashville (IndyCar’s Music City Grand Prix) and Indy (SRO’s eight-hour Intercontinental Challenge) are part of weekends with bigger headliners, the GR Cup mostly will be the second-billed series (behind SRO’s Fanatech GT World Challenge) for events that will draw a few thousand. Sonoma had a crowd of about 4,000 last year, and SRO Motorsports America president Greg Gill said its events draw a maximum of about 13,000 over three days.

“There are some iconic venues, and the SRO it’s not IMSA,” Wilson said. “It’s got a different feel to it. It’s not the show. IMSA is kind of the show. I actually think it’s a good place for us to start, because it’s a little bit under the radar relatively speaking. It’s not a venue where you see the grandstands full of fans. It’s very much racers and their families. It’s got a neat vibe to it because it’s kind of small. So for our first effort as a single-make series, it’s the right place for us.”

Toyota GR Cup
The interior of the GR86 that will be raced in the GR Cup (Swikar Patel/TRD).

Though the attendance will be much smaller, Toyota still is bringing a large hospitality and marketing activation area with two 56-foot trucks that will provide a central gathering area for the series.

Teams’ entry fees will include meals there and provide a place to connect with Toyota engineers and other officials.

“I think we have a very different way of engaging with our group of drivers, and this series is similar to that,” Irving said. “Knowing that this isn’t going to get 100K people watching, but we want to have a direct connection with the drivers and understand their feelings about car, how do we make it better and empower them to be brand ambassadors for GR.”


Toyota has positioned the GR Cup as filling a price gap between the Mazda MX-5 Cup (a spec Miata Series known for high-quality racing at very low costs) and the Porsche Carrera Cup

“If you look at the ladder of MX5 to Porsche Cup, the difference in cost is massive,” TRD general manager Tyler Gibbs told NBC Sports. “We slot in closer to Miata than Porsche. We’ll slot another car in potentially in the future above that. It’s a good place for us from a price point perspective. Our road car is slightly more expensive than a Miata, so it makes sense our performance on the car is higher than Miata.”

A GR Cup car will cost $125,000. Full-season costs will vary depending on how much teams spend on equipment and transportation with estimates from $15-35K per event. So a competitive full season probably could be accomplished in the $250,000-$300,000 range.

Toyota GR Cup

“The goal was if you can ‘Six Pack’ it like Kenny Rogers and throw it in the back of a trailer, that would be amazing for us,” said Irving, referencing a movie about being an independent racer in NASCAR. “That would make it more of what we hoped it would turn into, just being as accessible as we possibly can make it.”

Toyota has tried to bridge the gap by posting a purse of $1 million for the season. Each race pays $12,000 to win (through $5,000 for eighth) with the season champion earning $50,000.

“Our hope was if you won, the prize money would cover the cost of that weekend,” Gibbs said. “We’re not all the way there. But almost there.”

Toyota also has posted an additional $5,000 (on top of prize money) to the highest-finishing woman in every race (which dovetails with SRO’s 50 percent female-led executive team structure).

GR86 Manufacturing at GRG before the first 3 cars are picked up.
—Swikar Patel/TRD

“If you’re a female driver who wins, you could get very close to sustainable” and cover a team’s race weekend costs, Irving said.

There are four women (Mia Lovell, Toni Breidinger, Cat Lauren and Isabella Robusto) slated for the full schedule.

The 31 cars will be fielded across more than a dozen teams including Smooge Racing (which fields GT4 Supras in SRO) and Copeland Motorsports (with Tyler Gonzalez, a four-time winner in MX-5 Cup). After a test last month at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, teams began taking delivery on Feb. 24.


Toyota fields Lexus in the GT categories of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship but elected to go with the SRO Motorsports Group (“SRO” stands for Stephane Ratel Organization; Ratel is the founder and CEO) as the sanctioning body for the GR Cup.

With a heavy focus on GT racing, SRO’s marquee events are 24-hour races at the Nurburgring in Germany and Spa in Belgium. In the United States, SRO primarily is focused on GT3 sprint racing, and Gill said it’s viewed as a “gateway to IMSA” and its endurance events.

In choosing SRO, Gibbs said “the schedule was a big part of it.” GR Cup races will be held almost exclusively on Saturday and Sunday mornings in a consistency that would have been difficult with IMSA (which runs a greater volume of bigger series).

“Our people can show up Friday, race Saturday and Sunday and be on the way home Sunday afternoon,” Gibbs said. “For our customer for this car, that was important. They still have jobs and particularly the younger drivers have to go to school. The SRO really fit us. They were very interested.”

Irving also was drawn to SRO’s flexibility with digital media right and free livestreams of races that Toyota can use on its platforms.

Toyota GR Cup
The SR86 in testing at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (TRD).

Said Irving: “It’s hard to get a schedule that made sense and having a break between races so an amateur can repair their cars and have a month to regroup was a big deal. The long-term vision of SRO was a big part of that. IMSA runs a lot of classes. How we fit in was difficult. Would they have done things to make it work, yeah. But they just didn’t work for the vision we were doing. This is its own thing for us.”

Gill said the SRO is focused on “customer racing” that balances individual interests against factory programs – while still putting an emphasis on the importance of manufacturers such as Toyota.

“We were very impressed with the development of sports car racing at Toyota and what they wanted to do for the brand and the very strategic way they looked at things,” Gill told NBC Sports. “We had enjoyed real success and had a lot of admiration for the programs that Honda and Mazda developed with sports car racing at the grass roots and entry level. We thought they’d done an excellent job. Toyota has taken it to another level and should be commended because it’s good for the entire industry.”


Irving said Toyota has set a goal of turning Gazoo Racing into the premier performance brand in the United States within a decade, and the GR Cup is part of that thrust.

Gazoo Racing is the baby of Toyota Motor Corp. president Akio Toyoda, who founded a separate company called “Garage Racing” while racing under a pseudonym for many years.

Toyoda, who eventually would race a Lexus LFA at Nurburgring, eventually transitioned the program into Gazoo Racing (Gazoo translates to photographs in Japanese; Toyoda often took pictures of vehicles he wanted to build and race) as he rose through the ranks of Toyota.

Toyota GR Cup

“The concept of the brand is we’re going to build cars that are fun to drive, not just for accountants,” Gibbs said.
Irving said the intent of GR is “the car is born on track and not the boardroom.” In order to be certified by Toyota for Gazoo Racing, the GR86 had to decrease its lap time by a certain percentage over its street model.

In the long-term, Irving said Toyota could work with another series to adapt the GR86 to endurance races. But in the short-term, there are plans to roll out a “dealer class,” possibly by its COTA round in May.

“That’s our version of a softball league with dealership principals who purchase cars and race against each other,” Wilson said with a laugh. “As competitive as dealers are, we’ll sell a lot of spare parts. It becomes a way to generate competition amongst our dealer body, and we’re going to have some fun with it.”

Toyota GR Cup
Toyota Racing Development’s fleet of GR86s shortly before GR Cup teams began taking delivery (Swikar Patel/TRD).