MEXICO CITY (AP) Lewis Hamilton has a second chance to secure the Formula One season championship. And he doesn’t have to finish anywhere near the front at the Mexican Grand Prix to do it.
The British driver needs only to finish seventh on Sunday to kill off Ferrari’s fading hopes that Sebastian Vettel can keep chasing him to the end of the season. Hamilton leads Vettel by 70 points and can wrap up his fifth career championship with two races left.
But don’t expect Mercedes to chase anything short of a victory, which would be an exclamation point on Hamilton’s roaring second half to 2018.
The other drivers on the grid expect nothing less.
“As a driver, you always want to win. I don’t think that changes,” said Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, the defending race champion who expects his car to be able to challenge Hamilton again for the victory.
So does Ferrari, whether it’s Vettel or Kimi Raikkonen, the 39-year-old who grabbed his first win in five seasons last week at the U.S. Grand Prix . That Ferrari victory, coupled with Verstappen’s defensive driving late to secure second, kept Hamilton from securing the championship.
Hamilton finishing seventh sounds easy, but it comes with no guarantee. Last season, a punctured tire from a first turn collision with Vettel relegated Hamilton to ninth. He still won the title and celebrated the season wrapped in a Union Jack flag while Verstappen celebrated the day.
A fifth championship would tie Argentina’s Juan Manuel Fangio , who won five times in the 1950s. Only Germany’s Michael Schumacher has more with seven.
The crowds at the Mexican Grand Prix create one of the season’s most festive atmospheres and Sunday should be no different, especially if the race lives up the pulsing finish last week in Texas. At 7,550 feet (2,300 meters) above sea level, by far the highest elevation of the season, the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez should set up a fight between the top three teams again.
Hamilton started third last season behind Vettel and Verstappen after a blistering round of qualifying, then got caught up in the bumper car action on the first turn.
Verstappen said the altitude helps keep the top cars together, negating the Mercedes and Ferrari power advantage on the track’s long straight
“The engines will be a little bit closer. It’s more difficult for them to breath,” Verstappen said. “This is definitely the best chance to win.”
Mercedes will want to clean up the problems it had in the U.S.
Hamilton complained his whole team was “off” last week in Texas. His car’s water pump had to be changed before the race and thee two-stop pit strategy and tire selection backfired. Teammate Valtteri Bottas couldn’t deny Vettel a late pass for fourth that helped the championship alive for another week, even if just barely.
Reborn in 2015 after 23 years, the Mexican Grand Prix enters the fourth year of a five-year contract and some tension over its survival is looming. The government will spend about $250 million over the five years hosting the race, and incoming President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s campaign promised austerity measures that indicate spending for F1 could be cut.
Force India driver Sergio Perez, who is from Guadalajara, Mexico, was confident the race will survive.
“Our new president is going to help. It’s just a matter of time to get the contract extension and we will have this party for several years,” Perez said. “Speaking as a Mexican and not as a driver, it’s important to keep the grand prix because the Mexico that we see that weekend is the Mexico that I always want to see, and the one that I want to be spoken about around the world.”