Mexico the latest staging for Hamilton and Verstappen's standoff

A stuttering Mercedes revival which has been trying to get off the ground since the summer break, appears to have been stifled

It is deeply ironic that the learned burghers of Mexico City have turned to racing cars to promote it as a global tourist destination.

This is the city of ‘Hoy No Circula’ after all. Millions of local residents are sidelined by the ‘today you don’t circulate’ policy as ‘no drive’ days head the battle against air pollution responsible for one in every 17 deaths.

It is to this sprawling metropolis of contradictions that Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen come to circula in their enthralling Formula One title fight.

With five rounds remaining and the endgame almost in sight the future is poised between two paths.

A stuttering Mercedes revival which has been trying to get off the ground since the summer break, appears to have been stifled.

But the signs are far from definitive. A second Hamilton win in three races at the last round in the United States would have returned him to the lead of the championship.

Mercedes’ recent turn of speed encouraged much speculation that their historic gulf of speed superiority had returned.

Instead it was Verstappen who won for a third time in six races ahead of the highest altitude track on the calendar, stretching his advantage to 12 points.

The panting of exited fans awaiting the next instalment of a riveting championship will be matched by F1 engines gasping at 2,230 metres above sea level.

At more than double the altitude of the next highest venue, the rarefied air of Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez affects cooling of the engines and brakes running at 500º C. Turbos are forced to spin faster to make up the difference, putting further strain on vital parts.

Thinner atmosphere means bigger wings and a different aerodynamic juggling act, which favours Red Bull.

With Mercedes robbed by nature of its usual engine superiority, the conventional wisdom is that Red Bull and its relentless young contender start as favourites.

But, as we’ve seen lately, history is an unreliable yardstick. Success or failure depends on knife-edge decisions daily; making the right call at the right time.

The championship is so tight the lead has changed hands four times in the past seven races.

The defeat in Austin was a significant body blow for the champions, and one which may yet be regarded as the decisive turning point of the season.

United States Grand Prix - in pictures

While Red Bull chased down victory, fought for it, were daring in their strategy and fearless in their execution, Mercedes were plodding and methodical.

Rather than react to circumstance they stuck to a failing strategy. In football parlance they played the ball and not the man. And paid the price.

And Verstappen showed maturity beyond his years when he realised his pushy early pace compromised his tyre wear, so he carefully bought the final set up to operating temperature to make them last.

At the death there was only the extra lap or two of life in his tyres that stood between victory and defeat. It was that close.

But Valtteri Bottas insists a lot of work has been done behind the scenes on Mercedes’ Mexico shortcomings.

And much as the general view favours Red Bull, the champions have still managed to come out on top three times in the last five visits, twice with Hamilton.

So there is all to play for and the guessing game has begun on who will become champion.

After three wins in the first four races for Hamilton it’s strange to now be almost the same distance from the finish with the odds, narrowly, favouring Verstappen.

But his form has been relentless – and already worthy of a champion. The Dutchman has only finished outside the top two when others have intervened.

Hamilton has failed to win as often (8 to 5) and chalked up six finishes out of the top two.

Former champion Nico Rosberg (who knows a thing or two about battling Hamilton) described the racing as “the highest level F1 has ever seen”.

Of the final four rounds one favours Mercedes (Jeddah), while Brazil and Qatar could go either way and it all could also come down to another unknown – Abu Dhabi’s re-designed Yas Marina Circuit.

Will the new sections at either end, or the sweep beneath the hotel make any difference?

And, of course, there is always a chance that despite the brilliance of the two combatants, both are already resorting to extra components, so this fascinating title scrap could be decided by something as mundane as a single engine failure and a catastrophic 25 point swing.

Now wouldn’t that be a tragedy.

Updated: November 3rd 2021, 5:39 AM
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