Formula 1

Mika Häkkinen: Masterful in Mexico, Hamilton will be full of confidence in the US

October 30, 2019January 6th, 2022

LEWIS Hamilton’s victory in Sunday’s Mexican Grand Prix was probably one of the best of his career because nothing about it was simple.  

Winning a race from pole position is not exactly easy, but it is much easier than winning a race from the second row of the grid with a damaged car. When Lewis’s car touched Max Verstappen’s Red Bull between Turns 1 and 2 it looked like both of them stood no chance of winning, but that is to underestimate the ability of a World Champion driving for the strongest team.

Thanks to his Mercedes team giving him a potentially risky strategy – a single pit stop which left him with 48 laps on a set of hard compound tyres – Lewis worked his way back into the race and controlled it perfectly. Normally such a long stint on one set of tyres should have been impossible, but the track temperatures on Sunday were about 10 degrees lower than they had been on Friday, and Mercedes realised that those hard tyres would last the distance.

From my time in racing I know very well what it’s like to be able to control a race with the support of your team, and when you know the car so well it becomes possible to deal with problems and still take the win. 

When you consider that Lewis was down in fifth position for the first three laps, to win the race took a lot of patience, focus and clever strategy. Especially considering that the floor of his car was damaged, which is one of the most critical areas in terms of a car’s aerodynamic performance.

From the outside it looked like this should have been Ferrari’s race. They locked out the front row of the grid and it looked like they had made the right choice by splitting strategies with Charles Leclerc making two stops, and Sebastian Vettel on one. But that really didn’t work out because Charles’ stop was really too early, and then they left Sebastian out for too long.  

By the time Sebastian made his stop on lap 37 and Charles completed his second stop on lap 43, Ferrari had handed the race to Lewis. On that track, in those temperatures, Lewis’s hard tyres were suffering almost no tyre wear at all. This was a very intelligent victory.

After his accident in qualifying on Saturday, Valtteri Bottas drove a strong race to push Sebastian at the end, and finish on the podium. Again the Mercedes team did a fantastic job, this time in rebuilding his car overnight. Formula 1 cars are very complex, and the work to rebuild the car and make it fully competitive for the race was a very impressive piece of work. I know Valtteri was very grateful to the team, and he repaid them well with that double-podium result.

One driver who should have been fighting for the win on Sunday was Max Verstappen. His Red Bull Honda was very quick in Mexico, where the high altitude reduces the advantage of the more powerful engines and has an equalising effect. He qualified on pole position, of course, only to be demoted to fourth place on the grid because he failed to slow down under the yellow flags at the scene of Valtteri’s accident.  

I like flat-out drivers, and Max is definitely one of them, but the yellow flag rule is very clear and when you see another car has crashed you always have to consider the safety of the track marshals and medical staff who might be attending to the scene. It is a pity what happened because I think Max would have given Mercedes and Ferrari a real headache if he had started from pole.

We now head to America and the US Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, where the altitude is 2000 metres lower which means the air will be thicker, with a lot more downforce and engine power. Lewis has won the US Grand Prix six times, including five times at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA), so he really has to be favourite for this race.  

Valtteri is not going to give up on the World Championship for Drivers, however, so I expect he will keep pushing hard. The big problem for both of them is that Ferrari’s horsepower should work well at COTA and traditionally this race is won from the front row of the grid. If Ferrari can again secure a lock-out of the front row in qualifying, this could be a much tougher race for Lewis, Valtteri and Mercedes to control.

Before this weekend I am celebrating the 20th anniversary of my second Formula 1 World Championship title. The Japanese Grand Prix on October 31st 1999 is a long time ago, but I remember it very well and I have been enjoying some celebrations including with my team at McLaren. I have so many good memories of that time, fighting with Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine during a tough season. Like Lewis and Valtteri, however, David Coulthard and I had a great team around us, so we were able to get on with the job.

On Tuesday evening I visited McLaren’s headquarters and spent an evening with invited guests and fans, talking about my racing career with McLaren and winning those two World Championship titles.  I was also reunited with my car from 1999, the McLaren-Mercedes MP4/14, which is always great to see.  As a racing driver you really get to appreciate every car you drive, but there is no doubt for me that these McLaren-Mercedes cars were something very special to drive – we have the trophies to prove it!