1) Vettel brings the noise
Radio Sebastian Vettel is becoming something that should be confined to a post-watershed time slot. His increasingly erratic and expletive-laden messages are upsetting people in much the same way that the late, great John Peel did when he brought punk to the airwaves in 1976. Red Bull’s Helmut Marko, with whom Vettel had been very close during his championship-winning years at Red Bull, was certainly unimpressed. “The situation is unworthy of a four-time world champion,” he said. “His choice of words certainly wasn’t first-class.”
Many will have been offended and his decision to send a message to the race director, Charlie Whiting, to “fuck off” was absolutely uncalled for, especially given Whiting’s dedication and long-term commitment to the sport, not to mention his skill and professionalism that is admired across the paddock.
But equally Vettel’s exasperated missives from the cockpit are without doubt entertaining. Modern drivers are routinely criticised for being PR-trained automata, for being one of the few to show real personality, so should Vettel really take so much flak for being human? Had he reacted entirely calmly after Max Verstappen failed to give back the place Vettel believed he had earned, it would have been exceptionally unemotional and hugely dull.
Vettel is clearly frustrated at the position Ferrari are in, with no wins this season, no advance towards Mercedes and third in the constructors’ championship to Red Bull. But he is also a grown-up and, as Christian Horner noted, if you miked up footballers the results would doubtless put Vettel’s outbursts in the shade. If there is real concern his language is corrupting the nation’s kids – as many thought Peel spinning the Damned and the Pistols was – then FOM need not broadcast them. But the show would be poorer for it.
2) Confusion rules over cutting corners
Lewis Hamilton, suffering with glazed brake discs from the formation lap, locked up on entering turn one and cut the corner to maintain his lead from pole but escaped censure. Verstappen cut the same corner while Vettel was attempting to pass and took a five-second penalty that cost him his podium spot.
That there appeared to be a double standard caused considerable debate and plenty of vexatious remarks from drivers. Verstappen and his Red Bull team-mate, Daniel Ricciardo, were extremely vocal post-race in criticising the lack of sanction against Hamilton and it certainly will have made little sense to casual fans of the sport. In fact the stewards did look at the incident involving the British driver. They concluded he had not gained any lasting advantage from cutting the corner and looked at telemetry that showed he had in fact backed off immediately afterwards. That Nico Rosberg was some way back and tussling with Verstappen through the corner would have been a factor, as was the deployment of the safety car shortly afterwards which brought the cars together again.
In contrast Verstappen was adjudged to have maintained his place ahead of Vettel only by cutting the corner and hence was punished. He, with his usual enthusiasm, vehemently denied that Vettel had got ahead, but the stewards examined all the data and angles and will have been in a better position to make that call than the driver.
None of which makes it necessarily clearer to viewers just tuning in for the race on a Sunday but it does highlight the issue that going off should carry some forfeit. Again here perhaps the return of some form of gravel trap, an imposition to speed and the state of the tyres, would be useful, or indeed raised curb chicanes that force the driver to slow before rejoining would be worth investigation. If Hamilton had faced some form of obvious impairment for going off, the question of an official penalty would not have needed to be raised.
3) Ecclestone’s plan highlights a real problem
Hamilton’s off-track excursion had been to an extent pre-empted by Bernie Ecclestone, increasingly sounding like almost a fringe group of one in F1, even before the race weekend began. He had suggested that 40cm-high walls on the corners would increase the danger and the excitement of the sport and was almost universally panned.
Rosberg, who had already given short shrift to another Ecclestone comment that , had even less time for this idea. “There are 10 other areas which we should look at, if we want to make the sport even better than it is, before we start looking at turning back time on safety,” he said.
Various other drivers agreed and Jenson Button, a director of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, was pithy. “It would be good for advertising in the sport – the sponsors,” he said drily, adding: “It’s a pointless comment to comment on.” But he and Daniel Ricciardo did acknowledge that it had raised an issue that really must be dealt with – staying within track limits.
Currently the rules vary from circuit to circuit as does their enforcement and of course drivers exploit them everywhere to take advantage. The FIA World Endurance Championship race director, Eduardo Freitas, makes track limits clear before every meeting and rigidly enforces them with warnings and then penalties during races. A technique which would at least be a good place to start.
4) F1 belongs in Mexico
The numbers at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez were huge in 2015 – 134,850 – second only to Silverstone and this year they were even better with 135,026 fans packing the circuit in Mexico City. Interest was expected to be high after absence from the calendar for 23 years but bucking the traditional drop-off in year two is an extraordinary achievement.
There are two factors at work here. The first is fairly straightforward – Mexico loves F1. There is a motor racing heritage here – 38,000 attended the WEC race in September – but a long-standing, deep-seated passion for in particular. It was clearly evident from Friday practice when swarms of fans, bedecked in team merchandise, arrived before any cars had gone out and filled the circuit to a level that many tracks would gladly take on a Sunday.
Trackside in the stadium section during FP2, to hear the roar every time Sergio Pérez and Esteban Gutiérrez went past was an absolute pleasure and their presence certainly helps, but it is really further evidence that taking the sport to a decent track (which it still is, even post-Herman Tilke remodelling), where there is genuine passion for the sport, does work.
It has also been promoted exceptionally well. “Join the ‘F1esta’,” proclaimed the posters that were spread blanket-like all over town. The city’s myriad underpasses hosted huge, long pictures of a sequence of cars and, as one drove through them, it triggered speakers blaring out engine sounds – which was innovative and a sure-fire way to stir the heart of fans. A public-private partnership, the organisers have tried to price tickets to take account of local incomes and not just sat back and waited for them to buy.
A full track promotes the city better than a half-empty one and makes the TV coverage all the more spectacular. Some circuits will never attract such interest but they could at least make the effort as Mexico has done.
5) The Hulk is making his mark
He was a winner of the Le Mans 24 Hours with Porsche in 2015 but Nico Hülkenberg has still to stand on the podium in Formula One after 113 starts and six years competing in the sport. It is a record he will not take pleasure in but one that Mexico proved again surely cannot last.
He will join Renault, a works team, next year and they will expect to be vastly more competitive than this season. Now they have had the manufacturers’ full backing this year in developing 2017’s car, their engine should also make a further step forward – it is already performing well in a car with a good chassis as Red Bull finish the season second only to Mercedes. They will expect much from Hülkenberg and he showed it at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez.
He qualified exceptionally strongly in fifth ahead of the two Ferraris, only two-tenths of a second back from the fourth-placed Red Bull of Ricciardo and a full seven spots ahead of his team-mate Sergio Pérez, who was in identical machinery. His race was equally impressive, even given his spin while battling Kimi Raikkonen and seventh, the first place outside the big six, even after the musical chairs of the stewards had been completed, was another strong run – and three ahead of Pérez.
It was crucial for his team as well; with the two Williams finishing in eighth and ninth, these were vital points to keep Force India nine ahead of the Grove-based squad in the battle for fourth in the constructors’ championship. Renault will expect similar, while the Hulk will be happy with a car that can help him achieve that elusive podium finish.