When it comes to sport, perhaps the one that most around the globe would associate with the culturally-rich nation of Mexico is that of the colourful world of lucha libre professional wrestling.
It’s strangely apt, therefore, that the Mexican Grand Prix would go on to produce the level of drama, passion and ridiculousness befitting a typical episode of Lucha Underground or WWE Monday Night Raw.
After all, this was a race that saw angry words and blows exchanged between rivals, a competitor squabbling with the officials, a popular winner cheered on by a stadium crowd and a strange sense that it had almost been scripted to build towards a final showdown for the title live on pay TV in a few weeks’ time.
While very few would consider this race to have been a five-star affair, Sunday’s frantic finish would prove to be timely reminder of how thrilling real on-track competition – and off-track controversy – can be in modern Formula 1.
A messy start in Mexico
The storylines heading into race day at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez may admittedly have been the same old question of which Mercedes driver would win and whether or not Red Bull could mount a serious challenge for victory, but that lack of originality did not appear to deter the Mexican fans in the slightest.
Grandstands were once again packed with excited, passionate supporters who added a fittingly energetic atmosphere to the sport on a day that could have seen a world champion crowned at the chequered flag.
Lewis Hamilton had backed up his American victory by taking his first pole in Mexico to place as much pressure as he could on the shoulders of his team mate, Nico Rosberg, who had struggled to match his rival’s pace over practice.
A last gasp effort by the championship leader in qualifying had seen Rosberg secure his place on the front row ahead of the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo. It’s interesting now to consider how crucial that final lap could prove to be given the frantic events at the start of the race.
As the lights went out, both championship protagonists had equally average getaways. Hamilton sprinted into the lead with Rosberg coming under late pressure from a charging Verstappen behind as the field bolted down the main straight.
Despite a clear road into Turn One, Hamilton misjudged his braking, locking up and running across the grass and completely bypassing the opening sequence of corners. Behind him, Rosberg and Verstappen banged wheels at the apex, sending a second Mercedes scampering across the grass in evasion.
It was the kind of clumsiness that can sometimes occur during the opening exchanges of a grand prix, but while there seemed little reason to penalise either Mercedes at the time – the stewards opted to take no action following an investigation – Hamilton’s unplanned excursion through the grass would become a talking point after the race for reasons that were yet to unfold.
Behind this, Pascal Wehrlein’s commendable weekend abruptly came to nothing after Esteban Gutierrez clipped Marcus Ericsson’s Sauber into the path of the Manor, sending it into the barriers and out of the race.
Meanwhile, Carlos Sainz Jnr appeared oblivious to the presence of Fernando Alonso beside him around the outside of Turn Three and pushed the McLaren driver onto the grass, forcing the former world champion to use his sizeable skills to avoid losing control of his car. Sainz was later awarded a five second time penalty.
Red Bull go aggressive
The Safety Car was deployed to clear up the debris and Red Bull immediately opted to pit Ricciardo for medium tyres. With a one-stop strategy considered optimal in the cool conditions, it was a sign of a team willing to gamble on a different approach to get one over a Mercedes team gripped by their own championship battle.
When the race resumed on lap four, Hamilton led away from Rosberg, Verstappen and Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India, which had qualified a valiant fifth on the grid.
The durability of the medium compound around the Mexico City circuit meant Pirelli had predicted a single, early stop onto the tyre would prove the way to go for most of the field. But with Ricciardo making good progress through the field, Red Bull opted to bring Verstappen in earlier than most on lap 13.
Mercedes called the race leader in for his stop on lap 17, giving Rosberg some clear air to build up an advantage before making his only stop on lap 21, resuming behind Hamilton once more.
This left Sebastian Vettel out in the lead while, behind the Mercedes, the pair of Red Bulls were attempting to chase down the Silver Arrows after making their way through the pack following their earlier stops.
Verstappen had used the advantage of having newer tyres than his team mate to catch up to the rear of Ricciardo. Sensing that his weapons were not quite as sharp as his team mate’s, Ricciardo allowed Verstappen past, freeing the Dutchman to pursue the sizeable challenge of chasing down the two title contenders ahead.
Massa frustrates hometown hero Perez
With the constructors’ championship having already been decided, the most intriguing inter-team battle in the sport is currently being waged between two privateer teams over fourth place. Williams and Force India have been locked in an enthralling duel over this crucial position for some time now, but rarely have we seen the two engaged in on-track combat.
Sergio Perez’s progress through the field after qualifying a disappointing 12th had been giving the home crowd plenty to cheer for during a long first stint, but that momentum was halted when the Force India caught Felipe Massa’s Williams in ninth place.
Despite swarming all over Massa in the technical sections of the circuit, Perez struggled to get a clean run on the notoriously slippery Williams along the endless main straight even with DRS at his disposal. A late dive into Turn One on lap 25 may have brought the crowd to its feet, but Perez could not get the car to the apex, which allowed Massa to easily take back the place.
A few half-attempts followed as Perez hovered within two seconds of the Williams’s rear wing for almost 50 further laps, but ultimately Perez was unable to find a way past and was forced to settle for the final points-paying position in tenth, behind Massa and Valtteri Bottas ahead.
Meanwhile, after arguably his strongest weekend of the season, Nico Hulkenberg’s race almost ended in disaster in the closing stages when he spun on dying tyres while being passed by the much quicker Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen.
It had been a lonely race for the Renault-bound Hulkenberg up to that point, but with enough of a buffer over the chasing Williams in hand, Hulkenberg was able to recover and take a well-deserved seventh place – increasing Force India’s advantage over Williams by a single point to nine.
Verstappen, Vettel fall foul of each other and the stewards
Back at the front, a long period of pacing on the mediums had resulted in little in the way of action, but there was a sense that, maybe, this slow burning race could build up to a more eventful finish with the mix of stategies on display behind the Mercedes.
Vettel had boxed for his single stop on lap 32, putting Hamilton back in control out front. Having nothing to lose, Ferrari brought Raikkonen in for new rubber to attack at the end of the race, with Red Bull opting to do the same with Ricciardo a handful of laps later, opting for the soft tyres.
Ricciardo was immediately the fastest man on the circuit. Staring down a 15 second gap to Vettel’s Ferrari, who was in turn making ground over Verstappen ahead. The three were on course to meet before the end of the race, with traffic serving to frustrate Vettel as he eyed a potential podium.
But that frustration was nothing compared to what he would feel in the closing stages.
Verstappen had managed his tyres admirably – putting almost 60 laps on his second test – but with 20-lap fresher tyres, Vettel knew the advantage was his.
The Ferrari driver waited patiently for his opportunity and tucked into the Red Bull’s slipstream on lap 68. It was not the most threatening of runs, but Verstappen took a defensive line into Turn One and, like Hamilton at the start, locked his brakes and ran clean through the grass – bypassing all three turns and emerging unscathed, still ahead of the Ferrari.
Vettel’s protestation was immediate. “He has to let me go!,” he exclaimed. While Vettel had not been actively attempting to overtake the Red Bull at the time, it was clear that Verstappen’s impromptu lawn-mowing excursion had allowed him to retain his position.
Even Red Bull agreed. “I think you’re going to have to give the position back,” he was told. But with an investigation only to be decided after the chequered flag, Verstappen chose not to act on the advice.
By now, Vettel was seething. “Move! Move for ****’s sake!,” came the incredulous response from the Ferrari, the reality that Verstappen was not going to yield having already sunk in.
But as Vettel fumed over the Red Bull ahead, it was the one behind who was to ultimately compound his frustration further. With a sniff of space to the inside of the Ferrari on the run to Turn Four, Ricciardo dived down the inside of Vettel on lap 70, who moved across the left to defend, causing the two to make contact.
Whether it was misjudgement or desperation, Vettel’s defending was always going to draw the attention of the stewards after so much has been made of such moves by Verstappen himself over the second half of this season.
But as Vettel continued to curse Verstappen’s name – and voice his displeasure to race director Charlie Whiting in no uncertain terms – Lewis Hamilton was in much higher spirits as he rounded what remains of the Peraltada to take his eighth victory of the season and first in Mexico.
Rosberg crossed the line almost ten seconds later to hold his championship rival to just a seven point gain and leaving 19 points to separate them into the decisive final two rounds.
Verstappen finished third on the road, closely followed by an irate Vettel while Ricciardo crossed fifth with Raikkonen a half minute behind.
Post-race penalty pandemonium
Eager to ensure that the tens of thousands of attendees in the stadium section were able to witness the three drivers who genuinely had been credited with a top-three finish on the podium, Max Verstappen was left dumbfounded in the green room after learning that the stewards would be awarding him a five second time penalty, rather than a third-place trophy, for the incident at Turn One.
“I didn’t even gain an advantage,” claimed Verstappen after the race. “I was still ahead under braking when I came back on the track I was the same length in front. It was ridiculous.”
The stewards, unsurprisingly, disagreed with that assessment and Sebastian Vettel was ushered to the podium to collect his third place trophy. That was, until the stewards chose to penalise him for ten seconds after the podium ceremony for the contact with Ricciardo on the penultimate lap.
The man who had finished fifth on the road, Ricciardo, had now found himself inheriting third place after one of the most bizarre post-race sequences ever seen in a grand prix, while Vettel found himself classified behind both Red Bulls in the final results.
Hamilton had enjoyed his second comfortable victory in as many weekends and had chipped away at his team mates championship lead. But while Hamilton has done everything he needs to do to maximise his chances of a fourth world championship, Nico Rosberg knows that all he has to do is settle for second in the last two grands prix to secure his first.
While this Mexican Grand Prix will not be considered a classic race in terms of the level of action or quality of racing on display, the events of the closing laps will prove a hotbed of discussion for the weeks leading to Interlagos.
Just like the world of professional wrestling, where fans appreciate the spectacle of incredibly talented performers exercising their skills to perform daredevil stunts, it is so often the storylines that are what make people invested in the characters and the outcome.
With two races remaining and a championship still to be decided, there is still much to look forward to as we finally reach the climax of Formula 1’s longest ever season.