It’s that time of year, where the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez’s stadium section shakes under the excitable crowd’s feet like front wings in the wind. It’s also that time when Lewis Hamilton gives us an annual reminder of the threat he so surely poses on Michael Schumacher’s single-seater Everest.
But this year, there’s another pepper to throw in the enchilada. Sebastian Vettel, once F1’s untouchable golden child, is about to fall under the spell of Lewis and succumb to the pain.
Five titles to four. The strain of a Scuderia horse breaking his back, and the sight of an old enemy he had wrapped around his thumb now racing out of sight, it might just be his downfall.
(Expect more of this: Lewis Hamilton’s 2017 season reached its peak at Mexico, even with a tame ninth-placed finish)
The stage is set for a driver explosion hitherto unseen. The deafening roar of the crowds, the even more grating expectations of Formula One’s all-time most successful team, and a Lewis Hamilton on the absolute form of his life? The spins we’ve seen from Seb in Japan and the USA? Even his faithful number two Kimi Raikkonen is in the thick of an Indian summer.
Something switched in Sebastian Vettel’s head this year, and it’s much too easy to pinpoint where. Roll back to the 22nd of July, 2018. Somewhere around 3 pm BST. Out in the led of his home race, Seb was extracting a fine drive out of his scarlet bullet. And then, under the most bizarre of circumstances, he stuck his dominant lead right where it hurts: the barrier.
He bashed the steering wheel in rage, looked to be on the verge of tears. And, much like Singapore the preceding year, it was the turning point. Except this time, it wasn’t so much a Ferrari meltdown as a Shakespearean dismantling of the golden child. Sebastian was starting to implode in the public domain.
Belgium was a fine drive, but ever since he’s been littered with hiccups and bugs; almost as if his head is running Windows CE. Monza, under the tifosi’s wide-eyed admiration? His racecraft deserted him as he bottled the car’s potential. Clumsy contact with Lewis spun him right round at the second chicane.
Singapore? At a track he was expected to monster, he was tamed by Lewis’ spell all weekend. And at Japan, the wheels really came off. After qualifying 9th through driver error in the wet, Seb lost all leave of his racing senses as he muscled with the yardstick in hard-nosed defence, Max Verstappen, He spun it again. Last time out in the US, he spun again, this time against Daniel Ricciardo. He’s had more spins than wins since the summer break.
And now, with a fifth world title 70 points up the road from him, his sworn foe placing one hand on it, and a Ferrari team relying on him all the way, Seb’s mistakes are indicative of a man in serious freefall. The bolts in his head have been shaken loose, the racecraft he once held to his name is nowhere to be seen, and almost like 2014, he seems to be easy meat for his rivals.
And for Mexico, I really do fear for him. If his run-ins with the Red Bulls this season hadn’t been bad enough, they’re expected to be right in the thick of the race win battle, with Mexico’s high-altitude, twisty circuit favouring their car. Lewis is emanating a sense of invincibility at the moment, even with his loss to Kimi last time out.
(Mexico know how to put on a show. The stadium section is like nothing you’ve ever seen in F1, and last year’s DJ…)
And finally, with his driving standards dropping to that of a rookie flailing under the heat, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see this race weekend be pinpointed as the downfall of an F1 great. The precise moment where we just had to expect, it was all downhill from there, at least while Lewis is around. They squared up, they faced off, and ultimately, Seb was the one with his jaw tested.
So on Sunday, expect to see a new five-time world champion to be crowned. Expect Red Bull to put on a show, like they did last year. Expect the donuts, the stadium section celebrations and hope for the DJ from last year to reappear (please can that dude be there?). But expect most of all, for the death knell to sound on Sebastian Vettel’s time as Formula One’s special one. It’s a changing of the guard now.
Editors note: – A huge thank you to Conrad O’Keefe for this awesome Mexican GP piece. For any F1 nuts out there I suggest you check out his blog Down the Inside for the latest news and opinion in the World of F1.