Mexico's emphatic return

Mexico's emphatic return

Motor sport : With an attendance of nearly 1.3 lakh, the Latin American country welcomed F1 in spectacular style

Mexico's emphatic return

Before the Mexican Grand Prix last Sunday, Formula One organisers and drivers knew the event was returning to a country that would greet it with enthusiasm after 23 years’ absence. And Mexico did not disappoint. By all accounts, this Latin American country of 120 million people showed the rest of the world what a Grand Prix weekend could be.

The roles seemed to be reversed for a racing series designed to entertain the spectators and not the other way around. Simon Lazenby, a presenter for Sky Sports on British television, summed up the mood after the race: “The crowd, the city and the country as a whole has really put on a show for Formula One.”

The Mercedes drivers, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, may have finished first and second for the 10th time this season, ahead of Valtteri Bottas, of the Williams team, who finished third. Both Ferraris may have failed to finish a race for the first time since 2006, after each crashed out. And the local driver, Sergio Perez, may have pleased his home crowd by finishing in a hard-earned eighth place, as the only driver to make just one pit stop.

But the real show of the weekend was not the race itself; it was the enthusiasm of the estimated 130,000 spectators, and the series’ reception by the city and the country as a whole.

“I’ve never seen a crowd like this; it’s like football game,” Hamilton said from the podium in the stadium sector of the track.

“It’s been the best week and the best crowd I’ve ever seen,” he added. “There are so many people with so much energy and so much excitement for the sport here. All the other countries we go to need to make a big effort to keep up with these guys.”

It was the first Mexican Grand Prix since 1992, and it was on the same track, newly renovated, where the race has always taken place -- from 1963 to 1970, and then from 1986 to 1992 -- but with the fans, the promoters, the city and local businesses all pitching in with the same enthusiasm, it showed how a Formula One weekend can reach the heights of popularity and festive spirit the equal of any major popular sporting event.
“Congratulations most of all to the organisers and fans, who created a feeling something like it must feel to win the World Cup as we stood in front of the podium,” said Paddy Lowe, the technical director of the Mercedes team. “It was proof that Formula One is in great shape.”

It was the second race in a North American doubleheader, one week after the United States Grand Prix in Austin. The two races offered a perfect contrast: Austin suffered from bad luck with the heavy rains all weekend from the periphery of Hurricane Patricia. But the race in Austin was the most gripping of the season, with several lead changes and reversals of fortune, giving fans the sort of spectacle they have rarely had during this period of domination by Mercedes.

But while the race in Mexico was interesting, with plenty of action and a few accidents, it lacked the suspense of the Austin race. Still, the atmosphere was electric. Spectators cheered their local hero, Perez, every time he passed them. The layout of the circuit with its big seating areas provided great viewing positions, and there was a rousing rendition of the national anthem by a youth choir.

The excitement was apparent throughout the weekend. Billboards around the sprawling city featured the two Mexican drivers in the race, and kiosks displayed magazine cover stories.

The focus on the race was diametrically opposed to what has been happening in recent years in some of the European home countries of Formula One.

Last year’s German Grand Prix at Hockenheim, for instance, was the nadir in Europe, where there has been a drop in television viewership as race coverage moves to pay television, and as ticket prices become unaffordable for the average worker. There were only about 50,000 spectators at Hockenheim last year, despite the domination of the Mercedes team and the battle for the championship by a German driver, Rosberg, with his countryman, Sebastian Vettel, who was the reigning world champion driving for the legendary Ferrari team.

This year, the German Grand Prix promoters at the Nurburgring called off the race, citing financial difficulties.

So what Mexico has demonstrated is that Formula One racing, despite what critics might say about predictable outcomes and domination by a single team, is not deficient in very many areas when brought to a country where the passion runs high and where there is support from the local government and big business as well as from spectators.

The track itself provided team engineers with unusual challenges because of the slippery surface of the new asphalt, the long straights and especially the altitude of about 7,200 feet, 4,600 feet higher than the next highest track, Interlagos in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The high altitude means less oxygen for the engines, with the turbos struggling to provide power.

The thin air also meant that the cars had less aerodynamic downforce and less drag. So while the teams were obliged to use the highest downforce wing settings like those they use in Monaco -- the slowest track on the circuit -- they were running at top speeds faster than Monza -- the fastest track -- with Felipe Massa of the Williams team at one point reaching 226 miles per hour, in Mexico.

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