Lewis Hamilton captured a flawless strategic victory at the Mexican Grand Prix to deliver Mercedes its 100th grand prix victory and put himself one race away from claiming a sixth world championship.
Mercedes banked on the Briton to manage a long 48-lap stint on the hard tire to execute an ambitious one-stop race and overcome Ferrari polesitter Charles Leclerc, who committed early to a two-stop race.
The points leader was vociferous in his opposition to the strategy over team radio, but he didn’t disappoint on track, faultlessly controlling the pace to ensure he not only jumped Leclerc but held back Sebastian Vettel and teammate Valtteri Bottas on fresher tires at the end of the grand prix.
“Today’s an incredible result,” Hamilton said. “I have to say a huge thank to my team. The guys have just continued to work incredibly hard and stay focused.
“I just kept my head down. It seemed like a long second stint. I’m so grateful for today. This is a race I’ve wanted to win for some time and it’s always been a bit tricky for us. I’m incredibly humbled by today’s opportunity and the car holding together as it did and the team executing the strategy.”
Hamilton extends his title lead to 74 points, four shy of the threshold he needed to claim the championship today, but the Briton will need an advantage of only 52 points after next week’s race in Austin to seal the deal.
“I don’t mind [waiting],” Hamilton added. “I love racing. I just take it one race at a time.”
Ferrari started with a front-row lockout, but rather than attempt to control the first lap with pre-race team orders as they did in Russia, polesitter Leclerc was free to defend from second-placed Vettel’s slipstream into the first turn, which he did so by holding the inside line and claiming the apex with ease.
Hamilton started third and should’ve been ideally placed to capitalize on the slipstream of both leading cars, but his charge forward was halted by Vettel, who squeezed him off the track and forced him to lift off the throttle in a move the stewards decided against investigating.
The Briton’s moment off power brought Max Verstappen, starting fourth, into the fold, and the pair went side by side into the first and second turns until Hamilton had a snap of oversteer, bumping wheels with the Red Bull Racing car and sending both drivers over the grass. Hamilton rejoined fifth behind Alex Albon and Carlos Sainz and Verstappen sunk to eighth.
A brief virtual safety car was triggered to clean up first-lap debris, after which both drivers launched their recoveries. Hamilton moved quickly past Sainz into fourth, but Verstappen’s incisive move past Bottas in the stadium section cost him a rear-right puncture.
The Dutchman had to complete a long lap on three wheels, rejoining at the back of the grid after his stop onto the hard tire. He would eventually recover to sixth, not making another stop.
The front-runners settled into a phase of pace management as they attempted to elongate their first stints. Albon blinked first on lap 15, the Thai driver having reached Vettel’s DRS window before switching to a new set of medium tires in an undercut attempt, but he emerged behind Sainz, undoing his pace advantage.
Leclerc stopped from the lead on the following lap to protect against Albon’s advances, likewise switching to the medium tire and committing to a two-stop.
Vettel, however, was left out to attempt a one-stop race and cover Mercedes. Hamilton stayed out until Lap 23, when he switched to the hard tire with a view to make it to the end, but Vettel and Bottas stayed out in the lead, their management of the starting rubber strong enough to maintain competitive pace.
It wasn’t until Lap 36 that Bottas and Vettel took their sole stops. Lapped traffic allowed the Finn to close his deficit to the lead down to 3.5s before diving into the pits for the hard tire, forcing Vettel to do the same on the following tour.
Leclerc resumed the lead, but only briefly. His front tires were badly worn, forcing him to stop on Lap 44 for his mandatory second tire change — Albon did likewise from third on Lap 45 — but the stop was slow, with a problem at the rear-right costing him 6.2s.
He emerged from pit lane fourth, 17s off the now-leading Hamilton with 26 laps remaining, and rapidly began closing the gap.
Further ahead Vettel and Bottas were chasing Hamilton with their fresher tires while the Briton managed his aging rubber — he’d been complaining to the Mercedes pit wall for most of the race that he felt his first pit stop came too soon to make it to the end — and by Lap 55 the Finn in third began hustling the German for second place to give himself a buffer to the pursuing Leclerc.
The Finn couldn’t make the move, and lapped traffic served only to put Leclerc, his tires six laps newer, on the back of the Mercedes — but a lock-up by the Monegasque on Lap 59, sending him deep into the Turn 4 runoff, lost him crucial time he couldn’t recover.
The battle for the lead boiled down to the top three, but Vettel’s and Bottas’s pace had slowed, navigation through the lapped traffic having extracted the performance edge from their tires. Hamilton upped his pace, as if just to break their morale, and comfortably took the checkered flag without having to mount a defense.
Vettel crossed the line second, ruing Ferrari hadn’t moved to the hard tire sooner.
“I think surprisingly the hard tires worked really well,” Vettel said. “I think Lewis was just cruising for most of the second stint. I guess he had enough tires left.
“I’m happy because I think it was a good race but I think here and there with strategy we could’ve been a bit sharper. It was a really intense race because there was no break and I had Valtteri behind me giving me some pressure in the final stint.”
Bottas, who faces the prospect of imminent title defeat, said he was pleased to finish on the podium after heavy qualifying crash left him sixth on the grid.
“It was a good result,” Bottas said. “Very happy about the pace I had in the race. I don’t think we could’ve done much more today from where I started.”
Alex Albon finished fifth in a largely lonely race, taking the flag half a minute ahead of teammate Verstappen.
Sergio Perez gave his home fans plenty to cheer about, spending the final 10 laps of the race successfully defending seventh place from the fast-finishing Daniel Ricciardo, who ended the day eighth.
Ricciardo’s Renault teammate, Nico Hulkenberg, was on track to finish ninth, but the German was tapped in the penultimate corner by Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat and spun backwards into the barrier, breaking his rear wing.
The Russian incurred a 10-second penalty for the error, promoting teammate Pierre Gasly to ninth and Hulkenberg, who limped to the flag 11th, into the final points-paying place.