BRITAIN’S Lewis Hamilton came home in fourth place at a dramatic Mexican Grand Prix, but it was enough to secure the Formula 1 title for a fifth time.
The 33-year-old Mercedes driver has now drawn level with Juan Manuel Fangio, and is just two short of Michael Schumacher’s record, but in a dramatic race won by Max Verstappen he ran off the road while defending third place from Daniel Ricciardo.
Hamilton, who needed to finish only seventh at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez to beat Sebastian Vettel to the title with two rounds to spare, spent much of the race at odds with his Mercedes team as he struggled for pace.
But, just as in Mexico City last year Hamilton did enough to win the championship, his fourth in five quite remarkable years. Ferrari’s Vettel finished second.
“It’s a very strange feeling right now,” Hamilton said as he got out of his car and celebrated. “I have been at Mercedes since I was 13 so to complete the title, and Fangio won two championships with Mercedes, is an incredible feeling. It feels very surreal.”
Hamilton paid tribute to his father Anthony, and the rest of his family, adding: “To my family back home, I love you, and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for all the hard work that my father did. It is a great moment.”
While there may be 22 per cent less oxygen here at the high-altitude Mexico City venue, some 2,200m above sea level, Hamilton kept his cool on a manic stampede to the opening bend.
Starting in third, the Briton was the fastest out of his marks and cut through the middle of Ricciardo and his Red Bull team-mate Verstappen to momentarily take the lead on the 220mph, 900-yard charge to the first braking zone.
With the championship on his mind, and the opening three corners the biggest threat to his historic quest, a cautious Hamilton took no risks, decelerating faster than Verstappen, and who could blame him?
Hamilton slotted in behind the Dutchman, with pole-sitter Ricciardo dropping to third. Behind, Vettel, knowing that he had to win to stand any chance of stopping Hamilton, held off a fast-starting Valtteri Bottas, the pair even banging wheels at Turn 3, both escaping without damage.
Hamilton, who had shown no signs of strain – despite carrying the weight of history on his shoulders – was soon complaining about his fragile tyres.
Then he snapped at his race engineer Pete Bonnington telling him to leave him to it. It would become a theme of the race.
With Verstappen galloping into the distance and Hamilton losing time to his rivals behind, he was the first of the leaders to stop for fresh rubber on lap 11.
Hamilton started a trend with Ricciardo and Verstappen following suit on laps 12 and 13. Vettel, running longer, stayed out, and it was not long before Kimi Raikkonen, in the sister Ferrari and out of sync with those around him, was holding up Hamilton.
On lap 17 Hamilton was fixed on Raikkonen’s gearbox, with the Finn struggling on worn tyres. There were hearts in mouths in the Mercedes garage as Hamilton came within inches of touching Raikkonen as they slammed on the anchors for Turn 1, before the Briton held his nerve on the outside of the left-handed Turn 2 to make his way past the Ferrari at the ensuing right-hander.
Hamilton now just needed to keep his Mercedes on the tarmac, but it is never easy with Hamilton and it was not long before he was on the radio again, bemoaning his tyres.
In contrast Vettel was flying and after passing Ricciardo he was straight on to Hamilton’s Mercedes. On lap 39 he whizzed past his rival for second.
“The left front tyre is going to be bald,” Hamilton moaned over the radio. “Why did you give me the wrong tyres, man?
Vettel had pulled out a staggering 12 seconds over Hamilton in just six laps and the Briton was soon defending from Ricciardo.
As they roared down to Turn 1 Hamilton then locked up his front-left tyre and, in a plume of white smoke, ran on to the grass.
Hamilton gingerly made his way back on to the circuit. “These tyres are dead,” he yelled. His crew ran into the pits, and Hamilton stopped for a second time. He would rejoin in fifth.
From there, Hamilton just made sure he got his car over the line, and was promoted one place after Ricciardo’s engine blew up with 10 laps remaining.