MEXICO CITY (AP) — Lewis Hamilton got the Mexican victory party he craved. He’ll have to wait another week for a sixth career championship.
The Mercedes driver overcame Ferrari’s front-row start to win the Mexican Grand Prix on Sunday, pushing him so close to the season championship that he’s all but guaranteed to win it next week at the U.S. Grand Prix in Texas.
“I don’t mind. I love racing,” Hamilton said after climbing out of his car with a wave to the massive crowds at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez. “This is a race I’ve wanted to win for some time. It came together nicely.”
It came together because Hamilton overcame damage to his car floor from an opening-lap collision with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, and then managed an early tire change for a shocking 48 laps to drive away with a comfortable win over Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.
Only Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas’ third-place finish denied Hamilton the season championship by the slimmest of margins. Hamilton needed to beat Bottas by 14 points, but picked up 10 instead while earning his 10th win of the season and 83rd of his career.
That sends the championship to next week’s U.S. Grand Prix, where Hamilton has won five times since 2012. He clinched the 2015 title there.
“It’s been a good hunting ground for me,” Hamilton said of the Texas race.
But Mexico City was a big prize he badly wanted.
Hamilton had won the 2017 and 2018 championships here, but fared poorly in both races and didn’t make the podium either time. Drivers call the Mexico City winners’ celebration the biggest and wildest of the season, and Hamilton hadn’t stood there since his victory in 2016.
“You could see someone else on the podium celebrating the win and you wanted to do that,” Hamilton said.
Leclerc and Vettel had started 1-2. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen had been stripped of pole position for driving too fast under a yellow flag after Bottas’ crash in the late stages of Saturday qualifying.
That penalty also let Hamilton start third with a chance to chase a win and the championship.
Ferrari protected the lead from the start as Vettel moved to edge out Hamilton on the long opening straight. Hamilton then fell to fifth after tangling with Verstappen on the second corner as they bumped tires and both cars went into the grass.
Hamilton’s tire change on Lap 23 proved pivotal as he inched toward the front, but it wasn’t without worry.
“It feels like we stopped too early,” Hamilton radioed his garage. “This is a long way to go on these tires, man.”
Ferrari split its pit strategies with Vettel stopping once and Leclerc twice. Both drivers yielded the lead for fresh tires. Leclerc finished fourth.
“I think we were confident if we split the cars we would cover both options,” Vettel said. “Neither (Mercedes) or us expected their tires to last that long.”
And Hamilton just kept going.
“He was cruising,” Vettel said. “Our strategy could have been sharper.”
Bottas earned his podium in a car that had to be repaired overnight after his hard crash in qualifying. His pushing Vettel from behind late in the race helped ease pressure on Hamilton at the front.
“The car felt good, as good as before the crash,” Bottas said. “I had a small headache in the morning. I don’t know if that was the tequila or the crash.”
Verstappen had a miserable start before rallying to finish sixth.
Driving aggressive after getting bumped off pole, the two-time defending race champion fell to eighth after the clip with Hamilton.
Verstappen fought back to pass Bottas on the second lap, but suffered a tire puncture on the move when he touched Bottas’ front wing. The tire shredded off and Verstappen drove nearly an entire lap with a bare wheel as the field passed him by.
“I always leave Max a lot of space,” Hamilton said. “That’s the smartest thing you can do.”
More AP Formula One news: https://apnews.com/FormulaOne
Follow Jim Vertuno at https://twitter.com/jimvertuno