Lewis Hamilton faces a nerve-wracking scrap in Mexico’s power-sapping altitude this weekend before completing the apparent formality of claiming his fifth Formula One world title.
Just a week after a bruising defeat in Texas, where a resurgent Ferrari out-performed them at the United States Grand Prix, Hamilton and Mercedes have licked their wounds in readiness for an even more challenging contest.
“We have a battle on our hands,” admitted Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff. “But it provides us with an opportunity to learn and come back stronger.”
That view is shared by 33-year-old Briton Hamilton, and the entire Mercedes team, as they seek to recover enough lost performance to retain both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships.
“We will have to keep pushing to win both (team and driver’s) titles,” said Wolff. “The United States Grand Prix confirmed what we said before the race – this year’s championship fight is far from over.”
Given that Hamilton has won six of the last eight races and has a 70-point lead over fellow four-time champion Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari with three races remaining, it outcome may look inevitable. Mercedes lead Ferrari by 66 in the teams’ title race.
On paper, Hamilton requires only five points to draw level with the legendary five-time champion Juan Manuel Fangio in the record books with five world championships, leaving only Michael Schumacher, on seven, to catch.
For Mercedes to seal a fifth consecutive team title, they must outscore Ferrari by 20 –- a more difficult task that will be complicated by the likely speed and belligerence of the Red Bull team.
Max Verstappen won last year’s race at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, where the thin air at 2,200 metres (7,200 feet) above sea level reduces engine effectiveness and places a greater premium on a car’s aerodynamic performance.
His Red Bull team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, so angry last weekend that he punched a hole in a wall after being forced into retirement, will be determined to secure a final victory before he leaves the team for Renault next season.
– No choice –
All this suggests a fierce battle lies ahead with Vettel, who had the speed to win last weekend, and has no choice but to attack. He can only keep his title dream alive by winning all three final races while Hamilton fails to score five points.
The Englishman, however, knows he can cruise to finish seventh and take the title whatever else happens around him.
Last year, he took his fourth title by finishing ninth after being lapped by Verstappen.
“Our guys will do great analysis and then we’ll come back stronger,” he said after Sunday’s demise in Austin.
He will be aware, also, that his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, without a win this year, can hand him the title if he is victorious.
Red Bull, however, will not be easy to beat.
“The thin air helped us last year and we hope it will be the same this time,” said team chief Christian Horner.
“Realistically, we know it’s our last shot at winning a race this year.”
As always, a passionate atmosphere will be generated by a Mexican crowd backing home hero Sergio Perez, of Force India, as they chase down McLaren for sixth place in the championship.