Lost in a crowd of sombreros, sunshine and screaming Sergio Perez fans, Jennie Gow reports from the party that was the Mexican Grand Prix.
When Bernie Ecclestone gets his stubby little pencil out and adds a new venue to the F1 calendar, a lot of the time, it’s met with a rather underwhelming response. Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Turkey, Korea: These are all fab places for a gap year student to backpack to, but to take the traveling circus that is F1 to? I’m not so sure. Sometimes, it seems like the countries we visit have bigger issues to sort than tarmac and Formula One logistics.
Yet, when we heard rumblings that F1 would return to Mexico, there was a certain amount of excitement from the elders of the paddock. Mexico has only hosted sixteen F1 races in its history, but everyone who had been there before had a great reverence for it; a fondness that you get with the likes of Silverstone and Monza.
So what was I expecting? To be honest, I wasn’t sure. My only experience of Mexico up until this point has been sitting on a beach near Cancun. Mexico City – with its 21.2m population of Spanish speakers, its hustle and bustle, and traffic jams like I’d never seen – was going to be a little different from the seaside.
The Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez started life in 1962 as the Magdalena Mixhuca circuit, yet it was to be a shocking start to F1 for the people of Mexico. In its first season, it claimed the life of local hero Ricardo Rodriguez, who had qualified on the front row of the grid on his World Championship debut in Italy aged 19 (he is still the youngest man ever to start on the front row of a Grand Prix to this day).
Ricardo’s brother, Pedro, is still Mexico’ most successful Formula One driver. He won the South African GP in 1967, and the Belgian Grand Prix in 1970, but was sadly killed in a sports car race at Norisring in Germany the following year. After Pedro died, the Mexican circuit was renamed the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez – after the two brothers – and there is a beautiful statue of them above the pit lane at the revised circuit of today.
This was a circuit steeped in history. But could it open our hearts? Could it pass the all number of tests to see it become a new location on the calendar that actually works? The answer was (and is) a resounding ‘Yes’. Can someone pass me an ‘I LOVE MEXICO’ T-shirt please?
From the moment we arrived at the circuit, we were greeted with friendly smiles and an overwhelming sense of generosity. It was a joy to be there. The media centre facilities were first class (despite the lack of windows which had certain sections of the press core grumbling into their coffee cups).
At first glance, the much talked about Peraltada corner – famous for its steep banking – had gone. Yet, in its place was a 55,000-seated stadium section, where mad Mexican’s drank beer in the midday sun and relentlessly cheered on their local hero Sergio Perez.
I spent the first practice session down in the baseball field section and, although it was only Friday, 90,000 fans had turned up to see racing in their home country for the first time since Nigel Mansell won in 1992. It was a truly amazing place.
As if the occasion wasn’t enough, F1’s arrival in Mexico City coincided with the weekend of the ‘Day of the Dead’ celebrations – where everyone gets on a bike in scary fancy dress and cycles around the city, something that has to be experienced to be believed! It also coincided with the premiere of the new James Bond movie in Mexico City, too, which led to a surreal weekend of Bond beauties mingling in the paddock with small children, who had their faces painted to resemble skeletons.
The race itself wasn’t the best, and a strange call from the Mercedes team meant Lewis Hamilton was not able to fight for the win as aggressively as he would have wanted, but that did nothing to diminish the incredible atmosphere at the circuit.
Over 130,000 people came to the stadium on race-day. Standing on the grid with Niki Lauda and ‘Our Nige’, watching the Mexican flag being unfurled in the grandstand until it covered what must have been 1,000 people, was truly an amazing sight. I had tingles down my spine. This was a country which really gets Formula One.
As the race finished and Nico Rosberg finally got his long-awaited win, the main grandstand emptied and thousands of fans rushed round to the stadium section where the top three drivers had parked up and were preparing for the most unique podium in Formula One history.
I gathered with the engineers and mechanics from the Mercedes and Williams teams to run onto the track as soon as the last car had made it past us. There was a level of excitement that I’ve never, ever felt before. Even other team members from up and down the paddock wanted a piece of the action, as hundreds of us made our way to the podium.
I spoke to Paddy Lowe, the Mercedes Technical boss, and you could hear the emotion in his voice as he came to terms with the sheer power of the people and the passion for the sport that we all know and love.
I’m so glad I got to experience that moment in history. It will stay with me forever and hearing over 70,000 fans cheering and singing was a very special feeling. For me, it was a lesson in why we – as a sport – must remember our heritage, and why it’s so important that those with a passion for motorsport should be able to see and take part in the sport they love. Yes, Korea and the likes are new territories, but we should never forget our roots, and partying in Mexico underneath that podium should remind us all that losing the likes of Silverstone and Monza is not acceptable. Money isn’t everything. Sometimes, believe it or not, passion is more important than the pound.