Lewis Hamilton looking to claim his fifth title with due panache
It seems almost certain that will finally close out his fifth world title in Mexico City on Sunday, seven days after being denied in Austin. He will take huge pleasure in having done so regardless of where it is secured yet it is not hard to imagine that he will want to give this remarkable achievement a fitting finale, one of panache, confidence and control to reflect a superlative season.
John Surtees, without doubt among motor sport’s greats, won his championship here in one of F1’s most dramatic season deciders. Hamilton will undoubtedly want to close out his title as Surtees did with a suitably celebratory piece of sporting theatre.
Last season Hamilton wrapped up his fourth championship at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez but it was not the measured run to the flag he might have hoped for. He and Sebastian Vettel clashed on the opening lap and Hamilton was sent to the back of the field. He enjoyed a 66-point lead over Vettel going into the meeting, however, and his fightback to ninth was enough to clinch it.
He said it had been a “horrible” way to do it but immediately looked forward, saying: “Four’s a great number, but I want number five now.” He is now in position to secure exactly that at the same meeting 12 months later.
Aside from Hamilton three other drivers have taken titles in Mexico. The New Zealander Denny Hulme took his only title here in 1967. He beat his team owner, Jack Brabham, to the crown with a third-place finish at the last race of the season.
A year later Graham Hill went into the race three points ahead of Jackie Stewart and six in front of Hulme. Hill took his second and final championship after Hulme went out with a suspension failure and Stewart suffered a misfire.
The greatest finale of them all in Mexico, however, was when Surtees became the first man to have won the world championship on four wheels as well as two. Having taken seven titles on bikes, including four at the 500cc level that was the equivalent of today’s MotoGP, Surtees switched to cars in 1960. In 1963, impressed by his performances at Lola and Cooper, Enzo Ferrari drew him to the Scuderia.
A year later, after superb wins in the Ferrari 158 at the Nürburgring and Monza, he reached the final round in Mexico in an intensely close fight between three British drivers. Hill led for BRM on 39 points, in front of Surtees on 34 and Jim Clark in the Lotus on 30. Any of the three could win it but with only the top six positions awarded points it would be extremely tight.
As it proved to be. Clark shot away into the lead from pole, while Surtees suffered a misfire on the opening lap that dropped him from fourth to 13th. The problem cleared itself and he began a gutsy fightback while Clark held the lead. Behind him Hill battled with Surtees’ teammate, the Italian Lorenzo Bandini. They were tooth and nail – indeed the British driver, believing Bandini was driving dangerously close, shook his fist at him through the hairpin. The pair then did clash on lap 31, damaging Hill’s exhaust and putting him out of contention.
Bandini continued to chase Dan Gurney who was in second while Surtees made it back to fourth. Clark still held all the cards, however, until a rubber oil pipe split on the penultimate lap. His rivals surged past as he came to a halt on the final lap but Surtees still needed second and Ferrari gave Bandini the instruction to move over. The pair were friends and the Italian complied.
Gurney took the win almost in silence before the crowd erupted to celebrate Surtees’ title. He had beaten Clark by a single point and made history. To make the achievement even more unusual, he had done it in a Ferrari in white and blue livery, after Enzo had dropped the Italian red because of a dispute with the national motor sport body.
In 2015 Surtees described his driving style as all about a feel for the car. “Through the seat of your pants and the way your hands are on the steering wheel, you get that essence of what the car is telling you,” he said. “That is how you decide how close to the limit you can go and what the limit is.”
Hamilton knows the style well asdisplayed in his own remarkable touch. After Surtees’ death in March last year he described him as “a legend of the sport”. Surtees had ensured his place in history in Mexico and Hamilton will relish a similarly triumphant denouement on Sunday.