Sunday night at the Circuit of the Americas is all-action. While the crowd had migrated down the hill to watch Britney Spears, the paddock is filled with forklifts and flight cases, signalling the start of a frantic rush to get everything packed down and on its way to our next destination: the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez in Mexico City, home of the Mexican Grand Prix. A short hop geographically; but night and day in racing terms.
When Mexico returned to F1 in 2015 the experience was… revelatory. Having been off the calendar since 1992, for most people in the paddock the race was something wholly new, and the expectation with a new race is that it may take a while to find its feet. Absolutely not the case in Mexico, where the look and feel was more like the race had never been away.
Most of that was down to the spectators. The crowd in Mexico was truly staggering: enormous and raucous but also fully keyed into what was going on – very much an audience of F1 fans rather than an audience of the merely curious. That impression was bolstered at the subsequent races which were just as full and just as noisy – not suffering the drop in interest that sometimes affects venues in the tricky second and third years.
The thing that has to be mentioned is the Foro Sol baseball stadium. The final corner at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez used to be the fearsome Peraltada: the banked, high-speed site of many famous and infamous moments in F1 history. Improving safety standards spelled the end for the corner: hard up against the circuit boundary, and with a major road on the other side, there was no space in which to build any sort of runoff capable of containing the cornering speed of a modern car.
What we have now is a chicane, passing through the centre of the baseball stadium located inside the parabola. In racing terms, it’s a poor substitute – but the effect is truly amazing: with most of the Mexican Grand Prix crowd crammed into the tiered grandstands of the stadium, it’s a cauldron of noise, completely unlike anything else experienced in F1. Hats off to the promoter for recognising the potential and siting the podium here, rather than in the traditional location over the pitlane.
We’ve had occasion to enjoy that cauldron. Max won last year’s race. He started P2, got a good run to the first corner and made a gutsy move to take the lead through the first chicane. After that he didn’t look back and won in some comfort. The previous year Daniel should have been on the podium but was only elevated to third place after the race.
Looking at the layout of Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez, it really shouldn’t suit our car too well, having a very long straight and being relatively power-sensitive. What changes the equation a little bit in Mexico is the altitude. At 2,300 metres (7,500 feet) above sea-level, there isn’t much air to work with. In the past, that would have meant reduced power, but in these cars, it means the turbo has to work harder – but there isn’t a compensation mechanism for having less air for the aerodynamic surfaces to work with. Thus, while the cars reach Monza-like speeds in Mexico, they don’t feature the same skinny wings, instead running downforce that, nearer sea-level, would suit a much slower circuit.
It is, in every sense, a unique venue at which to race F1 cars.