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F1: Hamilton takes fourth World Championship in thrilling race he was barely part of

Bryan Edwards

Was it madness, bravery or simply feeling that all the bad stuff that could happen had already happened? Lewis Hamilton, so often almost dismissive of his achievements, is collecting records, awards and accolades with every race. But in Mexico Hamilton, directed to the place where the top three cars were parked despite finishing ninth, was beside himself with joy. Unable to give a proper interview to the persistent and increasingly irritated David Coulthard, all Hamilton wanted to to was to get back to his team. And so, as the crowd swarmed onto the track, he turned and ran. There was no personal security, no looking around: just Hamilton running the long way back without a care in the world. Now, perhaps, the world will start to like him.

The race result was constantly in doubt as Renault-powered car after Renault-powered car parked in the garage or by the side of the track. Red Bull's Max Verstappen drove an imperious race, in his words "it was a cruise" and he was having so much fun that his team radio was characterised by laughter from the cockpit. It all started as cars left the starting line: Vettel appeared to be slow away then, once he got started, rocketed off. Hamilton did the opposite, having to slow down because Vettel was barely moving. At the first corner, more than 800 metres away, Vettel had somehow made up the deficit on Verstappen and made a move which took him wide. The concertina effect of the corner brought Hamilton alongside Vettel. Vettel drove into the side-pod of Hamilton's car and shredded a rear tyre, leaving Hamilton to limp around the mercifully short track and an early tyre change, putting him onto the yellow tyres when his main contenders were on the purple, faster but shorter-lived, ultra-softs. Vettel came around at near normal racing speed and left the pits with a new nose which, after both cars had returned to racing, gave Vettel a 25 second advantage with the two championship contenders running last.

Hamilton asked his pit if Vettel had hit him deliberately and his pit, wisely, said "Not sure, Lewis." That was code for "we're pretty sure not, but we're not going to prevent the stewards looking at it if they want to." It was clear that Vettel did not try terribly hard to avoid a collision (his left foot appearing to be missing in action at that point) but equally it was obviously not a deliberate attack as he was struggling to get his car around the corner. Later, when Raikkonen asked if Grosjean had deliberately run into him, his pit had an even firmer response: one word - "negative."

Verstappen could hardly contain himself after the mess at the first two corners: Vettel had, once more, failed to get a clean start sequence and had an accident. Verstappen, plagued by mechanical problems this year and still unhappy at having his third place taken away by the stewards in Austin (the stewards were absolutely right to do so but Verstappen's complaint that others had routinely cut the same corner without penalty was justified), was a different person: as the two stricken contenders slipped away in his mirrors, he said calmly but with an audible smile "simply, simply, lovely." Later, as his team told him repeatedly to ease off to protect the equipment, he said he was trying to drive slowly, but a couple of laps later, openly laughing, he asked his engineer "was that the fastest lap?" "Yes." came the world weary reply.

Verstappen's dominance (and the proof that if Renault can get reliability under control, that of his car) was demonstrated by the fact that he finished more than 20 seconds ahead of Bottas who was a further 20 seconds ahead of Raikkonen. But this was not a representative test. Raikkonen left the podium and it was there that the scale of the exhaustion facing most drivers showed: he got lost, ended up in the wrong part of the paddock and was clearly confused as to how to get back. Mexico was ultra hot and the air is thin. Cross referencing information from a TV programme called "Everest Rescue" gives an indication of just how thin: the track is just 500 metres below the ceiling for most helicopters.

Vettel, mostly, behaved himself although he did turn on his bullying tactics a couple of times but not enough to attract the attention of the stewards. He drove himself up from second last to fourth, the third time he's had to battle from the back in recent weeks. But, with four laps to go, he asked where his team-mate was and was told that Raikkonen was 23 seconds ahead and running times of one minute 23 seconds per lap. Vettel acknowledged that he could not catch his team-mate, saying "Mama Mia, that's too much." In that moment, Vettel accepted that he had lost the World Championship. He would have needed to finish at least second (and to have won the remaining two races) with Hamilton scoring no more points if he was to remain in contention. Behind him, driving a frustrating race, Hamilton worked his way into the points and into an unassailable lead in the Championship. But even then, reliability issues were a concern at both Mercedes and Ferrari neither of whom have had a trouble free season.

On the slowing down lap, Kimi Raikkonen, Vettel's team mate who has been relegated to number two and has lost points on several occasions in the second part of the season to support Vettel's championship bid based on his performance in the first half, waited for Hamilton and as the Mercedes pulled alongside, raised his hands out of the cockpit, clapped Hamilton and gave him a thumbs up.

Then there was the good idea that didn't work: putting Hamilton into the place where the winners park and having David Coulthard interview him first. If the first three had been interviewed first, Hamilton would have had chance to settle down. Coulthard began to badger him before Hamilton had even taken off his helmet. He was trying to calm himself, trying to thank his car, trying to come to terms with the fact that he'd had a pretty horrible afternoon but that things had turned out nice again. As Coulthard became increasingly frustrated at what he saw as Hamilton's refusal to be interviewed, the first three were, largely, ignored. Then, after answering a couple of questions and hugging those few people from the pit who had made it to the car park, Hamilton turned and ran. He ran along to top of barriers, he ran along the track, he touched fingers with people who wanted a brush with greatness but did not want to impede his progress and then it became obvious: he was running a big part of the track to get back to his pit.

As he arrived at Parc Firmée, a burly security guard held his arms wide to prevent access then realised who was running towards him and tried to shrink out of the way. Grabbing a glass of champagne from a tray held by one of his team, he disappeared into the garage where, a only moments later, the reality set in and he slowed to a walk looking very tired after a very trying afternoon and very emotional after realising that he has is the only British racing driver to take four championships and that the four-plus club is very small.