In The Driver's Seat

Formula 1: Mexican fans lap up homecoming after 23-year absence

There hadn't been a Mexican Grand Prix for 23 years. Over the weekend of the Dia de Muertes celebrations in Mexico City, it felt like Formula One had never been away.

Sceptical Europeans who had ventured to central America expecting a litany of operational systems failures were heading home with a whole new range of colours in their paintboxes, and not just those that promoter Tavo Hellmund and his crew chose to publicise their event with their eye-catching "Back in Mexico" banners.

All weekend, the enthusiastic crowd loved every minute - some 90,000 of them flocked into the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on Friday, 111,000 on Saturday and 134,850 on Sunday, generating an overall attendance of 335,850.

Now, that's a serious audience.

In the electric build-up on race day, their darling Sergio Perez, and Mercedes' newly crowned triple champion Lewis Hamilton, had paused during the parade of drivers in classic cars to throw caps to them.

Somehow, it was even more fitting that Rosberg should re-ignite his motivation after a bruising season at Hamilton's hands, just as one of the great circuits was also experiencing a rebirth of its own.

The 25-year-old Mexican Force India driver milked his moment in the sun for all it was worth to the background music of a mariachi band and chants of his nickname - Checo! Checo! Checo!.

And as longtime Mexican fans relived the glory days of the greats Ricardo and Pedro Rodriguez in whose joint honour the revamped track is named, Formula One savoured its return to a country where the sport is still revered, and hugely popular.

The Singaporeans, the Abu Dhabians, the Russians, the Koreans and the Indians all like it, the Chinese are learning about it, but the Mexicans adore it and are part of its fabric. They really get it.

At a time when it's fashionable to denigrate F1, Bernie Ecclestone's Formula One Management and Hellmund deserve a big gold star for reviving it.

As schoolchildren sang the Mexican national anthem on the grid, and the drivers stood to attention, it was reminiscent of America's Indianapolis 500 at its finest. It felt like a homecoming.

Okay, it wasn't a great race, even when Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel did his best to liven things up by crashing into Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo on the opening lap, pushing so hard to recover from the puncture that he suffered that he spun in Turn 8 on the 17th lap, then crashed properly in Turn 7 on the 52nd, triggering a much-needed safety car intervention.

As Hamilton pointed out: "As soon as I'd get four, five, a few car lengths behind, I'd just lose the aero, and Nico (Rosberg, his team-mate) had perfect aero in clean air so it was impossible to get close enough.

"I had good pace - but as soon as you get closer and closer and closer, you lose all your downforce… "

Here's an interesting thing, though. The air is so thin at 2,200 metres above sea level that the teams ran the maximum downforce settings they do at Monaco, yet in the race Pastor Maldonado's Lotus-Mercedes went through the speed trap on the main straight at 366.4kmh.

That's running maximum drag-inducing downforce, yet still exceeding traditional Monza speeds by 30kmh.

F1 has been to many new venues in recent years but it has been a long time since it went to a venue steeped in as much history as what used to be called the Magdalena Mixhuca Circuit before it was renamed in honour of Mexico's favourite racing sons.

Since it could perform before a nation that genuinely loves the sport, Perez was feted like a rock star all weekend and, over the course of it, the new Haas F1 team confirmed that former Sauber racer Esteban Gutierrez will rejoin the circus on duty for them next year.

As an object lesson in how to organise a grand prix, Hellmund's team set a new benchmark, and for this, the sport should be grateful.

Somehow, it was even more fitting that Rosberg should re-ignite his motivation after a bruising season at Hamilton's hands, just as one of the great circuits was also experiencing a rebirth of its own.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2015, with the headline 'Mexican fans lap up homecoming after 23-year absence'. Print Edition | Subscribe