MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mercedes and Nico Rosberg were the race winners on Sunday but Mexico provided the magic on an unforgettable return to the Formula One stage.
The first Mexican Grand Prix since 1992 provided the sort of atmosphere to rival even the most passionate races of yesteryear.
After 90,000 had filled the grandstands for Friday practice, and 111,000 turned out to watch qualifying on Saturday, a vast flood of 134,850 poured through the gates of the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on Sunday.
They brought with them a fiesta atmosphere, getting in the mood long before the Mariachi band had started up over the pit lane and a choir of schoolchildren had sung the national anthem on a sunlit afternoon.
If some fans wore branding for long-defunct teams, or American racing series, they also brought back memories of a time when Formula One was more about passion than building palaces in countries without motor racing traditions.
“The best I’ve ever seen in all my life. The best,” declared retired three-times world champion Niki Lauda, a former McLaren and Ferrari driver who raced at some of the great tracks in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Copy this race,” added the Austrian, now non-executive chairman of the Mercedes team, when asked what advice he would give to commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone.
“The magic is the Mexicans. The magic is the organisers who made this happen. The way they organised the spectator places for me was the best I’ve ever seen. And then the podium right in front of all the people.
“Formula One got back where you can feel it and touch it and this is the most important thing.”
The new circuit lacked the full sweep of the old Peraltada curve, for safety reasons, but more than made up for it by a stadium section before the final corner.
There, in grandstands erected like a soccer stadium, the cars threaded their way into a cauldron of cheering fans before blasting between the grandstands and out onto what has been renamed the Nigel Mansell corner.
The biggest cheers of all were reserved for Force India’s Sergio Perez, the first Mexican to race in front of his home fans since the 1970s, and only the second ever to score points in Mexico.
Perez revved them up even more by twice overtaking Spaniard Carlos Sainz in the stadium section.
“I will remember this weekend forever,” said the 25-year-old. “I think everybody has enjoyed the energy of the crowd and this must surely be one of the most popular races on the calendar now.”
Others could only agree.
“I’ve never seen a crowd like this; it’s like a football game. The fans have been amazing. I’ve never seen anything like this,” said triple world champion Lewis Hamilton, who finished second to Rosberg.
“It’s the best podium of the year, I think, to be in a stadium like that and the atmosphere and the energy was just unbelievable,” said Rosberg, after addressing the crowd in Spanish.
Red Bull principal Christian Horner said the circuit might not be world’s greatest but the layout was interesting enough and the crowd did the rest.
“Hearing the crowd sing the national anthem, the cheering and the enthusiasm that we’ve had all weekend, it’s been a great advert for Formula One and what is possible,” he said.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Martyn Herman)