Formula One returns to rollicking Mexico City
MEXICO CITY (AP) The two large grandstands tower over Mexico City’s Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez like ancient pyramids.
The driver who zips between them toward the checkered flag at the Mexican Grand Prix on Sunday will be greeted by a screaming crowd that has waited a generation for Formula One to return to the city where Michael Schumacher stood on his first podium and Nigel Mansell took the last victory here in 1992.
Home to some of Formula One’s wildest and most dangerous races, this teeming metropolis of traffic jams, street vendors and Aztec ruins is more than ready for a racing fiesta.
No one more so than Force India’s Sergio Perez, who carries the hopes and pressures of a nation on his four wheels. He is one of six Mexican drivers in Formula One history.
”I*m so excited to drive in my country. I never thought it would happen,” Perez said. ”Mexico has a lot of history in the sport … I have no doubts this race will become a modern classic of Formula One.”
If the 25-year-old Guadalajara native can manage his first win, or more realistically earn his sixth career podium, Perez could start a national party that could last all week.
Mexico City officials are expecting one anyway. Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera predicts more than 330,000 fans will jam the refurbished track from Friday to Sunday, when the race will take place on the Day of the Dead, a national celebration honoring friends and family who have died.
Authorities plan to install three big screens for fans to watch, something the capital city typically reserves for Mexico’s World Cup matches or the Olympics.
They hope the world is watching.
”This is a great opportunity for us, it*s one of the biggest projects … and can propel us internationally”, said Francisco Maass Pena, Mexico’s undersecretary of tourism.
Mexico City hosted Formula One events from 1963-1970 and again from 1986-1992, and the race returns to a track full of exciting, dangerous and sometimes deadly racing.
The track opened in 1961, and disaster struck the next year when Mexico’s Ricardo Rodriguez, a promising driver coming up with Ferrari, was killed in a non-championship grand prix event. The circuit was later named after Rodriguez and his brother Pedro, who won two grand prix races before he also was killed in a racing accident in 1971.
In 1970, about 200,000 packed into the venue on race day, breaking down fences as fans tried to get closer to the action. Some even sat on the track and wouldn’t move until drivers Jackie Stewart and Pedro Rodriguez appealed for calm.
To get Formula One to return, the track needed a $50 million overhaul to eliminate some of the dangerous conditions, refurbish the garage areas and build new grandstands. That meant taking out the sweeping, high-speed banked curve where Rodriguez died, Ayrton Senna crashed in 1991 and every other driver took a deep breath as they ripped through.
Purists will miss the potential for danger, but Formula One safety standards forced the move. The track also needed to be resurfaced to reduce its notoriously bumpy ride.
Mexico City officials had hoped the season championship would be decided here, but Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton clinched his second consecutive title and third overall at the United States Grand Prix last weekend.
Hamilton’s 10th victory of the season made him the first Formula One driver to win at least 10 races in consecutive years. With three races left on the 2015 schedule, he could tie Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel for most wins in a season with 13. Vettel set the record in 2013 with Red Bull.
With the pressure of the world title lifted, Hamilton has already shown he’s ready to have some fun. On Wednesday, he got in the ring with Mexican wrestler Mistico where he was allowed to body slam his muscular opponent.
”I can attack the final three races now with nothing to prove and nothing to lose, so the aim is absolutely to put my name down as the first Mexican Grand Prix winner of the modern era,” Hamilton said.
AP Sports Writer Carlos Rodriguez contributed to this report.