Lewis in last-chance saloon after Max Mexico mauling

A maiden championship is within touching distance for Max Verstappen after a Mexico masterclass, and only victory in Brazil this weekend will keep Lewis Hamilton in striking distance.

This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.

Max Verstappen was so far up the road from the rest of the field when he took the chequered flag in Mexico City that you’d be forgiven for forgetting he was in the race at all.

It was the sort of dominance Mercedes feared when it arrived in Mexico. The high-altitude demands of the track, more than 2.2 kilometres above sea level, has never suited its line of title-winning cars, whereas Red Bull Racing has always excelled in the rare air.

Ironically a front-row lockout for Mercedes made the result sting only more keenly. The team didn’t understand how it had ended up first and second on the grid — truthfully Red Bull Racing had just failed to execute, and Valtteri Bottas and Hamilton had capitalised — but it dared to believe that the sudden and dramatic turnaround in form might give it a shot in a race it had long been prepared to lose.

So when Verstappen, starting third, swept around the outside of Bottas and Hamilton into the first corner as though they were expensive traffic cones, you can imagine the sinking feeling on the Mercedes pit wall.

“That shouldn’t have happened,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff told British TV. “We had two cars in front and seemed to open up the sea for Max to come around the outside.

“Annoying, to say the least.”

And that was the last Mercedes saw of Verstappen. He took the flag a controlled 16.5 seconds ahead of Hamilton, who spent most of the race fending off home-crowd favourite Sergio Perez.

But if the magnitude of the victory was disappointing to Hamilton, the margin on the title table would be dispiriting. The reigning world champion is now 19 points adrift of Verstappen with four races remaining.

We’re fast closing in on mathematical contention territory. There’s still a maximum of 107 points on the table — points for fastest lap and three points for sprint qualifying victory in Brazil included — but that’s only the maximum score window. Realistically, assuming no rare technical failures or crashes, Verstappen is close to taking Hamilton’s championship destiny into his own hands.

The difference between first and second is seven points. One more victory with Hamilton as runner-up would push the margin to 26 points — more than a clear race win and enough of a buffer to finish second to the Briton in the other three races without losing the lead.

Two wins in the next three races could see him seal the championship with a race to spare, at the new Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

“I naturally feel I need to be winning every race, because we need those extra points, not to lose those points,” Hamilton said in the shadow of defeat in Mexico City. “That was the goal going into the last race and the race before that and before that and here this weekend, but they’re just too quick.

“So we’re giving it absolutely everything we’ve got, but unfortunately it’s not enough at the moment to compete with them.”

Red Bull Racing is unlikely to enjoy its Mexico-style dominance for the rest of the year, but that will be of little solace to Mercedes, for whom the odds of race victory would return to merely 50-50. Only the super-fast Saudi Arabia is likely to hand it a pace advantage, but one out of three isn’t enough.

It’s not over yet, and Mercedes still has a say in the outcome of this championship. But Hamilton must break Verstappen’s momentum in Brazil if he wants to take this fight down to the wire.