MEXICO CITY – Red Bull driver Max Verstappen smiled as he approached the Hermanos Rodríguez track. A sizable media contingent and a mariachi band followed. An eclectic group of VIPs watched as a few lucha libre wrestlers, clad in the traditional face masks, mingled in the crowd.
Welcome to Formula One media day, Mexican-style. After the Dutch driver, hometown favorite Sergio "Checo" Pérez followed suit with a colorful entourage.
“It feels great,” Pérez said. “It's a race that I'm waiting the whole season for. It comes really late in the calendar, but it comes at the right time. Just the atmosphere, the energy I get from the fans, is something that is extremely amazing.”
Since Formula One made its return to Mexico in 2015 after 23 years away from the country, some of the circuit’s top drivers have notably involved themselves in the cultural fare to promote the sport on each visit.
Lewis Hamilton climbed into a lucha libre ring for a promotional stunt in which he drop-kicked and pinned wrestler Mistico. The three-time Formula One champion declared his love for the delectable street tacos and snapped pictures wearing a mariachi sombrero.
— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) October 29, 2015
A year ago, Verstappen’s teammate, Australian Daniel Ricciardo, went on an extensive tour of Mexico City, one that included a sampling of toasted grasshoppers, chapulines, in guacamole. Ricciardo would later show up with Verstappen to do media interviews before the race wearing traditional Mexican face paint.
For this edition of the race on Sunday, a greater emphasis will be placed on a truly Mexican holiday, Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebrated annually on Nov. 2. The festivities, popularized Hollywood-style in a recent James Bond film, will begin over the weekend at the massive Zócalo, the city's historic center. The F1 Fan Zone is set up at the nearby Campo Marte.
The race is also significant, as it will be Mexico City’s first major international hosting duty after a 7.1-magnitude earthquake killed 370 people and caused the collapse of 44 buildings in the capital on Sept. 19.
“We’ll have a race,” Rodrigo Sánchez, head of marketing for the Grand Prix of Mexico, told reporters days after the earthquake. “There’s really no concern for the [track and facilities].”
The event has been an outright success for the country. Last year’s Mexico GP drew 339,967 fans over a three-day period, according to Formula One.
“There’s a big bet here from [the organizers] to take this new event and turn it into a tradition,” said Carlos Jalife Ruz, a Mexican lawyer and auto racing columnist. “Not just a sporting tradition, but a Mexican tradition.”
Jalife’s father, Carlos Jalife Villalon, wrote The Brothers Rodriguez, a biographical work focused on Pedro and Ricardo Rodriguez, the siblings whose exploits in the world of F1 still reign supreme in the nation’s pantheon of auto racing stars. The venue for the Mexican Grand Prix, Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, is named for them.
Pedro, the eldest of the two, is the only Mexican driver to ever win a Formula One race, winning the 1967 South Africa GP and the 1970 Belgian Grand Prix. He also won the 1968 24 Hours of Le Mans with Belgian teammate Lucien Bianchi. Pedro died in West Germany in 1971, after he was edged into a wall. The death was doubly impactful in Mexico, as Pedro’s brother Ricardo, a former driver for Ferrari, had died nine years earlier, on the very track that would later be named for him and his brother.
In year three of F1’s return to the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez, a potential thrilling race finish and the possible crowning of a new champion could be a boost to its popularity. Should Hamilton end the race in the first five places, without challenger Sebastian Vettel finishing in the top two, the Englishman will win his third title in four years.
Hamilton’s executive director at Mercedes, Toto Wolff, told Sky Sports the task would not be a simple one, though the Briton has a sizable lead over nearest competitor Sebastian Vettel. "It will be important to be at the very top of our game if we want to get the job done."
The race is also yet another opportunity for 'Checo' Pérez, Mexico’s only Formula One driver at the moment, to endear himself in front of his home crowd. Though Pérez has yet to win a race in seven seasons, the Force India team member --seventh in the driver standings-- has finished in the top 10 for three consecutive years. Another Mexican driver, Esteban Gutiérrez, currently with Formula E, started last year’s race alongside Pérez.
“'Checo' is in the national conscience without having won a race yet, and that’s saying something,” said Jalife. “A race win, competing for a title or even moving to a bigger team would generate something even larger.”
Pérez himself seems to agree.
“I really want to give [the fans] a special result to celebrate in Mexico,” he told reporters. “Racing at home means a lot for me.”
The success of a breakthrough athlete within the circuit is paramount, but Formula One’s mere presence in the country is making inroads in a way other sports have developed within the country’s consciousness across the years.
Football, basketball and baseball, for instance, are more popular than auto racing in Mexico, according to a recent study published by Consulta Mitofsky. To that point, the NFL, MLB and NBA have brought or plan to bring official games to Mexico in recent years in an effort to consolidate their brand in the country.
The NFL will stage the New England Patriots and the Oakland Raiders at Estadio Azteca on Nov, 19, while the NBA Mexico City Games 2017 slates a pair of games with the Brooklyn Nets facing the Oklahoma City Thunder on Dec. 7 and the Miami Heat on Dec. 9 at the Arena Ciudad de México.
With just six Mexican drivers in Formula One’s history, the pressure is on
'Checo' Pérez to create a higher demand for the sport. Aside from the brothers Rodríguez and Gutiérrez, Moisés Solana raced in the 1960s, and Hector Rebaque raced last in 1981, starting a 30-year gap that ended in 2011 with Pérez’s rookie season.
“If we can have kids who want to become the next Sergio Pérez as opposed to say, the next big soccer star, we have a shot at generating more for the sport,” said Jalife.
Soccer, the country’s most popular sport by far, was actually at the forefront of yet another promotional event looking to hype up the Mexico GP.
— Sahara Force India (@ForceIndiaF1) October 25, 2017
Pérez and his French teammate Esteban Ocon traded their helmets for cleats in a celebrity match in Mexico City the Wednesday before the race. The Mexican driver scored five goals amid a cascade of cheers.
Though Pérez wishes to do the same after the race, there will be others in line. There’s Hamilton, who will be looking to repeat last year’s victory and take this season’s crown, and Verstappen, who missed out last year to his teammate Australian Daniel Ricciardo, who finished third and currently sits in fourth place in the F1 driver's standings.
“Hopefully,” Pérez said, “I give [Mexican fans] an amazing race and a lot of happiness they deserve to have.”