The odds are that Lewis Hamilton will become world champion for the second successive year in Mexico. Despite this country’s comparatively brief appearances on the F1 schedule, a British driver winning the title in Mexico City is nothing new.
Graham Hill did it 40 years ago – and that was almost a win double in Mexico for the Englishman following a massively dramatic final lap four years before. Brazil 2008 may have had its nail-biting finish for Hamilton’s first world championship, but Mexico 1964 was its equal.
This was not only a three-way fight in the final round on October 25, but all three drivers were British: Hill, Jim Clark and John Surtees. Hill was the favourite, if only because he would automatically become champion for the second time if the other two did not finish well — and don’t forget, we’re talking of a period when sort of reliability we see today would have been a pipe dream.
True to form, Clark and Lotus claimed pole. Surtees was sharing the second row with his Ferrari teammate Lorenzo Bandini. Hill’s comparative disadvantage of starting his BRM from the third row was compounded when his goggles somehow came adrift and he was still fiddling with them — with the car in neutral — when the starter’s flag fell.
With jaw set and moustache bristling, the Londoner immediately set about recovering from 10th and worked his way into third – which was just where he needed to be win the championship, despite Clark pulling out a decent lead. Surtees, struggling with a misfire, was sixth; but unintentional help was at hand, courtesy of his teammate in fourth place.
Bandini was keen to make an impression — which is exactly what he did when he outbraked himself into a hairpin (now removed) at the far end of the circuit and hit the rear of the BRM. Hill spun backwards into the barrier and damaged the exhausts.
Such an incident today would set social media on fire within seconds. In 1964, and knowing Bandini’s graceful nature, Hill would interpret the move as nothing other than a misjudgement. In his autobiography ‘Life at the Limit’, Hill wrote: ”A lot of people suggested at the time that it was deliberate, but I certainly don’t think so. I wouldn’t believe that of Bandini; it was obvious to me that he was making a desperate manoeuvre to get by and he just overcooked it.”
Hill limped back to the pits, where his mechanics attacked the damaged rear end with crowbars, wrenched off part of the exhaust and sent their man on his way.
Hill’s chances looked slim, particularly with Clark cruising in the lead – and idly wondering who was dropping oil on the racing line. When he avoided one particularly bad patch, Clark’s heart skipped a beat next time round as he noted that the trail of oil now followed his new line. He was the culprit.
A low-pressure rubber hose serving a scavenge pump had split. Soon, there was no oil remaining to be spilled. Crossing the line to start the final lap, Clark could only raise both hands towards his team, as if pleading with fate to see him through the next three miles. The Coventry-Climax V8 seized, just as his second championship was within touching distance. The Lotus team were totally distraught.
Meanwhile, there was pandemonium at Ferrari. Surtees was going to be third and, at this rate of going, Hill would win the title. But having seen Clark crawl past the pits, and knowing Bandini was about to become second, it took but a nanosecond for Ferrari to work out that by swapping places, the six points would be enough to make Surtees champion.
The problem was communicating this news to Bandini as he came by to start his final lap. By all accounts, it resembled a scene from a Keystone Cops movie as the entire team tumbled onto the track (not frowned upon in those days) and gesticulated wildly to their man, imploring him to slow down; stop, if necessary; do anything but finish second. Bandini got the message and duly waited for Surtees to come by.
The pit lane was a jumble of emotions: elation over such a thrilling climax to the championship; delight for Surtees having become the first (and, so far, only) man to win the world title on two wheels as well as four; commiserations for Clark as he sat silently with his crew; sympathy for Hill as he gamely struggled home two laps down in 11th place; and last but not least, congratulations for Dan Gurney, the overshadowed winner whose Brabham had crossed the line almost unnoticed as he led the one lap that mattered most.