We caught up with Christian Blum from Renault Sport F1, who travelled to Mexico from 1987 to 1992 as an engine engineer with Williams and then Ligier to understand the challenges of the fearsome circuit.
‘The first time we went to Mexico we realised we were somewhere very exotic. We had been to Brazil with the championship – Rio at the time – but Mexico City was completely different. The city was absolutely huge and very polluted, with exhaust gasses spewed out by the big old lorries and ancient cars that were stuck in the never-ending traffic jams. The car horns were incessant. We finally checked into a hotel close to the airport. It was when I took the stairs to my room that I realised the effect of the altitude there ; even walking up one flight of stairs was exhausting.
‘At the end of the 80s the track itself was very outdated. The facilities were old and in need of repair and the circuit was stuck in the 1970s. The surface was a patchwork of different tarmacs, and no two pieces were the same. It made it very bumpy, probably the worst bumps of the year. The drivers complained bitterly after each session as there was just no grip and the bumps made car control a nightmare.
‘Because of the bumps and the track surface there was only really one line through the corners and overtaking was very hard. Aero was also compromised as we needed the grip through the tight corners – particularly with the low air pressure – but you couldn’t risk being overtaken on that long straight. All weekend it was a juggling act – do we run less wing and risk less grip through the corners and over the bumps, or sacrifice straightline speed ?
‘The engine was also less powerful there because of the altitude – around 20% less – and cooling was at its maximum level as everything ran very hot.
In the turbo days the guys had to bring special turbos to the event as it was subject to such extreme temperatures and pressures.
‘There were some interesting parts to the circuit. The Peraltada was a long, fast oval corner at the end of the lap, very similar to the Parabolica at Monza, but it was banked so it was super difficult for the drivers to get right. The chicane after that long straight was also exciting to watch and the Esses at the back of the track were high speed and you could see the cars twitching as they went over the bumps.
‘We got some classic races there. I remember the 1991 race in particular when I was working with Williams. We had qualified 1-2 with Riccardo Patrese ahead of Nigel Mansell. Patrese got a good start and kept the lead but Mansell was pushing hard. There were no team orders from the garage so every lap Nigel was trying through each turn. Somehow, Riccardo managed to hold on and we got our second ever 1-2 result.
‘The 1992 race was a great one too. I had moved over to Ligier at that point and I remember we suspected we had a problem with the internals of the engine. We had to send a special team from Viry to Mexico to open the engine and change the gears, and they had to perform this delicate operation in the kitchen of the hospitality ! We had to do it like this as the garages were all open so firstly all our competitors could see if we did it in the open, and secondly the dust and sand in the atmosphere would have ruined the internals even further. We had a good race in the end, finishing in the top 10.
‘Looking at the track now, there have been some serious modifications. There are fewer bumps and the Peraltada has been reprofiled to go through a baseball stadium and is much tighter and less fearsome. The slow corners are still there and should allow good overtaking opportunities – I think we could see some good racing, as we do in Austin. Given the altitude, slow corners and long straights, mechanical reliability will be pushed to its limits, so the results could be unpredictable.
‘All in all, I think the viewing will be impressive, and the fans will be in for a treat. I see there are new grandstands too, which is good. I remember the last time we went there there were no grandstands on the last corner and people just stood next to the track. And there were lots of dogs around too, so quite often you would see a dog wandering across the track. I hope we don’t get that this year… !’