MEXICO CITY (AP) Sergio Perez soaked in the cheers of the adoring home crowd and touched his chest to show the fans he loved them right back.
He blew kisses, waved a Mexican flag and took a selfie with fans scrambling behind him to get in the shot. The Mexican Grand Prix was as much of a party for the Force India driver as it was a celebration of Formula One's return after 23 years.
If only his finish had lived up to so much adoration.
Perez, one of just six Mexican drivers in F1 history, finished eighth Sunday at the revamped Autodromos Hermanos Rodriguez, his sixth race scoring points in the last seven.
It was about where most would have realistically expected. But it was a far cry from the podium finish his home country hoped for.
''I felt the love of the people. It's something I will remember for the rest of my life,'' Perez said.
Perez finished third three weeks ago and came to Mexico in arguably his best form of the last two seasons. But he finished just one spot ahead of where he started, and one spot behind teammate Nico Hulkenberg.
Perez was aiming for at least a top five finish and blamed his struggle on bad tire strategy and a late safety car when Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel crashed.
''It probably was one of the toughest races of my career because we were unlucky in the end. I was racing on worn tires and the drivers ahead and behind me had fresh ones. ''
The Mexican fans loudly cheered him through every pass in front of the grandstands. The loudest came midway through the race when Toro Rosso's Carlos Sainz had to cede position and let Perez pass him in front of the biggest crowd section.
''Today I felt like 120,000 people were in the car with me,'' Perez said.