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The world cham­pion ful­mi­nates af­ter Mercedes refuse to sanc­tion an al­ter­na­tive strat­egy at In­ter­la­gos

The ques­tion be­ing asked on Sun­day night in Brazil was whether Nico Ros­berg had raised his game, or if Lewis Hamil­ton’s form had dropped? For this was Ros­berg’s sec­ond straight win from his fifth con­sec­u­tive pole po­si­tion. As for Hamil­ton, since he wrapped up the ti­tle in Austin he has twice been bested by his team-mate.

Just be­fore the race week­end, Hamil­ton had been in­volved in a road-traf­fic ac­ci­dent in the early hours of Tues­day morn­ing close to his home in Monaco, and he’d de­layed his ar­rival in South America on ac­count of suf­fer­ing from a “fever”. But what­ever the rea­son for the cur­rent com­pet­i­tive or­der, Ros­berg had the ad­van­tage in qual­i­fy­ing and main­tained his po­si­tion on race day. One sug­ges­tion was that a change to the car, or in par­tic­u­lar the manda­tory in­crease in tyre pres­sures post-monza, might have had an ef­fect on Hamil­ton’s per­for­mance.

Ros­berg, the win­ner of the Brazil­ian GP, didn’t agree: “I’ve just raised my game, that’s it,” he in­sisted, soon af­ter tak­ing the che­quered flag. In con­trast Hamil­ton replied: “Well, from Sin­ga­pore on­wards there has been a change to the car…”

And when Merc tech­ni­cal boss Paddy Lowe was asked whether Lewis was still de­ter­mined to fight for vic­to­ries this sea­son, his an­swer was em­phatic: “He re­ally wanted to win here.”

The duel Ros­berg and Hamil­ton be­gan in qual­i­fy­ing car­ried over into the 71 laps on Sun­day af­ter­noon, once Ros­berg held the lead from pole po­si­tion. Though they ran close, he had enough of a mar­gin over Hamil­ton so that when they pit­ted to switch from softs to medium tyres on laps 13 and 14 re­spec­tively, Ros­berg re­mained ahead – even though the team had to hold him frac­tion­ally longer in the pit­lane as Se­bas­tian Vet­tel passed by on the way to his own box.

When they re­sumed their fight, Hamil­ton was just 0.9s be­hind and took ad­van­tage of hav­ing DRS avail­able to him on both the start/fin­ish straight and the run down to Turn 4. On lap 17 he posted a blis­ter­ing 1m 16.237s lap (com­pared to Ros­berg’s 1m 16.692s on the same tour), to bring the gap down to 0.5s, at which point Ros­berg’s en­gi­neer Tony Ross ra­dioed to Nico to report the ob­vi­ous: “Lewis is try­ing quite hard…”

Ros­berg held his nerve and Hamil­ton could find no way past. Af­ter ten laps in his team­mate’s wake, Hamil­ton found his tyres be­gin­ning to suf­fer, and he set about lob­by­ing the team to switch to a strat­egy that might en­able him to get ahead. How­ever, Mercedes’ pol­icy is to give pri­or­ity to their lead driver and en­sure fair­ness by giv­ing both of them the same com­pound tyres dur­ing the same pe­riod of the race.

“It’s a shame,” said Hamil­ton later, “be­cause it’s a great track, but you just can’t get close enough to race un­less you have a huge ad­van­tage over the guy in front. I was ask­ing the team if there was another strat­egy, whether we could take a risk. And they said: ‘look af­ter the tyres.’ My re­sponse was: ‘No, I’m rac­ing.’”

Hamil­ton dropped his pace to sit three sec­onds be­hind Ros­berg. Then Fer­rari pit­ted Se­bas­tian Vet­tel, putting him on soft tyres again, and as soon as that hap­pened, Mercedes re­alised he was on a three-stop strat­egy, so they cov­ered that move the fol­low­ing lap, by pit­ting Ros­berg and then Hamil­ton – thwart­ing the lat­ter’s op­tion to do some­thing dif­fer­ent. Not that the team were in­ter­ested in do­ing that any­way.

“Be­tween the two of them it was get­ting in­tense,” said Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff. “It was about mak­ing the right call be­tween a two- and a three-stop strat­egy. With Lewis push­ing hard be­hind Nico it was clear that his tyres wouldn’t last. At that stage his race was com­pro­mised. Then it changed in our favour when Fer­rari changed to a three-stop. We then changed to a three-stop our­selves, and then strat­egy-wise it was a cruise.

“We have our prin­ci­ples in the team on strate­gies since 2013 and it’s worked well, and we will not change that. In the car you don’t have the full pic­ture. That strat­egy [that Hamil­ton was ask­ing for] would have been ten sec­onds down so it would have risked P2 to Se­bas­tian [Vet­tel] – so it would have been out of the ques­tion.

“That a driver is be­ing emo­tional in the car is un­der­stand­able, but if the driver in the car wants to start call­ing the strat­egy then he is go­ing to lose ev­ery sin­gle race be­cause it’s in­stinct driven – he doesn’t have the full set of data.

“As a fan I can un­der­stand the frus­tra­tion, but we don’t run a num­ber-one and a num­ber-two, and it’s some­times dif­fi­cult for us to man­age the two fight­ing with each other. But the team comes first and we are not go­ing to change things.”

Vet­tel and Kimi Räikkö­nen – the lat­ter on a two-, rather than a three-stop strat­egy – re­mained a po­ten­tial threat rather than close chal­lengers as they ran out to third and fourth. Valt­teri Bot­tas fin­ished fifth for Wil­liams, ahead of Nico Hülken­berg who con­firmed Force In­dia’s fifth spot, earn­ing them their best-ever place un­der Vi­jay Mallya’s own­er­ship.

Sev­enth was Daniil Kvyat (Red Bull), ahead of lo­cal hero Felipe Massa, who late on Sun­day evening was ex­cluded from eighth place. When his right-rear tyre was mea­sured on the grid, its tem­per­a­ture was recorded at 137°C – 27°C more than the 110°C limit.

Wil­liams’ Rob Smed­ley said af­ter the race that they had in­de­pen­dent mea­sure­ments that recorded read­ings be­low 110°C, and ini­tially planned to ap­peal the ex­clu­sion. It was per­haps ex­pe­di­ent that the de­ci­sion to ex­clude Massa was made af­ter the pas­sion­ate lo­cals had made their way from the In­ter­la­gos cir­cuit.

In­deed, af­ter such a long sea­son, late into Novem­ber, most of the pad­dock had fled home in the hour af­ter the race.

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