LEWIS BEATS THE RAIN TO SET UP SHOWDOWN
Hamilton stays in the fight, but Verstappen was the star
It will go down to the wire. The destiny of this year’s drivers’ championship will be decided under the Abu Dhabi floodlights in a fortnight’s time. Lewis Hamilton is doing everything he needs to do to keep the title alive, but in his wheel tracks, Nico Rosberg is edging ever nearer to his first world championship.
Under a murky Sao Paulo sky and relentless rain, Hamilton took his 52nd grand prix victory, to lie second to Michael Schumacher in the all-time winners’ list. It was also the 24th different track he has won an F1 race at and the first time he’s won the Brazilian Grand Prix.
In treacherous conditions, with two red-flag stoppages and numerous laps trailing behind the Safety Car, Hamilton never put a wheel out of place, on an afternoon where numerous drivers lost control of their cars and crashed out of contention.
Rosberg, a man who has never won a grand prix in wet conditions before, didn’t have the speed to contest the win in Brazil. But he didn’t need to. He knows that with a 12-point lead, he can finish third in Abu Dhabi and claim his first world title, wherever Hamilton finishes.
But the star of the Interlagos race was unquestionably Max Verstappen. His prodigious talent came to the fore with a breathtaking drive, passing rivals inside, around the outside, and finding levels of grip with remarkable ease. In the last 17 laps, albeit on fresh tyres, he was in a class of his own, climbing from outside the top 10 to finish on the podium.
As the paddock was packing down after the race, Red Bull boss Christian Horner was asked whether that was a drive worthy of the status of Ayrton Senna’s Monaco ’84 performance or Schumacher’s ’96 Spanish GP win.
“It’s right up there,” he agreed. “I don’t think it gets much better than that. I think we’ve all witnessed something very special this afternoon. He made a decisive move on Kimi Raikkonen at Turn 1 at the start that showed he meant business today. You could see behind the Safety Cars he was changing his lines, looking for grip – and he was exploring the limits. His overtaking has been quite sensational today.”
A number of drivers, including Romain Grosjean, Marcus Ericssson, Raikkonen, Felipe Massa, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel all crashed or spun on the most treacherous part of the lap: the run out of the last corner up to the start/finish line. And even two of the top three had a moment there during the race. Rosberg got away with his half spin, as did Verstappen, who came oh-so-close to hitting the Armco barrier, but took his foot off the brake to turn his car just before impact. It was a moment that caused his heart to skip a beat and for the Red Bull pitwall it “nearly necessitated a change of underwear” according to Horner. It was a world-class save from an already recognised star.
As ever, the focus of qualifying was on the Silver Arrow machines of Hamilton and Rosberg. Who would hold their nerve in the battle for supremacy?
With the threat of rain hanging in the air, we soon found out as the two Mercs were the first in the queue at the bottom of the pitlane to get onto the track ahead of everyone else. First blood went to Hamilton in Q1, as he posted a lap 0.304s faster than his team-mate Rosberg.
But, while one British racer was on top, another was the first major casualty of qualifying. Jenson Button was happy with the handling of his Mclaren Honda on Friday, but struggled with understeer and then snap oversteer on Saturday. He was 17th and failed to make Q2.
“The car was well-balanced on Friday and today it’s completely different,” said a deflated Button afterwards. “In the high-speed corners, it’s so ‘on the nose’ and there’s no reason why it should be like that. The last six races have just been terrible…”
Button’s woe was contrasted by joy for his compatriot Jolyon Palmer. Heading to Sao Paulo, Palmer discovered that Renault wanted to retain his services for another year. Buoyed by the news he out-classed his team-mate Kevin Magnussen and made it to Q2, despite having to drive around Esteban Ocon’s Manor in the braking zone for Turn 4 (the Frenchman picked up a three-place grid penalty for the misdemeanour). He was joined at the tail of the field by the two Saubers of Felipe Nasr and Ericssson.
In the early stages of Q2 the focus was once again back on the two Mercedes. Hamilton was again quickest but this time the margin had narrowed to just 0.135s. Rosberg was edging ever closer. They did just the single run, along with the two Ferraris and Red Bulls.
The fight for the last four places in the top 10 was between Williams and Force India. It looked as though Valtteri Bottas and home hero Massa were set to make it comfortably through to Q3, but they were beaten by both Force Indias and two interlopers: Alonso’s Mclaren and Grosjean’s Haas. The two Williams drivers were eliminated along with Esteban Gutierrez’s Haas, the two Toro Rossos and a hard-trying Palmer.
“My last lap was really scruffy,” said the Brit. “I had a couple of lock-ups and no rubber left on the front-right tyre. It was a bit of a shame really.”
Back to the battle for pole position: as is customary, both Mercedes did two runs in Q3, Hamilton was the first to record a lap and it was the first lap of the weekend under 71 seconds, a 1m 10.860s. Rosberg was again slower, just 0.162s behind his team-mate. Could he close the gap on the second run?
It was very close. In the first sector of his final lap, Rosberg was quicker, 0.110s up. By the second sector the gap was down to 0.024s – but he was still ahead. As he crossed the line, would it be pole position? No, he lost out by 0.102s. Hamilton had his 11th pole of the season.
“Nico has been getting quicker and quicker but I’ve generally had it covered throughout the weekend,” said Hamilton. “It’s a track I’ve struggled at, so I’m really happy to be at the front.”
Rosberg knew that he’d been beaten fair and square. “Lewis was just marginally quicker in the end,” he said. “My lap was good as well, just not quick enough… But I plan to get Lewis into Turn 1 tomorrow.”
Behind the Mercedes was Raikkonen – who out-qualified his Ferrari team-mate for the fourth race in a row – Verstappen’s Red Bull, Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo the impressive Grosjean and the two Force Indias.
We were denied any competition between the two Mercedes drivers at Turn 1 when the decision was made to start the race behind the Safety Car.
Constant rain throughout the morning in Sao Paulo soaked the Interlagos circuit and despite FIA race director Charlie Whiting’s best efforts to have a standing start – including delaying the start by 10 minutes – it was considered too wet.
Grosjean had already proved how treacherous the track was when he spun and crashed his Haas machine coming out of the final corner on the formation lap to the grid.
After six laps behind the safety car Renault’s Magnussen was one of the first to say that enough rain water had been dispersed and radioed to his team: “It’s ready to race now.” A lap later the safety car peeled in and Hamilton led away from Rosberg. Behind them Verstappen ducked out from Raikkonen’s slipstream and neatly outbraked him into Turn 1 for third place.
His Ferrari team-mate was also in trouble when Vettel looped his scarlet machine onto the grass exiting the final corner. Vettel managed to keep his engine running, but was facing the wrong way – and in the poor visibility carefully spun back around to continue.
Magnussen then came into the pits to switch from the extreme wet tyre to the intermediate and, when his middle sector time showed he was only 0.7s off the fastest time of the race in that sector, it started a chain reaction of other drivers pitting. Button was next, followed by Alonso and the two Williams drivers.
Rosberg was informed about the switch to inters going on down the field. But he wasn’t tempted himself, exclaiming on the team radio: “No way. Too early.”
When Ericsson crashed his Sauber on the start/finish straight, Hamilton was on the radio asking if someone had lost it on the inters. And indeed Ericsson was. His broken Sauber came to a halt in the pitlane entry.
Red Bull’s Verstappen took the opportunity to pit, just before race control declared the pit entry closed. It was too late for Ricciardo, who didn’t see the red light on entry to the pits and subsequently picked up a five-second penalty for coming in.
After the Sauber had been cleared away, the Safety Car peeled back in, but it was still very wet. As the field came across the line at racing speed Raikkonen was heading for the wall. He then bounced back across the chasing pack and was extremely lucky not to be hit. The organisers had no option but to red flag the race.
On the team radio, Vettel was enraged that the race was allowed to restart in such conditions. “This is just mad. Stupid. We need to stop the race, I nearly crashed into Kimi on the straight!” he ranted.
Once the decision was made to restart the race again behind the Safety Car, that still didn’t stop the drama. Palmer crashed into Daniil Kvyat’s Toro Rosso and, while the Russian was able to
continue, Palmer was forced to retire.
After 15 minutes behind the Safety Car and no let up in the rain, the red flags appeared again. There was frustration from the spectators and the drivers too. “It’s not even that wet now, I don’t know why we’re stopping,” said Hamilton on the team radio. He got out of his car to a chorus of boos from the crowd in the main grandstand.
After a half-hour break the race restarted again at 1602hrs (two hours after the original start) and Verstappen was once again on a charge, passing Rosberg around the outside of Turn 3 for second. He got within a second of Hamilton before the Mercedes driver eased away the following lap. It didn’t look as though he could have beaten Hamilton today, but Red Bull took a gamble on strategy that probably cost Verstappen second place.
Ricciardo pitted for intermediates and was able to get enough heat into them to find a second advantage over the rest of the field. Red Bull also decided to switch Verstappen to the same tyre, but they were caught out by an increase in rain intensity that made the extreme wet the tyre to be on.
And just to prove it, Massa lost control of his Williams on the intermediate tyres and crashed in the same place Ericsson had. That brought the Safety Car out again and what followed was an extraordinary farewell performance as he sobbed on his walk back to his garage. He was serenaded by the crowd and rival teams, before being greeted by his family in the pitlane.
Red Bull had no option but to switch both drivers on to the extreme wet tyre and that caused both of them to slip out of the top 10. This is where Verstappen started his remarkable comeback, passing his rivals with aplomb. On lap 55 he was running in 14th place and overtook seven cars in the next seven laps. Four laps from the end of the race he passed Sergio Perez for third, where he remained until the flag.
There were other notable performances. Carlos Sainz impressed with sixth for Toro Rosso, while Brazilian Felipe Nasr scored two points for Sauber with ninth (from 21st on the grid). It’s the Swiss team’s first points of the season and it elevates it above Manor at the bottom of the constructors’ standings. It just goes to show there is drama at both ends of the world championship tables. The question now, is whether there will be another extraordinary twist to the points tables in the desert of Abu Dhabi in two weeks’ time…