LEWIS BEATS THE RAIN TO SET UP SHOW­DOWN

Hamil­ton stays in the fight, but Ver­stap­pen was the star

Motor Sport News - - Brazilian GP Report - BY JAMES ROBERTS

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.

Qual­i­fy­ing

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.

Race

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…

which now stretches to 52 Lewis Hamil­ton added the Brazil­ian GP to his list of ca­reer wins,

Max Ver­stap­pen was sen­sa­tional, and flew past Kimi Raikko­nen

Hamil­ton con­trolled what was a frag­mented race

Massa had an emo­tional farewell

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