Brilliant in Brazil
Hamilton delivers drive of his life
In the canon of catapulting drives from the outer darkness, Lewis Hamilton produced one of Formula One’s finest yesterday, starting in the pit lane under flawless Brazilian skies and finishing a mere five seconds adrift of winner Sebastian Vettel. It was as if he had reconnected with his younger karting self, deciding, after the catharsis of his fourth world title, that it was time to have some fun.
After the indignity of crashing out in qualifying, Hamilton mustered quite the riposte here at Interlagos, scything through the field with exquisite timing and instinct. Even Fernando Alonso, his old nemesis at Mclaren and often deemed the one driver who could hold a candle to his race-craft, offered no resistance. “My goal was just to redeem myself, to do the team proud,” Hamilton said.
There have been more significant come-from-behind surges, not least John Watson’s success in propelling himself from 22nd on the grid to victory at Long Beach in 1983. Watson’s team-mate that day was a certain Niki Lauda, now nonexecutive chairman at Mercedes and one of Hamilton’s most passionate advocates. His verdict on this latest exhibition? “Incredible.”
For a while, Hamilton was even leading, courtesy of a canny Mercedes pit-stop strategy as his engineers sought to undercut Ferrari. Ultimately, there was no denying Vettel, who reeled off fastest laps with metronomic consistency, after his engine was dialled up to its most screaming.
But it was the quadruple world champion who drew all driver-ofthe-day plaudits, shaking off the after-effects of his smash – which required almost an entire reconstruction of his car in 24 hours – to challenge Kimi Raikkonen for a podium spot. All things considered, fourth place had seldom been so satisfying.
“I had messed up in qualifying to put myself in the worst possible position,” Hamilton reflected. “I was quick enough to win the race from pole to the flag, but I made the
‘I have a lot of fire, I’m young at heart and have many more races to go’
job a lot harder. I was trying to get back to third, I just ran out of tyres in the end. But I enjoyed the race and I enjoyed the battle.
“It continues to show to me and, I hope, to everyone that I still have a lot of fire, that I’m still young at heart and that I still have many, many more races to go.”
This was one of Hamilton’s most emphatic statements that he intended to stay in F1 for the long haul. Only 32, and a far more complete driver than in his youth, he is only likely to stop in this sport if he loses interest.
But there appeared scant danger of that as he wore a bright yellow helmet in honour of his late idol Ayrton Senna, attacking this grand prix with an audacity that the Brazilian would have applauded. Soon enough he will sign a contract extension with Mercedes that could earn him a record £45 million a year.
His rivalry with Vettel, likewise, looks poised to last. So evenly matched were Mercedes and Ferrari yesterday that a mere five seconds separated first and fourth. In another example of this season’s mystifying turns, Red Bull, who had streaked to victory two weeks earlier in Mexico, were “not in the race”, in the words of Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, more than half a minute distant.
For Vettel, who never looked back after darting past pole-sitter Valtteri Bottas at Turn One, this was a triumph tinged with a sense of lost opportunity. There has been such a delicate sliver of difference between the pace of Vettel and Hamilton this year that their duel had seemed primed to endure to the final race in Abu Dhabi in a fortnight’s time.
Alas, that prospect was eradicated by Ferrari’s errors in the Far East over recent weeks, and one could sense the frustration in Vettel’s voice. His message of “Grazie, ragazzi” to his team garage carried barely a hint of emotion.
The best response to a sense of loss, or so the theory goes, is to keep busy. The German was not about to demur. “It helps that there are races, to get over it,” he said.
In a wider context, no team have had a more draining weekend in Sao Paulo than Mercedes. Several members of staff had valuables and passports stolen in an armed ambush on Friday night, even before they faced the toil of reassembling Hamilton’s shattered car.
“This has been a weekend of extreme and contrasting emotions for us, but this morning the guys came in and rebuilt Lewis’s car from the ground up,” Wolff said.
“It has been humbling to see their resilience.” Bottas had his
chance to write a rousing ending to his colleagues’ ordeal, having delivered a brilliant qualifying lap, but he encountered a spot of wheelspin off the start as Vettel streaked by.
Once the safety car peeled in, after damage from a crash between Esteban Ocon and Kevin Magnussen was cleared, Vettel never took a backward glance. Hamilton, in pristine weather unusual for this race, simply soaked up the sunshine.
This felt, in every respect, like his lap of honour.
Stepping up: Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel acknowledges the crowd after his first victory since July