VERSTAPPEN FURY AS HAMILTON WINS
Lewis Hamilton got to continue his title celebrations with another win, but for Max Verstappen this was the one that most definitely got away…
Having wrapped up the drivers’ championship with fourth place in Mexico, Lewis Hamilton’s next task was to slide the constructors’ title into the bag for Mercedes. He did so with a battling drive against the odds in Brazil.
Hamilton started from pole position but this occasionally ill-tempered race was anything but a lights-to-flag affair. Hampered by his car’s appetite for rear tyres, and nursing a potentially terminal engine issue, Hamilton lost the lead to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen mid-race only to regain it when Verstappen tangled with a backmarker.
Ferrari, the pre-race favourites, barely figured: Kimi Räikkönen claimed third as Sebastian Vettel faded from contention while contending with a sensor problem. Räikkönen was also harried to the flag by the second Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo. In a race largely dictated by tyre management, Vettel, and Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas, both had to make extra pitstops and finished well adrift of the leading pack.
QUALIFYING The warm and sunny Saturday morning flattered to deceive as dark clouds rolled in ahead of qualifying hour. Forecasts differed as to the precise moment
rain would arrive, but most agreed that its arrival was indeed inevitable.
Q2 was where Ferrari rolled the dice immediately, instructing both drivers to abort their first runs on Pirelli’s supersoft rubber and come in for soft tyres. Since further, heavier rain was imminent, this initially seemed like a ridiculous gamble – especially when Vettel had the misfortune to be called in for a random weighbridge check. He would later escape serious sanction for roaring away in a fit of pique, wrecking the scrutineers’ apparatus in the process.
Vettel and Räikkönen duly posted laps fast enough for them to progress to Q3, guaranteeing they would start on the theoretically more durable soft compound. By contrast, Hamilton, Bottas, Ricciardo and Verstappen ran ‘banker’ laps on supersofts in anticipation of the rain, then failed to improve during later runs on softs.
So, while Hamilton went on to claim pole with a new track record lap in Q3, ahead of Vettel, Bottas, Räikkönen and Verstappen, the Ferraris looked to be holding the strongest tactical suit for the race. Surely Vettel and Räikkönen needed only to bide their time, run a longer first stint, and exercise the advantage of fresher tyres in the closing stages?
In the event, it was the Red Bulls of Verstappen and Ricciardo that shone at Interlagos. Ricciardo started 11th owing to a five-place grid penalty for requiring a new turbocharger – a marshal in Mexico City had been overly zealous with his fire extinguisher when Ricciardo retired there – but Dan swiftly made his way through the fastest of the midfielders to snap at the heels of the rest of the ‘big three’ runners.
While Hamilton efficiently converted pole into the race lead and Bottas beat Vettel in an arm-wrestle at the first corner, Verstappen caught the eye by passing first Räikkönen, then Vettel, then Bottas. By the time the lap count entered double figures, Verstappen was closing in on Hamilton.
At this point it was obvious that Hamilton and Bottas were struggling to keep their supersofts alive, while the Ferraris were struggling to make the softs work. Räikkönen took advantage of Vettel running wide after Verstappen went past to snatch fourth, but Kimi ultimately had little to offer in pursuit of the Red Bull.
“THE CLASH TURNED WHAT HAD BEEN A 2.4 LEAD OVER HAMILTON ss INTO A 5.2 DEFICIT FOR VERSTAPPEN, AND PROVOKED A FURIOUS AND UNSEEMLY EXCHANGE IN THE FIA GARAGE AFTER THE RACE
Bottas and Hamilton dived into the pits on laps 18 and 19 – much earlier than expected – to fit mediums for the run to the flag, and Räikkönen and Vettel followed suit on laps 28 and 32. But the Red Bulls, crucially, kept their supersofts alive and racy until laps 36 (Verstappen) and 42 (Ricciardo), enabling them to fit softs to take them to the finish.
Over at Mercedes-benz High Performance Powertrains in Brixworth, Hamilton’s telemetry was indicating a spike in exhaust temperature, indicating an imminent failure. He was directed to turn the wick down, so he was powerless to prevent Verstappen driving past on the straight at the end of lap 39. A rare sight, albeit Drs-assisted.
As Verstappen began to break clear, Räikkönen usurped Bottas for third and Ricciardo pounced on Vettel for fifth. But Verstappen had barely had time to get comfortable when he crossed swords with his old karting and Formula 3 nemesis Esteban Ocon at Turn 1, pitching them both into a spin.
Ocon, running an alternate strategy and recently switched to supersoft rubber, was flying in the Force India and attempted to unlap himself by going around the outside at Turn 1. Verstappen seemingly chose to make the move difficult, and staked his claim to the racing line at the switchback Turn 2 even as Ocon moved up on what was now the inside.
The clash turned what had been a 2.4s lead over Hamilton into a 5.2s deficit for Verstappen, and provoked a furious and unseemly exchange in the FIA garage after the race as Verstappen shoved Ocon off the weighbridge. The stewards took a dim view of the entire encounter, handing Ocon a 10s stop-go penalty for causing a collision and ordering Verstappen to do two days of ‘public service’ for causing a fraças.
Verstappen’s floor was damaged in the clash so both he and Hamilton were condemned to hobble to the finish as Räikkönen crossed the line in close attendance, with Ricciardo on his tail. Late stops left Bottas and Vettel both running around 20s down on the leading group at the chequered flag.
Verstappen breezed past a hobbling Hamilton and looked set for a second consecutive win…
… but tangled with Ocon as the Frenchman tried to unlap himself, leading to a post-race fraças