From first to last to first, with plenty of controversy along the way.
Lewis Hamilton produced an incredible performance at the São Paulo Grand Prix, moving from the very back of the grid at the start of Saturday’s Sprint Race to eventually take victory.
Mercedes had upset the form book by proving to be the class of the field as the weekend progressed, allowing Hamilton to top qualifying on Friday evening during Formula 1’s third and final Sprint Race weekend of the season.
The drama and controversy started early as the rear wing on car number 44 failed a post-qualifying inspection and was impounded for further investigation, only for Hamilton’s title rival Max Verstappen to then also be called to the stewards having illegally touched the offending rear wing in parc fermé.
Well over 12 hours later, the punishments were eventually dished out. Verstappen received a 50,000 euro fine, whilst Hamilton was disqualified and sent to the back of Saturday’s grid.
Thus, the stage was set for a masterclass.
The Sprint Race saw Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas jump Verstappen at the start and hold him off for the win, whilst the other Mercedes rose from 20th to fifth, passing 15 cars in just 24 laps.
Hamilton would be forced to take a further penalty ahead of the main race, however, having stuck yet another motor in the back of his Mercedes for this event, and lined up up 10th on Sunday.
As the lights went out, Verstappen returned the favour to Bottas, beating him to the first corner and, as Bottas slid wide at Turn Four, it was suddenly a Red Bull 1-2. Hamilton, meanwhile, had wasted no time once again, moving up to seventh as he went around the outside of Pierre Gasly at Ferradura.
He had been helped by the absence of Lando Norris, who was the victim of an excellent getaway – passing Carlos Sainz immediately for what would likely have been third place, but drifting left slightly too early and picking up a puncture as their wheels touched.
Hamilton then picked off Sebastian Vettel, Sainz and Charles Leclerc in the next three laps, and was suddenly into a podium position after Bottas followed team orders to let his fellow Silver Arrow through at the start of lap 5.
Much of the next 10 laps was spent under Safety Car or Virtual Safety Car conditions – following clashes between first Lance Stroll and Yuki Tsunoda, and then Mick Schumacher and Kimi Räikkönen – but when racing resumed, Hamilton found his way past a stubborn Sergio Pérez at the second attempt.
The prospect of another Hamilton-Verstappen wheel-to-wheel battle had gone from incomprehensible to imminent in the space of 24 hours.
The reigning champion closed the gap to the championship leader and then went for the undercut on lap 26 to further reduce the deficit.
A second VSC gave Bottas a cheap pit stop and allowed him to jump Pérez, but all eyes were now fixed on the front two.
Hamilton got to within a couple of seconds but, suffering in the dirty air of his rival, was unable to get close enough to make a move. Red Bull then triggered the second round of pit stops themselves on lap 40 to protect against an undercut.
Mercedes brought Hamilton in three laps later and, with a fresh set of hard tyres, he was very quickly onto the back of Verstappen, and this time able to get much closer.
His first attempt at an overtake came on the run to Turn Four on lap 48, the Briton getting alongside and then in front, only for Verstappen to make a desperate dive. Both cars were forced well off the track and returned with the Red Bull in front. (More on that later.)
The two pit walls predictably complained and defended in calls to Race Director Michael Masi, with the decision coming back shortly after that no investigation was necessary. “Of course not”, came the sarCASm-laden reply from Hamilton.
10 laps later Verstappen did receive a cautionary black-and-white flag for weaving, with Hamilton unable to pass once again.
It was third time lucky for Hamilton on the next lap, though, as he swept past Verstappen on the same stretch of track before even reaching Turn Four.
And that was that. The Mercedes pulled away into the distance, ultimately finishing over 10 seconds down the road with Bottas closing onto the back of Verstappen but running out of laps and settling for third.
Pérez, with a comfortable gap back to Leclerc in fifth, pitted to steal the point for fastest lap away from Hamilton, but it will have done little to dampen the 36-year-old’s mood on a day that will go down as one of the greatest drives in an incomparable career not exactly lacking in that department.
Hamilton waved a Brazilian flag to the adoring crowds – taking one final penalty in the shape of a fine for unbuckling his seat belt to do so – amid a febrile Brazilian atmosphere, as he closed the gap at the top of the standings to 14 points.
The title battle, which many declared over upon the news of Hamilton’s disqualification on Saturday, is very much back on heading into the final three races.
Ferrari Tighten Their Grip on Third
Norris recovered impressively from his puncture, with a bit of help from that early Safety Car, to take a consolatory point for 10th, whilst Daniel Ricciardo retired with a power-loss issue.
Since their engine upgrade, the Scuderia have made a clear step forward at the same time that McLaren have struggled for pace and failed to take advantage of their opportunities when they did have some. Norris’s agonising near-miss in Russia now seems even more painful as the red cars disappear off into the distance, both on the track and in the standings.
It looks a big ask for the team from Woking to recover such a large gap, but as we’ve seen on numerous occasions this season, the tide can turn very quickly – particularly at two unknown venues.
Another Robust Verstappen Defence
As the camera panned around Turn Four on lap 48, it looked very much like we were about to see the two title protagonists make it three out of three for collisions on a Sprint Race weekend.
As it was, they survived to fight another day – or rather another lap – despite emerging from the corner a good 10 metres wide of the track’s edge.
It was another Michael Schumacher or Ayrton Senna-esque defensive manoeuvre from Verstappen – a ‘you move or we crash’ dive. He was clearly behind Hamilton here and, through sheer desperation and characteristic bloody-mindedness, braked so late that he was never going to make the corner, leaving Hamilton with two options: to make contact or to stay right of him and take to the run-off area as well.
I mentioned in the Italian race report that, for all his undeniable speed and talent, these incidents bring a question to Verstappen’s wheel-to-wheel ability.
The instances of him forcing drivers off the road outnumbers his on-the-edge battles at an increasing rate. He surely has the ability and spatial awareness required, but whether he chooses to do so is the bigger issue.
Thanks to Hamilton’s eventual overtake and victory, the furore surrounding the decision that no investigation was necessary has been lessened, but the inconsistency has not escaped drivers, teams or viewers.
This further solidifies a dangerous precedent. Under Masi’s management, F1 has increasingly allowed the driver on the inside to simply run their competitor on the outside off the track. Apart from during the Austrian Grand Prix for some reason, where Norris and Pérez were penalised a total of three times.
This was an even more extreme example. Verstappen surely gained a lasting advantage by leaving the track and the decision to allow that was seemingly reached by the stewards without the onboard footage from the Red Bull, which at the time of writing is still yet to be released…
This has been one of the best title battles in years, if not decades. But it would be nice if the two superstars at the front were able to battle wheel-to-wheel rather than it being a case of Hamilton deciding whether or not he is willing to back out on this occasion and, ergo, whether or not the battle will end in a crash.
The São Paulo Grand Prix in 60 Seconds
Answering the Burning Questions
Will Red Bull continue to hold an advantage at another track that should suit them? No they won’t!
With the potential for rain over the weekend, will Interlagos produce its trademark levels of drama? Who needs rain for drama at Interlagos?
Can McLaren do anything to bounce back as their fight with Ferrari looks to be getting away from them? Nope, although it could have been very different if Norris had moved over a metre or so later.
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