Lewis Hamilton comes into round 19 of the year with the championship already wrapped up. The championship has taken this turn partly through Hamilton's domination in qualifying, taking five out of seven poles since the summer break. Could he take another one today in Interlagos? Or would Ferrari find the speed now the pressure is off?
Qualifying started with some light rain in the air, with replays from the practice session earlier showing water being kicked up from the yellow and green kerbs. Could we see cars lose control on the damp sections and spinning?
If we were, it seemed likely that it wouldn't be Lance Stroll. The Canadian teenager suffered a drive issue in FP3, and the car was still being fixed at the start of qualifying.
But just two minutes into the session, the red flag was flying. Shockingly, Lewis Hamilton found himself in the barriers having taken a lot of speed into one of the few right-handed corners on the track, leading to his Mercedes sliding off the track and heading sideways into the tyre wall. A rather tame crash by some standards, but enough to count the champion out, forcing him to start tomorrow's race from the back of the grid.
This red flag stopped the clock, and by the time it had started again Williams had taken the time to fix Stroll's car and send him out. Max Verstappen took an early lead, being the first under 1:10, but before long he was joined by the remaining Mercedes and both Ferraris. Kimi Raikkonen and Vettel were both on the soft tyres compared to Bottas's supersoft, meaning that Raikkonen's session-leading 1:09.4 was particularly impressive, and early on it was the two Finnish drivers leading the way at the top of the time sheets.
At the other end of the field, it was the normal collection of Saubers and Toro Rossos. Lance Stroll didn't appear to have his car completely fixed, lapping almost a second slower than outgoing teammate Felipe Massa. The drivers all improved with three minutes to go, with World Endurance Champion Brendon Hartley in 15th place and safe just before the last laps. By the end of the session, the Toro Rosso driver had proved his worth by winning the mini-battle at the back, and grabbing himself a place in Q2.
Drivers eliminated in Q1
|17||Pierre Gasly||Toro Rosso||1:10.686|
|20||Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes||No Time|
Valterri Bottas led the field away at the start of Q2, electing to use the supersofts again, meaning he would start the race on the softest tyre available. The Finnish driver set a 1:08.901, a track record, whilst Sebastian Vettel was on 1:09.013.
Mexico race winner Max Verstappen was 4th on the sheets when he came into the pits, but coasted to a stop after engaging the pit speed limiter. Luckily, the team were able to get to the Dutchman and push the car back into the pits, but confusion surrounded both him and the McLaren of Fernando Alonso. It seemed that the FIA Stewards wished to call the Red Bull in for a random weighing, but it was unclear whether the signal was given to Max or to Fernando (The two drivers appearing at the pit entrance within seconds of each other).
With four minutes to go, the only driver not to set a time was Brendon Hartley. Toro Rosso seemed to think it would not be worthwhile for the Kiwi to be out on track too long. Daniel Ricciardo was the only driver to have set his time on the soft tyres, meaning he would start the race on slower tyres, but should be able to make his first stint longer once his ten-place grid penalty for yet another engine change was applied.
Joining Hartley at the end of the standings were the usual collection of McLaren, Force India, Renault and Haas cars. All the midfield teams were aiming to take advantage of the opportunity of an extra space in Q3 now Hamilton had crashed out.
Alonso impressed on a 1:09.5, whilst Sebastian Vettel blew everyone away by lowering the lap record to 1:08.4. Both Renault cars survived the cut-off, but Force India's Esteban Ocon lost out after a run of good performances. A shame for the French driver, but P11 means he can choose his tyres for the start of the race, which could be a big advantage tomorrow.
Drivers eliminated in Q2
|11||Esteban Ocon||Force India||1:09.830|
|15||Brendon Hartley||Toro Rosso||No Time|
So, the ten remaining drivers took to the track for the final qualifying session. Ferrari had shown their pace with Vettel's lap in Q2, but Bottas immediately matched Vettel's record on a 1:08.4. The four-time German world champion responded by going a tenth quicker, lowering the record further and leaving the Red Bulls behind, with Verstappen only able to set a 1:09.0, and Ricciardo even slower.
Alonso showed his skill by splitting the Renaults of Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg, whilst home favourite Felipe Massa abandoned his first attempt and came into the pits after sliding on the same corner where Hamilton had crashed previously.
Whilst the cars refuelled, screens and displays around the track appeared to indicate rain, perhaps cooling the track and maybe settling the times before the chequered flag had fallen. Regardless, the drivers left the pitlane to push one final time to improve their starting positions.
Vettel failed to improve, which opened the door to Valtteri Bottas, who pipped the German to the top spot by under 0.04 seconds. Alonso qualified in seventh, which would become sixth on Sunday after Ricciardo's penalty, the result making the much respected Spaniard very happy for once over the team radio.
|4||Max Verstappen||Red Bull||1:08.925|
|5||Daniel Ricciardo||Red Bull||1:09.330|
|6||Sergio Perez||Force India||1:09.538|
So, Valtteri Bottas will start the Brazilian Grand Prix from pole, but surely all eyes will be on teammate Lewis Hamilton, who will line up at the back after his crash.
Can the champion put in a legendary drive around his hero's home track? Will we see another Bottas/Vettel race in the vein of Russia or Austria, or can Kimi Raikkonen make good on his recent words in press interviews and take his number 7 Ferrari to the top of the podium at the track he won the championship at ten years ago? All will be revealed in tomorrow's race!