Coming into Sunday at Interlagos, the top two drivers on the grid would be fighting for their first win since the summer break. Looking at the stats, the pole sitter has won the Brazilian GP for the last four years, and led all the first laps in that time, so things were certainly looking good for pole-sitter Valtteri Bottas.
Behind him however, Ferrari would have been licking their lips as high track temperatures would seem to favour their car, especially on Pirelli’s softer rubber. And that’s before you even consider Max Verstappen behind them. Daniel Ricciardo would also be one to watch after his grid penalty had him starting 14th.
2017 world champion Lewis Hamilton would start the race from the pit lane, but with a brand new Mercedes engine fitted for the last two races (F1 engines are designed to last for five), you would have thought that the team would allow the Brit to use higher power engine modes for more of the race than he might normally be allowed to.
Start line issues for Kimi Raikkonen seemed to be avoided as Ferrari revealed over the team radio that all the fuss around the Finn’s car was due to an issue receiving telemetry from the car, rather than any engine or mechanical issues.
First lap carnage
Lights out in Brazil and it was Vettel’s Ferrari that got the better start off the front row, and he took the inside line into turn one. Bottas did his best to squeeze the Ferrari driver, but Vettel’s better start allowed him to take the inside line, and the lead, through the first corners.
Things got a bit heated further back though, as Daniel Ricciardo spun on the kerb at turn two and nearly collected Stoffel Vandoorne, who was clobbered by Kevin Magnussen through the same corner and subsequently retired. Ricciardo though was able to continue, albeit from the back after a pit stop for new tyres.
This deployed the safety car, but not before Esteban Ocon and Romain Grosjean came together at turn six. Ocon tried to go around the outside of Grosjean into this tricky corner, but Grosjean didn’t have enough grip, lost the rear, and collected the Force India and both spun off. Romain was able to continue but Ocon was out, ending his impressive finishing run for Force India this season.
Hamilton and Ricciardo charge
The safety car was in at the end of lap five and it was Vettel to get the field underway again, bolting just before Juncao. No positions changed at the front, but Felipe Massa charged past the McLaren of Fernando Alonso at turn one, which must have felt great for the Williams driver.
Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton was up to twelfth by the end of the first lap back racing. Likewise, Daniel Ricciardo was charging past the backmarkers of Romain Grosjean and Pascal Wehrlein, and pulled a spectacular pass Lance Stroll into turn one at the start of lap ten, by which point Hamilton was up to ninth.
Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari was beginning to put pressure on Valtteri Bottas in second, who was likewise keeping close tabs on race-leader Vettel, but you got the feeling the top three were just biding their time and waiting for tyre degradation and strategy to come into play.
By the time lap 16 came around, both Hamilton and Ricciardo were in the top ten, in seventh and tenth respectively. Pit stops were expected in around five laps, but with these two chargers on the harder soft tyre, seeing how they react, and how much longer they elect to run when the leaders pit, would be the crucial thing to keep tabs on.
The top ten at this stage were: Vettel, Bottas, Raikkonen, Verstappen, Massa, Alonso, Hamilton, Perez, Hulkenberg and Ricciardo.
Pit stop window
At the start of lap 20, Hamilton managed to get past Fernando Alonso at turn one, with the Spaniard largely helpless in his inferior McLaren. A lap later he also got past Felipe Massa, who was still putting in an excellent performance in sixth. Drivers were beginning to complain about a loss of grip in the hot conditions though, with Max Verstappen being among the first to suggest to his team that he might benefit from fresh rubber.
Out front, the drivers were sensing a stop coming and Bottas was beginning to put pressure on Vettel again, trying to get his Mercedes into that undercut zone. Behind the top four, Hamilton was still charging, making on average a couple of tenths up on the leaders per lap.
Bottas was the first to blink, coming into the pits at the end of lap 27 to fit a set of soft tyres. He was followed by Felipe Massa pitting from sixth. Vettel was in at the end of the next lap, but would it be enough? It turned out to be just enough, but the Finn was all over the back of the Ferrari coming down towards turn four. Vettel held his position, but it was certainly a close call.
Kimi Raikkonen pitted a lap after Max Verstappen, and likewise managed to stay ahead of the Dutchman, who got stuck behind the Force India of Sergio Perez. Daniel Ricciardo slotted in between these two, and Hamilton now led the race, but with only a four second advantage to Vettel and much older tyres.
How far would Lewis go?
The question now was how far could Hamilton and Ricciardo go on these tyres to give them a good opportunity to charge for the podium in the closing stages. Lewis was managing to hold Vettel off, although the Ferrari was edging closer lap by lap, but crucially this indicated that his tyres were still far from dropping off the cliff at this stage. Ricciardo at least played the team game at this point and allowed Verstappen through to attempt to chase down the podium sitters.
By lap 40, Hamilton was holding the same 3.5 second lead he had for the last five or so laps as his soft tyres still looked to be holding up. Bottas was still hanging in there, but didn’t look like he would be able to challenge Vettel for second, at least at this stage. Behind, Fernando Alonso in eighth was still shadowing Massa in seventh, and was being encouraged by the team to ‘go get him’. Right at the back, it was another rotten turn of luck for Brendon Hartley as the team were forced to call him in to retire the car, his second DNF in a row.
The chargers pit
At the end of lap 43, Hamilton finally peeled off from the lead and pitted for supersoft tyres. Likewise, Daniel Ricciardo pitted at the same time, also fitting a set of the red-walled tyres.
Hamilton emerged in fifth, and promptly set off in pursuit of fourth placed Max Verstappen, sometimes taking over a second per lap out of the Dutchman’s advantage. Ricciardo emerged a few places back, but made short work of Massa’s Williams to set off after his teammate as well.
Lapped drivers started to become an issue here, with the leaders picking them off with various degrees of success. Hamilton in particular was irked when Lance Stroll didn’t immediately get out of his way at turn 11, complaining over the radio that he had lost ‘two seconds at least’.
Having seen Kevin Magnussen retire after his first lap incident, the day got worse for Haas when they called Romain Grosjean in to retire on lap 52. Romain certainly wasn’t pleased with the decision, but at least he acquiesced without having to be told to shut up by the team principal.
The race comes to Lewis
By lap 55, Lewis was absolutely flying up to the back of Max Verstappen, who was complaining about his tyres over the team radio, and was now just over three seconds ahead of Hamilton, having been over 15 just five or so laps previously. The other tasty looking fight as we approached the end of the race was Alonso versus Massa for seventh, with the McLaren poised to pull a move on Massa if the Brazilian made even the smallest mistake.
Ricciardo’s race seemed to be done though, and he was holding station just ahead of these two, and not making much of an impression on the gap to Hamilton or his teammate.
On lap 58 Hamilton was right on Verstappen’s gearbox, and he spent most of the lap just sitting calmly behind and waiting for the long straight at the end of the lap, counting on his engine to get the job done. This looked to be the case as the two came over the line, but a late braking move from Max denied Lewis the place at this point, only to lose out on the straight down to turn four a few moments later. There was nothing really that Max could do about this as Red Bull have looked sluggish on race day, and the team encouraged their young charge to focus on bringing home the result.
So Hamilton was now fourth, and with just a five second gap to third-placed Kimi Raikkonen and ten laps to go, it was all to play for! He started his final charge with a sub 1:12 fastest lap and looked a man on a mission to claim a podium.
Fight to the line
By lap 64, the top four were all visible at the same time on the run down to turn four, and Hamilton was drawing ever closer to the gearbox of Kimi Raikkonen. Verstappen though, decided that his tyre issues weren’t all that important, and set a new race lap record of almost 1:11 flat. He was still nearly 30 seconds down on Hamilton by this point, so this was clearly an issue of pride.
Hamilton was doing his best to get close to Kimi, but the Ferrari driver was driving very well, managing to pull a sufficient gap before Interlagos’s main straight to deny Hamilton a shot at passing with DRS on either of the straights. All the while Hamilton’s supersoft tyres would be going off the longer he remained behind the Ferrari, and after a big lockup at turn one it soon became apparent that Hamilton was struggling for grip off the crucial corners.
Further back there was drama for Lance Stroll as his front-left tyre delaminated, leaving strips of rubber and canvas spinning around the tyre as he limped back to the pits. The other Williams of Massa was still holding his own against Alonso, with the pair being joined by Sergio Perez in the fight for seventh.
Onto the last lap and it was the man we barely saw all race, Sebastian Vettel, who crossed the line first, followed closely by the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas. Raikkonen managed to hold off Hamilton for a well-deserved podium. The Red Bulls of Verstappen and Ricciardo came fifth and sixth, but all local eyes were on the battle behind, where Felipe Massa held off Alonso and Perez to claim an excellent seventh in front of his home crowd.
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