Basking in the glory of his 10th victory of 2018, and a fifth consecutive constructors’ championship for his team, Lewis Hamilton referred to this final laps of the Brazilian Grand Prix as “how racing should be.”Max Verstappen, sitting to Hamilton’s right in the post-race press conference, no doubt saw it differently.
The Red Bull driver had dazzled the Interlagos crowd two years earlier with his overtaking prowess in the rain. This time on a dry track he arguably outstripped that, passing all four of the rivals who started ahead of him and taking what looked like a commanding lead in the race.
But a lap 44 collision with a backmarker – his F3 and karting rival Esteban Ocon – turned the race on its head in dramatic fashion.
Verstappen swiftly takes second
On paper, the biggest threat to Hamilton’s pole-sitting Mercedes in the race should have come from Ferrari. But they were on the back foot even before the race began. A sensor fault was diagnosed on Sebastian Vettel’s car, and the driver who started second on the grid had to grapple with balance problems for the rest of the afternoon.
Nor was Vettel second for long. The Mercedes drivers have choreographed their starts brilliantly this year and this was no exception. “I was pretty happy with my start then I had nowhere to go,” said Vettel. “Lewis was quite early to help Valtteri [Bottas] on the outside.”
Unlike the Mercedes and Red Bulls, both Ferraris started on the soft compound tyres and therefore were slower away from the line. Verstappen also got around the outside of Kimi Raikkonen for fourth place but Raikkonen saw it coming and lined Verstappen up perfectly for a re-pass down the Reta Oposta he was well alongside as they reached Subido do Lago and Verstappen ceded the place as they rounded the left-hander.
So as lap two began it seemed Hamilton had his team mate as a useful buffer against the Ferraris, whose harder tyres surely made them the greater long-term threat to his hopes of winning. Thanks to Verstappen, that wasn’t how it turned out at all.
At the end of the lap – before DRS was enabled, Verstappen got a good enough run up the hill towards the start/finish area to prompt Raikkonen into covering the inside line. Around the outside the Red Bull went, up into fourth place.
The next time around Vettel did the other Ferrari. Both drivers had DRS activated – Vettel running close behind Bottas – but Verstappen braked deep on the inside, clambered all over the kerb at turn one, and the Ferrari made way.
Was this the Ferrari drivers struggling on their soft tyres and falling prey to Verstappen’s opportunism? For a while that seemed to be the case, as he settled in behind Bottas. Meanwhile Vettel ran wide at Subido do Lago, allowing Raikkonen into fourth.
Within a few laps Bottas’s super-softs were beginning to fade. Verstappen stalked him and the still-quicker Ferraris were there too. As lap 10 began Verstappen sniffed out the inside line for turn one again: three down, one to go, and Hamilton was less than two seconds up the road.
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Verstappen out-lasts the Ferraris
Back in third, Bottas defended his position more firmly from Raikkonen than he had from Verstappen. Clearly, Mercedes’ objective was to keep Ferrari behind and clinch the teams’ championship. having seen off an initial threat from Raikkonen by lap 14, Bottas managed his pace but fell to seven seconds behind Hamilton by the 17th lap.
During this time Daniel Ricciardo appeared at the tail of the queue. He had started 11th on used super-softs and picked off one rival per lap until he reached sixth.
On lap 18 Ferrari were in the pits but no one came in. Next time around Bottas dived in for a set of medium tyres, the intention being he would run to the end. But his lack of pace in the first stint was highlighted by the fact he came out behind Charles Leclerc and the Haas drivers in ninth place.
Hamilton came in on the next lap, his front-left tyre’s inside shoulder looking angry. He also hadn’t built up quite enough of a lead to clear the midfield and had to pass Grosjean and Leclerc as he brought his medium compound rubber up to temperature.
The first to react to the Mercedes drivers’ pit stops was… no one. Ferrari had to keep their soft tyres going to make their strategy work. And Verstappen, as in Austin and Mexico City, was getting excellent life from his tyres.
Verstappen took his super-soft tyres to half distance, his pace more than a pace for the Ferrari pair, who gave up on their harder rubber before he came in. Vettel pitted first, followed by Raikkonen four laps later. This meant Vettel leapfrogged his team mate, but they traded places again on lap 35 after Jock Clear came on the radio and told Vettel it was “critical” to let his team mate by.
Verstappen came in at the end of that lap. He hadn’t quite managed to ‘overcut’ Hamilton, but the two-and-a-half seconds between them when he rejoined was quickly reduced to nothing. Hamilton’s struggles were rooted in an exhaust problem, at one stage, Mercedes feared was about to cause a terminal failure.
With fresher tyres and DRS, Verstappen nosed ahead of Hamilton as they began lap 40. Before the weekend began Verstappen had flatly rejected the possibility of Red Bull challenging for victory on a dry track. “This was much better than expected to be honest,” he said afterwards. “I expected to be good in the race but not this good.” But it was all about to go wrong.
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“Every now and then it bites you”
While Verstappen had been passing Raikkonen on lap one, Ocon went into the first corner last after a gearbox change penalty and a sluggish start. He set about passing Stoffel Vandoorne, the Williams pair and Brendon Hartley, then gained four more places from others who pitted.
Nico Hulkenberg’s lap 32 demise with a power unit problem made Ocon an outside contender for points. But having stretched his first set of soft tyres to 40 laps – longer than anyone bar Kevin Magnussen – he was in need of fresh rubber.
Ocon rejoined the track a lap down with the race leader in sight. But Verstappen was nursing his tyres to the end of the race while Ocon was pressing on with his super-softs, needing to cement his advantage over Hartley and Carlos Sainz Jnr, who were due to stop again. On his 42nd lap he was half a second quicker than Verstappen.
Force India urged him to get by the race leader so he wouldn’t lose time. On the next lap Ocon was close enough to Verstappen to open his DRS.
This put Verstappen, who had already acknowledge on the radio that Ocon was getting close, in something of a quandary. Should he let Ocon through and risk being held up later by a car which was only likely to be quicker than him for a few laps? Or should he try to keep Ocon behind?
Verstappen chose the latter, and covered off the inside line as they approached turn one. Ocon clung to his outside and the F3 rivals of 2014 were briefly reunited in a tussle for position. Except they really weren’t: As race director Charlie Whiting made clear afterwards, Ocon was not supposed to be “fighting” Verstappen.
That made a collision which, had they been racing for position, might have been viewed as a 50-50 racing incident, into one of those ‘what was he thinking?’ moments. Verstappen was apoplectic. Hamilton, who cruised back into the lead, saw it differently.
“He passed us like we were a sitting duck at one stage, but obviously they made a mistake and that brought us back into contention.” Hamilton, who had his own run-in with the uncompromising Verstappen in Bahrain, said he would have handled Ocon differently.
“I saw them racing but they weren’t racing for the same position. I would have been in a different frame of mind. Fortunately he was able to keep going, no one got hurt, it’s a racing incident I guess. Max is that go-getter guy and every now and then it bites you.”
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Mercedes clinch constructors’ championship
Bottas and Vettel both succumbed to second stops: the former having been passed by Raikkonen, the latter after losing an entertaining scrap for fifth with Ricciardo. Ferrari needed to take points off Mercedes to stay in the championship hunt, but with Hamilton winning, the constructors’ title stayed in Brackley for a fifth year.
While Ericsson succumbed to the effects of first-lap contact with Magnussen, Leclerc claimed a ‘best of the rest’ victory for Sauber in seventh. That all-but ended Haas’s hopes of beating Renault to fourth in the constructors’ championship, as eighth and ninth for Grosjean and Magnussen leaves them 24 points shy of their rivals.
Sergio Perez came in a lapped 10th after a quiet end to his race. This was because Gasly, on a well-used set of mediums, held his rivals back for many laps. This included his team mate, despite Toro Rosso repeatedly telling Gasly to wave him by.
They lost so much time they were almost caught by Vandoorne and Ocon. Both received penalties: Ocon served his 10-second stop-go in the race for hitting Verstappen, while Vandoorne’s post-race five-second penalty for ignoring blue flags dropped him to 15th behind the Force India.
Fernando Alonso received the same penalty as his team mate in a desperate penultimate grand prix. A plan to switch to the medium compound tyres early was ruined by a slow pit stop.
“How racing should be, really”
Verstappen pressed on in pursuit of Hamilton over the final laps despite heavy damage to his car. “The cut-outs you have on the side of the floor, that whole area was completely gone so it was pretty bad. I lost a lot of downforce.
“I had to lock a lot of tools on the steering wheel but that was still not enough. But still the car was quick. We could have been much faster, for sure.”
Hamilton still had engine problems of his own, but he had just enough in hand to stablilise a slim, 1.4 second lead over Verstappen with three laps to go. “I was constantly talking to the car, ‘come on, keep going, keep going’, because we had this engine problem and I knew I could see Max just in my mirrors.
“I was doing qualifying laps every lap to keep him behind, which is how racing should be, really, anyway. Unfortunately that’s not the case a lot of the time this year.”
After Mexico it was a welcome outbreak of genuine racing. Had it not been for what happened after the chequered flag, it would have been a great advert for Formula 1.