Mercedes had a clear pace advantage that which Hamilton wielded to superb effect as he turned a potentially tricky weekend into victory and a reduced points lead for Verstappen.
Pit wall decisions dictate lead battle
At least half of the grid started Sunday’s race aiming for a one-stop strategy, but as temperatures rose at Interlagos that gradually moved away from being the most attractive option as tyre degradation was expected to increase.
Every driver bar soft-shod Yuki Tsunoda started the race on mediums, and many planned to take it as far as possible before switching over to the hards. This promised to be a step into the unknown for many drivers who hadn’t run the hard tyre in practice.
Uncertainty over how well the tyres would last it opened up the possibility that Mercedes and Red Bull could go different ways on strategy. However running at a similar pace to each other and in identical conditions meant that soon went out of the window and they were solely responding to each other’s tactical moves.
The order of the race was initially shaped by the positions Valtteri Bottas lost from pole. While his start wasn’t bad, Verstappen had the inside line and then used up all the road at the exit of the first corner to leave Bottas in the dirt. He backed off and tucked in behind Verstappen to avoid a crash, but dirty tyres meant he ran wide and lost second place to Sergio Perez.
Hamilton meanwhile moved from 10th to eighth off the line, then went around the outside of AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly at the Curva do Laranjinha right-hander and Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel at the end of the lap. He cleared both Ferraris on lap three, and then two laps later Bottas went two-and-a-half seconds slower than his pace up until that point to allow team mate Hamilton through.
From then on it was a Red Bull one-two pursued by Hamilton, but a safety car and a VSC period enabled him to pass Perez – going around the outside at turn one on two occasions but getting passed back at turn four on attempt one – after 13 laps of chasing.
Mercedes had already pulled their strategic trigger with the position swap, and it was also first to act in pit lane as it pitted Hamilton on lap 26 of 71. Red Bull immediately responded with Verstappen, with Perez coming the lap after that as they were too close to double-stack, and then Bottas stayed out a further two laps before he finally replaced his mediums.
However Bottas was going for the one-stop for Mercedes at this point, and brought his first pit stop forward to coincide with a Virtual Safety Car period that would reduce the time loss of pitting. It worked, as it brought him past Perez to third place.
Mercedes could have split their strategy to try to jump Bottas past Verstappen, who had muscled past him at the start, but the team wasn’t so convinced of the risk.
“We were talking about [one-stopping], and Valtteri said that he felt that it would work,” said Mercedes’ trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin.
“And you gamble. The problem is, if you gamble wrong, then we could have risked a podium with Valtteri. And with Lewis, when you think you can beat Max on the same strategy, you do that, because we felt that we had the car pace to really attack, if we could get a bit of a tyre offset. So the option on going on an oddball strategy was discussed, but wasn’t that attractive because there’s doubt and if you get it wrong, you can’t win the race.
“But you look at how Max dropped off on that hard tyre and it would have been very difficult and you’ve got to incorporate a lot of management.”
In the second stint of the race it was clear that Hamilton was faster than Verstappen, but the Red Bull driver had track position in the lead. Hamilton’s advantage was primarily through the first and third sectors where the slipstream was available, while in the twisty middle sector the Red Bull was fast enough to match the chasing Mercedes when it needed to.
“Max at least had much higher degradation and ran out of tyres early,” Shovlin said. “One of the key factors was that Lewis could follow. He could push Max. Max wasn’t able to save his tyres, and really, that was the deciding factor was the tyre degradation and Max dropping.”
The top two pushing each other, rather than Verstappen managing the pace up front, guaranteed the race would now become a two-stop contest.
Verstappen triggered the second pit stop cycle, and Mercedes responded with Bottas rather than Hamilton. Only 11 laps were done on Bottas’s first set of hards before he took on another, and he immediately accosted the team for “throwing away an easy one-two” while he had been closing in ever slightly on second place.
Perez pitted the lap after him, and dropped behind Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, while Hamilton was summoned last and asked which tyres he wanted. He requested mediums, knowing how strong his Mercedes W12 was on a lower fuel load with that compound.
However when it came to the stop, Mercedes matched Red Bull by selecting a second set of hards. It didn’t please Hamilton, but the visual analysis of the tyres from the first stint suggested they would lose performance too quickly over what was to be the longest stint of the race.
This was likely what won Mercedes the race, as Hamilton’s overcut meant he had a three-lap tyre life advantage already for what was the most difficult section of the grand prix to manage.
It took five laps to clamp himself onto the rear of his rival, and on lap 48 he used the DRS to close in on Verstappen on the run to the turn four left-hander. Hamilton chose the outside line and was ahead into the corner, but Verstappen braked later and like he did to Bottas he used up all of the asphalt.
That put dirt on the tyres of both drivers, and it took another 10 laps for Hamilton to attempt a move again as this time Verstappen weaved in defence. Mercedes’ strategy choice was working because Hamilton had more late-race pace than Verstappen, and next time by he forced Verstappen deep into turn one and then cleared him on the next straight.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff was soon telling Bottas to “go get him” on Verstappen as the team got pumped up by executing the strategy with their lead car.
Bottas couldn’t manage it, but in the final few laps Verstappen dropped 10 seconds back from Hamilton, while Bottas finished only three seconds behind him.
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Ferrari show off strength in numbers
The only other drivers to finish on the lead lap were Ferrari’s Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jnr. The team has now moved 31.5 points clear of McLaren in the battle for third in the constructors standings.
Sainz and Lando Norris made contact at the start, sending the McLaren driver to last place with a puncture. But otherwise it was a clean and consistent run for the two drivers who may have both finished around 50 seconds behind Hamilton but were the only drivers to stay on the medium tyres for the second stint and stretched that stint to roughly twice what the cars ahead were doing on the hards.
“Very happy. Today was all about trying to manage the gap with the people behind,” Leclerc said after finishing fifth.
“Obviously I had Carlos behind, but after that we were quite clear compared to the others, which was good to see. Happy with the pace today, especially happy with the improvement I’ve done in driving from yesterday to today. Yesterday was a difficult day for me. I worked hard yesterday night, I worked hard this morning, and I managed to drive a lot better during this race. Happy to finish this difficult weekend.”
Sainz, meanwhile, was distracted by his slow start from third on the grid, his joint second-best starting position in Formula 1, which led to his contact with Norris and then losing a position to Leclerc he was never able to reclaim.
“These two consecutive weekends in a row that I’m very fast. Faster than Charles, but because of the start, I have to do a whole race behind him,” he said. “It’s frustrating, I’m not going to lie.”
They finished 2.303 seconds apart, a near-identical gap to the previous weekend’s Mexico City Grand Prix where there was 2.430 seconds between them on the last completed lap they both did.
Alpine has pace to overcome poor start twice
Even more closely matched-than the Ferrari drivers were Alpine’s pair, as Esteban Ocon pipped Fernando Alonso to the line by 0.491s.
They were 10th and 11th in qualifying, with Alonso ahead, but had to work hard to get that high up the order. The A521 seemed to come alive in the race, however, and Ocon moved up to ninth while Alonso ended up 12th on the grid for the grand prix after losing two places in the opening two laps.
He then rose from 12th to ninth on Sunday, which could have been eighth had Ocon not passed him on their last lap.
“I think the car was very fast on the race conditions,” said Alonso. “We felt this already in FP2, and yesterday on the sprint race. I don’t know why, but the car felt much better on high fuel and race pace.
“We were not too poor again on the start and on the restart, we lost one place with [Lance] Stroll that compromised a little bit the first part of the race, but we overtook Stroll. We catch the cars in front. Then we got unlucky again with a bit of safety car because we could not stop both cars together. So I had to stay out and I lost a little bit of ground there.
“But again, we recovered one more time and then we tried to defend from [Pierre] Gasly. It was not possible, but we try, and then at the end finishing in the points with both cars was a target we achieved today. We keep fifth in the constructor and we go again.”
AlphaTauri’s Gasly finished in seventh, meaning he matched Alpine’s points tally and the two teams go into the final three race weekends matched on points.
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Raikkonen’s rocket stint
It didn’t look good for Kimi Raikkonen when he started from the pit lane after changing rear wing, and the first half of his grand prix suggested he would be finishing towards the back of the field.
He climbed to 15th before making his first pit stop, but the switch to hard tyres enabled him to rise even further up the order and he sat in 12th when he pitted for a second time. Unlike those around him, he switched back onto the medium tyre for the final stint.
At that point he was five seconds ahead of his team mate Antonio Giovinazzi, a gap gained entirely by overcutting him, but then in the remaining 20 laps his advantage grew to an astonishing 29.474s.
“Today we were a lot more competitive compared to yesterday, but decided to start in the pit lane to do some changes for the car,” he said. “Definitely the right decision, but just fell a little bit short in the end, we were catching up to Seb [Vettel] and the McLaren but we ran out of laps and tyres.”
Vettel finished 5.794s ahead, a gap that actually remained fairly constant through the final stint, while both were really closing in on Norris’s 10th place late on. Had the race gone a few laps further, Raikkonen could potentially have mirrored Hamilton’s climb up the grid.
Mercedes re-fire title hopes
There was no reward for Alfa Romeo or Raikkonen from his performance, but Hamilton’s charge from last on the sprint qualifying grid to fifth, and then from 10th to first in the grand prix netted him 25 points. It would have been 26 had Perez not pitted late on to snatch the fastest lap point from him.
But it still means Hamilton has reduced the gap at the top of the standings to Verstappen down to 14 points. Mercedes has also stretched their lead to 11 points with three races to go. That remarkable turnaround has breathed new life into their hopes of retaining the championship silverware.
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