Verstappen on song with Sao Paulo win as Alonso prevails in podium photo-finish

2023 Brazilian Grand Prix report

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If Formula 1 were ever to release a music compilation ‘Now That’s What I Call Team Radio Songs’, it could include all of the cockpit karaoke hits of years gone by.

From the classics, such as Jenson Button’s memorable rendition of Queen’s ‘We Are the Champions’ or Carlos Sainz Jnr’s iconic cover of Sade’s ‘Smooth Operator’, to more contemporary cuts like Lando Norris’s famous ‘Friday’ radio check, F1 drivers have dropped some bangers over the radio waves.

The 2023 Brazilian Grand Prix provided one more tune to add to the playlist: Tom Jones’ ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’, covered by Max Verstappen.

Beneath the beautiful imagery conjured up by its lyrics and the raw power of Jones’ majestic voice lies a deceptive dark tale of a condemned man longing to return to the land of his youth as he stares his inevitable demise at the hands of the justice system directly in the face. A sombre song that encapsulates that inherent human longing for a place to belong to.

While the track might seem about as relevant to Formula 1 as ‘Oops Upside Your Head’ was to rowing, it doesn’t matter. Because when you’re the most dominant world champions Formula 1 has ever seen, you can sing whatever you want.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Interlagos, 2023
Disaster struck Leclerc before the race even started
Max Verstappen and Red Bull had already been crowned 2023 champions over three grands prix before setting foot in Brazil, but their will to win had not waned. Indeed, the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace was a venue Red Bull had ‘only’ won at once in the last nine years – thanks to Verstappen of course, back in 2019. It was time to add a second.

Verstappen’s ambitions to do so were boosted when he secured his 11th pole position on Friday after another Sao Paulo scramble to record a lap time before the ‘chuva’ caused a premature end to qualifying. Charles Leclerc earned a front row start alongside him, eager to make use of the fresh set of soft tyres he had saved on Saturday, with the two Aston Martins of Lance Stroll and Fernando Alonso behind them in a return to form for the frequently frustrated duo.

Other than a victory, Saturday’s sprint race had given Red Bull two vital bits of information. Not only was Verstappen able to make the soft tyres last over 24 laps without them falling off a cliff, but that McLaren’s Lando Norris was not far off from matching the pole winner’s pace on the same compound. At least Verstappen did not have to worry about Norris for Sunday’s grand prix, as the McLaren would be starting down in sixth with work to do.

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As the field set off on the formation lap, the vast majority did so sporting soft tyres – the only contrarian being 19th-placed Logan Sargeant on mediums. Leclerc naturally fitted his fresh set for the grid, but so had Stroll in third, meaning Verstappen had a small but not insignificant disadvantage to the two closest cars to him for the sprint to the Senna Esses.

Start, Interlagos, 2023
Verstappen had the front row to himself at the start
On the formation lap, all drivers follow strict programmes to optimise their cars and tyres for the start. Leading the pack, Verstappen went through his usual pre-race procedure. But as he rounded the right hander of Bico de Pato, race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase suddenly made a rare intervention on the radio.

“Max, we’ve currently got yellows at turn seven,” Lambiase informed him. As he exited the corner, Verstappen strained his head to the right to peer at one of the huge video screens in the distance. He immediately spotted the cause.

“Ah, yeah,” he replied. “Ferrari in the wall, no?”

Back at the exit of Ferradura, fate had found yet another inventive means of ruining Leclerc’s afternoon. The second-placed Ferrari was sat in the tyres barrier after an electronic fault had robbed him of control of the car, sending him spinning out of the race before it had even started. Leclerc managed to restart his car, but all he could do with it was drive it out of the barriers and down an escape road. The race could begin, but Leclerc could not.

“Why am I so unlucky…” Leclerc lamented. “Oh my God… Oh my fucking God…”

With Leclerc out, Verstappen effectively had a 16-metre head start over his nearest rival on the grid, Stroll. When the lights went out, the Red Bull duly pulled away leaving clear air between him and the rest of the pack.

From the second row the Aston Martins were swamped. Hamilton leapt around the outside of them in a matter of metres, while Norris’ start was even better, allowing him to charge up the inside alongside Alonso and giving him the ideal line into the first left-hand corner.

Start, Interlagos, 2023
Albon and the Haas drivers triggered a race-stopping crash
The two Aston Martins were sandwiched together in the middle, but behind there was an even tighter squeeze. Kevin Magnussen had beaten Haas team mate Nico Hulkenberg off the line and the pair were side-by-side down on the run to turn one. Alexander Albon had got an even better start than the pair of them and was pulling alongside.

As they approached the braking zone, Magnussen appeared to drift right to set himself up for the corner, unaware that the space was already fully occupied. Hulkenberg had flashbacks to the Qatar sprint race and tried backing out, but clipped Albon’s rear left in the process, firing the Williams into Magnussen which sent the pair of them skidding into the outside tyre wall, the spinning Haas clipping the back of Oscar Piastri’s McLaren as he did so.

“Oh fucking hell! I got sandwiched again,” Hulkenberg fumed as the final consequences of the collision played out. The tread of Albon’s left-rear tyre ripped off the car and tried to reattach itself to Hulkenberg’s left-rear wheel. Eventually the stowaway was rejected, being thrown back in the air where it deranged Daniel Ricciardo’s rear wing.

Naturally, the Safety Car was deployed in a matter of moments. Verstappen led from Norris, who had gained three places on track and one from Leclerc to jump into second, with Hamilton in third ahead of the two Aston Martins of Alonso and Stroll. George Russell had gained sixth with Sergio Perez took seventh from Carlos Sainz Jnr, who sat in eighth.

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As cars completed the opening lap through the pit lane behind the Safety Car, Hulkenberg, Piastri and Ricciardo all entered the pits for repairs. Hulkenberg was sent back out soon after, but due to the position of the garages, Ricciardo and Piastri did not cross the timing line to officially finish the opening lap. Moments later, facing lengthy repairs to the turn one tyre wall, race director Niels Wittich red flagged the race, saving racing laps over endless laps of Safety Car running.

After 25-minute delay, Verstappen led the field back out onto the track in the order they had been when the Safety Car was deployed. Piastri and Ricciardo rejoined at the back, but as they had never formally completed lap one before the Safety Car, the rules only permitted them to restart on lap two – putting them a lap down on their 15 remaining rivals.

Restart, Interlagos, 2023
Norris had to settle for second behind Verstappen at the restart
While all drivers who could do so swapped to newer tyre sets for the restart, Norris was the only front runner able to fit an entirely fresh set of softs to his car.

As the five lights went out for a second time, Verstappen enjoyed another flawless launch off the line. Despite his brand new tyres, Norris did not get as good a start as Hamilton, but the McLaren held the advantage of the inside line and retained second place. Alonso held fourth, while Stroll dropped more places at the restart, falling behind Russell and Perez to seventh.

On the exit of the Senna Esses, Alonso stalked Hamilton’s Mercedes down the back straight. Without DRS, Alonso still had a decent slipstream and decided that this could be the only opportunity he could get to attack the Mercedes early and stick with the two leaders. Alonso stuck his nose to the inside and Hamilton, perhaps expecting his rival not to press the issue, failed to cover him off. But Alonso was fully committed to his attack and snuck through up the inside of Descida do Lago to take third place, dropping Hamilton in front of his team mate.

Verstappen was unable to build up the second he needed to keep out of DRS range of Norris. Once the system was activated at the start of lap six, Norris pushed hard to get as close as he could to the leader. As they exited Juncao at the bottom of the hill, Verstappen’s lead was nine tenths of a second.

By the time they hit the brakes at the start of lap seven, Norris was just three tenths behind. He made himself as large as possible in the Red Bull’s mirrors over the next lap and as they finished the lap, Verstappen was already making moves to defend the inside line.

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Norris was three tenths back as they exited the third turn and opened his rear wing. With over 10kph more top speed, Norris had Verstappen covering the inside again on the run to Descida do Lago. The pair entered the corner side-by-side with Verstappen holding the inside, allowing him to keep the McLaren at bay.

Max Verstappen, Lando Norris, Interlagos, 2023
The fight at the front was short-lived
“I thought if I was going to have one opportunity, it was going to be there and then,” Norris later explained. “I used all of my battery and had DRS and then you do start catching them very quickly. I would have tried to get past him if I could – and I wanted to – but just a couple more metres would have been lovely.”

Verstappen decided he didn’t care for being put under pressure for his lead and began pushing. Hard.
He took a second off Norris through the middle sector to get clear of the one second margin, neutralising the threat for now.

Further back, fourth-placed Hamilton was struggling to keep pace with Alonso. Russell suggested to his team that he and Hamilton work together to keep pace with the cars ahead, but it was proving far harder than expected for the leading Mercedes as chronic understeer held him back. That allowed Perez to line up Russell for fifth place and, as they entered lap 14, the Red Bull got the run and dived up the inside into the Senna Esses to take fifth place.

Four laps later, Perez picked off the second Mercedes in similar fashion. With Hamilton falling back, Mercedes opted to pit him onto medium tyres at the end of lap 18, then Russell a lap later. Red Bull followed suit the next lap, but Hamilton’s fresh tyres allowed him to move back ahead of Perez. However, Hamilton’s pace on the mediums was little better than over the first stint and there was nothing he could do to prevent Perez from driving around him on the run to Descida do Lago and put him permanently behind.

Throughout this battle, the three leaders remained out on track. Verstappen sat three-and-a-half seconds ahead of Norris, who was over five seconds clear of Alonso in third. The Aston Martin was the first in for mediums on lap 25 with the two ahead stopping on the same lap together two laps later. But while both pit stops were largely similar in length, Norris lost over a second to the leader during their trips through the pit lane.

Even having fitted fresh tyres, Hamilton in sixth was still struggling with his mediums. Russell behind had spent almost 20 laps of the race up to lap 29 less than a second behind his team mate. His patience was beginning to wear thin.

“I haven’t been on the radio, because I thought it was quite obvious about the pace,” Russell told his team. “I’m just sat here, burning the tyres.”

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Mercedes gave no order to Hamilton to make way for his team mate and soon Sainz was looming behind the pair of them. Once Sainz was within DRS range at the end of lap 34, it looked as if Russell deliberately lifted to allow the Ferrari by, lest lose time and tyres fighting a losing battle. Yet Russell’s right foot remained floored at all times, showing just how poor the draggy Mercedes’ top speed was.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Interlagos, 2023
The Mercedes pair had no pace and went backwards
Hamilton fell next, a handful of laps later, moving Sainz up to sixth place. Both Mercedes continued to fade, Russell even picked off by Pierre Gasly’s Alpine before Mercedes pulled him in on lap 45 to get him off his mediums and back onto soft tyres, doing the same for Hamilton a lap later.

Out front, Verstappen’s lead over Norris had stabilised. While the McLaren wasn’t getting any closer, he also wasn’t falling further behind. Third-placed Alonso, however, couldn’t keep up with the pace of the pair ahead of him and was slowly falling back into the clutches of Perez behind. When Perez got within four seconds of the Aston Martin, Red Bull called him in at the end of lap 46 for softs for the final 25 laps. Aston Martin immediately covered by pitting Alonso, meaning his advantage over Perez was identical after they had pitted to what it had been before.

Verstappen and Norris, however, were comfortable on their ageing mediums. At the end of lap 49, Verstappen’s dominant third world championship winning campaign entered newly uncharted territory when he completed his 900th racing lap in the lead of a grand prix in 2023 – 75% of racing laps completed through the season. Eventually, Red Bull brought the leader in for his second and final stop at the end of lap 56, with 15 remaining. But Norris remained out, taking the lead from Verstappen for the first time.

Lambiase warned his driver that Norris was “likely to one-stop from here” and urged him to ensure he had enough rubber to use up for when he eventually hunted down the McLaren. But Verstappen’s plight was made much easier when Norris pulled into the pit lane at the end of lap 59, handing the lead back to the world champion, who could now afford to pace himself over the remaining laps. As Norris emerged on track 13 seconds off the lead and without much hope of catching Verstappen, the battle was now over the final podium position.

Since the pair disputing third place had pitted relatively early for their final set of softs, Perez had been within DRS range of Alonso since lap 55. But although the Red Bull loomed large in the rear view mirror, Alonso seemed unfazed by Perez, keeping his lap times consistently in the mid 1’14s and never allowing Perez to get a run on him. Unlike when Norris had hassled the leader early in the race, Perez seemed unable to make up the deficit up the hill along the long pit straight, even when Alonso appeared to miss the apex of Juncao on lap 64. However, this was no mistake.

“I was just making sure to not make any mistake in those three corners, because if not, Checo will be too close,” Alonso later explained. “We were just changing lines sometimes. I didn’t want to be always on the same line, if possible, like this. If he goes on the inside, I was from time to time on the inside, from time to time on the outside. So it was not a clear direction for him to really change the racing line and take the opportunity for some clean air. I was just trying to get some turbulence to his front nose.”

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The tactic appeared to be effective until the final three laps. After Alonso took the wide line through Juncao again, Perez finally had a run. He was half a second behind when he flicked his rear wing open and despite Alonso’s aggressive defending, Perez muscled through and into third place. Alonso gained DRS through the following straight and fought hard to reclaim his position into Descida do Lago, but the Red Bull remained ahead, and Perez’s first grand prix podium for over two months seemed assured.

Sergio Perez, Fernando Alonso, Interlagos, 2023
Perez appeared to have won the fight for third
Entering the final lap, it was Alonso’s turn to attack. Although Alonso opted to stay to the outside into turn one, Perez still took a defensive line, compromising him slightly for his exit from the esses. That proved fatal, as Alonso took a much tighter line which allowed him to tuck up under Perez’s rear wing through turn three. When Alonso activated DRS, he swept by the outside into Descida do Lago and back into third place as the roars from the crowd matched those in the Aston Martin garage.

While all this was happening, Verstappen was halfway around his final lap, watching along on the same diamond screen he’d seen Leclerc crash out on before the race. It had been another commanding drive from the world champion who had not allowed Norris to get any closer to him after their short scuffle on lap seven. For the record-extending 17th time, Verstappen took the chequered flag to guarantee that 2023 would be the most dominant season any Formula 1 driver has ever experienced no matter what occurs over the final two rounds.

Norris finished eight seconds adrift at the end to claim yet another second place, but the battle for third was still not over. After being overtaken, Perez almost hit the rear of Alonso’s car into turn eight before sticking with the Aston Martin through the middle sector. Alonso once again took the wide line at Juncao and the pair sprinted up the hill with just four tenths separating them.

Both drivers rinsed their ERS of any and all power still available as Perez crept ever closer. With DRS, Perez pulled alongside the Aston Martin but it was too late. The finish line arrived too soon, with just half a tenth separating Perez from the podium at the finish.

“Yes, mate! You did it!,” Alonso’s engineer Chris Cronin informed him, with Alonso dedicating his result to the efforts of all within the team. Perez was consoled by team principal Christian Horner, who praised his “big drive” despite just missing out on his first podium since Monza.

But the highest praise was saved for the winner. Verstappen was informed by Lambiase that Alberto Ascari’s 1952 record had fallen to him before Horner switched over to him with a brief message.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Interlagos, 2023
Verstappen’s 17th win secured another record
“That’s another historic one,” Horner said. “Let’s see if you recognise this…”

Moments later, the voice of Tom Jones began crooning through Verstappen’s earpiece, prompting a chuckle from the race winner. “Ha ha! Very nice…” he said.

“Come on,” Horner insisted. “Sing along!” Verstappen obeyed his team principal, belting out the lyrics to ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ – clearly a personal favourite of the apparently well-cultured thrice-champion.

Behind the party atmosphere of the top three and Perez in fourth, Stroll came home in fifth after a solid drive to be within seven seconds of his team mate at the finish. Sainz took sixth in the sole Ferrari after nursing a downshift problem in the later laps, with Gasly securing seventh for Alpine.

Hamilton endured a torrid race, falling to eighth by the finish, but it was better than his team mate Russell, who was called into retirement in the final 15 laps with his power unit burning up. Yuki Tsunoda claimed more vital points for AlphaTauri in ninth despite also managing a car problem, with Esteban Ocon securing the last point in tenth.

But it was yet another race weekend where Verstappen had never looked in danger of losing his victory. Even if Norris had not been able to sustain his challenge through the race, he was happy to have finished in what he described as the best possible position McLaren could hope for.

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin, Interlagos, 2023
Alonso’s podium proved Aston Martin are back
“I’ve just been just saying to Max, since we bought this upgrade to Austria, I’ve been the second highest scoring driver on the grid,” Norris said in the press conference after the race. “Of course, we’ve taken some massive steps forward and at the same time, considering we’re talking about fighting the Red Bull, I think it’s still a very, very good thing, what we’ve achieved this year. We’re talking about a guy who’s scored one of the most dominant years in Formula 1 history. And for us to go from where we were in Bahrain to getting close and talking about fighting a Red Bull I think are very good signs for us.”

But while Verstappen ensured his legend would grow just a little bit more, he recognised that he was only standing on the shoulders of the team that had put him there.

“These kinds of things come along when everything just works really well,” he said. “I feel good in the car, the car is very competitive and the team barely makes mistakes as well. So then you can get a season like we are having. For me, it’s more about just enjoying the moment and trying to maximise every single opportunity.”

And with two rounds remaining before his history 2023 season comes to a close, there are more opportunities still to come for Max Verstappen. Not just to win, but perhaps to sing too.

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Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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9 comments on “Verstappen on song with Sao Paulo win as Alonso prevails in podium photo-finish”

  1. invincibleisaac2000
    6th November 2023, 18:12

    A few observations from this weekend …

    Ferrari having reliability issues before the start of the race has happened a number of times over this past decade:
    – VET Bahrain 2016
    – RAI Malaysia 2017
    – LEC Monaco 2021
    – SAI Qatar 2023
    – LEC Brazil 2023

    I’ve also noticed that since the new regulations there seem to be more collisions where cars attempt to go 3 wide and it results in one big squeeze:
    – RUS, GAS, ZHO – Silverstone 22
    – OCO, HUL, PER – Qatar Sprint 23
    – HAM, RUS, VER – Qatar 23
    – PER, LEC, VER – Mexico 23
    – ALB, MAG, HUL – Brazil 23

    Do we think this is due to worse visibility in the new cars, or has this always been an issue that I’m only noticing now?

    It’s a shame that the fight for 2nd in the driver’s standings appears to have fizzled out. It got me thinking – has a driver ever finished 2nd in the championship while not winning a race that season? If so would love to know the last time this happened.

    1. The cars are just massive now. They’re quite literally 1.5 times bigger than they used to be in the early 2000s. Being longer wide than an F150 means that places where they used to be able to squeeze three wide (not safely but it could happens), means two wide is now like three wide on decently wide track corner.

      I was commenting on how badly Ferrari unreliability has hit not just them, but their customer teams. Ferrari, Sauber and Haas have had more mechanical DNFs than all the other teams combined.

      1. f1statsfan (@)
        7th November 2023, 7:32

        Yes Giuseppe Farina in 1952 finished 2nd in championship with 4 2nd places he didn’t win a race.
        Also Ronnie Peterson in 1971 as MichaelN already replied.
        Kimi Raikkonen came close in 2003 to win the championship despite winning only 1 race, he was 2 points behind Schumacher but with 2 more retirements, he was 9 points ahead of 3rd place Montoya.

    2. It’s a shame that the fight for 2nd in the driver’s standings appears to have fizzled out. It got me thinking – has a driver ever finished 2nd in the championship while not winning a race that season? If so would love to know the last time this happened.

      Probably Ronnie Peterson in 1971, who finished 2nd with just over half of Jackie Stewart’s points total. Stewart won 6 of the 11 races that year. Amusingly, Cevert (3rd), Ickx (4th) and Sifert (5th) did each win a race that season. As did Andretti (8th) and Gethin (9th).

    3. Do we think this is due to worse visibility in the new cars, or has this always been an issue that I’m only noticing now?

      Maybe it’s an unintended consequence of closer matching of performance?
      More teams producing roughly equal starting performance and drivers knowing that a risk in an early overtake could be a make or break on the finish position?

  2. Ricciardo had the third fastest lap of the race and was fast the entire race. Williams got really lucky.

  3. Gotta say, it’s frightening how only RBR and McLaren seem to understand their car and are consistent.

    Doesn’t understand their car:
    1. Mercedes
    2. Aston Martin
    3. Ferrari
    4. Haas

    Unclear of if they understand their car:
    1. Williams
    2. Alpine

    Teams that maybe understand their car
    1. Toro Rosso (hate the AT name)
    2. Alfa (they’re less hit and miss and more track dependent, seemingly mediocre drivers and Ferrari unreliability)

  4. Roth Man (@rdotquestionmark)
    7th November 2023, 8:59

    Do we know if Leclerc binned it all by himself yet?

    1. Is it possible he did? That would be highly embarrassing if so. I’d like to see an off-board shot. From inside the car, it seemed like the car seized for a second.

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