Mercedes threw everything they could at Red Bull in their efforts to dislodged Max Verstappen from the lead of the Brazilian Grand Prix.Interlagos before, was not to be denied his hard-earned win, and passed Lewis Hamilton twice as he took it.
Ferrari might have had a say in the outcome of an intriguing three-way contest. But their season hit a new low as Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc retired after hitting each other.
Hamilton goes after Verstappen
Verstappen, Vettel and Hamilton all made similarly good starts in their three different chassis at the front end of the field. But Vettel had the disadvantage of being off-line, and Hamilton braked deeper into turn one, prising second place off the Ferrari.
On their soft tyres, Verstappen established a two-second cushion over Hamilton, while Vettel remained in range to begin with. From lap 10, however, the Ferrari driver began to struggle more with his tyres. Hamilton, who Red Bull believed was running a higher downforce level on his car, closed within striking distance of Verstappen.
“Don’t miss this shot,” he advised his team on the radio, urging them to commit to an early pit stop. They did – and to begin with it seemed to work beautifully.
Hamilton took almost two-and-a-half seconds out of Verstappen on his out-lap. Even with Red Bull performing a record-breaking pit stop for their man – he was stationary for 1.82 seconds – that might have been enough for Hamilton to jump ahead.
But the Williams of Robert Kubica made sure of it. Verstappen’s quick pit stop brought him out as the FW42 was leaving its pit box, and Kubica squeezed the race leader hard as he joined the fast lane. Verstappen had to take avoiding action and his car nearly went into anti-stall mode as he dodged what would have been a second consecutive elimination from a race-winning position in Brazil due to a lapped car.
That put Hamilton ahead, but he only held the net lead of the race briefly. Verstappen got on his tail on the climb to the start/finish straight and launched down the inside of the Mercedes. A bemused Hamilton asked his team why they hadn’t warned him Verstappen was so close.
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Red Bull’s calculated gamble
Further frustrated messages came from the world champion’s cockpit as they got stuck into what was their second stint of three, both drivers having taken second sets of soft tyres. Hamilton rued the decision not to switch to mediums, which Vettel opted for when he pitted, and the Ferrari driver used to begin closing down his deficit to the leaders.
By race day the track was warmed and grippier than it had been on Friday when drivers did their race simulation runs. That left teams in some uncertainty over the optimum strategy: Were two stops now the way to go? Would a one-stopper be viable with the previously unfavoured hard tyre?
Mercedes experimented with the latter on Valtteri Bottas’s car when he made his belated first pit stop. But he couldn’t conjure any useful lap times out of them, began to slip back from the leaders, and 15 laps later made an early return visit for a set of mediums as the team sought to limit the damage to his race.
By then Hamilton was over three seconds behind Verstappen and it was clear he wasn’t going to be able to ‘undercut’ his rival this time. Sure enough, despite again pitting a lap earlier, Hamilton came out one-and-a-half seconds behind. His Mercedes seemed to like the medium rubber better, however, and with less than 20 laps to go he was closing within DRS range of Verstappen.
Meanwhile the other Mercedes was all over Leclerc. After his slow stint on mediums, Bottas switched to softs, and was now trying to deprive Leclerc of fourth place. But 20 laps from home a puff of smoke came from the power unit and that signalled an end to Bottas’s efforts.
At first it seemed the Safety Car wouldn’t be needed, but as soon as one was called it was clear Bottas’s demise had handed Hamilton an opportunity. Red Bull saw the threat coming, and one of their strategists took a bold call. With Hamilton obviously poised to come in to put on fresh tyres and attack, they pre-empted the move and put Verstappen on fresh rubber.
Giving up the lead is an obvious gamble, but it was a calculated one for Red Bull. After switching back to the soft tyres Verstappen used them to superb effect, passing Hamilton immediately after the race restarted.
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Albon had also restarted beautifully and got around Vettel for third place. Vettel did not have a fresh set of soft tyres to switch onto but Leclerc, behind him, did. Leclerc had to take a 10-place grid penalty for a power unit change penalty and therefore qualified on mediums.
Now it paid off and he had a fresh set of soft tyres to attack his team mate. Immediately after Vettel slipped out of Albon’s DRS range Leclerc, from a great distance back, pounced down the inside at turn one. Making the most of his car’s superior stopping power on fresher rubber, he squeezed by into fourth.
Unfortunately for Ferrari, Leclerc’s pass was as inspired as his team mate’s response was careless. Vettel, who suggested afterwards he’d saved some of his battery to retaliate on the run to turn four, drew to the outside of Leclerc on the back straight. The number five Ferrari nosed ahead, but Leclerc still had the inside line and a hope of reclaiming his place at turn four. Vettel edged left and – disastrously – into his team mate.
Afterwards Vettel, Leclerc and team principal Mattia Binotto all played a diplomatic, blame-free game. But this was a repeat of Istanbul 2010 with Leclerc in the blameless role of Mark Webber and the fault all on Vettel’s side. In a season strewn with errors this was perhaps the most galling yet, not least because it came after a series of races in which he’d fought back convincingly in response to Leclerc’s post-summer break surge.
The pair parked their damaged Ferraris well away from each other, and the Safety Car returned to the track. But now Mercedes, vainly searching for another shot at Verstappen, over-played their hand.
Momentarily unsure of what to do, Mercedes told Hamilton he would only lose one place – to Albon – if he pitted for fresh tyres. But they’d overlooked the proximity of the rest of the midfield, especially Pierre Gasly. So after Hamilton came in he resumed in fourth place. And they were running out of laps to attack.
The restart was given – slightly earlier than many expected – with two laps to go. Verstappen slowed to crawling pace as they approached the start/finish line, the field looking as if a NASCAR-style double-file restart had been ordered.
Hamilton immediately passed Gasly approaching turn one and when Albon locked a brake it seemed the Mercedes driver had his chance. But the Honda sped Albon down the back straight and Hamilton, with DRS disabled for the final two laps, could only follow him.
As they rounded turn nine Hamilton took a few lengths out of Albon and decided to chance a move into the sharp right-hander Bico de Pato. It was barely on, and Albon realised too late that Hamilton was fully committed to the inside. Front-left to rear-right contact showed how far back Hamilton had come from, and it tipped Albon into a half-spin.
Hamilton fumbled for traction at the exit of the corner as race engineer Pete Bonnington urged him to “continue, continue” as Gasly slipped by into an improbable second place. Hamilton set off after the Toro Rosso as the final lap began.
Verstappen was now home free, and while Hamilton seemed likely to cop a penalty, he strained everything he had to beat Gasly to the line. On the final drag up the hill Hamilton drew alongside the Toro Rosso early. But the Honda’s top-end grunt allowed Gasly to fight back, and he beat Hamilton to the line by six hundredths of a second.
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Sainz’s mega drive
The stewards later added five seconds to that, but not until after the podium ceremony. That meant Carlos Sainz Jnr didn’t get to join Verstappen and Gasly on the rostrum, which was a terrible pity, as his drive had been sensational.
Having lined up last on the grid following an engine problem in practice, Sainz eked out his soft tyres as long as he could before switching to mediums. He managed two Safety Car restarts on cool rubber and kept Kimi Raikkonen’s fresher-tyred Alfa Romeo behind to the flag.
Antonio Giovinazzi joined his team mate in the top five once the final places were sorted out. He was ahead of Daniel Ricciardo sixth despite the Renault driver copping an early penalty for knocking Kevin Magnussen into a spin. Despite both Haas drivers starting inside the top 10, neither managed to score any points – Daniil Kvyat relegated Magnussen out of 10th on the final lap.
Sainz’s progress to the podium was aided by Lando Norris, who waved his team mate by without even being told to earlier in the race as he struggled on the hard rubber. Coming out of the final corner McLaren told him to hold his overtake button down until the line, presumably in expectation of Hamilton’s penalty, but he fell short of taking Hamilton’s seventh place by six hundredths of a second.
Ninth place was a meagre consolation for Racing Point and Sergio Perez on a day when their closest rivals cashed in. Toro Rosso leapt clear of them in the constructors’ championship, and Alfa Romeo moved within striking distance after their big pay day.
The hectic end to the race allowed George Russell to climb to the rare heights of 13th behind Nico Hulkenberg, who was penalised for overtaking Magnussen too early during one of the restarts. Albon, who deserved to finish on the podium, came in a point-less 15th.
Verstappen and Gasly redeemed
For the two drivers on the podium who belonged there, the word which came to mind was “redemption”.
Not just for Verstappen, who last year had victory bought and paid until his needless tangle with Esteban Ocon. But also for his former team mate Gasly.
His ejection from Red Bull during the summer break, after just 12 races with the team, was a tough call to take. But he clicked immediately on his return to Toro Rosso and has been delivering results ever since. He was consistently at the sharp end of the midfield in Brazil and his success was fully warranted.
Before the race weekend began Red Bull confirmed Albon will remain with them for 2020. But after his best result of the year so far, perhaps Gasly can still afford to dream of a promotion back to the top team one day.
2019 Brazilian Grand Prix
- Leclerc: Vettel knows he shouldn’t have moved left in Brazil crash
- Gasly thought of Hubert when he took first F1 podium in Brazil
- Binotto held talks with Vettel and Leclerc over ‘unacceptable’ Brazil crash
- Bottas: Red Bull quicker than Mercedes on the straights now
- Russell will miss “funny, knowledgeable” Kubica
2019 F1 race reviews
- Untouchable Hamilton ends season with 11th victory
- Verstappen’s ruined masterpiece becomes Hamilton’s latest triumph
- Verstappen’s win, Hamilton’s title in tyre-dominated Mexican GP
- Error-free Raikkonen shows Vettel how it’s done
- Hamilton on cusp of fifth title as Vettel throws in the towel