Events

Interlagos Drama Before Pole To Checkered Flag Win

The Brazilian F1 GP threw up some serious surprises, both in podium finishers and a pair that didn’t. On a date that sees Christian Horner from Red Bull celebrate his birthday, the candles were lit on Saturday by Max Verstappen taking pole position. The candles were kept alight on race day thanks to track temperatures of around 50 degrees Celcius.

Verstappen got away to a fantastic start on the anti-clockwise race direction track, holding out a broad-shouldered Lewis Hamilton who had declared before the race he now had little to lose but the race itself. Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris swapped positions quickly and did so a few times inside the first four laps. Charles Leclerc made an sensational start too, having being penalised for an engine swap. By lap five he was into P8 after starting 14th.

The first drama happened on lap 8. Kevin Magnussen and Ricciardo had challenged hard on track. Side by side and Ricciardo had momentarily locked a tire before Magnussen’s left rear and the Australian’s front right tapped. Magnussen spun, and Ricciardo had to it to replace a broken front wing, whilst taking the opportunity to swap from soft to medium rubber. George Russell also had his own issues, reporting a possible lodgement of a visor tear-off in an engine air intake. Ricciardo would subsequently be given a five second penalty.

Up from and Verstappen runs untroubled apart from a light vibration through the steering wheel. Nevertheless he’s two seconds ahead of Hamilton. Vettel is in third on lap 16 and comfortably ahead of Bottas by five seconds. Alexander Albon is in 5th whilst Charles Leclerc still continues to improve. Another improver and an unexpected one, is Pierre Gasly in the Toro Rosso. Alfa’s Kimi Raikkonen is in 8th and three seconds ahead of Romain Grosjean. He’s just heading the other Alfa of Antonio Giovinazzi by lap 19. Sergio Perez, down in 17th, pits for a rubber swap.

Verstappen has indicated he feels his rubber is starting to go. Mercedes had the same call and pitted Hamilton for fresh soft tires. Unusually they fit pre-loved softs, meaning Mercedes and Hamilton have to commit to a two-stopper. Verstappen is called in on the next lap, only to have Williams release Kubica into his path in pit lane. This held the Dutchman up enough for Hamilton to gain the lead, passing Verstappen as he about to exit pit lane. This fires up both, with both Hamilton and Verstappen clearing Leclerc, before a brilliant pass by Verstappen puts him ahead of Hamilton. Vettel leads. A minute later and it’s another position swap with Hamilton diving through on the outside of the Red Bull. Vettel and Bottas are called in, and typically, Hamilton has gone berserk on the radio screaming he has an engine problem.

Of the lead pack, only Leclerc has yet to pit and duly does so on lap 30. he goes to the slower but more durable hard compound for a one stop strategy. Pierre Gasly has also pitted and he’s in P8, a great run from the demoted driver. Meanwhile Williams are advised that a five second penalty has been applied for an unsafe release for Kubica, and the replays clearly indicate that just a half second’s delay would have saved those five seconds. It’s shaping up to be an intriguing finish with names such as Gasly, Albon, Giovinnazi inside the top ten.

Hamilton continues to complain, saying the wrong tires were fitted and the car is being moved by crosswinds. Verstappen doesn’t care. He’s well and truly on his way, a full three seconds ahead of the Mercedes. Vettel is a massive nine seconds back, whilst an equally big eight seconds sees Bottas in 4th, ahead of Albon. Ricciardo is fidgeting for new rubber too, and has yet to serve his five second time penalty when he eventually swaps tires. he’s in P11, a great fightback after the extended pit stop for a new nose on his Renault. lap 39 and Kubica pits for the team-made time penalty.

Down in the second half and times are closer. Daniil Kvyat is in 14th and a breath behind Lando Norris, just 0.3seconds between them. Norris is only 1.3 seconds adrift of the Haas of Grojean. Into the second half of the race and it’s characteristically quiet on track. Little happens until lap 42 as Ricciardo pits for softs and serving his time penalty. Then there is an odd call as Bottas, on just 11 lap old hards, comes in for another stop, and re-enters in 6th behind Leclerc and ahead of Gasly. This kickstarts Hamilton again, with yet another outburst about his tires. That’s enough for Mercedes and he’s pitted as well for medium compound tires.

Red Bull cover off and Verstappen also goes for fresh mediums, and his pit team are slick, a full 1.4 seconds quicker than the Mercedes swap. He re-enters still with a huge chance of taking the win, as Vettel takes the lead. Albon and Leclerc still lurk in the distance, as does Gasly and Raikkonen. Bottas now has better pace and is pushing Leclerc in his charge to P5. The gaps are there but the Mercedes isn’t narrow enough to get through.

21 laps to go, Magnussen has pitted and re-enters right next to Ricciardo as the Australian sweeps past. They’re in P15 for Ricciardo and P16 for Magnussen respectively.. Lap 52 and Bottas has pushed perhaps too hard on Leclerc as the tell tale puffs of smoke from his engine end with the Mercedes being parked trackside and out of the racing line. Local yellows make sure little can change position wise in sectors 1 and 2.

Race control have made a strange call; Bottas’ car is not in a dangerous position however they’ve called a safety car. This is a gift for the leaders as the slow pace means a pit stop won’t lose as much time.  There is a flurry of pit lane activity and it shows how quick the front runners are. Grosjean is in P7 and he’s a lap down from Hamilton and Verstappen. hamilton is told to do the opposite of Verstappen. The Dutch born driver pits, Hamilton stays out, and has the lead for the first time in well over thirty laps. However he knows that his older rubber puts him within striking distance of the Red Bull on new rubber. The Mercedes of Bottas is cleared, and the regulations state that lapped cars can now unlap, passing Hamilton before the track goes green. T

The safety car period extends over five laps and it’s lap 61 before a green flag restart sees Verstappen go hard. He retakes the lead in a stunning pass and Albon shrugs past Vettel with an inch to spare as well. Kudos too for Carlos Sainz who’s in P7 after starting from P20. Leclerc is in P5 behind Vettel and Gasly suddenly finds himself in P6. Raikkonen is in P8, Giovinnazi and Ricciardo wrap the top ten on the restart. There’s word of a tap between Sainz and Grosjean on the restart too. Hulkenberg is also in the spotlight, after having a quiet race. He’s potentially about to be pinged for an overtake before the green flag on the restart.

Verstappen is showing the class he’s capable off, albeit when seemingly with clear space. Breaths are drawn and held for a couple of laps. Then it’s just six laps to go and it goes away for Ferrari. Leclerc has passed Vettel, but the pair touch as Vettel tries to address. Leclerc retires with broken front right suspension and Vettel with a puncture on his left rear. Sadly this has shown the fragility of these cars and tires as the touch, as shown in replays, was as minor as it can be. So close to race end and a safety car intervention. Sadly Lance Stroll is also out, as he’s hit some of the debris and his right front collapses.

During the safety car, Hamilton pitted, this has Gasly promoted to P3 with just three laps left. The safety car pulls in on lap 0 and it’s on as Verstappen immediately floors the go pedal. Hamilton overtakes Gasly, and Albon is in P2. Could the Thai be on his first podium? No. It’s such a tight right hander and Hamilton tips Albon into a spin. He’s dropped down to 15th for a heartbreaking race finish. Gasly holds on by a third of a car length over Hamilton as the checkered flag drops for a Verstappen win. The noises from the Toro Rosso aren’t engine related as Gasly explodes in delighted yells. The time between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, was 6.077 and 6.139…

Hamilton takes to the podium with Gasly and Verstappen. It’s a great finish for the Honda powered teams, and a not so great finish foir Hamilton as he’s handed a post-race five second penalty. This has the result of seeing Carlos Sainz promoted to 3rd, giving McLaren their first podium since Melbourne in 2014.

Meanwhile, having taken just three points since the summer break, it was a red letter day for Alfa Romeo, with Raikkonen and Giovinazzi taking a haul of 22 points as they were classified fourth and fifth, the team’s best result of the year. Ricciardo gets bumped to 6th after Hamilton’s penalty, with the Briton, now in 7th, taking full responsibility for the impact on Albon. The younger driver was gracious too, saying: “Of course I’m frustrated but I’m not angry, I’m just upset. I wanted that podium and we deserved it as it was on merit. Of course he didn’t do it on purpose, it’s just one of those things and today wasn’t meant to be. It’s done now and we’ll focus on the positives before the next race. Congratulations also to Max, he drove really well and deserved the win.”

Hamilton: “I never want to collide with anyone, it was really unfortunate with Alex. Naturally I take it on me, it was my fault, I was coming from behind. He was doing a great job, so apologies to him. ” Verstappen says: It is of course a massive shame that Alex could not be on the podium with me as it would have been an even better result for the Team but it’s great for Pierre to be up here and for Toro Rosso and Honda.” And Gasly? “This is just incredible! My first podium in Formula 1 and with Toro Rosso. I kept working every race on myself, I always thought that if I could be in the right place at the right time something will come, and today it happened, it’s just amazing – I have so many emotions! I’ve always said the team is my Italian family, I love their spirit and passion, they always push like hell and today was the best present I could give back to thank them for their massive constant effort. ”

Norris, Perez, and Kvyat finish the top ten, with Magnussen, Russell, Grosjean, Albon, Hulkenberg amd Kubica the rest of the field. There’s just one race left and the teams head to Abu Dhabi for the season finale in two weeks time.

 

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David Conole

Dave Conole is the former long-term circuit commentator for Sydney Motorsport Park, has worked trackside at the Australian F1 Grand Prix in Melbourne and is self-employed as an automotive content producer.

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