Verstappen and Hamilton a cut above
On a saturated Sunday afternoon in Sao Paulo Formula One provided fans both in the grandstands and at home with a race that will live long in the memory for reasons both good and bad.
Lewis Hamilton claimed his ninth victory of the season in dominant fashion as the field behind him fought valiantly for track position whilst nursing their cars round the track in treacherous conditions. Almost inevitably it was Red Bull’s Max Verstappen who had journalists the world over scratching their heads trying to unearth superlatives that had not yet been used to describe the young dutchman. His remarkable climb from sixteenth to third in the space of seventeen laps was rewarded with the last spot on the podium but Hamilton will rue Red Bull’s strategic decisions as the race did little to bolster his title ambitions when it could have given him much more.
The missed opportunity leaves Hamilton trailing Nico Rosberg by twelve points in the World Championship as the duo head to Abu Dhabi for the season-ending duel in the desert. Hamilton needs a huge slice of luck at the Yas Marina Circuit if he is to become a quadruple world champion this year.
Pandemonium from the very beginning
In ominous fashion, it would be Romain Grosjean that would be first to fall foul of the slippery conditions at Interlagos. The Frenchman was powerless to prevent his Haas from skidding into the wall during his ascent up the hill towards the starting grid and this would prove to be the first of many heart-in-the-mouth moments as the world’s best drivers struggled to keep their cars on the road in an afternoon interrupted by rain-induced stoppages.
Following the announcement that the race would begin ten minutes late to allow the track to drain, the drivers pulled away from their grid slots in formation behind the Safety Car as many pondered whether a standing start would have been the better option given that most drivers were echoing this view.
Throughout the afternoon race director Charlie Whiting would come under intense scrutiny as questionable red flag decisions and safety car periods lengthened the session time and had Nico Rosberg having a mid-race meal. As the teams took advantage of the stoppages to chop and change various parts of their car, I for one was enthralled and lapped it up at home.
Safety is of course paramount. We expect drivers to attempt to influence proceedings by claiming that either the conditions are dangerous or that they are fine in order to sway Charlie, and this of course added to the discussion over whether his decisions were correct. At the end of the day though, we all wish that Jules Bianchi was still with us and every effort should be made to minimise a reoccurrence of that ill-fated race in Suzuka.
Do you agree with the red flag decisions? How would have you have done things differently?
Driving a Formula 1 car in conditions such as those we witnessed on Sunday is inexplicably difficult. As the race unfolded the conditions proved too tricky for some, Ferrari’s former World Champion included. The iceman hit the pitwall on one of the restarts and alongside Palmer, Ericsson, Massa and Gutierrez, joined Grosjean on the sidelines. No-one could accuse Bernd Marylander of not earning his pay in Brazil.
If there was ever a drive in Formula 1’s recent memory that is deserving of the label of one of the sport’s finest, it was Max Vesrtappen’s incredible performance at Interlagos. True, the Dutchman was on fresh wet weather Pirellis during his surge to the podium in the latter stages in comparison to some who were on older boots. However, the manner in which he seemed to breeze past some of his competitors was astonishing. Prior to posessing said tyre advantage Verstappen was showing that we have in our midst a young man that has a natural feel for where the grip is on the track and looked hungry to show off his knack for wet weather driving and bag some extra points.
He had shown during the laps behind the safety car that he wanted to explore the limits of both car and track and was eager to exploit the opportunity of detecting where the grip was. His safety car period experiments came to fruition when he made an audacious move around the outside of the Curva Do Sol on champion elect Nico Rosberg. His positioning and car control were second to none as he expertly navigated the long left hander and slithered past the German with relative ease and style.
Verstappen’s race was eventful to say the least. At one point, he masterfully survived a half-spin as he and others came perilously close to dropping their cars into the wall. His team’s risky decision to switch to intermediates backfired, however it proved to be the catalyst for some of the finest laps ever produced at the peak of motorsport in recent times. One by one Verstappen picked off his peers as the race edged towards its conclusion. It seemed that there wasn’t anywhere he couldn’t pull off a move, and another of note was the one on his team-mate who, although no slouch, just could not resist the advances of a massively pacy Verstappen.
In the hours following the race, pundits and journalists took their chance and drew inevitable comparisons with the sport’s greats.
How good was Verstappen’s drive? Does its quality justify the comparisons with legends such as Ayrton Senna?
High praise must also come the way of Lewis Hamilton. The strength of his performance has become swamped by the masses waxing lyrical about the Red Bull driver’s efforts, myself included.
Hamilton turned in another stellar performance and was untouchable at the front. Although Verstappen earned his place in the history books with a series of stunning overtaking moves, even Red Bull boss Christian Honrer conceded that Hamilton was out of his reach out in the lead and had him covered. Hamilton himself is a master in the wet and it was a performance that demonstrates his incredible raw pace and affinity for changeable conditions.
Hamilton’s control was evident not only in his well-managed safety car restarts but also in the way streaked away from his team-mate with ease and built a commanding lead over his rival. As he stroked the car gracefully around Interlagos he can at least be comfortable in the knowledge that his superiority will no doubt cause a few doubts to creep into Rosberg’s mind as they head to the Middle-East.
Hamilton left his team-mate to fall into the clutches of Verstappen and the German would only escape with second after Red Bull’s tyre gamble left him too far ahead in the closing laps even for a resurgent Max. Nevertheless, Rosberg again did what he needed to do as he moved closer to his maiden championship. Whatever you think about Nico Rosberg, the undeniable truth is that he is consistent and that will always put you within reach of the driver’s crown. Who knows what will happen come race day in the UAE?
The leading drivers aside, there were also some brilliant performances further down the field as NBC Sports pit reporter Will Buxton pointed out to me on Twitter. The Toro Rosso of Carlos Sainz again demonstrated his speed and race craft with a career best equalling sixth place finish, and the Sauber of Felipe Nasr earned his team an invaluable two points in his home race to catapult them above rivals Manor in the constructors championship.
An emotional farewell for the hometown hero
Felipe Massa’s final Brazilian Grand Prix was always going to be an emotional affair. He grew up in close proximity to the circuit and the fans have always held Felipe close to their hearts.
Interlagos has yielded both agony and ecstasy for Massa down the years and his last race at the track was never going to be a dull affair. This particular circuit has seen the Brazilian dominate the field and claim victories in front of a partisan home support, as well as having a world championship excruciatingly slip from his grasp in the dying seconds as his family celebrated the world title.
In his own words, Felipe drives with his heart. The aforementioned 2008 title decider led to a moving display on the podium as the Brazilian beat his chest amid an outpouring of support and adoration of the local hero from the crowd.
His swansong race at Yas Marina in a fortnight’s time will be one teeming with emotion for the Williams driver, but his march down the pit lane as he received a guard of honour from rivals and team-mates alike won’t be topped. It was a beautiful, fully-deserved moment and one that Felipe himself will cherish. The retirement from this race would have been unwelcome, but the events that followed allowed Massa to bid farewell in fitting fashion and he has himself said that this ending was more akin to a fairytale than if he had crossed the line in the middle of the pack.
Rosberg on the verge
So there we have it. As we head into the final race of the season the permutations for this season’s driver’s championship are crystal clear. The ever-consistent Nico Rosberg will be champion if he is on the podium, and few will bet against him being crowned at the chequered flag.
As we well know, though, in the crazy world of F1 anything can happen, and Rosberg himself will usher away any premature coronation as he knows that it can all change in a second.
Whether you want Rosberg to emulate his father or for Lewis to join the select few with four world championships to their name, let’s just hope it’s a cracker before we have to endure over three months of race-less boredom. There is one race remaining and one question left unanswered.
Who will win the world title?