Intense on-track and off-track controversies filled the Formula One (F1) weekend as the grid returned to the Autódromo José Carlos Pace in São Paulo, Brazil for the newly renamed São Paulo Grand Prix (GP), formerly called the Brazilian GP. The race weekend, which ran from Friday, Nov. 12 to Sunday, Nov. 14, was the second race of the final triple-header of this season following the Mexico City GP last weekend.
The São Paulo GP was also the third and final race of the season that ran with the new Sprint format, which was introduced to F1 this year. Under this format, the traditional three-part qualifying session happens on Friday and sets the grid for Sprint Qualifying on Saturday, where the drivers participate in a shortened race. The results of the Sprint then set the grid for the full-distance race on Sunday.
The weekend was full of ups and downs for Lewis Hamilton, who took an Internal Combustion Engine replacement grid penalty for the race. The British Mercedes driver was disqualified from the Sprint and sent to the back of the grid for the shortened race. However, in both the Sprint and full-distance races, Hamilton demonstrated his years of experience and the incredible racing ability that has led him to win seven championships and made the most out of a demanding weekend, most importantly, cutting down the separation between him and Max Verstappen in the title battle.
Free Practice One
The weekend’s Sprint format meant that there were only two Free Practice (FP) sessions, split by the qualifying session for the Sprint in between. The headline news of FP1 came when it was confirmed that Hamilton would be taking a five-place grid penalty for the race for a new internal combustion engine (ICE), shaking up the expected grid for the race.
During FP1, Verstappen set a run of fastest times but was topped by Hamilton, who set the fastest time of the session by over three tenths from Verstappen. Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas finished behind their teammates in P3 and P4 respectively. Further in the midfield, the Alpha Tauris, Ferraris, and Alpines looked strong. The two McLarens, Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo, however, didn’t get much running in and finished outside of the top 10, which was a disappointing session for the team trying to retake P3 in the Constructors’ Championship from Ferrari.
The qualifying session for the Sprint grid got underway later on Friday. In Q1 Hamilton was fastest after his first timed lap and improved on that time to stay in P1 at the end of the first portion of qualifying. Both the Ferraris demonstrated their continued strong pace by finishing out the top three in Q1, while Lance Stroll, the two Williams cars, and the two Haas cars were knocked out. Nicholas Latifi’s disappointment at being eliminated will have been abated by the fact that he out-qualified his Williams teammate, George Russell, for the first time in a normal qualifying session.
As the second portion of qualifying kicked off, Hamilton’s first timed run was deleted for exceeding track limits, but his second run sent him back to the top of the timing sheets. By the end of the session, Hamilton demonstrated that his shockingly quick pace was no fluke, finishing in front of his teammate Bottas in P2 and setting a time that was over four-tenths faster than Verstappen’s. The three were followed by the typical midfield runners; the Alpine of Esteban Ocon and Aston Martin of Sebastian Vettel were knocked out in Q2 by Yuki Tsunoda and the two Alfa Romeos.
All eyes were on Hamilton’s Mercedes to see whether he would manage to continue his run of placing first in the final portion of qualifying. As the drivers came out of the team garages for their first timed runs in Q3, Hamilton went fastest in all three sectors to cross the line two-tenths of a second ahead of Verstappen. Amazingly, Hamilton improved even more to set the fastest time and take P1 for the Sprint as the checkered flag came out by almost half a second from Verstappen in P2, with Bottas in P3 and Perez in P4. The Mercedes and Red Bull cars, as expected, occupied the first two rows of the grid, followed by Pierre Gasly, the two Ferraris, the two McLarens, and Fernando Alonso rounding out the top ten.
However, Hamilton’s incredible performance would soon be unexpectedly torn apart when the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA)’s technical delegate found that the rear wing of Hamilton’s car did not pass the FIA’s scrutineering requirements after qualifying had ended. The Mercedes team was summoned to the stewards’ office to discuss the possible Drag Reduction System (DRS) technical infringement from Hamilton’s rear wing opening beyond the allowed 85mm, which became even further complicated when it was discovered that Verstappen had been examining Hamilton’s car while the cars were left in parc fermé after qualifying. Ultimately, the stewards announced that a decision on both drivers would not be made until the next day.
Free Practice Two
In FP2, all the focus was on whether the FIA would announce whether or not Hamilton would be disqualified. However, no news came from the stewards, and the other teams carried on with their practice run plans. Mercedes was allowed to run an older rear wing of the same design on Hamilton’s car, while the one he had used in qualifying remained impounded by the FIA.
Verstappen, Ocon, and Perez were in the top three until Alonso set the fastest time with twenty minutes left in the session. Neither of the Mercedes drivers spent much time on track, with Bottas and Hamilton finishing the session in P5 and P6.
The more important news came after the conclusion of FP2, however, when the stewards finally announced that Verstappen would be handed a €50,000 fine for examining Hamilton’s car in parc fermé, while Hamilton would be disqualified from qualifying and would start from the very back of the grid for the Sprint. This was an immense setback for the reigning Drivers’ World Champion, who would have been hoping to make a dent in Verstappen’s lead in the championship and would now need to overtake the entire grid to make it to the top of the podium.
Hamilton’s disqualification meant that his P1 finish in qualifying would be erased and that he would now be placed at the back, in P20, for the Sprint. The scene was set for a dramatic 24-lap race as Verstappen now sat in P1, Bottas in P2, and Perez in P3 for the start of the Sprint. The free tire selection for the Sprint saw the entire grid mixed up, with the Red Bulls on mediums, Bottas on softs, and Hamilton on mediums at the very back of the grid.
As the lights went out, Bottas made a perfect getaway to get up to P1 by the first turn, managing to pull ahead of Verstappen by the end of the main straight and holding that lead into the first turn. Carlos Sainz also got a great start and passed Verstappen on the first lap, but was soon overtaken again by the Red Bull. Bottas and Verstappen soon pulled away easily from the rest of the pack, with the field spread widening with each passing lap.
Though Verstappen was back in P2, his championship rival was making even more moves in the midfield, getting up to P11 by the ninth lap as he made easy pickings of the back of the field. Hamilton was soon into the top 10 after overtaking Ricciardo on the main straight on the 13th lap, getting after the upper half of the grid.
The rest of the Sprint race was driven almost entirely by Hamilton’s charge up through the rest of the midfield, easily passing Vettel, Ocon, Gasly, and Charles Leclerc in succession to top it all off with a masterful move on Norris into the first turn on the final lap.
Bottas earned pole position for the full-distance race with his P1 finish and three world championship points, while Verstappen and Perez rounded out the top three and took the only other point-scoring positions from the Sprint qualifying. Hamilton’s P5 finish, in combination with his ICE penalty, meant that his incredible run in the Sprint would put him in the P10 grid slot for the race on Sunday.
It was a reversal of the Sprint Qualifying start as the lights went out and the drivers got away from the starting grid for the 71-lap race on Sunday. Though Bottas had a good start, Verstappen pulled up next to him by the end of the main straight and took the lead by the first turn.
Hamilton, on the other hand, had made it up to P7 by the start and was soon up to P3 by the fifth lap after overtaking Ocon, Gasly, Vettel, and the two Ferraris before Bottas let his teammate pass to chase after the two Red Bulls. That chase, however, was interrupted by the safety car on the seventh lap, which came out after a collision into the first turn of the lap between Stroll and Tsunoda that took off Tsunoda’s front wing, strewing debris across the track. Tsunoda was eventually given a ten-second time penalty for that contact, while Stroll would retire from damage on the 47th lap.
As the safety car came back in, Hamilton’s target was Perez, who managed to stay ahead until the 18th lap, when Hamilton made his move around the outside into the first turn. However, Perez had DRS down the Reta Oposta straight and reclaimed P3. Hamilton had to wait just one more lap to make the same move on the outside as the two started the 19th lap, staying ahead this time. The Mercedes driver then began to make his way towards Verstappen, quickly cutting down the gap between the two cars. Hamilton was called into the pits on the 26th lap for an undercut on Verstappen, who pitted on the very next lap but came out with Hamilton much closer behind him than the Red Bull driver would have wanted.
Perez was then called to box on the 28th lap, leaving Bottas to lead the race. A virtual safety car came out for Mick Schumacher, who lost his front wing, which allowed Bottas to pit on the 30th lap without losing much time or track position, getting him out ahead of Perez after his pit exit.
To fend off another undercut from Mercedes, Verstappen pitted on the 40th lap and was held up by Latifi at the pit exit but came out in P4 behind Hamilton, Bottas, and Perez. Bottas pitted on the next lap while Perez followed him on the 42nd lap, with both cars coming out behind but getting past Leclerc’s Ferrari without much trouble. Hamilton came into the pits for his second stop on the 43rd lap, allowing Verstappen to regain the lead.
The championship battle came to a head-on track on the 47th lap when Hamilton got within DRS range and appeared to be making a move on Verstappen, pulling ahead at the end of the Reta Oposta straight. However, as the two drivers turned into the corner, Verstappen refused to yield, appearing to push Hamilton off course so that both cars went onto grass before making their way back onto the track. Though the stewards decided that there was no need for an investigation into the incident, Hamilton did not need his rival to receive a penalty in order to make his way past Verstappen. He finally made the decisive move on the Red Bull in the 59th lap, getting past without any trouble this time around and immediately pulling away from Verstappen to extend the distance between them with every additional lap.
Hamilton eventually took the checkered flag in P1 by over ten seconds ahead of Verstappen to earn his 101st win, which was an incredible result given that he had started at the back of the grid for the Sprint and then from P10 for the full-distance race. Verstappen followed him across the line in P2, while Bottas rounded out the final podium position after trying to close in on Verstappen in the final few laps of the race.
Though Red Bull did not completely lose out over the weekend, with Perez pitting for soft tires before the final lap to take the fastest lap of the race, they surely would have expected to come away from Brazil with a better result. It was Hamilton’s multiple incredible drives over the course of the race weekend, however, that rightfully took center stage.
Behind the top three, Perez finished in P4, with the two Ferraris of Leclerc and Sainz finishing in P5 and P6 respectively. Gasly, Ocon, Alonso, and Norris rounded out the top ten, concluding a solid weekend for Alpine. Vettel’s P11 finish would have been regretful for the Aston Martin driver, who had performed well in the FP sessions and started the race in P9. Norris’ P10 finish, combined with teammate Ricciardo’s retirement from the GP on the 49th lap, was a disappointing ending to the weekend for McLaren in their fight with Ferrari. The Italian team, on the other hand, managed to increase their advantage in P3 over McLaren and now hold 287.5 points to McLaren’s 256.
Hamilton’s performance, along with Bottas’ podium finish, extended Mercedes’ lead over Red Bull in the Constructors’ Championship from just one point to 11 points. With the Qatar GP to be held from Friday, Nov. 19 to Sunday, Nov. 21, the championship battle is still strikingly alive as the grid heads into the final three races of the year, with Hamilton’s incredible performance this weekend surely demonstrating that the seven-time world champion is nowhere near ready to give up the title fight.
Jiyu Shin can be reached at email@example.com.