Former F1 world champion Damon Hill described Lewis Hamilton’s victory in the Sao Paulo Grand Prix as “one of the best drives I’ve ever seen in Formula 1 – by anyone. Utterly awesome.”
Williams driver George Russell, who joins Mercedes as Hamilton’s team-mate next year, said Hamilton was “an absolute beast” and he would be “watching that one back later”.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, who has witnessed 80 of Hamilton’s 101 grand prix victories from the inside, said he would “definitely rate that among the the best ever performances I have seen from him”.
And Hamilton himself, whose memory has a tendency to fade when asked to rank his performances over his 15-year F1 career, said: “This has been one of the best weekends – if not the best weekend – I have experienced in my whole career.”
In the course of one and a third race distances at Interlagos, over a ‘sprint’ qualifying event and then the grand prix itself, Hamilton made up 25 places lost to two different penalties, and passed his title rival despite typically robust – even controversial – defence from Max Verstappen to take a spectacular victory.
Yes, the Mercedes was the best car in Brazil over the weekend. Despite that, this will go down in the annals as one of Hamilton’s defining performances.
It may also turn out to be a critical race in the destiny of this year’s championship. It certainly made a significant difference as F1 heads into its climax in the Middle East for three races over the next four weekends.
If Verstappen had won at Interlagos, the Red Bull driver would have been able to finish second behind Hamilton at all the remaining races and still win the title. As a result of Hamilton’s win, there are just 14 points between them – less than a third-place finish – and it remains anyone’s to lose and win.
But that gripping showdown between the two best drivers and teams in F1 will take place in an atmosphere of bitterness and suspicion, as the tense relationship between Mercedes and Red Bull reached new lows in Brazil, on and off track.
Decision not to penalise Verstappen ‘laughable’
The defining moments of the race came on laps 48 and 59, in failed and then successful overtaking attempts by Hamilton at Turn Four.
The first was the controversial one, the one that Mercedes will follow up with the governing body the FIA in the quest for an explanation as to why it did not result in a penalty for Verstappen.
Hamilton had a run on his rival down the back straight and was half a car ahead as they turned into the the corner. Verstappen braked late on the inside, missed the apex and slid wide, his trajectory requiring Hamilton to take action to avoid a collision and resulting in both cars going wide into the run-off area.
Both teams were immediately on the radio to race director Michael Masi.
Red Bull saw it as an example of the “let-them-race” philosophy the FIA put in place a couple of years ago, but which they have generally not stuck to this year.
Mercedes saw it as Verstappen forcing Hamilton off the track, and thereby a breach of chapter four, article 2 b) of appendix L of the international sporting code.
This says: “Manoeuvres liable to hinder other drivers, such as deliberate crowding of a car beyond the edge of the track or any other abnormal change of direction, are strictly prohibited. Any driver who appears guilty of any of the above offences will be reported to the stewards.”
Officials first “noted” the incident, and then decided no investigation was necessary. Hamilton, upon being informed of this by race engineer Peter Bonnington while still in second place, said: “Of course, man. Of course,” his voice dripping with as much irony as it is possible to convey while driving at 200mph.
Later, Hamilton said: “I was ahead initially. He held his ground and we both ran out of road. Well, he was running out of road so I had to avoid [him and] run out of road. I didn’t think too much of it. It is hard battling and wouldn’t expect anything less, really.”
Verstappen said: “We both of course tried to be ahead into the corner so I braked a bit later to try to keep the position and the tyres were already a bit worn so I was already on the edge of grip.
“I was already not fully on the apex so then it’s a safer way of just running a bit wide there. So in a way I was of course happy that the stewards decided that we could just keep on racing because I think the racing in general was really good.”
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said: “It was two guys racing hard. There was no contact. They both ran wide. I thought the stewards made the right decision. It would have been hard to penalise. Two drivers fighting for a world championship. It was firm but fair racing.”
Wolff, though, his feelings influenced by a weekend in which he already felt Hamilton had received one unfair penalty, disagreed.
He described it as “really wrong defence from Max”, adding: “Lewis just managed it even more brilliantly by avoiding the contact and ending the race that way. But that was just over the line. It should have been a five-second penalty at least.
“Probably Max knew that. But just brushing it under the carpet; it’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s laughable.”
Wolff’s problem is not with the move itself, but with the response to it in the context of the way most teams understand acceptable racing.
“If the rules say that’s on, that’s fine,” Wolff said. “I am not discussing the principle of hard racing. Hard racing is super and should be on. But not when it has been clarified before that you can’t drive someone off the track.”
Thirteen laps later, Hamilton got the move done. This time, he was closer still through the first three corners. Again, he went for the outside as Verstappen defended the inside. This time, though, he was fully ahead while still on the straight, and was able to move to the inside to block Verstappen.
“I kind of dummied him into Turn One,” Hamilton said. “I got to be able to position the car correctly through One and Two and I already knew through Three I would have a far better slingshot past him. And I knew at that point I was ahead going into the braking zone.
“I just kept pushing. I had that one chance into Turn Four but couldn’t hold it. It didn’t work out. And then I had that experience and just made sure I didn’t make that mistake again.
“But I was determined to get back into that position. It was fun. This is what a world championship battle should look like.”
‘Diplomacy has ended today’
Hamilton’s move for the lead was the climactic moment of a dramatic and intense weekend for the seven-time champion.
It started with a five-place grid penalty for taking a fifth engine, as Mercedes manage a reliability concern with their power-unit. Already the weekend looked difficult.
Behind the scenes, Red Bull were pressing the FIA to investigate the Mercedes rear wing. And when it was tested after Hamilton took pole position on Friday by more than 0.4 seconds, it was found to be in contravention of the rules.
Not in the way Red Bull had believed, though. They had looked at Hamilton’s straight-line speed and thought something must be up for it to be so fast. They suspected the wing of flexing backwards on the straight above a certain speed – the same thing Mercedes had accused Red Bull of earlier in the season.
This is why Verstappen was fiddling with Hamilton’s rear wing after qualifying – for which he was fined 50,000 euros.
When officials were measuring Hamilton’s wing, they found that when the DRS overtaking aid was deployed the gap between the upper and lower elements was bigger than permitted in a small area at the outer edge on one side – by just 0.2mm. It took them 24 hours to make a decision, but Hamilton was thrown out of qualifying, so had to start the ‘sprint’ race from last place.
He fought back superbly to fifth in 24 laps, took the engine penalty for the grand prix, then climbed from 10th on the grid to win that.
“The weekend was definitely a roller-coaster ride for us,” Wolff said, “and that’s why it feels sweeter to win.”
Hamilton said he was “devastated” when he found about the disqualification, which came as a surprise to Mercedes, who felt they were not being treated fairly in the context of the normal protocols the FIA applies.
The verdict made it clear that the FIA believed there was no intention to cheat, that the test failure was a result of “something gone wrong rather than a deliberate action”.
Wolff argued that, in that case, Mercedes should be allowed to change the damaged part rather than be punished for it.
“We had a broken part on our rear wing which we couldn’t look at, couldn’t analyse, failed the test, and after got disqualified, very harsh,” he said. “And then you see on the Red Bull repairs three races in a row on a rear wing while being in parc ferme with no consequence.”
He went on to say that he was “losing faith in a way”, adding: “We have just had many punches in the face this weekend. When all the decisions swing against you, it is something I am just angry about.
“I have always been very diplomatic in how I discuss things, but diplomacy has ended today.”
‘I went in fighting, guns blazing’
Hamilton’s victory marked another swing of the pendulum of form this year. Verstappen had won the last two races, including a crushing performance in Mexico a week ago.
In qualifying, Hamilton’s pace advantage was significant. In the race, Mercedes felt the difference was largely in their car’s ability to keep its tyres in better condition than the Red Bull – the evidence being the lack of front grip Verstappen was suffering through the first three corners, which allowed Hamilton to get so close into Turn Four.
Verstappen’s conclusions chimed with that – although he said he believed the reason for that was related to Mercedes’ advantage on the straights.
“On a weekend like this,” Verstappen said, “where straight-line performance is very important and [tyre] deg is important, I had to get my lap time somewhere to try and match Lewis and that was in the middle sector, where the corners are mainly.
“I had to use my tyres a bit more and at one point I just ran out of tyres to try and defend.”
Verstappen believes Mercedes’ straight-line advantage will lessen as Hamilton’s engines use up life over the remaining races. But Red Bull are still not happy.
Mercedes expected them to lodge a protest after the race. In the end, Red Bull decided not to – and Horner decided not to speak to the written media, so there was not an opportunity to ask him why.
But Red Bull being Red Bull, they will likely continue to push their point, whether privately or publicly. And Mercedes, too, have their own issues with the FIA.
“This year’s been so difficult, really, for us,” Hamilton said. “After the [summer] break, we hoped we would be quick and we weren’t. We have not really had spectacular showings.
“We had had two races where we have been ahead, the others we struggled. And then coming here 19 points behind, we really needed a solid result but then we had all these penalties.
“Mentally, you could think it’s over, it’s impossible. But nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it. That’s why we cultivated a positive mental attitude and went in fighting, guns blazing.”
It won him this battle, in dazzling style. But the war is still to be won, and the fighting – on and off track – will be hard and brutal.