Max Verstappen seethes after an incident with a backmarker sees Lewis Hamilton sail through for his 10th win of the year at Interlagos.
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One title won, another left to secure – that was Mercedes’ mindset as the teams set up in Brazil for the penultimate round of 2018, Lewis Hamilton having sealed the drivers’ crown at the last race in Mexico. The equation for the Silver Arrows was a simple one – outscore Ferrari by 13 points at Interlagos, and a fifth straight double (every year of the V6 turbo hybrid era from 2014 onwards) would be theirs, a run of success matched only by the all-conquering Ferrari/Michael Schumacher axis that dominated the sport in a similar fashion from 2000-04.
The main protagonists for each team, Hamilton for Mercedes and Sebastian Vettel for Ferrari, locked out the front row in a tense qualifying session where a forecast deluge never quite happened, but both drivers could be considered fortunate to escape penalties after incidents on Saturday. Hamilton got in the way, inadvertently, of Sergey Sirotkin’s Williams and Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari in the session but escaped sanction, while Vettel received a reprimand and a 25,000 Euro fine for a bizarre incident in Q2, where he was called to the weighbridge during the 15-minute session.
The German ran over a cone denoting the weighbridge area, ignored instructions from the stewards, didn’t switch off his engine as required and then drove off the weighbridge under his own power when the process was complete, eager to get back on track before conditions potentially worsened. The weighbridge scales were left damaged after he took off.
Hamilton’s Q3 lap of 1min 07.281secs was his 10th pole of the season and more than a second faster than teammate Valtteri Bottas’ pole at the same track a year ago, and the Briton was the only driver in the top three teams to improve on his best lap as the chequered flag fell. At a short circuit where the margins are tiny, it was crucial – he was 0.093secs ahead of Vettel.
Bottas and Raikkonen rode shotgun to their faster teammates on the second row, and while the Red Bull Racing duo of Max Verstappen (fifth) and Daniel Ricciardo (sixth) were separated by just 0.002secs, Ricciardo would start back on row six, coming into the weekend with a five-place grid penalty for a new turbo after his was damaged by fire-retardant foam when his engine expired at the previous race in Mexico. “I got a phone call last week notifying me of what happened,” he said. “I’d kind of got over it (the retirement) that week and then I got that call …”.
Behind Ricciardo in qualifying but ahead of him on the grid was Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson, who qualified a career-best seventh in his penultimate race with the team, while arguably the lap of qualifying was driven by the Swede’s teammate Charles Leclerc, who brilliantly leapt inside the top 10 as the rain increased at the end of Q2.
Ricciardo wasn’t the only driven to be slapped with a penalty – Force India’s Esteban Ocon, who qualified 13th, was down in 18th on the grid after a five-place gearbox replacement sanction – while McLaren was the only team to have both cars ousted in Q1, Fernando Alonso (18th) out-qualifying Stoffel Vandoorne (20th and last) for the 20th time in 20 races this season. On the six-year anniversary of McLaren’s most recent win (Jenson Button in Brazil in 2012), it was a stark reminder of how far the former front-runners have fallen.
For the race, the primary intrigue was with Ferrari, with its engine devastatingly fast on the straights (five of the six Ferrari-powered cars made the top 10 in qualifying), and with Vettel and Raikkonen set to start the race on the soft tyre, which would offer greater durability than the supersofts used by Mercedes and Red Bull. If Vettel could get ahead of Hamilton on the short run to the first corner, the race could turn into a strategic arm-wrestle over 71 laps.
The race in exactly 69 words*
Hamilton won his 10th GP of 2018 after race-leader Verstappen, who had passed him on lap 40, was involved in an incident with Ocon at Turn 2 four laps later as the Force India driver looked to unlap himself from 15th place. Verstappen spun and lost the lead, and Hamilton won by 1.469secs. Raikkonen just held off Ricciardo for the final podium place, while Mercedes sealed the constructors’ championship.
(* 2018 is the 69th season of Formula One)
Ricciardo made it to the finish, a success in itself given he hadn’t seen the chequered flag since Japan last month when he started from 15th after his car broke down in qualifying, and Sunday was just his fourth finish in the past eight races. So while he was disappointed to be just four-tenths of a second behind Raikkonen for the final podium place, it was a good result at a circuit that has comfortably been his least successful of those tracks on the calendar for his entire career; before Sunday, he’d managed just 13 points in seven starts, a sixth place last year his previous best return.
Starting 11th, the Australian’s aim was to be up with the front five on the grid as soon as possible, and he stormed through to sixth after just five laps. From there, Ricciardo bided his time on the supersoft tyres he set his qualifying lap on, looking to run as long as possible in his first stint to he could make just one pit stop, and exchange those supersofts for soft Pirellis for the final run to the flag. He led for four laps as others pitted (leading for the first time since Singapore in September) before stopping on lap 40, and quickly overtook Vettel before setting off after Bottas for fourth. He finally cleared the Finn with a robust pass of the Mercedes at Turn 1 with 11 laps to go, but despite hounding Raikkonen to the flag, couldn’t add to his only two podiums this year, long-ago wins in China and Monaco.
“I caught Kimi and could see the podium, but unfortunately it just wasn’t quite enough,” he said.
“It’s frustrating because every time we have a penalty we seem to have a fast car, if we started closer to the front I’m confident we could have had a really good result. If we had started where I qualified we could have done better, you can’t ask for much starting from 11th.
“I had fun and some great battles, especially my pass on Bottas. I told the team on the radio I was going for it and I made it stick. The battle with Seb was cool, I think we maybe touched once or twice, but I’ve always respected him and the way he races. We’ve had some on-track battles before, at times it gets slightly heated, but I believe we know where each other’s limits are.”
What the result means
Hamilton winning for the 10th time this year was a huge achievement, while Mercedes taking its fifth straight constructors’ crown is (almost) historically unprecedented. But all everyone wanted to talk about after the race was the Ocon-Verstappen clash, which continued from the track to the post-race weigh in …
For sake of context: how did we get to the point where they collided on track on lap 44? Verstappen made a brilliant start from fifth on the grid, and after he ambushed Bottas at Turn 1 on lap 10, starting hacking into Hamilton’s lead. Hamilton pitted for medium-compound tyres on lap 19, and Verstappen was relentless after he inherited P1, emerging right in Hamilton’s wheeltracks after he pitted on lap 36, and breezing by four laps later.
It looked almost certain that the Dutchman would take back-to-back wins after victory in Mexico a fortnight ago, but Ocon, who had pitted on lap 40 and was lapped in 15th place after being shuffled down to 19th on lap one, was in no mood to hang around as he strived to make the best of his new tyres to climb back into the top 10.
After the race, the Red Bull driver didn’t hold back with his words after making his displeasure with Ocon obvious with his actions. For the record, Ocon was given a 10-second stop-go penalty from the stewards for causing the collision.
“We had a great car. Then, by such an idiot, to get taken out while he is being lapped. I have no words,” Verstappen said, adding that Ocon “was being a pussy” after their post-race shoving match.
“I think a penalty says enough. If the stewards give him a penalty, you know who was wrong in that situation.
“You can easily say afterwards that I have much more to lose than him, but I’m just trying to do my race.
“Suddenly a backmarker is trying to race you and taking a stupid risk to dive inside. What can I do about it?
“The penalty for me is that I lost the victory, but hopefully in 15 years’ time we can laugh about it.”
Ocon’s view? “What I am really surprised about is the behaviour of Max coming into the scales,” he said.
“The FIA having to stop him from being violent, pushing me and wanted me to punch me – and that is not professional.”
Asked by a TV crew if he planned to speak to his former F3 rival, Ocon said: “I am used to the fights with Max, it has been the same, it goes back a few years. So, no.
“I had fresh tyres basically and the rules say you are allowed to unlap yourself if you are faster, and that is what I did on the second lap because I had massive pace.”
Hamilton, who nursed a car battling significant tyre wear and engine issues home after being gifted the lead, took a longer lens to describe what had unfolded in front of him.
“I saw it happen, it wasn’t something that … I wasn’t surprised by it,” he said.
“I saw them racing but they were not racing for the same position. I would have been in a different frame of mind.
“Fortunately he was able to keep going, no-one got hurt and it was a racing incident, I guess.
“Max is that go-getter guy, and every now and again it bites you.”
For historical purposes …
Sunday’s win for Hamilton was the first time the five-time world champion had taken victory in a Grand Prix in the same year after securing the title.
The number to know
7: Bottas set the fastest lap of the race (for the record, a 1:10.540 on lap 65 of 71) for the seventh time this year … and is still searching for his first race win of 2018 while teammate Hamilton has won half of this year’s 20 Grands Prix.
Raikkonen took his 12th podium of the season to edge away from Bottas in third place in the drivers’ standings with one race left; he has a 14-point lead over his compatriot heading to Abu Dhabi and the season finale. As Hamilton celebrated on the podium and Verstappen didn’t stick around after receiving his second-place penalty, Kimi was being, well, Kimi …
Who else won at Interlagos? Ricciardo, for finishing (it’s all about small steps), Leclerc with an outstanding seventh that saw him seven seconds clear of the other midfield runners to be a clear best of the rest, and Haas, which had Romain Grosjean (eighth) and teammate Kevin Magnussen (ninth) in the points on a day when Renault (Nico Hulkenberg DNF with a radiator issue, Carlos Sainz 12th) couldn’t score any.
Those who lost out
Second when you looked set to win lands Verstappen in this category, while Ocon landed in the naughty corner for his penalty. Bottas (fifth) and Vettel (sixth) end up here too after both started inside the top three, with the German completely overshadowed by teammate Raikkonen after Ferrari entered the race seemingly in the box seat. Pierre Gasly, who started inside the top 10 but finished 13th after a fraught late-race battle with Toro Rosso teammate Brendon Hartley. And Ericsson, whose day went from bad to worse after his Sauber started shedding bits of bodywork on the way to the grid; from sixth, he fell progressively backwards, spun on lap 21 and dropped to the back, and retired soon after.
Twenty down, one to go – the last GP of the season comes in Abu Dhabi in a fortnight’s time, which will double as the final race for Ricciardo, Leclerc, Sainz, Gasly and Raikkonen at their current teams, and the F1 finale for Alonso, Ericsson and Vandoorne before they move to pastures new.