GRR

Five talking points from a sizzling Sao Paulo GP

15th November 2021
Damien Smith

“It feels like the first,” said a buzzing Lewis Hamilton following a drive to his 101st Formula 1 victory that is up there with his very best. Just when it looked like he was staring down the barrel, in the wake of sobering defeat in Mexico and a double grid penalty that amounted to 25 places at the Sao Paulo Grand Prix, the seven-time world champion pulled out this: a platinum-edged performance that reminded the world, not to mention Max Verstappen and Red Bull, just how special he is. Three rounds to go in the Middle East – and this incredible world championship fight is still very much alive and kicking.

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It’s just like Formula 3…

Hamilton said he couldn’t remember a weekend where he had faced such adversity – or at least not in F1. As his dad reminded him, there were throwback parallels all the way back to his Formula 3 days and the Bahrain Super Prix held at what was then a new circuit in the desert, in December 2004. That weekend Hamilton qualified just 22nd out of 31 after an accident, climbed to 11th in the qualification race, then beat Nico Rosberg and Jamie Green in the main race to score a remarkable victory for Manor Motorsport to end a difficult and frustrating first season in F3 on a significant high.

The big victory had come at a difficult time in his career, when he and his father Anthony had fallen out with McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh, who had torn up their contract over a disagreement about what Lewis should do in 2005. The Hamiltons wanted to step up to GP2, but Whitmarsh wanted Lewis to remain in F3 and complete unfinished business in the category. After glory against the odds in Bahrain, the Hamiltons eventually returned to McLaren, deferred to Whitmarsh’s wishes and committed to a sophomore season in the F3 Euroseries, this time with Fred Vasseur’s ART Grand Prix team. It had been a sliding doors moment: instead of fighting on without the support of an F1 giant, Lewis dominated the 2005 F3 Euroseries, stayed with ART for graduation to GP2, won the title at the first time of asking in 2006 and progressed straight into a potentially title-winning F1 McLaren in 2007.

In that context, the Bahrain Super Prix had been a true moment of adversity ovecome – and it’s such experiences that give Hamilton the core of steel in his character that he drew upon and made the most of so beautifully at Interlagos last weekend. Psychologically, it sometimes seems nothing can beat him these days.

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Hamilton’s race – at the third time of asking

He’d stolen the limelight in the Saturday ‘Sprint’, storming from a controversial relegation to the back of the grid after the Drag Reduction System gap in his rear wing was found to be minutely too large. Fifth from the back in just 24 laps, thanks to pass after pass, the best of which was a stunning move on Lando Norris into Turn 1. This had been pure Hamilton at his very best, as team-mate Valtteri Bottas used the soft Pirelli tyre to beat Verstappen off the line and secure pole position for the grand prix itself.

But Lewis knew he faced more adversity on Sunday, thanks to the five-place grid drop he’d take for requiring another change of his internal combustion engine. So he started 10th. Martin Brundle said he could still win from there after the Sprint performance – and he was spot on. The start was a peach and by lap five Hamilton was already up to third, chasing the Red Bulls down. He made quick work of Sergio Pérez and now we prepared for another tense Hamilton versus Verstappen classic.

After the second stops, the gap from Lewis to Max was 2.6 seconds and the black Mercedes chipped away to close to within DRS range. It was lap 48 when Hamilton had his first shot at the lead, drawing alongside into Turn 4 – only to find himself run out wide by Verstappen on the exit. The stewards ruled no penalty, to the natural dismay of Mercedes and to a general sense of surprise among most onlookers. Max was lucky to get away with that one.

Ten laps later Hamilton had worked his way into position for another crack – and this time Verstappen weaved from side to side on the run to Turn 4, which was Hamilton’s best hope of making a move rather than the long drag from Juncao to the start/finish. Max received a black and white warning flag this time – but by then Hamilton was already through, in the lead and disappearing up the road. The following lap he’d got another run and this time, darting around the outside line, the Red Bull had no answer. It had taken three attempts, and briefly we wondered whether this would end in tears as it had at Silverstone and Monza. But in the end Mercedes’ phenomenal straight-line speed, a fine balance on the brakes and Hamilton at the very top of his game made all the difference.

A post-race scare then followed when the stewards summoned Mercedes’ team manager Ron Meadows for Hamilton undoing his seat belts during his joyous celebrations after the flag, in front of a Brazilian crowd that appears to have adopted Lewis as one of their own. A fine of €5,000, with a further €20,000 suspended until the end of 2022 was the right call – and a chunk less that the €50,000 Verstappen copped for handling Merc’s rear wing in parc ferme after the ‘Sprint’. Red Bull continues to insinuate the Mercedes’ straight-line speed is questionable, but as yet has held back from lodging a protest. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time before this increasingly ill-tempered feud properly explodes.

Mercedes heads Red Bull by 11 points in the constructors’ standings, and between the two drivers the gap is down to 14, as Sergio Peréz claimed a vital fastest lap to snatch one back from Hamilton. All bets are off on how it will all play out.

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Bottas claimed Merc threw away 1-2

Valtteri Bottas might have lost the lead to Verstappen at the start and second place to Perez by running wide at Turn 4 on a poor first lap, but the Finn saved some face and recovered to finish third after a well-timed Virtual Safety Car allowed him to jump ‘Checo’ with his second pitstop. Bottas claimed the team threw away a 1-2 by echoing Red Bull on strategy – but it seems somewhat unlikely on such a scorching day that a one-stopper would have worked. The black cars might have gained track position, but on a circuit where drivers can actually race and overtake it seems highly unlikely they could have fended off the Red Bulls on well-worn rubber. It seemed an odd claim for Bottas to make as he counts down the races before his move in 2022 to Alfa Romeo.

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Ferrari stretch away from McLaren

The battle for third in the constructors’ standings is losing some of its puff as once again Ferrari showed a clean pair of heels as best of the rest. Behind Perez, Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr. finished fifth and sixth just as they had in Mexico, while closest challenger McLaren lost further ground as its form continues to dip just at the wrong time.

Lando Norris was unlucky at the start to pick up a puncture following contact with a slow-starting Sainz. He faced a long afternoon from there, and at least recovered to score a single point in 10th as team-mate Daniel Ricciardo was forced to pit into retirement, ending a long run of race finishes. The gap between Ferrari and McLaren has now stretched to 31.5 points and it’s starting to look insurmountable for the Woking team, which is deflating after Ricciardo’s Monza victory and a season that had been bursting with such promise.

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Alpine and AlphaTauri neck and neck for fifth

Pierre Gasly battled past Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso for seventh, in a fight that had greater significance to their teams than it did for the individual drivers. Alpine and AlphaTauri are currently tied on 112 points and will be scrapping for fifth – and the extra millions of dollars that will come with it – as F1 heads for its season-ending Middle Eastern triple header. Next stop, Qatar and a new grand prix venue – and we only have to wait until next weekend in the most breathless F1 season witnessed for years.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • Formula 1

  • F1 2021

  • 2021

  • Lewis Hamilton

  • Max Verstappen

  • Charles Leclerc

  • Carlos Sainz

  • Sergio Perez

  • Valtteri Bottas

  • Mercedes

  • Red Bull

  • Pierre Gasly

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