2003, 06, 07, 08, 12, 16 & now F1 2019: Interlagos Has Always Entertained

Max Verstappen entertains and pulls off a bold overtaking move on Lewis Hamilton in the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos
  • Max Verstappen, who claimed pole position on Saturday, drove like a man possessed to score his eighth career win on Sunday.
  • The last corner-to-finish line drag race between Gasly’s Honda-powered Toro Rosso and Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes was Motorsport at its classic best.
  • Leclerc-Vettel’s tangle opened up the possibility for the mid-field drivers to score points in the dying stages of the race while also using the late Safety Car period to get fresh rubber.

The Brazilian Grand Prix has seldom failed to entertain. In fact, most fans would remember the years in which the race at Interlagos stood out — 2003, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2016 and several others. The 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix, and specifically, the last 11 laps, will go down in history for several reasons.

First, this was Honda’s first one-two finish since their return to Formula 1. Max Verstappen, who claimed pole position on Saturday, drove like a man possessed to score his eighth career win on Sunday. It was his former teammate Pierre Gasly, who suffered an embarrassing demotion from Red Bull Racing to Toro Rosso, who joined him on the podium — his first-ever such finish.

The last corner-to-finish line drag race between Gasly’s Honda-powered Toro Rosso and Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes was Motorsport at its classic best. Almost no one would have imagined the Honda to out-drag the championship-winning Mercedes power unit.

Second, this was the first non-Ferrari and non-Mercedes podium since the start of the hybrid-turbo era in 2014. Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc collided whilst fighting for fourth and fifth position causing both Ferraris to retire. If not the win, a podium was in the offing for the team. Third, a post-race penalty for Lewis Hamilton meant that the six times Formula 1 World Champion was demoted from the podium offering a surprise promotion to Mclaren’s Carlos Sainz Jr. This was Sainz’s first career podium in Formula 1 and Mclaren’s first since 2014 and 118 races!

Unfortunately for Mclaren-Sainz, the FIA’s long list of post-race penalties meant that it was Hamilton who visited the podium and not Sainz. However, from being forced to sit out of qualifying due to power unit issues to racing away to the podium with a one-stopper is exactly the sort of recovery and motivation Mclaren need as they rebuild. It also seems karmic that Mclaren and Honda, who struggled together from 2015-17, achieved their best result of this era at the same race. Likewise, for Sainz and Gasly, the two drivers who Red Bull Racing ignored in favour of Verstappen, scored their first career podiums together. Since the inception of the Driver of the Day award, it was the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix that offered the toughest choices. A jubilant Sainz said after the race, “To finish third coming all the way from the back of the grid was a big challenge, but we fought until the end with everything we had. It was a very eventful race and I think I was the only car to do a one-stop strategy.”

Red Bull-Verstappen Resurrection

The Red Bull-Honda package and Max Verstappen failed to build on their early-season potential after the summer break. The lack of results could be blamed on the package as well as driver errors. In Brazil, Red Bull-Verstappen pair was the quickest in qualifying and race trim. In fact, it was a delight to see Honda power leading the grid comfortably. Verstappen led from the start but was undercut by Hamilton in the first round of pit-stops. Apart from Hamilton’s quick out-lap, it was also Kubica’s unexpected release in Verstappen’s path in the pits that cost the Red Bull racer the lead. However, Verstappen wasted no time in overtaking Hamilton to retake the lead. The 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix was yet another Max Verstappen masterclass!

Verstappen and Hamilton committed to a two-stop strategy by taking on the soft compound in their first round of pit-stops. On the other hand, Ferrari went a handful of laps longer with Vettel and switched him to the medium tyre giving an early indication that they were attempting to stop just once. In both cases, the top three drivers kept their strategies open for change in case of a Safety Car period — one that has occurred in 57 percent of the races held since 2007.

In the second round of pit-stops, a slow stop for Hamilton and sub-2 second pit-stop from the Red Bull Racing crew meant that status-quo was maintained for the leading duo — Verstappen ahead of Hamilton. However, Vettel was the new race leader. But he soon gave up the chance to one-stop and pitted for the soft tyre 20 laps before the end.

A Rare Mercedes Retirement

Valtteri Bottas’ Mercedes brought out the first Safety Car period — one that saw Verstappen dive into the pits for a set of softs. Mercedes radioed Hamilton, who was in second place, to do the opposite of Verstappen, a decision that gave Hamilton track position, but cost him fresh rubber to fight Verstappen who was expected to charge at him for the lead yet again. “We’re going to be a sitting duck, Bono,” radioed Hamilton to his race engineer Pete Bonnington. At the restart, Verstappen made the most of his tyre advantage to overtake Hamilton for the lead and build a gap at the front.

Alexander Albon, who received a confirmation of his duties for Red Bull Racing for 2020 this weekend, pulled off a daring overtake on Vettel’s Ferrari, with Leclerc now up to fifth. Leclerc started his race from 14th place after a 10-place grid penalty for an unscheduled power unit change. The Monegasque drove an aggressive opening stint pulling off entertaining moves on Lando Norris, Daniel Ricciardo and the other midfield drivers. After a switch to softs under the Safety Car, Leclerc was chasing Vettel for fourth with fresher tyres. It was on lap 65 when the unthinkable happened — both Ferraris collided while racing each other in a straight line!

Vettel’s Lack Of Judgement Returns?

In their post-race assessment, the FIA penalised neither driver. Instead, they declared that both drivers could have avoided the collision. Ferrari’s Mattia Binotto chose a similar line of answering in his post-race media briefing. However, in the immediate aftermath of the crash, it was Vettel who it was easiest to point one’s finger to and pin blame for the crash. The quadruple World Champion added one more to his ever-increasing list of questionable on-track moves, this one reminding one of his coming together with his then Red Bull Racing teammate Mark Webber in Turkey in 2010.

The golden rule of Motorsport is to not crash into your teammate. But history has shown that time and again, teammates defy the obvious logic behind this rule. We saw the Mercedes drivers (Rosberg-Hamilton) come together in Spain in 2016 and the Force India duo of Perez-Ocon several times in the seasons they were partners. In the case of Ferrari in 2019, Leclerc-Vettel have steered clear of an actual collision till the race in Brazil but have pushed boundaries to establish their supremacy over the other in the team.

What Should Ferrari Do?

Ferrari, who were fair in not issuing team orders in Brazil, might rethink their strategy in the time to come — a strategy that would put the best interests of the team ahead of everyone else. Luckily for the Ferrari, this collision happened at a time when there are no Championship pressures on the team. While one could term this as a ‘low-risk collision’, such moments don’t bear well for Ferrari’s title challenge in 2020, if there will actually be one.

Force India banned their drivers from racing each other. However, a similar strategy could be detrimental to their driver’s ambitions for 2020 despite the apparent benefit to the team. In Brazil, Vettel seemed to be in the wrong, but did Leclerc push him to the absolute edge of the circuit before Vettel decided to set his ‘junior’ teammate straight by dragging him back to the left? Vettel’s act could also have been a psychological reaction to being out-paced and out-driven by Leclerc at several races this season. Is the former World Champion unable to face the heat from a 20-something and relatively inexperienced teammate?

“I didn’t have much space on the right. It’s a shame for the team we didn’t finish the race and that takes priority,” said Vettel. In his defence, Leclerc said, “From my side, I overtook on turn one and then in turn three I had to close (the gap) because I was aware Sebastian would try again. He did, he went around the outside, where there was little space but I did leave him some.”

Binotto explained Ferrari’s stance, “(They were) free to fight, but they know that silly mistakes are something we should avoid for the team itself,” he said.

The Benefactors

Leclerc-Vettel’s tangle opened up the possibility for the mid-field drivers to score points in the dying stages of the race while also using the late Safety Car period to get fresh rubber. Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi scored the team’s best result of the season with a fourth and fifth-place finish while Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo finished sixth. Hamilton, who battled with Verstappen all race long for the lead and pulled off a sublime overtake on Vettel at the start of the race, was the victim of a bad strategy call by Mercedes. In the Ferrari-triggered Safety Car period, Mercedes pitted Hamilton for fresh rubber — a move that dropped him to fouth place and offered only four laps to recover.

In an aggressive attempt to get back onto the podium, Hamilton erred while overtaking Albon, a mistake that added five seconds to his race time demoting him from third to seventh. In his first race as a six-time World Champion, Hamilton seemed edgy, constantly radioing his team of the several issues that bothered him throughout the race including the slow pace of the Safety Car. The bigger loser of this tangle was Albon, who narrowly missed out on his first-ever Formula 1 podium and Red Bull Racing-Honda’s first one-two ever! Albon’s loss was Gasly’s gain as the Toro Rosso racer held onto pressure from an attacking Hamilton to finish 2nd place.

After his surprise second-place finish, Gasly said, “This is my first podium, for sure I’ll never forget it. Toro Rosso gave me a fantastic car. I’m so happy, it’s an amazing day! I never imagined this would happen. Fighting Lewis on the line, it was just incredible.”

The ever-smiling Albon said, “Of course I’m frustrated but I’m not angry, I’m just upset. I wanted that podium and we deserved it as it was on merit. I had a good gap to Lewis and I wasn’t worrying about him. I went into the corner deep just to cover him so he didn’t get any ideas, and then there’s a blind spot and obviously we made contact.”

Lando Norris finished eighth, followed by Racing Point’s Sergio Perez in ninth and Daniil Kvyat scoring the last point for Toro Rosso in tenth. The chaotic race saw seven out of the 10 teams score points — Haas and Williams joining Ferrari in the list of non-scorers. Unless Mclaren score a podium with Norris in the last race in Abu Dhabi, Toro Rosso will be the only mid-field team to score two podiums in 2019 — one with each driver. The result in Brazil sees Toro Rosso 16 points clear of Racing Point in sixth place in the Constructors’ Championship while only eight points adrift of Renault in fifth. There’s a fair bit to play for at the season finale in Abu Dhabi in a fortnight’s time.

This post was first published on Firstpost.

Kunal Shah is an FIA-accredited Formula 1 journalist who has been reporting on Formula 1 for nearly two decades. He worked with the Force India Formula 1 Team for 6 seasons in Marketing, Sponsorship and Commercial roles. As a former single-seater racer, he was responsible for Force India's grassroots talent program, One from a Billion Hunt. Presently, he co-writes a regular Formula 1 column for Firstpost, speaks on Inside Line F1 Podcast & Pits to Podium and produces broadcast/OTT content for NENT Group (Viasport & Viaplay).

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