2016 Brazilian Grand Prix

by Mark Hughes on 14th November 2016

Lewis Hamilton calmly dominates in the Interlagos rain, Max Verstappen stars and Nico Rosberg edges closer to the title

Ooh, this was raw, gladiatorial stuff, an old-school high-risk track and hard rain. Combined with wet tyres that had no grip and inters that couldn’t clear the water through the high-risk final part of the lap, cars were flying off the track, phenomenal avoidances spearing either side of their violent trajectories. The safety cars (five of them) and red flags (two of them) had the effect of keeping the tyres cold and hard in their hazardous phase. So the accidents fed on themselves.

It took time to properly get going – five racing laps from the first 20 – but when the cars did finally run long enough to heat up the rubber, a fantastic race unfolded. Lewis Hamilton won it, always in control, but the star of it was Max Verstappen with a quite sensational drive to third. Adventure and jeopardy interspersed with how the changing intensity of rain kept the track on the cusp between inters and wets. Red Bull threw the dice for him, attempting to get the jump on the two Mercs by switching to inters, but it never quite fell right for them. All that fell was the continuing rain – leaving Max to surrender the inters gamble, giving him just 15 laps to charge his way from 14th to third, inventing some of the most outrageous passing places Interlagos has ever seen along the way. His moves, so incisive and inventive, came so quick they barely cost him any time to those further ahead – thus bringing everyone but Hamilton and Rosberg into his voracious reach before the end.

You would not have wanted to have been race director on this day. Rain and Interlagos invariably mean big accidents at the top of the hill. Kimi Räikkönen had his soon after one of the many restarts, tank-slapping the Ferrari into the wall at terrifying speed, rebounding across to the pit wall with the field bearing down upon him. Verstappen was having a near-repeat of Kimi’s accident just a few metres behind but caught it, he and Hülkenberg just avoiding the spinning Ferrari, though Hulk hit a solid piece of its front wing which mercifully didn’t vault the fence. In the appalling visibility Esteban Ocon then almost didn’t see the stationary wreckage in which Räikkönen sat and came very close to having a head-on collision at 200mph.

At the root of the near-catastrophe – and making the race director’s job so extremely difficult – was the poor performance of the Pirelli extreme weather tyre. Despite its deep grooves it’s still extremely prone to aquaplaning and generally offers very little grip. Sebastian Vettel refers to it as ‘the safety car tyre’, saying it isn’t suitable for anything else. Rosberg described its traits: “It’s just extremely unpredictable. You go over standing water with it and you just don’t know what’s going to happen. I know they are working on it, trying to improve it and I hope they can. It would be better for the racing too, because you wouldn’t need to keep red-flagging races such as this.”

In addition to Räikkönen others had essentially the same accident: Romain Grosjean, Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Massa all fell victim to the combination of an inadequate tyre, deep water and vast torque, wheels spooling up in an instant, inside the car just the eternity of the savage silence before the inevitable thwack. This wasn’t drivers running out of skill, but just plain dumb random luck.

Kimi’s aquaplaning accident – on the extremes – brought out the first red flag. The reason for the second, just eight laps later, was not immediately obvious. But there was a very valid reason. With the delays that had already happened there was a serious chance the race was going to time out at two hours rather than go the full 71 laps. So with the clock counting down, the weather not improving, a wet weather tyre all-too-ready to aquaplane and the forecast of a 20-minute blast of heavier rain, Charlie Whiting preferred to freeze the countdown by red-flagging the race, waiting for the heavier rain to pass – so giving more of the available remaining time over to a track in hopefully better condition. Otherwise there was a chance the race would time-out after very little actual racing just when the track was perfect – and that would’ve left the event open to ridicule. This way it improved the chances of at least getting to the 75% distance (53 laps) required for full points. In the event it ran to the full distance, Hamilton got his full points and now heads to the final round 12 behind Rosberg, whose 18 points here were garnered with quiet, calm, risk-averse purpose.

Qualifying

The underlying tension of the title fight came up a notch or two as the skies darkened as 2pm approached. Was the weather about to randomise the prospects of Rosberg and Hamilton so early into the weekend? The two Mercs headed the queue of cars waiting to get straight out in Q1, just in case this was as fast as the track was ever going to be.

As it happened, the rain held off and a very familiar 60 minutes played out, Hamilton always with a small but significant upper hand, Rosberg chipping away, getting closer all the time, always quicker in the flow of sector one, consistently down slightly more in the slow twists of sector two, and ultimately just falling short. Hamilton’s 60th career pole, Mercedes setting a new record of 19 poles in a season.

Rosberg felt some understeer and iffy traction through that middle sector and it seemed a general pattern throughout the field that if you took everything from the soft tyres through the Senna Esses, the long turn three and into turn four, they hadn’t fully recovered by the time you arrived at those tight infield turns. Hamilton eventually prevailed by the margin of one-tenth of a second.

The Ferrari and Red Bull were around half-a-second adrift of the Merc over a single qualifying lap but were very closely matched with each other, albeit achieved in very different ways. The Ferrari’s power advantage was decisive in sectors one and three but it dropped 0.3s to the Red Bull through the infield. Which worked better was everything about the quality of the driver’s lap, and Räikkönen pulled a late one out of the bag that clinched him third on the grid – much to his surprise – ahead of Verstappen, with the third row a repeat pattern: Sebastian Vettel ahead of Daniel Ricciardo.

“I struggled the whole qualifying in a few places in the middle sector,” said Räikkönen. “To be honest, the last lap was pretty average from my viewpoint. Also I struggled the first two corners with the tyre warm-up a bit. Even in the middle I wasn’t really happy but I don’t mind, it was good enough for this. I think we’re lacking a bit of downforce – but the car’s been behaving pretty good and it’s just been struggling on the tight corners – to turn around the car because with a bit of front-locking it’s been a bit guessing whether we can turn or not.”

Up until Räikkönen’s final Q3 lap, Verstappen had consistently looked best of the rest after Mercedes. But he just didn’t put the final lap together quite as well as he might have wished. Tyre preparation again seemed to be the key. “On that last set of tyres, I just wasn’t very happy with the grip. We need to look into this as the rear felt slick in sector two.”

Neither Vettel nor Ricciardo were satisfied with their laps. “I think third was possible,” rued Vettel, “but I was probably a bit conservative around the last corner. The car was behaving well, but maybe in the end I could have pulled out a little bit more out of it.”

Ricciardo admitted he never really gels with this circuit and that he under-committed at turn eight on his crucial final Q3 lap. “I had a good first sector and was anxious not to spoil the lap by locking up in sector two but was probably a little bit conservative, a couple of corners where I was trying to not make a mistake more than trying to gain some time.”

Romain Grosjean’s Haas looked a misbehaving handful all weekend, unstable under braking, snap oversteer early into the turns, iffy power delivery. Yet somehow he grabbed it by the scruff of its neck to get it into Q3 and proceeded there to set the seventh-fastest time – as high as the car has ever qualified but massively flattering of it. There was no way, for example, it should have been ahead of the Force Indias and Williams. Grosjean was positive about the effects of the new Carbone brakes that were tried on his car in place of the usual Brembos. “The feeling was better immediately,” he reported. Braking into the turns is a big part of where he gets his lap time and it’s been negated by how prone to locking the car has been on the Brembos. “But also the cool conditions helped us with the tyres today.” In the 50-deg track temperatures of Friday, the car had been nowhere. 

Nico Hülkenberg and Sergio Pérez – separated by half-a-tenth – put Force India eighth and ninth fastest, ahead of Fernando Alonso’s McLaren-Honda which was well-suited to the twists of the middle sector, Fernando then marshalling his tyre grip very smartly through the lap to edge Williams out of Q3.

This was a very disappointing outcome for the Williams team, Valtteri Bottas 11th, a tenth and two places ahead of Felipe Massa in his final home Grand Prix. The FW38 had been flying in the hot conditions of Friday but the cool of Saturday brought with it tyre difficulties. “The car didn’t work in the proper way and the front tyres stopped working,” explained Massa. “I was suffering from understeer and my best lap of Q2 ended up being my first one.”

Esteban Gutiérrez – confirmed as being out of Haas for next year – was 12th fastest in Q2, staying with the Brembo brakes, his less aggressive braking not bringing out the problems previously suffered by Grosjean.

The Toro Rossos were decisively out-powered at what is quite a power-sensitive track, leaving Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz 14th and 15th respectively, The STRs generally had a couple of tenths advantage over the Renaults and only Jolyon Palmer made it through to Q2 for the Enstone squad, Kevin Magnussen a couple of tenths slower and in 18th, just behind the McLaren of Jenson Button who had a disastrous gripless qualifying, unable to generate the tyre temperatures. He’d been quick in the higher track temperatures of Friday.

Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon had a squabble with each other over track space in their Manors on the way to 19th and 20th, separated by neatly nothing. Ocon was penalised three places for blocking Palmer. The Saubers were slowest of all – Felipe Nasr from Marcus Ericsson, the latter having lost valuable running in P3 because of an engine change.

Race

Rain, plenty of it. It had been falling steady and consistent all day, covering the track in puddles and standing water by 2pm, showing no sign of easing off. The start was delayed for 10 minutes as a particularly heavy cloud passed over. Romain Grosjean pointed the way the afternoon was going to go when on a reconnaissance lap to the grid he lost control of the Haas, getting on the standing water at the top of the hill and taking a brutal shortcut to the barriers. Scratch one starter.

Race director Charlie Whiting had initially been all for a standing start, but the water was now just too deep and the Grosjean accident confirmed it: a safety car start. And for seven laps they trailed behind it in grid order. How long should it stay out? On the one hand, visibility was awful, but on the other even the AMG Mercedes GT wasn’t fast enough to allow the F1 cars to generate adequate heat into their tyres – and so maybe the best way of clearing a line was to start racing.

As the race proper got underway, Hamilton eased out a nice gap over Rosberg. Behind them, Verstappen had been stalking Räikkönen even when behind the safety car, trying out different lines, finding the grip – and as soon as he was let off the leash, he went out wide through Juncao at the bottom of the hill, finding better traction there, giving him the momentum on the Ferrari all the way up the hill and onto the pit straight, 200mph balls of spray, the blue and yellow emerging from the gloom part-way down and slicing down Räikkönen’s inside into the Senna Esses. Vettel now took up station close behind his team-mate and ahead of Ricciardo, Hülkenberg, Alonso, Pérez, Bottas, Massa, Kvyat, Sainz, Palmer and Button. Then Nasr, who had quickly passed team-mate Ericsson and the Manor of Wehrlein.  

Magnussen had pitted immediately, Renault gambling on inters, and McLaren followed suit with Button the following lap. They were so far back there was little risk. A few other mid-lower-placed runners tried it subsequently – Alonso, Bottas, Massa, Kvyat, Palmer and Ericsson. It didn’t really work. Although the tyre was comparably quick to the full-wet pretty much immediately (and probably slightly quicker after a couple of laps) it was also even more treacherous through the still very wet uphill section. So they’d make up a little time, then lose it all after a couple of laps with a big aquaplaning moment.  

Behind the spray, heading into the foggy abyss blind at 200mph, a blinking red light occasionally visible ahead. Try for the move, ducking one side or the other, trusting the other guy hasn’t moved the same way at the same time. Trust, judgement and nerve; every driver out there showed plenty of all those qualities in this race where the raw essence of the sport was for once very visible. 

Verstappen had initially closed on Rosberg but the Mercedes driver responded to stay just out of reach – though was already three seconds behind Hamilton after four laps of racing, Lewis the only one with a clear view, of course. On the 10th lap Vettel got out of shape putting the power down up the hill and before he knew it was spinning 360-degrees, cars behind just narrowly avoiding T-boning him before he got going again. So he pitted, had a set of inters fitted – suffering a delay with a rear wheel as he released the clutch too early – and rejoined way down.

Running one off the back on his inters, Ericsson lost control of the Sauber coming up the hill on the 12th lap, bounced off the barriers and came to rest partly blocking the pit entry. Verstappen was perfectly placed for Red Bull to anticipate the inevitable safety car and in he came for a set of intermediates. Running a couple of places behind, Ricciardo was also instructed to come in for the same – but by this time the pitlane had been officially closed. Ricciardo would have five seconds added to his next stop as a penalty. As well as throwing the strategic dice, Red Bull fancied its chances if it could induce Mercedes onto the inters too. But Mercedes wasn’t biting. Both Hamilton and Rosberg felt that wets were still the thing to be on and they circulated 1-2 once more, behind the safety car, with Verstappen having dropped just one place to Räikkönen. Ricciardo’s stop had brought him out ninth, with the Force Indias of Hülkenberg and Pérez now fifth and sixth, ahead of Sainz and Nasr, the latter two benefitting from staying out while so many made those speculative, but ineffective, switches to inters. Benefitting similarly just behind Ricciardo was the Manor of Esteban Ocon, who had passed and pulled away from team-mate Wehrlein.

It took quite some time to clear the carbon fibre Sauber shards and the safety car stayed out until the end of lap 19. As it pulled off so they all jockeyed for position up the hill, Hamilton again making a break for it, Rosberg not electing to fight it out at all. Just behind them, Räikkönen was giving it plenty, keen to keep the thrusting Verstappen off his back. As he went through the flat-out kink in top gear, the Ferrari’s rear tyres spun up, flicking him towards the right hand wall. At that speed it was impossible to get the opposite lock on and off quickly enough, the Ferrari tank-slapping its way into the wall on the right then rebounding across the bows of Verstappen (who’d only just caught a moment very similar to Kimi’s) and Hülkenberg, the Force India hitting a piece of broken Ferrari wing. Räikkönen’s wreck came to rest hard against the pit wall, facing 180-degrees to the direction of travel. Unsighted in the spray, Ocon only just saw it in time to take evasive action, thus avoiding a 200mph head-on crash...  Räikkönen momentarily tried to hunch down, waiting for the inevitable. It was a horrible, horrible moment and would give anyone with any responsibility for the safe running of the race pause for thought. Sainz and Vettel were two others giving Räikkönen a close shave.

The cars – or rather the tyres – were proving damn near impossible to control. In previous years we’ve had much wetter races than this without the cars becoming so on the edge of control. This was about lack of tyre temperature and grip and an inability to clear the water, despite the deep groves. The race was red flagged. The cars trailed in and lined up in a queue in the pitlane, engines running so as to burn off performance-sapping weight of fuel, much of which would no longer be needed.

The rain was still falling heavily and after the mess was cleared, out they all went behind the safety car once more – this requiring everyone, by regulation, to be on full wets. Hülkenberg had picked up a debris puncture and was forced to surrender his fourth place and pit for replacement rubber, rejoining behind Vettel down near the back. They circulated like this for seven laps, drivers – especially Hamilton and Verstappen – making calls to Charlie to get going once again. The crowd by now was booing, giving the thumbs-down and leaving the stands. They did so even more when the second red flag of the day was shown – for no obvious reason. It really looked for a moment like this race was going to be called. But actually Whiting was – as recounted above – simply trying not to waste the available countdown time on conditions not deemed suitable for racing. Since 2012, there can be no more than four hours in which to fit in a maximum of two hours racing, and that two hours begins counting down as soon as the race is underway but is then frozen by any red flags.

The forecast said that after intensifying for 10-20 minutes, the rain would reduce. It was actually a very logical decision, albeit not readily understood or communicated to the crowd. Everyone again fitted fresh wet weather tyres in readiness for another safety car restart.

Hamilton, Rosberg, Verstappen, Pérez, Sainz, Nasr, Ricciardo, Ocon, Wehrlein, Alonso, Bottas, Magnussen, Button, Vettel, Hülkenberg, Massa, Gutiérrez and Kvyat followed the safety car. Kvyat had been hit hard by Palmer on the previous restart, Jolyon not even seeing the Toro Rosso until it appeared out the gloom. It damaged the Renault too badly to continue.

This time they circulated for only two laps before they were unfettered at the end of lap 32, Hamilton yet again making an apparently easy break from Rosberg. Verstappen again got immediately on it, using his wet-weather lines around the outside to great effect, getting around turn three way faster than Rosberg and passing the Merc before they reached turn four. For a couple of laps Verstappen closed on Hamilton, before the latter responded just hard enough to stay out of reach. For all the external drama of the race, from inside Hamilton’s car this was a cruise. “I was in the zone the whole time,” he said, “and quite relaxed. I even had time for something to eat during the red flag period. It was a very easy race, probably one of the easier ones. Silverstone 2008 was way harder than this.”

They got to race for 15 laps this time before someone crashed again. In the meantime Vettel and Hülkenberg came through the field together, Ricciardo quickly picked off Nasr and Sainz. Wehrlein completely fell away from the pack, unable to generate tyre temperature and generally spooked by how dangerous the whole thing was. Ocon, by contrast, was able to get the tyres in the window and put up a struggle before Vettel and Hulk were able to pass and set off after Nasr.  

On the 37th lap Verstappen was still chasing Hamilton when his tyres hit the standing water at the top of the hill. The Red Bull went completely sideways at huge speed, but he’d got the opposite lock on quickly enough to prevent a full spin and was able to scrub its speed off still within the width of the track. As it headed towards the left-hand barrier, most of the sting had been taken out of the moment, and Verstappen calmly released the clutch and induced a small power slide to quickly change its trajectory away from the barrier. It lost him about four seconds – not quite enough for the following Rosberg to capitalise, Nico looking for all the world like he was driving for the title and generally keeping away from other cars.

On the following lap Verstappen was a full one second faster than Rosberg, despite admitting over the radio that the incident had brought his heart rate up a little. His team-mate was making nowhere near as good progress, Ricciardo generally less at home around here and in addition suffering a visor leak that was seriously impeding his vision. He was trailing a few seconds behind fourth-placed Pérez (doing a typically understated but effective job for Force India).

Red Bull again began thinking in terms of inters and brought Ricciardo in for a set on lap 40. He took his five-second penalty at this point and rejoined behind Hülkenberg, who was just about to follow Vettel past Ocon, with Ricciardo following on a couple of laps later. Verstappen was brought in from second place on lap 43. “We were going for the win,” explained Christian Horner, “and we weren’t going to achieve that doing the same as [Hamilton].” Had the rain eased off, it could have worked. Verstappen came out in fifth, behind Sainz – with Pérez now running third, some way distant from the two Mercs.

Rosberg almost lost it atop the hill – coming very close to changing the complexion of the world championship battle – on the 44th lap. Hamilton saw it happen on the big screen, but noted that Nico had managed to keep it going. Three laps later Felipe Massa - the crowd following his every move all weekend, Felipe happily playing to them in his final home Grand Prix – did crash at the top of the hill, just like so many others before him. He’d been having a difficult race, having gambled – like team-mate Bottas – on another set of inters. Out came the safety car again. The six laps it stayed out gave Massa time to walk from his crashed Williams, pick up a Brazilian flag and tearfully take it all in one last time. By the time he arrived in the pitlane there was a standing ovation from pretty much every team.

The Red Bull inters gamble had failed for a second time. They’d been no faster than before – and suffering big moments. They were each asked if they wanted to switch back to wets for the remainder of the race, while there was still time to make up the places they would lose. Ricciardo came in on the 52nd lap but the few laps Verstappen spent talking it through lost him track position to his team-mate and he emerged two laps later three places behind – in 14th. We were about to witness something quite epic.

The cars were released from the safety car’s grasp at the end of lap 55, with 16 laps to go. Hamilton sprinted off from Rosberg again with Pérez following on from Sainz, Vettel, Nasr, Hülkenberg, Ocon and the rest. Alonso spun from eighth to the back out of the tricky Juncao. Verstappen immediately picked off the soon-to-retire Gutiérrez, Wehrlein and Bottas (outside of turn three) to put himself on team-mate Ricciardo’s tail. He passed him around the outside of the fast downhill Mergulho (turn 11), most decidedly not a conventional passing spot.

Hülkenberg relieved Nasr of sixth into the Senna Esses on lap 60 to set chase for Vettel. Verstappen picked off Kvyat and Ocon and was followed through by Ricciardo. Max’s next victim was Nasr – into the Senna Esses. Vettel meanwhile was closing down on Sainz’s fourth place – the Ferrari in turn being caught by Hülkenberg, Verstappen and Ricciardo. Lapping up to 2s faster than this pack, Verstappen was past Hülkenberg into the Esses with six laps to go and now chasing Vettel. He caught him on the approach to turn four, on the outside line, but thought better of it. Instead he was able to run Seb wide out of Mergulho, then switch back across him to get on his inside for the tight uphill left of Jancao. He claimed the inside line and Seb – doubtless with events of Mexico in mind – refused to back out of it, resulting in the Ferrari running wide onto the grass and the Red Bull disappearing up the road in chase of Sainz and Pérez and a place on the podium.

Verstappen passed Sainz next lap into turn four and going into the last lap made an amazing move on Pérez to complete a performance that will go down in legend. “I think we witnessed something very special today,” said Horner and it was impossible to disagree.

Hamilton meanwhile reeled off another crucial victory, Rosberg dropping 11.5s in the last 16 laps of racing but taking the 18 points all the same. Vettel took fifth from Sainz going into Senna Esses for the final time, to finish behind Pérez. Hülkenberg in seventh was rueing that puncture, with Ricciardo eighth from Nasr, scoring a crucial two points for Sauber potentially worth $30 million at the expense of Manor, which had Ocon in the points until the final lap when he was overhauled by the faster cars of Alonso and Bottas.

A brilliant race in the end. But a lucky one too. It could so easily have been a catastrophe. F1 dodged a bullet on Sunday.

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