2017 Brazilian Grand Prix report

by Mark Hughes on 13th November 2017

The comprehensive Brazilian Grand Prix report from Mark Hughes

Sebastian Vettel bounced into the pre-podium green room with a lightness of being, of knowing he’d made the difference on this day. Valtteri Bottas walked into it with dignity but disappointment, head down, eyes dead, polite handshakes before walking on to some solitary place. With Lewis Hamilton starting from the back and Bottas sitting on pole, it had been Valtteri’s for the taking. Right up until the moment the race started, in fact. 

But he was always going to have to fight for it. Even from pole it was never going to be easy. Interlagos could hardly have been better configured to precisely balance the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Ferrari and Mercedes. Two short power sectors sandwiching a much longer downforce sector – with the total combined lap time spent in sectors one and three almost exactly that spent in two. The Ferrari was around 0.5sec faster than the Mercedes through the downforce sector and 0.5sec slower in the combined power sectors.

With Hamilton in the wall on the first lap of qualifying, the weekend looked set to be a straight Vettel vs Bottas contest. Ultimately it was – Vettel winning the race with a perfect blend of aggression and control having lost out to Bottas for pole by hundredths the day before – but there was a brief moment when the race might’ve turned into something different… Here was Hamilton from his pitlane start hunting down third place Räikkönen, and only a few seconds off the lead with four laps to go. If he could deal with Räikkönen straight away, could the impossible happen?

How had he even got to such a position? Taking nothing away from what was a sensational Sunday performance from Hamilton after his Saturday error, there were extenuating circumstances playing to his favour. In the end, he didn’t have the tyre rubber left to launch an attack on the immaculately defending Räikkönen and had to settle for fourth. “But for a time there, I could see Seb was just a few seconds ahead, and I was thinking, ‘mmm!’” At Mercedes they’d warned Bottas that he could be racing his softer-tyred team-mate before much longer. But even if that had played out and Hamilton had got past, Vettel – with the win on the line after such a drought – would surely have been a tougher nut to crack.

Hamilton’s was a brilliant drive – but then so was Vettel’s, albeit one with very different demands. Winning the start, trying to pull out a gap over a car of similar performance, changing the approach when that didn’t work, keeping up the pace without compromising tyres that he might need if Hamilton appeared on his tail before the end. “There was no room for mistakes, we were so closely matched,” he said. “Flat out but controlling the tyres too. It was my hardest win of the year.” And he’d not crashed on Saturday…

Qualifying

So after clinching the championship, the very next thing Hamilton did with the official clock running, was crash into the Interlagos turn six barriers. No one had even got a time on the board yet as Hamilton did what he’d been doing through the practices by taking a lot of eighth gear momentum into the long, uphill turn, then downshifting in sequence to fifth by the apex, ready to get hard back on the gas. Except this time, with the track 30 degC cooler than on Friday, the tyre pressures perhaps a little lower as a consequence and, as a further consequence, the car grounding out quite heavily, that last downchange was just more than the rear tyres could accept and around he looped – into the barrier. “It felt crap. Just as crap as when I did it as an eight-year-old in karts.”

Which, around a track where the Mercedes and Ferrari were very evenly matched, put the focus upon Bottas and Vettel. The two drivers now fighting for runner-up position in the championship were slogging it out on track too. The Merc was faster in the sweeping first and third sectors, the Ferrari better through the much longer and twistier middle sector.

Vettel had generally held a small edge in Q1 and Q2, and on the first Q3 runs he shaded Bottas by just 0.082sec. But it was all still to play for as they made their final runs. Bottas shaved a tenth off his first run to shade Vettel’s provisional pole but the Ferrari was running a few seconds behind him on track on its final run. But Vettel’s lap had been compromised right at the start: “I chickened out a bit for the braking into turn one,” he admitted with typical honesty. “The lap was behind from that point on. I had a bit left I knew I could take through the last corner and I did gain time there, but not enough.” The cars were just too equally matched around here to leave any time on the table, and that’s where Bottas just managed to ace it for his third career pole. “I knew going into the last run that I had to improve,” he said. “I could feel and see that I was improving corner after corner. It's such a good feeling to get everything together in the end.”

Räikkönen had great underlying pace but just couldn’t get the front tyres up to temperature by the start of the lap in the cool conditions. “It just meant I didn’t really have the confidence to attack the first couple of corners.” It echoed Vettel’s comments and perhaps if qualifying had been run in the much hotter conditions of Friday the Ferrari might’ve had the edge.

Max Verstappen never had any illusions that his Red Bull could fight Mercedes and Ferrari for pole around this track. The first and third sectors simply ask too much of the engine. But even so, he was not satisfied that he had nailed the car’s ultimate potential with a time 0.6sec adrift of Bottas’ pole, fourth fastest. “Just in terms of the balance, we never quite got it,” he said. “I looked at the GPS data and we're definitely missing half a second on the straights – and that's the gap, even with the balance not quite there.”

Daniel Ricciardo in the other car went into qualifying knowing he’d be taking a 10-place engine penalty. So he elected to use the soft (rather than the super-soft) in Q2 with the logic of being able to do a longer first race stint as he got through the midfield. Onto the super-soft in Q3 he was less happy. “I preferred the car on the soft,” he said. “In fact I wish I could’ve done Q3 on the soft. But even so, that last set in Q3 was a bit suspect. It had a vibration as I left the pits and I just couldn’t generate any temperature in the left-front.” He was fifth quickest, 0.4sec off Verstappen, 15th after penalties.

Sixth-fastest Sergio Pérez made a great recovery from the back foot, having taken no part in first practice when his Force India was handed over to George Russell. With each subsequent session, he improved its initially difficult balance. Its Mexico upgrade has impacted upon the set-up and he feels he’s still learning its traits and was delighted to have nailed its potential here. Esteban Ocon in the sister car failed to make the Q3 cut, 11th fastest and getting a little lost on set-up with Saturday’s much cooler track.

Pérez’s time just eclipsed that of Fernando Alonso’s McLaren-Honda. He absolutely wrung the car’s neck all weekend, but the Honda is now reckoned to be within 0.15sec of the Renault in qualifying and so is nowhere near the encumbrance it once was. An unwell Stoffel Vandoorne lost the set-up into Saturday and was only 13th, half-a-second adrift of his team-mate. Both had the latest aero upgrade here.

Both Renaults made Q3, where Nico Hülkenberg and Carlos Sainz went eighth and ninth respectively. The latter got only one proper run as his first was compromised by a territorial misunderstanding with Massa’s Williams. Felipe, in what he reckoned was definitely his final Brazilian Grand Prix (recall the emotional farewell here last year?), was hooked up throughout the weekend. His one clean run after the Sainz mix-up was not as good as his Q2 lap – which would’ve put him seventh rather than 10th. Lance Stroll in the other Williams was struggling right from the start and matters weren’t improved when he lost third practice to a gearbox failure. “The car felt OK,” he said. “I just made too many mistakes trying to find its limits.” The gearbox failure had damaged his good engine and he was running with an old unit that couldn’t be utilised in qualifying mode. He failed to make Q2, 18th fastest, 1sec adrift of Massa.

Romain Grosjean’s lap in the Haas to go 12th quickest, almost matching Ocon and only 0.1sec off Q3, was a superb effort in a car that’s fallen a long way behind in the development race. It was a lap that had team-mate Kevin Magnussen – 0.3sec and two places behind – giving begrudging praise. “Romain got the most out of the car today. With the car we have this weekend… I did less of a good job. When the car is like it is – unstable in the rear – Romain is just very strong.”

Brendon Hartley, having missed first practice to a Renault scavenge pump failure – got his Toro Rosso through to Q2 but, taking engine penalties, didn’t waste any new tyres on doing a lap there. He simply did a series of standing laps, allowing him to practice starts at the end of the pitlane and pit entry road attacks. Pierre Gasly was only half-a-tenth off in the other car, but that left him two places behind. He too though was taking multiple engine penalties and would be starting alone on the back row. The Toro Rossos were split by Pascal Wehrlein’s Sauber which was a couple of tenths quicker than team-mate Marcus Ericsson.

Race

Even with the track at a scorching 60 degC this was set to be a one-stop race, using a combination of the super-soft and soft compounds. Keeping the rear tyres from thermal degradation and controlling the blistering of both front and rear was going to require some work from the driver and there was a feeling that perhaps the conditions might favour the Ferrari. If only it could get ahead. For Bottas a lot was hanging on the quality of his start – and he surely wasn’t going to get lucky twice in a season in getting away with anticipating it… 

At Ferrari they were thinking of the start too and the multiple opportunities provided by the left-right of the Senna Esses, especially with two reds versus one just one silver. The other was starting from the pitlane, of course – but with new everything, including an engine that would only need to last two races and could therefore be thrashed. That was one of two favourable things offsetting the disastrous starting position. The other was the transposed tyre strategy. Being able to start on the more durable soft tyre – much less susceptible to blistering – when the cars were full of fuel brought a calculated 3-5sec advantage over the race distance compared to the super-soft/soft sequence those in the top 10 were obliged to use. That said, most of those not obliged to still went with the super-soft for the start – because of its crucial startline performance advantage. All Hamilton needed was a safety car to neutralise the 5sec lost by starting from the pitlane rather than the grid. Lo and behold, it came on the first lap – and gifted Hamilton a few instant positions too.

But things were going less well for Mercedes at the front. “As soon as I released the clutch I broke traction,” said a downcast Bottas.

Vettel knew the win probably rested upon these few moments, but he was far from convinced his start had gone well enough. “The initial launch was good and I thought, ‘I’ve got this’. But then I was too greedy with the throttle and spun up the wheels and thought for a moment I’d blown it. But I looked across at Valtteri and could see he was still struggling and into the second phase I got good momentum. There was a gap and I knew I had to go for it.”

Bottas: “I tried to cover the inside but looking in the mirror I could see only Kimi and didn’t know where Seb was – so I was guessing he was probably already inside.” As he began turning in, he got his confirmation – a flash of red squeezing through the narrowing gap. And that was it, the ballsy race-winning move.

Behind that duel, Räikkönen and Verstappen filed through cleanly enough, and Alonso went around Pérez’s outside to grab fifth, with the fast-starting Massa grinding by the Force India too. But it got a bit messy at the bottom of the hill as they were joined by the two Renaults, with Sainz being forced out over the turn two kerbs and damaging his floor. Grosjean and Ocon were next and then Ricciardo – who was way off wide over the turn two exit kerb, with Vandoorne to his right and Magnussen to his right. The Haas made heavy contact with the McLaren which nudged Ricciardo into a spin. Vandoorne and Magnussen were out on the spot and the way the carnage fell allowed some to make great gains, others to be delayed. Ricciardo got going again but was now behind even Hamilton from his pitlane start. Darting and veering on the run from Curva de Sol down to Turn 4, down the hill to Descida de Lago and Turn 5, up the return leg towards Ferradura, the uphill tightening radius where Hamilton had gone off in qualifying. Here, Ocon was trying for the outside of Grosjean, pinching the Haas in somewhat and causing it to oversteer – into the side of the Force India, both of them spinning, Ocon with two punctures. This was the first Grand Prix Esteban had ever failed to finish. Grosjean got going again at the back and would later be given a 10sec penalty for causing an accident, which seemed somewhat harsh for what looked like a straight racing incident.

The safety car had already been scrambled for the turn two carnage just as this second accident happened. The combined effect had moved Gasly, Ericsson and Hartley up to 10th, 11th and 12th. More significantly, it had found Hamilton four free places without even an overtake. The cars were guided through the pitlane for the next three laps so as to miss the carbon debris at the bottom of the esses. Wehrlein, Grosjean and Ricciardo all made stops and rejoined at the back.

Four laps at safety car speeds had made the fuel levels less marginal – especially for Mercedes and Ferrari, both of which had short-fuelled in their attempts at gaining an edge over the other, so closely-matched were they. The safety car was late putting its lights out and so Vettel had to crawl along for some time for it to get a big enough gap that he’d have the space to race as they crossed the safety car line at the end of lap four. He accelerated/decelerated, keeping Bottas guessing, then gunned it at Juncao (turn 12), the corner onto the long hill leading to the pit straight. The Ferrari crossed the start/finish line already several car lengths clear. Massa pounced and used his Mercedes grunt to over-power Alonso even before they reached the Esses. Alonso decided he would then use the tow of the Williams to pull him clear of his Pérez-led pursuers to overcome the Honda’s early de-rate, rather than mount a counter-attack.

So the race settled into a rhythm on this scorching day, Vettel getting his gap over Bottas out to around 1.5sec, he a similar distance clear of Räikkönen, with Verstappen hanging on as best he could but taking a lot from his tyres to run at their pace. Hamilton, meanwhile, was coming through the lower orders as a shark through schools of minnows, easy DRS pickings every lap, Ricciardo making similar progress a few places behind, like Hamilton on the harder tyre and planning on running long. Daniel in fact was making some of the most spectacular out-braking passes of the race, coming from seemingly impossibly far back into the Esses.

The Ferrari was around 8km/h down on the Mercedes at the end of the straight and so Vettel was ensuring he used every bit of its extra grip through the tight middle sector so as to get himself out of Bottas’ reach as they began the long flat-out run up the hill, through the kink and down the pit straight. It meant total concentration, as one slip in the Ferrari’s good sector would have had the Merc upon him and slipstreaming past on the following section.

The window for the first stops for the super-soft runners was reckoned to be from around lap 25 if you were to stay on the favoured one-stop. Did the Ferrari have the legs to get out of the Merc’s undercut reach, so they didn’t have to worry about anticipating what Bottas might do? By lap 13 he had more than 2sec on him – comfortably enough out of undercut reach if he could peg it at that. But Bottas began coming back at him. Even as Vettel further increased his pace by 0.3-0.4sec from lap 19 onwards, Bottas was going with him. Answer: no, the Ferrari was as fast as the Bottas Merc but no faster. This was going to be a hard-fought race.

Ferrari knew from Hamilton’s progress – he was up to sixth place by lap 20, having just passed Alonso – that he was potentially going to be somewhere close to them near the end, and on faster tyres. They didn’t want to come in too early for the first stops, for that could leave them too compromised on grip near the end just when they might be needing it to fend him off. Räikkönen was the first line of defence for that, of course, and with a couple of seconds now in hand over Verstappen as the hard-pushed Red Bull’s rear tyres began to go off, Kimi would be staying out later than Vettel.

Bottas had got a pitstop’s worth of gap over the battling Massa/Alonso by lap 26 – and Mercedes brought him in next lap from 1.6sec behind the leader. He pushed hard, the in-lap was fast. The stop itself wasn’t particularly, at 2.7sec. He got underway now on a new set of softs.

Vettel now gave it everything, but his rear rubber had suffered from that earlier attempt to break free of Bottas and his in-lap was no quicker. Crucially, Bottas on his out-lap got a little out of shape out of Juncao, losing him around 0.5sec. The Ferrari stop had been around 0.5sec faster than Merc’s – and that, combined with Bottas’ moment and the earlier 1.6sec cushion Vettel had maintained, was enough to get the Ferrari out still just ahead. Vettel was on top of this challenge, Bottas had now twice fluffed key moments. The two cars were too evenly-matched over the lap for Bottas to have any realistic chance of overtaking. So he just kept the pressure applied – but the two big points had now been played and Vettel had won them both. Furthermore, he seemed to be more immediately at ease on the new softs than Bottas.

Verstappen had come in on the same lap as Vettel, so obliging Ferrari to bring Räikkönen in the lap after. The Red Bull just wasn’t on Ferrari/Mercedes pace this weekend and every time Verstappen tried to force the issue, the rear tyres would begin going away from him. Räikkönen hadn’t liked the balance of his car through the first stint but on the softs he was much happier and was now comfortably running just a couple of seconds behind Bottas. “I think I could actually have run faster,” said Kimi, “but there’s nowhere to pass.”

This put the long-running, soft-shod, yet-to stop Hamilton into the lead. He was conjuring a remarkable combination of pace and tyre usage. On his 30-lap old softs, he was lapping at around the same pace as Bottas on his new softs – and Vettel was only gaining by two or three tenths each lap. “My original target was lap 37,” recalled Hamilton later, “and they told me on lap 30 that we were going to do target plus 7, I thought, ‘Jeez, I don’t know if I can make these last another 14 laps’,” but he did.

Hamilton had forced his way into contention by how little delay he’d suffered coming through the pack, by the great pace and by how he’d kept the rubber in shape. He was helped in this by his new, short-life requirement engine (Red Bull would later be alarmed to hear Hamilton’s pit wall tell him he had 14 overtake boosts left he could still use).

With the 22 seconds a pitstop would take, he was set to come out in fifth place behind Verstappen, only around 18sec off the lead, on faster super-soft tyres and with 28 laps still to go. There were stirrings in the Ferrari pits as they tried to trade off Vettel’s pace for his tyre usage and began to prepare Räikkönen for the crucial task of trying to hold the expected Hamilton attack at bay.

Ricciardo was by now really struggling on his old softs. He was running fifth around 15sec behind Hamilton’s lead, soon to be sixth as he followed team instructions in allowing the fresh-tyred Verstappen through.

Hamilton and Ricciardo were both in on the 43rd lap and quickly underway on their new super-softs, ready for a charge. Hamilton exited fifth, 11sec behind Verstappen but going at a completely different rate. Ricciardo came out eighth just behind the continuing Massa/Alonso train and set soon to pass it.

McLaren had resisted the temptation of trying to undercut Massa at the stops – as he would surely have just powered his way past again, leaving Alonso on older tyres with which to repel the expected attack from Pérez later. It was far more important that Alonso use Massa’s proximity to get DRS. That’s the only realistic way a McLaren can be raced and Alonso was afterwards typically barbed in his assessment of Honda’s shortfall. For his part, Massa was doing everything that could be reasonably expected in his final home Grand Prix. He was running ahead of a McLaren and a Force India and looking like he could stay there as best of the rest after the big three teams.

Hülkenberg had to fight his way through the later pitting slower cars to emerge back in 10th place, with team-mate Sainz in his near-wake, but the Renault didn’t have the pace here to close on Pérez’s Force India. All the Renault motors had their turbo speeds slowed by 5,000rpm here as a precaution after events in Mexico suggested they’d been too aggressive in increasing turbo speed to compensate for the thinner atmosphere. With smaller turbines and compressors than the Merc and Ferrari motors, the higher revs were generating more heat – which seems to have been a the main cause of the ERS-h problems.

 

 

Hamilton’s charge had the Brazilians cheering and whistling (just as they’d done when he’d crashed the day before!). How could they not like the drama of his progress as he brought this race alive? He was on Verstappen by lap 57, Max defending into the Esses, Hamilton then using the second DRS zone to make an easy pass even before they reached Turn 4. Hamilton was now up to fourth, the race leader just 8sec up the road. Räikkönen was the next target though, 4sec ahead. If Hamilton could pass Kimi immediately he came upon him, it was feasible he might be able to challenge Vettel for the victory – but that, of course, would have entailed moving Bottas side. Would Mercedes have done that?

No. It had already informed Bottas that he would not be asked to move aside but that he would be racing his team-mate for position. Räikkönen knew he had a vital task to perform for the team, but was unconcerned. He was setting a good pace and it took Hamilton 10 laps to make up those 4sec. “I knew if I just did all the right things it was going to be nearly impossible for him to pass,” claimed Kimi.

Verstappen, having run out of rear rubber and with more than a pitstop’s gap behind him, came in for some fresh super-softs with nine laps to go – and used the combination of low fuel/new tyres to beat Hamilton to fastest lap.

Ultimately Hamilton ran out of rubber just as he caught up to the Ferrari – locking up into the Esses on lap 67 – but for a while there it looked as if he’d been about to pull off something truly spectacular. Yes, it was in a car vastly faster than most of the field and with the aid of DRS, a power advantage even over the other Mercs and a better tyre strategy – but even within that framework, a pitlane start to contending for the win would have been quite something. After the lock up, Hamilton’s front tyres were finished, the car was understeering into the slower corners, then getting no traction coming out. The dream was over; fourth was as high as he was going to get.

Vettel’s fifth victory of the season was brilliantly judged and a heady combination of attack and control. He beat Bottas with a better quality of delivery when it mattered in a very evenly matched car. Räikkönen, Hamilton, Verstappen and Ricciardo followed of the big boys. Best of the rest – fittingly on this day at this place – was Massa, in seventh, keeping Alonso off his back right to the end. Pérez had used his late first stop and subsequent fresh tyres to get himself onto their tail in the closing stages but Alonso was allowing no daylight in his defences. The lapped Hülkenberg took the final point ahead of Sainz. Gasly drove well to capitalise on the first lap opportunity to take 12th for Toro Rosso. In the first couple of corners he passed team-mate Hartley whose car was later retired after its oil consumption began to rise alarmingly. Gasly’s engine died on the line and he coasted over it still clear of the battling Saubers, Ericsson passing Wehrlein (who’d run through virtually the whole distance on a set of softs) on the last lap ahead of the delayed Grosjean and Stroll (front tyre delamination after repeated lock-ups).

Hamilton’s sensational performance inevitably led to speculation of just how it might’ve panned out without his qualifying error. But he wouldn’t have had quite that extreme of performance available to him had he completed a normal qualifying, with his assigned older-spec, higher mileage engine – and the same tyre strategy as everyone else. 

The last word should be Vettel’s: “We had so much less straightline speed than Mercedes this weekend and it was tough: always seeing Valtteri in the mirrors and seeing that he was closing, especially in the first and last sector. So I really had to nail the middle sector every single time.” This was a great Vettel victory – and a morale-boosting one for Ferrari after recent disappointments.

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