'Hamilton tore through the field then wore down Verstappen' — Brazilian GP analysis


A dazzling performance by Lewis Hamilton in the 2021 Brazilian Grand Prix was underpinned by a car that was faster and better balanced than its Red bull rival, writes Mark Hughes

Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstapen on the podium at the 2021 Brazilian Grand Prix

Clive Mason/F1 via Getty Images

An extraordinary performance from Lewis Hamilton saw him overcome being thrown to the back of the grid for the Saturday sprint race, taking a five-place grid drop for the main race – and still managing to catch and pass Max Verstappen for victory in front of a wildly appreciative Interlagos crowd.

The DRS slot gap of Hamilton’s Mercedes was found to be 0.2mm too wide on one side after he’d qualified fastest by a resounding 0.438sec over Verstappen around a very short lap. That’s what got him disqualified from the qualifying results, meaning he started from the back. Within the short 24-lap sprint, he rose from 20th to fifth. The five-place PU replacement penalty put him 10th on the grid for the main event. Which he’d converted to third within five laps. From there all he had to do was pass both Red Bulls. He went by Sergio Perez on the 19th lap and Verstappen on the 59th. It was dazzling.

How did it happen?

PU replacement

The installation of Hamilton’s fifth internal combustion engine of the season has been on the cards for some time given that PU4 –  first used at Istanbul – would otherwise have had to do seven races. Interlagos was deemed the best place to do it, given a) that it was a sprint event and so points could potentially be gained there without any grid penalty and b) it’s one of the season’s best overtaking tracks.

The Mercedes degrades faster than the Honda. But seems slightly more powerful when new. Mercedes has been carrying an issue with the unit for the second half of the season and has been running it conservatively. Splitting the last four races between two PUs allowed them to run them more aggressively than would have been prudent with just one.

It seemed to be pulling extremely well. Past the start/finish straight in Friday qualifying Hamilton was already 3.5km/h faster than Valtteri Bottas and between there and the speed trap he found an extra 3.7km/h to Bottas’s 1.7km/h. Both cars were on the same wing and neither had the benefit of a tow.

Merc qualifying speed

The margin by which Hamilton was faster than everyone else in qualifying for the sprint race was bigger than at any other event this year. It was around 0.35sec faster than its seasonal average relative to the competition.

Rear wing of Lewis Hamilton Mercedes

Under scrutiny: the rear wing of Hamilton’s Mercedes

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

The fresh PU would account for some of that, but surely not all. It was always going to be quick in the flat-out sectors 1 and 3, but the Merc was quickest in the downforce-rewarding middle sector too. This just raised Red Bull paranoia antenna even further. It was already campaigning the FIA to take a look at whether the Mercedes rear wing might be somehow flexing despite all the restrictions imposed by the Tech Directives earlier this year.

Which led indirectly to the fuss about the DRS gap and Hamilton’s move to the back of the sprint grid.

Red Bull balance

The Merc’s searing qualifying advantage wasn’t carried through into the race; it played out differently because of tyre usage.

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The Red Bull was blighted by understeer from the cool of Friday to the scorching 55-deg track temperature of Sunday. With a weaker front but stronger rear than the Mercedes, it was harder on its front tyres. Which on race day meant higher degradation, even for a two-stopping strategy.

As in Austin, the cars had to be driven to their tyre temperatures. The Mercedes was a much better-balanced and happier car around Interlagos than the Red Bull. Verstappen, once he’d bundled Bottas aside in the opening seconds, set the pace at the front. Hamilton was behind him by lap 19 and there was no great difference in their pace in the first stint as they circulated on the medium compound tyres. But as soon as they switched to the hards the Red Bull’s understeer increased. In the middle stint Hamilton circulated behind and conserved, menacingly just out of turbulence reach.

Verstappen urged the team not to allow Hamilton to undercut them and he was brought in for his second stop on lap 40. That was too early for a car as hard on the tyres as the Red Bull on this weekend. As Verstappen set out at a gentle pace for the final 31-lap stint, Hamilton was soon upon him and beginning press home his advantage.

Lewis Hamilton follows Max Verstappen in the 2021 Brazilian Grand Prix

Just biding his time…

Florent Gooden / DPPI

Lewis just wore Max down as Max wore his tyres down. On lap 48 the Mercedes went for a move around Verstappen’s outside into Turn 4 and was marginally ahead – until Verstappen took to the run-off, forcing Hamilton out there too. The stewards took a look at it but dismissed it. Hamilton regrouped and relaunched his attack on lap 59, with Verstappen’s tyres now much worse. Despite Verstappen’s weaving, Hamilton had enough momentum to make the Turn 4 move without risk. The crowd loved it.

Verstappen accepted second from that point, always comfortably clear of Bottas, with Sergio Perez taking fourth and fastest lap after a late stop for a set of softs, thereby depriving Hamilton of a further point. He’s now 14 behind with three races to go.