As in Mexico, so in Brazil: Nico Rosberg from pole all the way, Lewis Hamilton in his wake complaining about how impossible it was to overtake. “Is there a different strategy you could give me?” he asked after 10 laps sitting in Rosberg’s DRS zone in the second stint but unable to get close enough through the preceding turns to make it count. But competing strategies is against team policy at Mercedes. They are free to race, but not to try to beat each other on strategy – not when each is the other’s only rival for the win. “We won’t change that policy,” said Toto Wolff. “It’s been like that here since 2013. From the fan’s point of view I can understand that they might wish to see it different. But we could have done, like other teams, a number one and two driver where the number two is not allowed to fight at all. At least we haven’t done that and you have seen many good fights between them. But we don’t want to go this one step further.”
“I’m here to race,” said Hamilton, “it’s so difficult to overtake here and when you both have to do pretty much the same strategy it’s kind of already set from the beginning. So I’m like, ‘if there are other strategies, let’s do it, let’s take the risk,’ and they are like, ‘look after the tyres,’ and I’m like, ‘No, I’m racing.’ And I think that’s what people want to see… It would be great sometimes to be able to do something different, see how it plays out. They do so many strategy simulations, pick the best two and that’s what you’re stuck with.”
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel was an immaculate third, the only one to keep the Mercs even vaguely in sight. He pointed out that although Interlagos is actually one of the easiest tracks on which to overtake, an advantage of a tenth or two won’t be enough, not with this current generation of car and tyre. “What we need to follow another car closer in the [preceding] corners is more mechanical grip… I think we need better tyres to allow us to go quicker. I think the solution is very simple. Unfortunately the sport is very political with different interests from different people. But since the responsible people can’t agree on anything the people who are literally paying for that are sitting in the grandstands.”
Maybe Hamilton could have prevailed over Rosberg were F1 the sort of no-holds-barred, flat-out contest that Vettel craves. But when it’s a complex game of tyre management, then pole position is gold dust. From there, it’s just about resisting any intimidation from the competition into the first corner, then running your race with maximum efficiency for the demands of the track, tyre and car on the day.
Though Hamilton insists he had the pace to have won, that’s far from clear. Certainly, it isn’t a view Rosberg shares. “I had the pace advantage today so of course he’s not going to come by me.” With the race delicately poised between a two and a three stop, Rosberg was keeping his strategic options open, conserving the tyres early in the stint, keeping something in hand for later. That, in fact, was the ideal way to run your race here, on these tyres on this day. Hamilton was doing the opposite: running hard and attacking early, running out of rubber later, only amplified by running so close in the tow.
The observable facts are a better fit with Rosberg’s assessment of their relative performance than Hamilton’s – ie Rosberg held a small edge, just as he had in qualifying. The advantage that pole bought him allowed him to run his race in the most efficient way, defining Hamilton’s role as the chaser, the frustration that followed from that leading him to push too hard, too early – for these tyres, on this car, on this day. Given those circumstances, Rosberg did a better, more controlled, job. This has become a bit of a theme for the last few races and it seems to be chafing Hamilton’s collar a little. It’s bewildering to a driver that, as a default, is 100% convinced he can drive a racing car faster than Rosberg – or anyone else. Yet here is the damned inconvenience of reality not fitting in with that conviction.
Has Rosberg somehow upped his game? Has Hamilton dropped his since his title win became a formality? Is it something to do with the post-Monza rulings on tyre pressures? Has that been enough to switch things around? Such questions are swirling around the paddock, within the Mercedes team and inside Lewis’ own head. But the answers are not obvious to any of them.
“Racing drivers are highly complex creatures,” was all Wolff could offer. What is observable from body language is that since the title was decided, both drivers are more relaxed. In Rosberg’s case that seems to have removed the inevitable performance tension present when you’re regularly being out-performed, no matter by how small a margin. In Hamilton’s it’s maybe dropped him off the delicate bubble on which he sat for that amazing run of form that won him the championship. And the tyre pressure ruling? “No I don’t think so,” said Rosberg. “Well since then there’s been a change [in how the car feels] but whether that’s made the difference, I don’t know,” said Hamilton.
That ruling certainly made a difference here to Felipe Massa, his Williams excluded from eighth place after the right-rear tyre blanket was found to be 27-deg C above the 110-deg C limit when measured on the grid.
Five poles in a row for Rosberg. “Yes, I needed to work on my qualifying and I have. But I don’t honestly know why it’s going the way it’s going.” Did Hamilton – who arrived here in the midst of a lot of fuss about his Monaco road car incident – have an explanation? He was a little defensive. “Not really. I took the most pole positions of the season and I won the world championship. You can’t get it perfect every single time. Here I didn’t quite ace the first sector but the other two sectors were good.”
Rosberg was quicker in each of their two Q3 runs and took his 21st career pole by the margin of 0.08s. “That last lap was right on the edge,” he smiled. “There were a couple of moments in there.”
With the long, steep uphill section that links Juncao to the pit straight, the potent Mercs – which are still unique in their usage of the upgraded engine introduced at Monza – were in their element, with the best part of half-a-second’s advantage around a short lap. It’s a track with a very low sensitivity to downforce, and though more is always better than less – and the Merc W06 has plenty – what that does is increase the sensitivity of power, and the W06 has even more of that, relative to the opposition.
Rosberg just seemed more on top of his weekend than Hamilton through Friday and Saturday, unleashing his pace only at the crucial moments. In Q2, for example, when the only necessity is to graduate to Q3 whilst using the tyres on which you will start the race, he took things relatively easy, lapping half-a-second slower than the on-the-limit Hamilton. With the race likely to be marginal between two and three stops, each lap you put on your race tyres was potentially strategically damaging. “Is that quick enough?” he queried after his single tyre-conserving lap. “We will do the extra lap,” he was told. “You sure? That would be seriously compromising. Come on, that’s surely fast enough.” At this point, the team conceded and allowed him to return. It remained good for third quickest, a full 0.6s clear of the cut-off point. His analysis was spot-on. From a team perspective all it wants to do is get both cars through to Q3. From the driver’s perspective, there was no need to compromise himself.
Hamilton was slightly quicker than Rosberg in both sectors two and three but not by enough to overcome his sector one deficit. Hamilton’s car ran during Friday trying out suspension components that will be fitted to the higher-chassised 2016 car and both carried an experimental duct on the nose that may or may not have been part of an aero experiment for next year, but which may also have been just a visual distraction from the experimental suspension parts.
Both drivers used only the option (soft) tyre throughout, even in Q1, reflecting the fact that the prime (medium) was reckoned for them to be the better race tyre. And perhaps suggesting that it may have felt the preferred two-stop may have been more marginal over a three for them than it was for Ferrari. A similar thing had unfolded in Q1 at Malaysia, after all – and look how that had played out. It gave Ferrari hope.
The red cars looked a much closer match to the Mercs over a stint than a single lap. Sebastian Vettel lined up directly behind the silver cars, but with a lap around half-a-second adrift of them. The pattern of the Ferrari’s sector deficits to the W06 (0.5% off in S1, 0.6% in S2, 1.2% off in the drag up the long hill that is S3) strongly suggested the horsepower difference. Kimi Räikkönen got his Ferrari sideways at Mergulho (turn 11) on his final Q3 lap, accounting for much of the 0.3s that he trailed his team-mate by. That left him fifth quickest, but fourth after the penalty of the fourth-quickest Williams of Valtteri Bottas.
Bottas was taking a three-place penalty for having passed Kvyat during a red flag on Friday afternoon. He reckoned he’d got all there was to get from the car and was a couple of tenths adrift of Vettel. Its main loss to the Ferrari was in the tight twists of the middle sector where its inert responses were visually losing it time to the more throttle-adjustable red car. Team-mate Felipe Massa was struggling badly – unusually for him at his home track, where he’s been habitually very effective over the years. His main struggle was in sector two where he was running wide of the apexes. It was perhaps significant that the inner extremities of many of the apex kerbs had been rendered unusable by newly-installed speed blisters. Felipe is traditionally very effective at monstering kerbs. He was 0.4s adrift of Bottas and back in eighth.
The Force India was enjoying the enhanced advantage around here of the Mercedes engine and Nico Hulkenberg was – as ever at Interlagos – flying. Like Kvyat and Verstappen he’d used up all but his single Q3 allocation of soft tyres just in getting there and therefore he had only one full attack lap in that final session. It was faster than either Red Bull, only a couple of tenths adrift of Bottas and good enough for sixth fastest, fifth on the grid after penalties. Team-mate Sergio Pérez was never close to Hulkenberg’s pace and failed to make the Q3 cut, locking up into the Senna Esses as he began his last Q2 lap. It reflected his general unease with the car. “I have taken a different direction with the set-up compared to Nico and I haven’t been able to find my rhythm around here.” He was 13th, 11th after penalties.
Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull was fitted for the first time with the upgraded Renault power unit (the change coming with a 10-place grid penalty), with Kvyat’s sister car powered by the standard motor. The signs of progress for Renault Sport were not encouraging as Kvyat proved faster, seventh quickest to Ricciardo’s ninth. With the same wing settings Kvyat was marginally faster through the speed traps and set a quicker time in the grunt-demanding final sector. Ricciardo confirmed that he could feel no benefit in the car. Kvyat reckoned his final qualifying lap was the best he’s done all season.
Toro Rosso was not as competitive as usual, even relative to the Red Bull. Only Max Verstappen got his through to Q3 where he was 10th quickest, 0.4s adrift of Kvyat’s Red Bull. Both he and Carlos Sainz – 12th fastest – had struggled with oversteer through the middle sector on Friday and although a set-up change overnight helped tame that, the car’s weakness remains slow corner performance. Sainz was distracted by a clutch issue and a non-functioning dash.
Felipe Nasr loves this place and was always the quicker Sauber driver. His best Q2 lap only narrowly failed to get him into Q3, leaving him 11th quickest. However, he was awarded a three-place grid penalty for having impeded Massa. The team had informed him the Williams behind him was Bottas on an in-lap. It was a good lap and the team had anticipated well the way the track changed as it heated up. Team-mate Marcus Ericsson was less happy with his own lap and 0.4s adrift, in 14th.
The Lotuses should really have been faster than the Saubers, but their performance was proving tricky to access because of a nervous rear end and lack of feel. Being very aggressive with how low they were trying to run the front of the car – trying to maximise underbody downforce – in combination with how long it was taking the front tyres to come up to temperature and pressure made for a very tricky combination. Leaving it to a single, late run in Q2, trying to catch the track at its fastest, made it all the more difficult for Grosjean who spun on the way into the uphill Ferradura, his subsequent lap on flat-spotted tyres good only for 15th. Team-mate Pastor Maldonado didn’t make it out of Q1 and was one place behind.
Jenson Button in the only McLaren to do a lap was marginally slower than Maldonado, 17th, and only around 1.5s quicker than the Manors, where Alex Rossi out-paced Will Stevens by just over one tenth. Fernando Alonso’s McLaren stopped on its out-lap, having performed a similar stunt in practice the day before. He would take a theoretical 20-place penalty for a new engine and ancillaries.
This magical stretch of track – snaking, swooping, diving, climbing, as if the liquid tarmac had been just dumped in the depression and left to flow where it – lies amid the São Paulo craziness, teeming with life and celebration. Some of the venue’s carnival atmosphere had returned this year, a welcome relief from the awful events in Paris, helped by a sun that was doing its best to burn away the cloud cover. The track temperature was a high-ish 42-deg C as 2pm race start approached, around 10-deg C less than its peak in qualifying but still plenty hot enough to pose an interesting question mark over pit strategy.
Simulation suggested that two-stopping would be narrowly faster than three – but on the edge of feasibility. Degradation and wear of the right-rear was the limitation of both the soft and medium. The latter, though initially one second slower, looked to be the better race tyre, its degradation rate 0.1s per lap less than the soft’s and with double the expected wear life. Remaining on what looked likely to be the better two-stop strategy was going to involve running less than flat out in the early stages at least and knowing how many laps the less durable tyre (the soft) would do. Hence 18 of the 20 starters would begin the race on the yellow-striped rubber, the exceptions being Carlos Sainz’s Toro Rosso and Pastor Maldonado’s Lotus. Sainz’s car – having proved troublesome in qualifying – cut out altogether on his way to the grid. It was towed back to the pitlane, from where it would start. It would last only a couple of corners before stopping for good.
Rosberg led away as the gantry lights went out. With slightly more momentum, Hamilton’s instinct or thought looked him down the inside then swept him across the back of his team-mate to try for the outside into the Senna Esses. Hamilton veered aggressively towards Rosberg as they were side-by-side but Nico remained resolute, Lewis swerving back out of the way before it was too late.
The Ferraris of Vettel and Räikkönen were next, Kimi running through the Esses wheel-to-wheel with his nemesis Bottas, who had got a flyer off the grid and squeezed between Hulkenberg’s wheel-spinning Force India and the outside wall, passing Kvyat along the way. “It was important,” said Bottas, “as it would have been difficult to get through the Red Bull and the Force India because overtaking isn’t easy here.” He was now free to use the Williams’ inherently greater pace to pull away from them, but he was just as quickly left behind by the Ferraris.
Kvyat got a run past Hulkenberg between the Esses and turn four to go sixth. Behind Hulkenberg ran Massa, Pérez, Verstappen, Grosjean, Nasr, Button, Ricciardo, Maldonado, Alonso, Rossi, Ericsson and Stevens. Ricciardo pitted early to rid himself of the option tyres while running near the back anyway, so as to get himself out of sequence. Nasr and Grosjean passed and repassed a couple of times before the Lotus then eased away in chase of Verstappen.
Brazilian GP results
1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1h31m09.090s
2. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 7.756s
3. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 14.244s
4. Kimi Räikkönen Ferrari 47.543s
5. Valtteri Bottas Williams 1 Lap
6. N Hulkenberg Force India 1 Lap
7. Daniil Kvyat Red Bull 1 Lap
8. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1 Lap
9. M Verstappen Toro Rosso 1 Lap
10. Pastor Maldonado Lotus 1 Lap
11. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull 1 Lap
12. Sergio Pérez Force India 1 Lap
13. Felipe Nasr Sauber 1 Lap
14. Jenson Button McLaren 1 Lap
15. Fernando Alonso McLaren 1 Lap
16. Marcus Ericsson Sauber 2 Laps
17. Will Stevens Marussia 4 Laps
18. Alexander Rossi Marussia 4 Laps
– Felipe Massa Williams Disqualified
– Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso DNF
Unfortunately, with the cars arranged approximately in speed order already, they simply spread themselves further apart from each other, with no safety car or other interruptions to mix them up, everyone trying to maximise the stint lengths by looking after the tyres. Rosberg eased out of Hamilton’s DRS range, the two Mercs pulled themselves steadily clear of the Ferrari pair – and so on down the field.
Hulkenberg was hanging onto Kvayt though and Force India went for the undercut, as early as lap nine. He was switched to the medium tyre and on his out-lap tried to find that tricky balance between going fast enough to jump the other guy but not so fast you damage the new tyre. That Force India stop created a cascade of responses in the group around it – Kvyat and Massa in next lap, Bottas and Verstappen after that, with Ferrari then bringing Räikkönen in to ensure against a possible Bottas undercut. The only change of order this flurry brought was Hulkenberg getting past Kvyat. The Red Bull exited the long pit exit onto the back straight just ahead of the Force India but on cold tyres and less momentum Daniil was powerless to prevent Hulk going round the outside of turn four. That pretty much defined Kvyat’s day, for though the Red Bull had a small overall performance advantage, high drag/Renault power was always going to struggle in the passing places against low drag/Mercedes power – and Hulkenberg remained coolly on top of the situation.
The leading trio stayed out a little longer, Rosberg pitting from a 1.6s lead on the 13th lap, Vettel following him in. The Mercedes had to be held as the Ferrari came past, delaying Rosberg by around 1.5s. Had Hamilton still had plenty of tyre life at this point, he may have been able to pounce on Nico’s misfortune as he made his way in a lap later. But he didn’t. Furthermore, there was a delay with the right-front that meant his stop was only 0.8s faster than Rosberg’s. He’d closed the gap, but remained behind. But on the tougher medium tyre he was up for trying to crack the Rosberg challenge in this next stint.
At this stage, with the track temperature still hovering in the early-40s, Pirelli expected that the medium would not last long enough to make a two-stop a no-risk proposition. Should the temperature have dropped into the 30s, putting the medium more fully into its operating range, then two-stopping would be a more comfortable choice.
Rosberg now has the same number of Grand Prix wins as David Coulthard
The Mercs had pulled out around five seconds over Vettel at this point, with Seb about the same distance ahead of Räikkönen. “I had hoped to have better feeling with the car,” said Kimi. “On both the soft and the medium, the tyres were OK for first few laps but then quickly fell away.” He remained under no threat from Bottas who was having a very lonely race, putting distance on the yet-to-stop prime-tyred Maldonado. Hulkenberg found a way around the Lotus, but it took Kvyat a further four laps to do the same – giving Hulk a comfortable cushion.
Massa was trapped behind this pair, unable to get the best from the Williams – slower than his team-mate but using up the rubber more quickly too. It was quite the weakest home Grand Prix Massa has ever had. Pérez – falling ever-further behind – was similarly a long way adrift of his team-mate. “I have struggled to feel comfortable with the car from the start of the weekend,” he admitted, “and I feel I didn’t go in the right direction with the set-up yesterday.” He was soon under threat from the closely dicing Verstappen and Grosjean. Max had a big challenge on his hands here, trying to eke out the tyre life but having to go as fast as possible in sector two to prevent Grosjean being close enough at Juncao to be able to slipstream him up the hill.
Ricciardo, behind them, was not making the expected progress. “We just didn’t have great pace,” he said, “and we didn’t really have the tyre life we were expecting.” Button was hanging on only a little way adrift, having got ahead of Nasr through undercutting him, the Sauber finding itself in a McLaren sandwich, with Ericsson trailing behind Alonso. Nasr later nailed a brake-locking move on the JB into the Esses and Alonso closed up on him.
1. Lewis Hamilton 363
2. Nico Rosberg 297
3. Sebastian Vettel 266
4. Valtteri Bottas 136
5. Kimi Räikkönen 135
6. Felipe Massa 117
7. Daniil Kvyat 94
8. Daniel Ricciardo 84
9. Sergio Pérez 68
10. Nico Hulkenberg 52
11. Romain Grosjean 49
12. Max Verstappen 49
13. Felipe Nasr 27
14. Pastor Maldonado 27
15. Carlos Sainz 18
16. Jenson Button 16
17. Fernando Alonso 11
18. Marcus Ericsson 9
19. Roberto Merhi 0
20. Alexander Rossi 0
21. Will Stevens 0
Every lap Hamilton would try to get on Rosberg’s gearbox through Juncao at the bottom of the hill, but each time the front would just wash out, delaying his getting on the throttle. Using the slipstream up the hill plus the DRS down the pit straight only bought him back the gap he’d lost at Juncao. “I was all over him at this stage,” he related, “but just couldn’t get past.” Through the Esses and turn three he’d again find the front washing out as Rosberg’s car stole his front wing’s air and the second DRS zone down to turn four simply got him back to where he’d been. But even though he was all over him for the rest of the lap, it didn’t necessarily mean much. Rosberg was playing it very cannily.
“At that stage I was just looking after the tyres.” He was trying to ensure he had the rubber left to be able to remain on that two-stop strategy. Hamilton was using up those reserves in his fruitless attack. Into lap 17, Rosberg was very early onto the brakes for the Senna Esses, putting Lewis right on his wing – but still it wasn’t enough. Maybe Rosberg was figuring he might be able to make Hamilton vulnerable to Vettel – but the Ferrari wasn’t quite quick enough to make that feasible. For 10 laps Hamilton threw everything at Rosberg. For 10 laps Rosberg just covered him off. This was when Hamilton despaired and asked for an alternative strategy.
Maybe he could eke out this middle stint, suggested his engineer. Had they remained on a two-stop, Hamilton would likely have tried this – getting himself out of sequence with Rosberg, coming in later for fresh tyres and using those to launch his attack in the final stint. This would still be permitted under the terms of the Mercedes internal policy – they’d each still be on the same strategy, just with stretched-out stop timings. Hamilton dropped away from the back of the leader, losing 0.8s of pace on the 25th lap, dropping well out of DRS range, a little further away each lap.
But ultimately it was Ferrari who foiled Hamilton’s ploy. How so? It decided to switch Vettel from a two-stop to a three. For no other reason than it was a no-risk alternative. The two-stop wasn’t getting him any closer to the Mercs, so let’s throw the dice. There was no-one close enough behind to threaten Seb’s second place – only notionally in the form of Räikkönen, who remained on a two-stop. Vettel was brought in at the end of the 32nd lap and fitted with a set of new soft tyres.
As soon as Ferrari did that, it allowed Mercedes to do the same. With the track temperature still at that awkward level as the sun beat down, it wasn’t totally clear that the mediums would do the stint length required. So, to prevent themselves being vulnerable to Vettel, Mercedes decided to cover him – with both cars, as to do otherwise would be splitting the strategies between Rosberg and Hamilton, guaranteeing one unhappy driver. The only small risk was if Räikkönen’s two-stop proved better than a three, but Kimi’s pace was never good enough to make that a serious concern. Once Mercedes had decided to respond to Vettel’s three stop, Hamilton’s chances of trying to beat Rosberg by strategy offset was history. So he’d backed off for what turned out to be no good reason. Between laps 25 and 33 he’d unnecessarily dropped 3s to Rosberg.
So if they’d not switched to the three-stop, could Hamilton’s ploy have worked? It seems unlikely in hindsight. The rear tyres that came off Hamilton’s car at the second stops were considerably more worn than Rosberg’s. He’d almost certainly have lost too much time therefore late in that middle stint – and would then have needed to work the final set hard to get back onto Rosberg’s tail. All the evidence suggests Rosberg had this one covered regardless of strategy.
1. Mercedes 660
2. Ferrari 401
3. Williams/Mercedes 253
4. Red Bull/Renault 178
5. Force India/Mercedes 120
6. Lotus/Mercedes 76
7. Toro Rosso/Renault 67
8. Sauber/Ferrari 36
9. McLaren/Honda 27
10. Marussia/Ferrari 0
Lewis was further delayed on his out-lap clearing the traffic that his earlier backing off had put him behind after stopping. So Rosberg’s advantage stretched to over 3s. Lewis would attack this gap but with this stint set to last only 15 laps, his hopes of victory were effectively already extinguished. Rosberg was insisting he be kept informed of his team-mate’s progress but kept up an irresistible pace before coming in on the 48th lap for his final stop – the lap after Vettel’s. Hamilton duly came in a lap later – no Mexico-like request to stay out this time – and again attacked early in the stint, getting the gap down to 1.1s within five laps. Pushing hard, he flat-spotted his front tyres while lapping Grosjean. With clinical timing, Rosberg finally dug into his tyre reserve and pulled away.
Vettel kept the Ferrari less than 15s adrift of the lead but was never a threat to Hamilton’s second. His passage past two-stopping Räikkönen on his second stint – when on his soft tyres – was eased, with Kimi definitely filling the role of number two driver this weekend.
Not long after the Mercs and Vettel had switched to three stops, the track temperature finally fell below the threshold that would put the mediums into their operating band. As such, it turned out that a two-stop worked just fine. Räikkönen, Bottas, Hulkenberg and Kvyat in fourth to seventh remained on that strategy. Massa, because he had a big enough lead over the battling three-stopping Verstappen/Grosjean behind, made a third stop for free. But was later excluded for that over-temperature tyre blanket. Williams insist its readings never had it above the regulation 110-deg C.
Grosjean put a DRS move down the inside of Verstappen on the 40th lap and remained ahead of the Toro Rosso to the end, the pair promoted to seventh and eighth after Massa’s exclusion. Both had driven quite superbly. Maldonado’s alternative tyre strategy – starting on the prime and two-stopping – might have had him finishing ahead of both of them rather than directly behind, had he not incurred a 5s penalty (taken at his pit stop) for contact with Ericsson at the Esses. Ricciardo’s disappointing afternoon with the upgraded Renault engine netted him a point only after Massa’s exclusion. He’d fought his way past Pérez, who finished a couple of seconds up on Nasr. Button remained ahead of team-mate Alonso to the flag, though Fernando was complaining over the radio about Button getting priority at the second and third stops, costing Alonso time in his battle with Ericsson – who’d been delayed by a stop for a damage check after the Maldonado hit. Stevens comfortably won the Manor battle after Rossi suffered huge understeer problems on his second and third set of tyres.
Rosberg was over 7s clear of Hamilton in taking a second consecutive victory. Why the turnaround in form between them he was asked yet again. “I don’t honestly know,” he answered.