2018 Brazilian Grand Prix reportby Mark Hughes on 12th November 2018
The full story on a controversial and captivating Brazilian Formula 1 Grand Prix at Interlagos
Max Verstappen and Esteban Ocon have history – physical history – going right back to their karting days.
Always two sides to every story. Their latest contretemps came as Verstappen – having passed both Ferraris and both Mercedes – was leading, the race apparently under his control courtesy of a great drive and the Red Bull’s ability to treat its tyres so much more kindly than its rivals.
Ocon was running his Force India a lapped 16th but had just pitted for a new set of supersofts – and was potentially going to be able to run around 1sec per lap faster than the cruising, nine-lap old soft tyre pace Verstappen was setting.
Even a mid-grid car against a frontrunner, when on new tyres is so much faster that the driver can barely comprehend how slowly the other guy is going. Ocon slipstreamed the leader down to the Senna Esses, forcing Verstappen to defend.
Max could maybe have let him go at this point but, as the leader, he assumed the backmarker wasn’t going to interfere with his race, that if he wanted to pass he’d do it somewhere risk-free and neutral – like under DRS on the run down to Turn Four perhaps. Not by sitting out the apex of Turn Two from the inside.
Ocon, once he’d done the natural racing thing that’s hardwired into a driver of claiming his piece of track, was left with nowhere to go as Verstappen turned in under the mistaken assumption that Ocon would no longer be there, that he’d have merged in behind to prepare a less risky pass.
Hamilton had been fighting a losing battle to control his race
And so they collided, spinning in elegant formation. Before Verstappen could get going again, with much of the right-hand side of the floor missing, there was a flash of silver - and the victory changed hands.
It was one of Hamilton’s luckiest wins – certainly one of the most stressful.
Shortly before his pitstop on lap 19, the engine guys were advising that total power unit failure was just one lap away. An exhaust problem meant the valves were running at around 1,000 degC – about 10 per cent too high. Valve failure and then catastrophic mechanical mayhem were just a breath away.
So the power was turned way down, the mixture richened to allow the fuel to help cool things, and then fingers were crossed. The first Hamilton knew of it was when he began experiencing sudden power dropouts. Yes, it was explained to him, they knew what the problem was. ‘We are trying to save the power unit.’
Ah, that explained why they’d been so quiet on the radio after he’d pitted and why they hadn’t been giving him the gap to Verstappen who’d stayed out long after Hamilton; they’d been too busy firefighting.
Even before that was spelt out to him, Hamilton had been fighting a losing battle to control his race, with a combination of his blistering tyres and the Red Bull’s apparent immunity to the phenomenon.
Hamilton was going to finish a distant second – if he finished at all. Then the sniff of rubber smoke and a beautiful little present as he charged down the Senna Esses with 27 laps to go. Even with half its floor missing, the Red Bull was faster and caught up all over again, but not quickly enough. Stress from lap one to 71, little wonder a relieved Hamilton knelt by the side of his car in parc ferme and tried to take it all in, before giving the car a friendly pat of gratitude on its engine cover.
And in that dramatic, tense, way, Mercedes clinched its fifth consecutive constructors’ championship.
Interlagos rarely produces a drama-free qualifying – and this one ran true to form.
The jeopardy was provided, as ever, by the weather. With the threat of imminent rain as Q2 began, everyone got straight out on supersofts but Ferrari had a secret plan to pit Vettel and Räikkönen at the end of their out laps to be fitted with more durable softs – thereby potentially buying a strategy advantage over the Mercedes drivers who may not have been able to respond before the rain arrived.
It was high-risk, but smart, and, with little to lose at this stage of the championship, why not? The spanner in the works was the most inopportunely-timed random weight check in history – as Vettel was called to the portable weighbridge as he came in. The normal procedure is for the driver to cut the engine and the car is then pushed onto the scales, weighed and pushed back off.
Vettel, keen to get on with things, refused to cut the engine and drove onto the weighbridge. He then cut the engine and after being weighed, restarted it on the ersK and drove off. In doing this, he destroyed the scales.
“I don’t think they should call us when conditions are changing like that. I think it’s unfair,” said Vettel and he surely had a point. But, just as certainly, he didn’t react in a way that helped his own cause. It was another of his red mist moments.
As it happened, the rain held off and there was plenty of time, even after a delay of around 30sec, for Vettel to get to the pits, have his soft tyres fitted, and get out to set a time. Both Ferraris, therefore, got to start the race on the more durable tyre. The Mercedes and Red Bull drivers, after doing their supersoft laps and with the track still more or less dry, returned and tried to beat those times with softs. None of them managed to do so – though Verstappen failed only by the margin of a few hundredths.
Into Q3, with light drizzle still falling here and there but with everyone on supersofts, Hamilton went quickest on both runs to beat Vettel to pole – by 0.154sec initially, extending that to 0.174sec on his final try. Vettel’s fate then rested in the hands of the stewards, as he was called to explain himself.
Not that Hamilton had avoided controversy as in Q2 he had twice impeded other drivers. Sergey Sirotkin needed lightning reflexes to avoid the Mercedes as Hamilton dived left too late trying to get out of the way of the Williams, but inadvertently put himself right in its path.
Sirotkin, like Hamilton, was on an out lap but needed to be preparing his tyres more aggressively than Hamilton (because Williams, not expecting to get through to Q2 had not had Sirotkin’s tyres in the blankets long) and so had begun accelerating much earlier. Shortly afterwards, Hamilton baulked Räikkönen, beginning a flying lap, on the run down to Turn Four, Kimi spearing left in avoidance but continuing on his way to eventually qualify fourth in Q3, one place behind Bottas’s Mercedes.
Bottas and Räikkönen were, respectively 0.16sec and 0.082sec slower than their team-mates; small but crucial margins.
Despite running the Spec 2 engine to Hamilton’s Spec 3, Bottas reckoned he had the pace for pole and only lost it through not having a tow up the final stretch: “I was more than two-tenths up in the second run but lost everything in the last corner without any tow.”
In full dry running in P3, the Ferrari – back to the standard floor after again trying the new one on Friday – definitely appeared to have the edge over the Mercedes, to the tune of a couple of tenths.
Remarkably, despite an increasingly slippery track, Leclerc punched his way into Q3.
Concerned about rear tyre blistering on Friday, but opting to again cover up the rear wheel spacer cooling holes to head off any protest that might threaten the sealing of the constructors’ title, Mercedes had increased downforce levels – which made it clearly fastest through the twisty middle sector but losing more than they gained there through the straight line stretches of sectors one and three, where the Ferrari was untouchable.
Pirelli had again increased the minimum pressures (23.5psi rear/21.5 psi front) on Friday – and this seemed to have hurt Mercedes more than Ferrari. The drizzle of Saturday afternoon seemed to have come to Mercedes’ rescue. Vettel was contending for pole regardless, but: “I tried a little bit too hard probably, going into Turn Eight and locked the front, lost a little bit the rhythm. Tried something special in the last corner, didn’t work, so…”
Red Bull, without enough altitude to equalise its engines the way they had been in Mexico, was outclassed in the first and third sectors and so, with the first two rows out of reach, opted for a set-up that protected the rear tyres for the projected high track temperature of Sunday.
Consequently, it was a little understeery and Max Verstappen qualified fifth, around 0.5sec off pole position. Ricciardo came into the weekend knowing he’d be taking a five-place grid penalty for a new turbocharger to replace the one damaged by fire extinguishant in Mexico. He qualified two hundredths slower than his team-mate, sixth-fastest.
All the Ferrari-powered cars were going well, but the Saubers in particular, which had a small but consistent edge, over the usually-faster Haas. Marcus Ericsson was revelling in it and managed to out-qualify team-mate Charles Leclerc by a couple of tenths to put himself on ‘Class B pole’ for the first ever time, seventh-quickest. Leclerc had been deeply impressive at the end of Q2. With just a couple of minutes remaining he’d not got into the top 10 and went out for a final try just as the drizzle was increasing in intensity, on a set of used, slightly flat-spotted tyres. The team advised him to pit. He replied he was going to stay out and give it a go. Remarkably, despite an increasingly slippery track, he punched his way into Q3.
Rounding out the top 10 were Grosjean’s Haas and Pierre Gasly’s Toro Rosso-Honda. Around these cut-off points it was all about being on track at the right time – with the track at its least slippery.
Toro Rosso called this perfectly for Gasly, Haas less so for Kevin Magnussen, who was in the garage when the track was at its best in Q2, and consequently ended up 11th.
The Toro Rossos were back to running the Spec 3 Honda. Brendon Hartley’s Q1 lock up into Turn Eight cost him what would otherwise have been a comfortable graduation to Q2 and he would line up 17th.
Force India was not quite in Q3 contention – Sergio Pérez and Esteban Ocon 12th and 13th respectively, with the latter taking a five-place gearbox penalty. Set-up changes between P3 and qualifying to protect the rear tyres for race day had perhaps compromised the raw pace more than expected. Pérez had also lost track time to third driver Nicholas Latifi in P1 and a steering problem in P2.
The Renaults were struggling even more, their engines breathless up the long uphill drag that ends the lap and not very well balanced in the middle sector. Nico Hülkenberg (who had crashed heavily on Friday afternoon) made it into Q2 and qualified 14th there but Carlos Sainz failed to graduate from Q1 and was a couple of places behind.
Sirotkin, after starring in getting the Williams into Q2, didn’t do a representative lap there and would line up 16th.
The McLarens were the slowest cars in the place, with Fernando Alonso barely any faster than Stroll’s Williams. Stoffel Vandoorne was a couple of tenths slower and solidly at the back.
Three pm, the track was pretty hot – at 40 degC, hotter than it had been all weekend. In theory, that favoured the soft tyres fitted to the two Ferraris as they sat on the grid, and not the supersofts of the others in the top 10. From the outside, it looked like Ferrari’s Q2 gamble might be about to pay off spectacularly.
But from the dirty side of the grid and with a less grippy compound, it was always going to be difficult to win the start. It was going to be even more so given the engine sensor problem on Vettel’s Ferrari that the watching world knew nothing of. It had made itself apparent as soon as he drove it out the pitlane – and the telemetry confirmed it. All that could be done in the available time was to run the engine in an extremely protective mode – which badly affected its driveability. Vettel knew he had a tough afternoon ahead of him even before he lost the start to Hamilton.
He locked up slightly into Turn One on the inside, trying in vain to prevent Bottas getting around his outside to make it a Mercedes 1-2. Verstappen had taken advantage of Räikkönen’s less grippy tyre to claim fourth around the outside of Turn One, but the relative straight-line speeds of the two cars made it a matter of routine for Räikkönen to slipstream back ahead on the approach to Turn Four.
On the grid, much of Ericsson’s diffuser had to be glued back on after coming adrift on a reconnaissance lap. After being passed almost immediately by Leclerc, he made contact with Grosjean as the Haas forced its way by in Turn Two and again the Sauber was throwing bits of carbon fibre across the track. Grosjean’s car took some non-critical floor damage, reckoned to have cost around 1sec per lap. For Ericsson this was a cruel fate after starting from a career-high third row of the grid. Down to Turn Four, Magnussen tried to take advantage but Ericsson was in no mood for further compromise and the Haas was elbowed way out onto the run-off area, losing many places. Gasly slipped ahead of the limping Sauber at the bottom of the hill and Ricciardo slipstreamed past it into the Senna Esses at the end of the opening lap – and would quickly pick off the slower cars ahead, until he was running at the tail of ‘Class A’ by the fifth lap.
Already it was apparent that Ferrari’s hoped-for tyre advantage was not materialising – and that the Red Bulls were flying. Verstappen had breezed by Räikkönen to retake fourth into the Esses at the end of the second lap (even without DRS) and did much the same to Vettel a lap later, with DRS.
“It wasn’t that the softs were bad or slow to come in,” reflected Vettel later. “It was just that the super-soft on the others wasn’t as bad as we expected. It wasn’t slow and its durability was OK.”
With far more tyre grip coming out of the final turn, Verstappen was able to overcome the Red Bull’s lack of straight-line speed to slipstream at will.
So, as Verstappen set off after the Mercedes, Vettel was left struggling with his driveability problems and so-so tyre grip. After being passed by the Red Bull, his checked momentum allowed Räikkönen to close on him down to Turn Four and, as Vettel defended, he was a little late on the brakes. He locked up, ran wide – and Räikkönen was through and pulling away. Vettel’s mirrors were, soon enough, full of Ricciardo.
Hamilton meanwhile was managing the tyres and driving very much to a dictated pace, with Bottas keeping just out of his turbulent air and doing much the same. But Verstappen was about to disturb that cosy little arrangement.
Several times this year we’ve seen that the Red Bull is better on its tyres than the Mercedes or Ferrari. But this weekend the difference was stark. It was a high-stress day for the rubber, more so with the high minimum pressures Pirelli had imposed. Blistering of the right-front and rears was the challenge to be contained – but it seemed only half as difficult to do with the RB14.
Maybe it’s the relatively easy time its engine gives the rears, or the better response its shorter wheelbase gives the fronts, so minimising the time they are being dragged with steering lock across the tarmac.
No one fully understands, not even Red Bull. But on this difficult tyre day, Red Bull’s usage advantage was magnified.
They hoped they could just survive and second place would be a bonus.
The fastest way to run the race was, as usual, a one-stop with some early tyre management. Red Bull reckoned it might get the supersofts to lap 20/21 – and, like everyone else, get onto the mediums for the remaining 50 laps. Missing out the softs. It would turn out it – but only it – could go way longer than that.
Mercedes, just as it expected, was struggling with the supersoft and would have preferred the soft, but had missed that opportunity in Q2 the day before. Ferrari, ironically, was on the soft but wishing it’d gone for the supersoft. Nonetheless, by the eighth lap, Räikkönen was almost up with Verstappen as the latter couldn’t find a way by Bottas, who was increasingly struggling get the Merc to turn in as his front blistering began to worsen. Hamilton’s tyres weren’t much better.
Before Räikkönen got too much closer, Verstappen finally nailed a move on Bottas, down the inside into Turn One. Hamilton was only a further couple of seconds up the road and not in great shape.
Behind the big three teams, Leclerc and Grosjean pulled ever-further away from Gasly.
Ericsson struggled on for a while with the floor and front wing damage incurred on the first lap but the car became increasingly ill-balanced and, after falling down the order and later spinning, he brought it in to retire.
Magnussen, who had started on the soft, then gradually reeled-in Gasly while pulling away from the supersoft-shod Pérez and the battling Renaults of Sainz and Hülkenberg (which had rubbed wheels on the opening lap).
Alonso initially held sway in the tail-end battle from Hartley (starting on the mediums and planning to run very long), Ocon, Sirotkin, Stroll and Vandoorne but the grid-penalised Ocon would soon forge his way through that group, leaving Alonso to fight with the Williams pair and his own team-mate.
Informed by the engine bods, who were in full crisis management mode, Hamilton’s race engineer Pete Bonnington was guiding his driver into running with the necessary conservative engine settings. So Hamilton was literally powerless to do much about Verstappen other than drive defensive lines when necessary. Räikkönen meanwhile was now all over Bottas while Ricciardo was all over Vettel.
Bottas now had blistering on the rears as well as the fronts and before Ferrari got a chance to undercut Räikkönen past him, Mercedes brought Valtteri in for his new mediums at the end of lap 18.
The timing was also determined by Verstappen’s continued chase of Hamilton, for as soon as the Red Bull would get 22sec clear of Magnussen’s Haas, it would have a gap to drop into – and would surely go for the undercut on Hamilton.
To head that Red Bull undercut off, Hamilton was brought in at the end of the 19th lap and fitted with his mediums. Red Bull kept Verstappen out there but rather than letting rip, trying to open up a 22sec gap over Hamilton, he was guided into maximising the stint length, initially just to maximise the tyre life offset to the Mercedes in the second stint. But the longer Verstappen’s stint in the lead went on, the better the car began to feel – and it soon became clear that they could get him to go long enough to be able to get onto the softs rather than the mediums for the second stint. Similarly, Red Bull spurned the opportunity of undercutting Vettel with Ricciardo.
“We were expecting to get to about lap 20/21 with the [supersoft],” said Christian Horner, “but it just kept getting better for us.”
Verstappen’s gap over Hamilton hovered at around 19/20sec, as Hamilton did enough to not let the Red Bull get the extra couple of seconds. At this point he got onto the radio asking for information – of what his gap over Verstappen was and whether it was enough. He still didn’t know the extent of emergency regarding his engine. “Well, this tyre doesn’t feel good,” he said of the medium just half-a-dozen laps into his stint on it.
With Räikkönen under no undercut threat but around 8sec behind Verstappen, Ferrari chose to bring Vettel in first to guard against a Ricciardo undercut. This was on lap 27. Räikkönen stayed out for a further four laps and this had the effect of undercutting Vettel back ahead. However, Räikkönen’s car was in far better shape, with Vettel still suffering the effects of the failed sensor. Under team instruction, they swapped positions on lap 35, allowing Räikkönen to set chase once more for Bottas, whose mediums were 13 laps older.
Hamilton, despite his problems, managed to keep up a good enough pace on his mediums to prevent Verstappen getting a pitstop’s-worth of gap over him. Max was finally brought in on the 35th lap as he was about to encounter delays lapping traffic. On went the yellow-walled softs and as he drove down that evocative plunging downhill pit exit, Hamilton’s Mercedes swept by a couple of seconds to the good – but on significantly slower tyres, with half the race distance still to go. At Mercedes, they knew they were not going to hold the Red Bull off. They hoped they could just survive and second place would be a bonus.
“We have the engine guys in the back and also back at base,” related Toto Wolff, “and what I could hear – because I’m having about 10 channels open – on the meeting channel was, ‘Lewis Hamilton power unit failure imminent. It’s going to fail within the next lap.’
“I put the volume up and said, ‘Excuse me, what?!’
“’They said: ‘yeah, we have a massive problem and the [power unit] is going to fail on the next lap.’
“It didn’t fail next lap and I said, ‘When you guys have a minute, tell me what’s happening.’
“They said that the exhaust was about to fail and we are overshooting all the temperature limits. They started to fix it by turning the whole thing down. The temperatures went down to below 1000 [degC], to 980, but that is still too high. And then we recovered another lap. That was truly horrible.”
He informed the team over the radio: “I’m going to send it.”
With his mediums beginning to blister, Hamilton had nowhere near the Red Bull’s traction out of Junção on lap 38 and Verstappen got strong into his slipstream and simply popped out of it at the top of the hill to pass the Mercedes even before the pit straight. Hamilton got DRS on the back straight and got a run going down to Turn Four but Verstappen had it covered and from there simply utilised his greater grip to pull away.
Ricciardo had assumed a temporary lead – with not quite enough of a gap to jump Vettel, who was able to speed up at the appropriate time to ensure the Red Bull came out behind after pitting for its softs on lap 39. So with everyone having stopped, Verstappen led going away from Hamilton, with Bottas 8sec back and being pressured intensely by Räikkönen. A couple of seconds back from there Vettel was still hanging on ahead of Ricciardo, Daniel a couple of times getting wheel-to-wheel through the first part of the Esses but without enough momentum to make it stick.
Leclerc remained dominant in the ‘best of the rest’ section, with Grosjean and his damaged Haas unable to offer a challenge. Gasly didn’t have the tyre usage to hold off the soft-tyred Magnussen or even the super-soft-shod Pérez and had been passed on track by both even before making an early stop. Magnussen would run very long on his harder tyres and emerge within 8sec of team-mate Grosjean, chasing him down on faster tyres for the last 30 laps.
Verstappen was 2.7sec ahead of Hamilton as they swooshed by on the 43rd lap.
The lapped Ocon, having done a long first stint on the softs, had just made his first pitstop – and been fitted with a set of supersofts. But only after a long delay as the right-rear proved reluctant to come off. That delay proved to be crucial to the outcome of the race.
Ocon exited close behind Verstappen on track, followed for a couple of laps but on his new supersofts could feel he was way quicker than the leader was choosing to go. He asked if he could un-lap himself – the team told him he should.
On lap 43, with the help of DRS, he challenged Verstappen into the Senna Esses, Max covering the inside to defend his track space. He mistakenly assumed that Ocon had tucked back in behind as they swept down the hill and he turned into the second part of the Esses. Ocon had instead chosen to continue to fight and so had no options left as the Red Bull turned in alongside him – and around they each went after a big hit. Ocon was later awarded a stop/go penalty for causing an avoidable accident.
“I went on the outside at Turn One,” said Ocon, “the same move I made on Fernando and on many others before, but Max didn’t give me any space. Once I was beside him I couldn’t just disappear, so we collided. But it was my corner and I had the right to the space.”
“Of course a backmarker can un-lap himself,” said Verstappen, “but he took an unnecessary amount of risk, especially against the race leader. They gave him the penalty for causing a collision so I think that says enough.”
Hamilton could barely believe his luck as he swept by back into a lead he thought he’d never see again. Verstappen, with much of the right side of the floor and bargeboards ripped off, got going again, around 6sec behind. Remarkably, not only was the car still functioning at all – it was still quicker than the tyre and engine-compromised Mercedes.
“I lost a lot of downforce,” related Verstappen. “I had to lock a lot of tools on the steering wheel but that was still not enough. But still the car was quick.”
He chipped away at the lead by two or three tenths each lap. Hamilton was keen to be given a little more power. Absolutely not, he was told. This all brought Räikkönen back into play, and he was steadily gaining on them both.
Ricciardo was still in hot pursuit of Vettel. On the 46th lap he came by the pits, DRS engaged, but still quite some distance behind. He informed the team over the radio: “I’m going to send it.”
With that remarkable ability he has to judge super-late braking points without locking a wheel, he simply ambushed the Ferrari and stole its fifth place into the Esses. Next target: Bottas, who was struggling again with front and rear blistering. With no threat from behind once Ricciardo had passed, Vettel was brought in for a free second stop and fitted with super-softs on the 53rd lap. If there was a safety car, he’d be in great shape.
Bottas held Ricciardo off for a while – until he ran out of overtaking mode allowances. Ricciardo pounced on the 59th lap, but Räikkönen’s third place was just out of reach. Bottas had enough of a margin over Vettel that he too could be brought in for a free second stop as soon as he was passed by the Red Bull. He was fitted with a new set of softs, on which he set the race’s fastest lap.
Verstappen chipped away at Hamilton’s lead, but not by enough to get within DRS range before the end. After 71 stressful laps, Hamilton had surely never been so relieved to see the chequer.
Verstappen could be satisfied with his recovery but his overriding emotion remained one of anger at Ocon – and the two had a shoving match in the weighing garage subsequently, for which Verstappen was reprimanded and ordered to serve two days FIA PR duty.
Räikkönen, Ricciardo, Bottas and Vettel completed the Class A finishers, with Leclerc taking his second ‘best of the rest’ finish of the season from Grosjean, Magnussen and Pérez.
Outside the top 10, there was something of a civil war at Toro Rosso as Hartley demanded that Gasly – on much older tyres and therefore much slower – be moved aside, with the Frenchman initially refusing to do so but eventually acceding. With his tyres in shreds, he was demoted a further place on the last lap by Sainz in the only surviving Renault – Hülkenberg having retired with an overheating engine.
Alonso’s choice of an early stop in an attempt at undercutting ahead backfired, allowing Sirotkin’s Williams and team-mate Vandoorne to get ahead, the latter after a few wheel-to-wheel moments. The Spaniard got back ahead of Sirotkin on the last lap but was subsequently demoted behind it again after a penalty for ignoring blue flags. He wasn’t in a great mood at the end of it all… Stroll finished last.
So, as Alonso’s Formula 1 career draws to a low-key close, his former team-mate and rival just keeps piling on the achievements. But of all those 72 victories, have any of them been as marginal as this one?