BRAZIL, 13 Nov 2016 -After two red-flag stoppages and several safety-car periods, it was Lewis Hamilton who rode out the Sao Paulo storm to win Sunday’s Formula 1 Grande Premio do Brasil 2016 from Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg, thus taking their championship battle down to the wire in Abu Dhabi in two weeks’ time.
The other star was Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, whose stunning late-race charge hauled him onto the Interlagos podium in the dying laps.
Hamilton’s first victory in the home of hero Ayrton Senna came after he led all the way at a sodden Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace in a race which was punctuated by big crashes for the likes of Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson, Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and Williams’ Felipe Massa - and which witnessed some amazing racing in its closing stages, when conditions finally became truly driveable.
Force India’s Sergio Perez took fourth place ahead of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, with Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz equalling his career-best finish in sixth. Nico Hulkenberg was seventh in the second Force India, followed by Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo. Felipe Nasr finished ninth for Sauber’s first points of the year, lifting them above Manor at the bottom of the table, while Fernando Alonso completed the top ten for McLaren.
While Hamilton had to fight only the conditions for the bulk of the race, points leader Rosberg was at one stage overtaken by Verstappen, survived a near-spin in the very slippery final corner and his distant second place was enough to take him to the showdown in Abu Dhabi with a 12-point lead and the need if necessary just to follow Hamilton home again if the Silver Arrows continue their one-two domination.
Besides Hamilton, Rosberg was upstaged by superb fighting performances by Verstappen, Nasr, Alonso and Manor’s Esteban Ocon.
The race finally began 10 minutes late and, against all expectations, behind the safety car, thanks to the rain that had been falling all morning. Even before Bernd Maylander had let the field away, it was depleted by one car after Romain Grosjean had crashed his Haas on his initial out-lap to the grid.
For the first seven laps Maylander led the field, before racing finally began on the eighth. Hamilton immediately began to open a gap over Rosberg, and Verstappen pounced on Raikkonen in Turn 1 and took away third place.
Ferrari’s race got worse when Vettel spun on the exit to the last corner on lap 10, before joining Renault’s Kevin Magnussen, McLaren’s Jenson Button and Alonso, Williams’ Valtteri Bottas and Massa, Renault’s Jolyon Palmer, Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat and Ericsson in switching from full wet to intermediate tyres.
By the 13th lap Hamilton was 5.8s ahead of Rosberg, but then Ericsson lost his Sauber in the run to the pits, removing the left front wheel and then finishing up in the pit entry. Red Bull smartly brought Verstappen straight in, but then the entry was closed so the Sauber could be removed. Ricciardo had also followed Verstappen in, but was investigated for coming in when the pit lane had just been closed. He was given a five-second time penalty.
Massa was also investigated for overtaking prior to the safety-car line at the start, and the Brazilian too was handed a five-second time penalty.
Maylander went back to work while the Sauber was cleared away, but no sooner had the safety car entered the pits for racing to commence on the 20th lap than Raikkonen lost his Ferrari on the main straight, spinning and triggering some phenomenal avoidances, most notably from Hulkenberg who was running fifth for Force India. His car sustained some debris damage as he dodged the red car which was by then facing the oncoming traffic from its resting place by the pit wall. Ocon, running a superb 10th, was also very lucky not to hit the Ferrari.
Out came the safety car for the third time, and then the race was immediately red flagged at 14.46. Eventually, after a chivalrous Hamilton had given his jacket to a shivering grid girl, the race was restarted at 15.21, again behind the safety car. Everyone was required to restart on full wets, throwing a lifeline to those whose earlier gambles on intermediates had been doomed as the rain increased.
This time the ‘race’ lasted another eight laps behind the safety car, with 50 minutes of heavy rain forecast within the next 20 minutes. Then race director Charlie Whiting had it red flagged again.
The new restart came at 16.02, again behind the safety car, with full expectation now that the race would be time limited. It would go to 52 minutes of racing, with a two-hour limit on that, but it had taken two hours and two minutes of time to get that far, and there was a four-hour limit on that.
This time, the race ran until the 48th lap before the safety car was yet again required after Massa repeated Ericsson’s shunt, even down to blocking the pit lane.
Up to that point, Hamilton had again led easily, even after Verstappen had immediately jumped Rosberg in the first corner. But then Red Bull chose to bring the Dutchman in for intermediate tyres on the 43rd lap, soon after he’d brilliantly caught a big sideways moment up the hill on the 38th lap, even though more rain was predicted.
After the Massa shunt the safety car stayed out until the 55th lap; on the 54th Red Bull had thrown in the intermediate towel and brought Verstappen in for full wets. That dropped him down to 14th, but a fabulous recovery drive would ultimately take him past team mate Ricciardo, who had stopped for intermediates on lap 40 and ditched them for wets on the 52nd.
And Verstappen just kept going. He was 12th after 57 laps as it became clear that, barring any further incidents the race would just go the full distance. Then he passed Ricciardo, and set his sights on Kvyat, Ocon, Hulkenberg, Nasr, Vettel and Perez. One by one he got them all, with some fabulous driving and ingenious use of the race track. By the flag, which a delighted Hamilton took 11.4s ahead of his team mate, Verstappen was only 10s behind Rosberg after a stunning performance.
Poor Perez lost his Force India podium three laps from home, and just held off Vettel who was angry that Verstappen had left him little room on the exit to the curve in which he overtook the Ferrari. But fifth place was still some salvage job after the Scuderia’s earlier problems.
Sainz was running fourth for Toro Rosso with five laps to go, but fell to a still respectable sixth, six-tenths behind Vettel and six ahead of Hulkenberg, who recovered well from a rear tyre puncture earlier in the race. He kept Ricciardo trapped behind him to the flag.
Another drive of the race came from Sauber’s Nasr, who gave his chances of staying with the team a major boost by hanging on to a points-scoring position at last for the team; his ninth gave them two points which, crucially, lifted them ahead of Manor into the final money-paying position in the constructors’ stakes.
That fight was nip-and-tuck for much of the race thanks to the excellent run by Ocon, who seemed set to score as well. But right at the end he fell prey to Alonso, who recovered superbly from a 360 degree spin up the hill as the final safety-car period finished. The Spaniard dropped to last place but battled back to take a point for McLaren.
Bottas took 11th for Williams ahead of the disappointed Ocon, with Kvyat next ahead of Magnussen. The Dane’s Renault partner Palmer was one of the non-finishers after hitting Kvyat just prior to Raikkonen’s shunt.
Pascal Wehrlein was 15th in the second Manor from an unhappy Jenson Button in the second McLaren, which simply didn’t work for him on intermediates. The other non-finisher was an angry Gutierrez, with mechanical trouble on his Haas.
Hamilton’s victory, the 52nd of his F1 career, moves him ahead of Alain Prost in the all-time stakes, but also makes him the only man in history to win on 24 different tracks.
He still needs to win and for Rosberg to finish fourth or lower in Abu Dhabi if he is to take a fourth title, but he described his success as “easy” despite the conditions, and added: “I’m in hunting mode.”