Feature: Conclusions from the 2018 Brazilian Grand Prix
Lewis Hamilton claimed victory at a Brazilian Grand Prix that was steeped in drama and intrigue from start to finish. Motorsport Week presents its conclusions from the penultimate round of the 2018 Formula 1 season.
Some of Lewis Hamilton’s 2018 victories have been dominant exhibitions – not so in Brazil. The record books will always show Hamilton followed up pole position with victory, but it was far from straightforward. Hamilton dragged out a superb Q3 lap as his rivals faltered and in race trim extracted the maximum from a car that was not only struggling for tyre preservation but also wounded by an exhaust problem. It was a display that typified the brilliance of the World Champions. Hamilton did all he could – and the win was the icing on the cake – while Mercedes’ crew at Interlagos and Brackley/Brixworth worked wonders to remotely alleviate a seemingly terminal problem. Hamilton and Mercedes have pushed each other to new levels and the relationship continues to flourish, even six years into the partnership. The victory strike rate is astonishing (50 in 99 hybrid races for Hamilton) and that next year is going to be a sterner challenge only acts as greater motivation to both driver and team.
Verstappen on the attack (Pt I)
Red Bull did not expect to display such pace in Brazil but Ferrari’s strategic gamble failing to pay off, Sebastian Vettel’s struggles, combined with Mercedes’ tyre woes and Lewis Hamilton’s focus on securing the Constructors’ crown, combined in perfect harmony for Max Verstappen, whose flair was in full display. Verstappen’s overtaking is an art form in itself, as he picked off Kimi Raikkonen, Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas in stunning fashion, almost bullying them out of the way. In being able to extend his first stint – the RB14 kinder on its tyres than the W09 and SF71H – Verstappen could take on Softs as opposed to Hamilton’s Mediums, meaning the rubber was not only fresher but softer, and therefore quicker. Verstappen’s superior traction exiting Juncao counteracted Red Bull’s straight-line deficit and his move on Hamilton was done and dusted before the Senna S. It was nearly complete. It was nearly so sweet.
Verstappen on the attack (Pt 2)
Enter, stage right, Esteban Ocon. The Force India driver was within his right to want to un-lap himself; he had taken on fresh Supersofts and was keen to make up a chasm he faced to rivals in a bid to claim points. On lap 43 (42 for Ocon) he was 0.3s faster than Verstappen, and used the slipstream to go around the outside at the Senna S. This was where he went wrong. A wiser driver would have backed off, slotted in behind the leader, and used DRS to pass along Reta Oposta. Ocon stayed committed and astonishingly clashed with Verstappen, spinning both. Verstappen could have potentially left more room – and a sly dig from Hamilton post-race was a little display of psychological warfare towards the young charger – but it was a bizarre move by Ocon, and the penalty rightly deserved. The post-race pushing was unedifying but ultimately mere playground stuff, though it nonetheless will have provided Verstappen’s rivals with some insight into how he can be riled. Hamilton has previously quipped about knowing Vettel’s weaknesses. You’d think he will have lodged a note in his brain about how Verstappen reacted.
Vettel’s front-row spot ignited hope that he could end a win drought that stretched back to August, with his plight surely aided by Ferrari’s tyre strategy. Losing a spot to Valtteri Bottas off the line was an inconvenience but not a disaster, though rather than place the Finn under pressure he drifted away, overhauled by Verstappen and usurped by Raikkonen after an error. Vettel also relinquished ground to Daniel Ricciardo, while being on the receiving end of a team order will not have been a gratifying experience for a driver who was every inch the likely champion through the summer phase. Taking a less-than-stellar strategy was accentuated by a sensor problem that left Vettel with different settings, negatively impacting the handling of the car, a crucial component around such a short circuit in a Grand Prix with fine margins. It has been a long season. Vettel could surely do with a break.
Could it have been Ricciardo?
Ricciardo’s misfortune has been well-documented and it was impossible not to feel even more sympathetic towards his plight when it transpired that the new turbocharger was required on account of the Mexico version being damaged by extinguisher foam. It was not the fault of the Mexican marshal, who carried out their job as required, but just pure bad luck. It left Ricciardo 11th on the grid, rather than sixth, and while he caught and passed both Bottas and Vettel, he finished just four-tenths down on Raikkonen, having reeled in the Ferrari driver in the closing stages. He was also just five seconds adrift of race winner Hamilton. Without the grid penalty Ricciardo would surely have mounted the podium – and on which step is anyone’s guess.
Sauber’s progress through the year has been stunning, having begun with the ambition of latching onto a midfield fight that it comfortably led in Brazil. Charles Leclerc demonstrated leadership and ability in Q2 by asserting he wanted to go for a lap time amid the drizzle – and then duly delivering. In race trim he maintained the ‘Class B’ lead throughout and brought home a strong haul of points that has probably sealed eighth for Sauber – and still gives it hope of edging Force India for seventh. It was nonetheless bittersweet for Sauber as Marcus Ericsson’s prospects were thwarted by pre-race damage that was exacerbated by first-lap contact, leaving his C37 shorn of downforce. Ericsson has made year-on-year improvement in Formula 1 and he will be an asset to SPM in IndyCar – it would not be a surprise to see him becoming the second SPM rookie in as many years fight at the sharp end.
A Curate’s Egg
Renault’s difficult-to-judge 2018 campaign will only be able to be properly assessed once 2019 rolls around. On face value it has been an odd season, in which it holds the lead of the midfield standings but has put in too many off-colour displays to be taken seriously as a title threat within the next five years. It is still a long way from the podium. Haas – while strong in Brazil – has squandered several chances that would leave it close to, or above of, Renault. Force India, with its tallies combined, would also be in the mix for fourth. Carlos Sainz Jr. had a meandering weekend while Nico Hulkenberg crashed in FP2 before an overheating engine meant he was parked as a precaution, with Abu Dhabi in mind.
Just one to go
The Brazilian Grand Prix was a thriller from start to finish as various strategies unfolded among the front-runners (and, as in Austin, the top three had three different approaches) while there was further intrigue in the midfield. And at the back, at the venue where he clinched both titles, was Fernando Alonso. McLaren had one of its most lacklustre performances of a miserable campaign, while Alonso was compromised even more by a slow stop and a penalty for ignoring blue flags. The ignominy. Yes, Alonso copes some blame for his fate with his career decisions. Yes, McLaren’s plight has been hurt by its 2019 focus. But for Alonso’s F1 career to dissolve in such an abject fashion is a sad sight. What will Abu Dhabi deliver? Probably another Q1 exit and a struggled to 14th or 15th. He deserves a better send-off than that.