Feature: Talking points from the Brazilian Grand Prix

Who said there was nothing left to play for? Mercedes has the titles under lock and key at Brackley but in Brazil Formula 1 delivered a strategic race that exploded into a frenzied finale. Motorsport Week presents its talking points from the Brazilian Grand Prix.

Redemption days

Max Verstappen doesn’t like the concept of redemption but 12 months after an unseemly spat with Esteban Ocon cost him a likely win he surged to the top spot of the Interlagos podium. Verstappen was imperious throughout the weekend, flying to pole position, fastest despite a wild moment on his initial Q3 lap. Verstappen mastered the start, preserved the tyres exactly as required, and twice brilliantly grasped his opportunity to pass Lewis Hamilton, defeating the World Champion in a straight fight, even if Hamilton’s late hopes were thwarted by a lack of battery charge at the restart. For Verstappen it was win number three of the campaign and came off the back of encouraging displays, pace-wise, in Japan, Mexico and the United States. “I’m just very happy with the progress we have been making I think in the last few races,” said Verstappen. “Just having a whole clean weekend I think is what we are always after and I think that’s what happened this weekend. Of course it’s great at the end of day to also win the race and yeah, it’s promising also for next year. I think we’ve learned a lot of stuff in the last few races so hopefully it’s a good sign to have put a start to next year.”

The great Gasly

Pierre Gasly’s career has been one of exceptional highs and desperate lows. His strength of recovery cannot be doubted. He faced criticism in his junior career for his lack of victories and just as he was about to turn a corner suffered a serious road car accident that hospitalised a close relative. Three days later he ended a 1,000-day win drought. He had to wait for his F1 debut, sent to Super Formula to continue his learning, and his Red Bull promotion for 2019 was a horror show from start to finish. But since returning to Toro Rosso he has knuckled down and been superb where others may have crumbled. Gasly has held the upper hand on Daniil Kvyat and in Brazil was exemplary, leading the midfield battle to leave himself in prime position when others faltered. Toro Rosso mastered the strategy (Soft/Medium/Soft) and Gasly executed it as required. It was also a fitting tribute to Gasly’s close friend, Anthoine Hubert, who died in August. “It’s crazy,” said an understandably emotional Gasly. “These guys are used to it. You get used to being on the podium in the lower series, and then after coming into Formula 1, it’s a feeling you miss. I was really missing it. My last podium was in Formula 2 when I was champion in 2016. And then, it’s something you want to experience, especially in Formula 1 and yeah, today, to be in the middle, in second place between Max and Lewis, my first podium in F1 is just… yeah, just insane, and amazing and really emotional for me.”

Sweet Carlos Sainz

Third place never seemed so good. Sainz Jr. and McLaren have been the stand-out midfield package this year, with the Spaniard receiving a new leash of life at a team that has been on a largely upwards trajectory. As with Gasly Sainz Jr. has had setbacks and profited from malaise elsewhere for his Brazil result, but it was an outstanding display. Sainz Jr.’s early pass on Sergio Perez was brilliantly executed and at both restarts he had to manage old Medium tyres compared to the new Softs enjoyed by rivals, as McLaren gambled by staying out. It was a gamble that paid off. Sainz Jr. kept Kimi Raikkonen at bay and completed a remarkable recovery from the back of the grid to fourth, later third when Lewis Hamilton’s penalty was confirmed. Sainz Jr. was denied the limelight but McLaren put on its own post-race ceremony as the entire team climbed onto the podium, with Formula 1 staff waiting for the squad to enjoy its moment before starting the de-rigging process.

Alfabulous

Semantics cause nuances in Formula 1 thanks to official names and rebranding. Not since 2009 had cars produced by Hinwil both finished inside the top five at a grand prix. Not since 1951 had Alfa Romeo secured such a strong result. Not even the evergreen Kimi Raikkonen was in Formula 1 back then. After a difficult run Alfa Romeo’s C38 was a far more competitive package in Brazil as Raikkonen captured a Q3 spot, remaining towards the front of the midfield in race trim, though couldn’t quite find a way through on Sainz Jr. as he grappled with a late battery issue. Raikkonen’s display was consolidated by team-mate Antonio Giovinazzi, comfortably recording his best finish in Formula 1 in fifth, in his first race since his 2020 plans were shored up. It hauled Alfa Romeo comfortably clear of Haas and means their flagging 2019 campaign has a high note at the end.

Mercedes off the boil

This was one of Mercedes’ worst results of the hybrid era, though that wasn’t a difficult accomplishment given their usual high benchmark. The pace of Verstappen and Red Bull forced Mercedes into trying alternative tactics where they could, forcing the undercut twice, before adopting the opposite approach during the two Safety Car periods in a bid to pull off victory. An insufficiently charged battery cost Hamilton performance by the time the cars reached the Senna S while his late prospects where hampered by Mercedes’ misjudgement. It estimated he would only drop to third, not fourth, by making another stop, while they also did not expect the debris to take so long to be cleared. It left Hamilton facing a steeper mountain to climb in a bid to catch Verstappen but even so he was culpable for the collision which denied Albon a podium, and he duly and accepted blame unprompted. Valtteri Bottas, meanwhile, had an anonymous display (surely not part of his 2020 title plan) before excessive oil consumption led to Mercedes’ first in-race failure in nearly 18 months.

Just how good is Albon?

Make no mistake. Albon has shown more in the Red Bull RB15 compared to predecessor Gasly, his peaks (most impressively Suzuka Q3) are encouragingly lofty, while at times his racecraft has been eye-catching. His pass on Sebastian Vettel at the restart was exceptionally well-judged. But just how good is Albon overall? Albon qualified in sixth place in a car that was strong enough for pole position, while in race trim he was adrift of Verstappen. Their split strategy second stint makes a direct comparison problematic but after the opening stint on Softs he had relinquished 18 seconds to his team-mate in 20 laps. In Belgium and Italy engine changes scuppered Red Bull’s chances, the go-slow in Singapore rendered comparisons tricky, while in Japan Verstappen was a non-factor after his Turn 1 clash. Albon has had a strong maiden Formula 1 season, with his rise astonishing, and Red Bull has made the right call for 2020. But at this stage the jury is firmly out over just exactly how good he has really been. 

The anonymous Hulk

Nico Hulkenberg’s most famous Formula 1 moments came at Interlagos courtesy of his 2010 pole position and 2012 race-leading heroics. As he faces the final foray of his top-flight career there was a certain cruel poetry to an anonymous display in Brazil. Hulkenberg struggled for pace throughout the race and is turned out to be one of those afternoons where a potential opportunity never arose. Hulkenberg was P12 at the flag but dropped to P15 after a time penalty for a Safety Car misdemeanour. Elsewhere Pierre Gasly and Carlos Sainz Jr. collected a top three finish which leaves Hulkenberg as the only non-rookie on the current grid without a Formula 1 trophy to their name. Given the narrative that has built up it would not be surprising if Esteban Ocon took a podium on his Renault debut next March.

Whacky races still highlights flaws

There was a lot to smile about after the conclusion of the weekend’s action, given the results taken by teams usually facing a best of fifth or sixth, if all the stars align. And that highlights exactly where Formula 1 needs to go into the mid-2020s. That the drivers P6 and P7 in the championship managing to finish one race inside the top three was such a rare occurrence shows just how dominant the leading three outfits have been. That is not to take anything away from the excellent Gasly and Sainz Jr., but it still took all of the front-runners bar Max Verstappen to have a disaster for the situation to unfold. Hopefully there will be greater parity, maybe not in 2021, but by the mid-2020s.