Yesterday’s Brazilian Grand Prix was about fighting back, in more ways than one. For Lewis Hamilton, it was about making the most of a pit-lane start after a crash in qualifying. For Daniel Ricciardo, it was about overcoming a poor start and a grid penalty, and for Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari, it was about reminding everyone that they are still competitive.
Vettel had lined up second on the grid, behind the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas, with the second Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen and the Red Bull of Max Verstappen behind them. Would Bottas (who took the third pole of his career) be able to convert his excellent qualifying performance into victory? Well, that opportunity took a blow into the first corner, with Vettel getting a better start and diving down the inside of turn 1 to take the lead. Behind the leaders, a little bit of chaos erupted.
First, Ricciardo took a spin when tagged by the errant McLaren of Stoffel Vandoorne, who had been hit by the Haas of Kevin Magnussen. Ricciardo was able to keep going but both Magnussen and Vandoorne were out. Further up the road, the second Haas of Romain Grosjean took out the Force India of Esteban Ocon; a spot of clumsy driving from Grosjean saw him bump into the side of Ocon and give his fellow Frenchman not one but two punctures. Grosjean would earn a 10-second penalty and two penalty points for the incident.
The first incident triggered an early safety car spell, allowing Hamilton to close up on the pack and giving Ricciardo a chance to pit and get his car checked for damage. Once the race resumed, both men would start to charge up the order. Hamilton was aided by a new engine, allowing him to turn up the power and really push. Ricciardo, with a somewhat temperamental Renault engine, had to be more careful, but this didn’t stop him from pulling off a few trademark late braking moves into turn 1.
Up front, Vettel eked out a small gap over Bottas, who in turn was keeping ahead of Raikkonen. Behind them was Verstappen, who lacked the power to threaten for a podium, whilst further back, Felipe Massa, enjoying his final home grand prix, was frustrating Fernando Alonso. With superior Mercedes power, the Williams was keeping the McLaren at bay, despite struggling with the super-soft tyres as the pit stop window approached. With that window approaching, Bottas began to slowly reel Vettel back in, then Mercedes pulled the trigger on the stops, swapping the super-softs for the softs and sending Bottas out, hoping to make the undercut work. It nearly did, with Vettel only just coming out ahead after his own stop, but it wasn’t quite enough. On the soft tyre the Ferrari looked stronger, and Vettel began to pull away again.
For Hamilton and Ricciardo, their strategy was inverted – long stints on the soft tyre with the faster super-soft tyre coming later. This enabled Hamilton to briefly lead the race, then end up in fourth, with the chance to chase down Raikkonen for a podium. Ricciardo ended up fifth but with a faster Verstappen on his tail, and it wasn’t long before Ricciardo let his teammate through. Massa was continuing to hold up Alonso, with Sergio Perez in the Force India closing in to join in the fun. The McLaren worked well through the winding corners of the middle sector but couldn’t live with the Mercedes-powered Williams elsewhere, allowing Massa to just about stay ahead, even with Alonso picking up DRS. Whereas last season Massa’s ‘final’ Brazilian race saw him crash out, this time he would hold on to pick up seventh place and do himself proud. Alonso had to settle for eighth, fending off Perez. Nico Hulkenberg picked up tenth and the final point for Renault, albeit a lap behind the rest.
Hamilton, despite a late charge, wasn’t quite able to challenge Raikkonen for third, whilst Bottas wasn’t able to threaten Vettel for the win. The result was a much-needed tonic for Ferrari, after a dismal spell, especially in Asia, completely ended their title hopes. For Vettel too, the win was much needed, his fifth of the season and a reminder to everyone of his quality. He will now want to build upon that going into F1’s final race in Abu Dhabi.