Lewis Hamilton continued his supreme end-of-season form by winning a wet and wild Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos, setting up a Formula 1 championship showdown in Abu Dhabi with Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg.
In a race that finished over three hours after it started and featured two red flags and a very emotional goodbye to local favorite Felipe Massa, it was Hamilton who kept his cool and emerged with his first Brazilian Grand Prix victory.
Rosberg was unable to match his teammate for pace throughout, instead finding himself at loggerheads with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen for most of the race before crossing the line second.
It may have been another Mercedes one-two, but the seemingly routine result came about in one of the most unpredictable grands prix in F1’s recent history.
Overnight rain had extended throughout the morning and early afternoon, leaving the track drenched ahead of the start at Interlagos. The stewards took the decision to delay the green flag by 10 minutes, before then opting to send the field on its way behind the safety car, fearful of a repeat of Romain Grosjean’s sighter lap crash.
After eight laps behind the safety car, Hamilton led the field across the line to take the green flag and get the race underway. The Briton nailed the restart, allowing him to forge an early lead over Rosberg, while Max Verstappen shot his way up to third by diving down the inside of Raikkonen at Turn 1. Verstappen quickly set his sights on Rosberg in second, reeling the Mercedes driver in through the spray.
Further back, Renault’s Kevin Magnussen was the first driver to roll the dice and move onto intermediates, pitting at the earliest opportunity. The Dane immediately matched the pace of the midfield runners, sparking a mad dash to pit lane for the rest of the pack in the laps that followed. Rosberg told Mercedes that it was “way too early” to consider a switch, an assertion that was justified when Sebastian Vettel spun while still running on full wets in the final sector, causing him to fall down the order.
The safety car was deployed on Lap 13 following a shunt for intermediate-shod Marcus Ericsson in the final sector that ruined the front-end of his Sauber. The Swiss driver’s car floated across the track after the crash, causing him to come to rest across the entry to the pit lane. Max Verstappen was forced to take evasive action when coming into the pits for intermediates, with the stewards moving quickly to declare pit entry closed. Teammate Daniel Ricciardo followed him in soon after, well after the stewards had issued the call.
With the field now bunched, all eyes were on the sky once again as most of the teams reported that more rain was due to fall. The battle for the strategists was now deciding whether to stick it out on wet tires and hope for more rain, or make the switch to intermediates and be prepared for an additional stop.
The race returned to green on Lap 20, but was immediately thrown back under the safety car when Kimi Raikkonen spun out on the main straight, hitting the wall on both sides of the track. Thankfully, the cars behind avoided the Ferrari driver, but with debris strewn across the track and the rain only growing heavier, the stewards had no decision but to red flag the race. In the same lap, Jolyon Palmer also ran aground of Daniil Kvyat, which forced the Renault driver out.
Under the red flag, the stewards confirmed that Ricciardo had been given a five-second time penalty for entering the pit lane while closed, with the same sanction applied to Massa for passing a car before the green flag at the first restart.
The race resumed behind the safety car after a 25-minute wait with all drivers now running on the full wet tires, as mandated by Pirelli. Esteban Ocon reported that visibility was still as poor as it had been when the race was stopped, while Force India informed Sergio Perez that rain was expected to continue for another 50 minutes and grow harder during that period.
After eight laps behind the safety car, the race was red flagged for a second time, forcing the drivers to return to the pits.”The track is fine!” reacted an irked Hamilton as he led the field back to the pits for another wait.
Despite there being no noticeable break in the weather, the stewards gave the drivers the green light to head back out on-track after another 25-minute wait, once again sending them away behind the safety car. With the rain expected to only grow heavier, most were now braced for a time-limited race.
A three-lap run behind the safety car followed before the call the grid had been waiting for: the race would resume on Lap 32. For the third time in the space of two hours, Hamilton led the pack across the line to take the green flag.
Rosberg once again failed to get close to Hamilton for the restart, causing him to fall into the clutches of Verstappen in third. With supreme confidence coming down the hill in the first sector, Verstappen got on the power early before blasting past Rosberg, leaving the German with a face full of spray and in third place.
Verstappen continued to put his foot down to keep up with Hamilton as the rest of the field continued to fall away from the leaders, but overstepped the mark coming through Turn 13. The Red Bull driver went off-line at the final corner and touched the white line, sending him into a spin that he remarkably kept out of the fall; even more impressive was the fact he could still keep Rosberg behind.
With conditions remaining stable, a number of drivers rolled the dice and made the switch onto intermediate tires, with Ricciardo being the first to light the timesheets purple with fast times. Verstappen was the first of the leaders to make the switch at the end of Lap 44, but with Button coming in one lap later to move back to wets, and with Rosberg going sideways through the final sector also on wets, it was clear that weather forecasts were split throughout the paddock.
The safety car was called for once again at the end of Lap 48 when Felipe Massa’s final home grand prix came to a premature end after he slid into the wall in the final sector. The Brazilian was visibly upset when he emerged from his car to greet the cheers from fans watching, before taking a moment to hold a Brazilian flag aloft and thank the crowd. Upon returning to the pit lane, he was greeted by a guard of honor from Mercedes, Ferrari and Williams, before bursting into tears when embracing his wife and son who came to meet him.
The biggest loser from the safety car was Hamilton, who saw his 25-second lead wiped way and now had Rosberg on his tail once again. The rain grew heavier once again, forcing Ricciardo to come in for full wet tires and again raising the question of a possible red flag. With Lap 54 completed and the 75% race distance hit, full points would be awarded if the race were abandoned.
Verstappen was left with no choice but to get rid of his intermediate tires, the earlier stop backfiring as he swapped back onto the wets and dropped all the way down to 16th. The rain remained torrential, but the stewards gave the call for the race to resume on Lap 56 with just over 20 minutes left on the clock.
Hamilton was again able to pull clear with relative ease, dropping Rosberg into the clutches of Sergio Perez, who had risen through the order to run third following Verstappen’s stop. The German was able to create a gap in the laps that followed, tightening his grip on P2, although his teammate had once again shot off into the distance.
Despite varying levels of rain in the closing stages, Hamilton kept his cool to cross the line after 71 laps – completing the full race distance with just minutes to spare of the two-hour time limit – and record his first Brazilian Grand Prix victory.
The result ensures that Hamilton can still win a fourth F1 drivers’ title in 2016, with the gap to Rosberg heading into the final race of the year in Abu Dhabi standing at 12 points. Should Rosberg finish on the podium at Yas Marina, he will win a maiden title.
Verstappen fought his way back from his pit stop under the safety car to take a remarkable podium, scything through the field on his fresher wets with a confidence far greater than his 19 years. A pass on Sergio Perez with three laps to go sealed P3, breaking the Mexican’s heart and leaving the Force India driver to settle for fourth place.
Sebastian Vettel took issue to Verstappen’s overtake in the closing stages, but managed to keep his cool and secure fifth at the checkered flag following a late pass on Carlos Sainz Jr., denying the Spaniard a career-best result as he ended up sixth.
Nico Hulkenberg put on a late charge for Force India, finishing seventh ahead of Daniel Ricciardo, while Felipe Nasr scored two crucial points for Sauber by finishing ninth, lifting the team above Manor in the constructors’ championship with a result that could be worth millions of dollars.
Esteban Ocon led Manor’s charge and dallied with the points, only to be passed by Fernando Alonso in the final five laps and eventually have to settle for P12 behind Valtteri Bottas also. Daniil Kvyat and Kevin Magnussen were P13 and P14, while Pascal Wehrlein ended up 15th ahead of Jenson Button.