Hamilton Rises to the Top in Brazil


Lewis Hamilton cut through the field to win the Sao Paolo Grand Prix (courtesy of Twitter).

The 2021 Formula 1 season continued in Brazil for the Sao Paolo Grand Prix. Red Bull had the momentum heading into the weekend after the Mexican Grand Prix, which saw Max Verstappen extend his championship lead. In addition to the race win, his teammate Sergio Perez finished in third and reduced Red Bull’s gap in the constructor’s standings to Mercedes down to a single point. 

The sprint format was reintroduced for the weekend. This changed the structure and moved qualifying to Friday. Qualifying would set the grid for Saturday’s sprint race. The result of Saturday’s sprint race would then set the grid for Sunday’s race.

During the weekend, Mercedes announced that defending champion Lewis Hamilton would receive a new engine and take a five-place grid penalty, which meant that he would start five places lower than wherever he finished in the sprint race. 

Hamilton was the fastest in qualifying, just ahead of Verstappen, with Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas in third and Perez in fourth. However, Hamilton was disqualified and sent to the back of the grid for the sprint race. This meant that Verstappen was now first for the sprint, ahead of Bottas in second and Perez in third.

On an F1 car, the rear wing can open up with the activation of the drag reduction system (DRS), reducing the drag on the car and increasing its straight-line speed. DRS can only be used in certain parts of the track and there is a limit as to how wide the flap can open. The regulations state that the DRS flap cannot be more than 85 millimeters. Hamilton’s car failed the test since it was too wide leading to the disqualification. 

It was later revealed that Hamilton’s car only failed by 0.2 millimeters. This meant that Red Bull had a huge chance of leaving the weekend leading the constructor’s championship. Verstappen could also increase his lead in the driver’s championship and make it nearly impossible for Hamilton to retain his crown.

The sprint race also has no mandatory pit stops or the requirement that two different types of tires must be used. Both Red Bulls of Verstappen and Perez chose medium tires for the sprint, with Bottas on the soft tire. Bottas would be quicker at the start, but those tires would start to fall at the end since they were less durable.

Bottas used his tire advantage to breeze by Verstappen and take the lead as the lights went out for the sprint. Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jr. started in fourth and passed Perez due to Sainz being on the soft tires as well. Bottas took the lead and never looked back, winning the sprint race ahead of Verstappen, Sainz in third and then Perez in fourth.

Meanwhile in the back, Hamilton was picking off cars with ease. It was as if the other cars were in slow motion as he zoomed by on the straight. Hamilton finished the sprint race in fifth, passing by 14 cars in 24 laps that showed why he is the reigning champion. However, due to Hamilton’s new engine and subsequent penalty, he started Sunday’s race in 10th.

When the lights went out on Sunday, Verstappen got away cleanly and passed Bottas going into turn two. Perez also got past Sainz at the start and was now third. Bottas and Verstappen were neck and neck heading into turn three but Bottas went wide off of the track, gifting Perez second, making it a Red Bull one-two. 

Hamilton made quick work from starting tenth and was in third after five laps. Verstappen already had a gap but it was erased with the race stewards deploying the safety car. It was brought out due to debris on the track resulting from an incident involving the Alpha Tauri’s Yuki Tsunoda and Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll. This played perfectly into Hamilton’s hands, who was now in third and right behind both Red Bulls and with his new engine, meant that he would be quicker on the straights. 

When the safety car was brought in, both Red Bulls were able to get away cleanly and stay ahead of Hamilton. Hamilton was right behind Perez, and waited until lap 18 to make his move past Perez. It only lasted for a few seconds, with Perez using the slipstream and DRS to retake the position heading into turn four. Hamilton tried again on the following lap and was able to make the move stick. He then continued his charge and moved within undercut range to Verstappen.

Hamilton pitted first out of the front runners on lap 26 to try and trigger the undercut. However, he was stuck behind McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo on his out lap, which reduced the undercut’s effectiveness. With that, Verstappen was able to pit the following lap and remain slightly ahead of Hamilton. Perez pitted a lap after Verstappen to protect the undercut from Bottas. This meant that Bottas was leading, albeit having not stopped, Verstappen in second ahead of Hamilton in third and then Perez in fourth.

The virtual safety car (VSC) was brought out on lap 30 due to even more debris on the track from Stroll’s car. Some bodywork fell off and had to be collected. All of the cars have to slow down and follow a certain time under a VSC. Any pitstop during this period would thus lose less time in comparison to a stop in normal conditions at racing speed. Bottas used the VSC period to pit and jumped Perez, coming out of the pits in third.

After the VSC period ended, Hamilton continued to be right behind Verstappen, and on lap 40 Verstappen pitted again. Mercedes then responded by pitting Bottas instead of Hamilton, opting to leave him out for a few more laps. Perez then pitted on lap 42 and Hamilton eventually pitted on lap 43. Hamilton now had tires that were slightly fresher which meant that he could push more than Verstappen. It all came to a head on lap 48 where Hamilton tried to pass going into turn four. Verstappen refused to back down and both cars went wide and off the track with Verstappen holding onto the lead. The race stewards saw the incident but decided that no action was to be taken, frustrating the Mercedes pit wall and to Red Bull’s delight. The moods switched on lap 59 when Hamilton did the exact move like the last attempt and passed Verstappen and now led the race. 

Hamilton never looked back after that and after 71 laps, Hamilton won the Sao Paolo Grand Prix ahead of Verstappen in second and Bottas rounding out the podium. This was one of the greatest drives from Hamilton, doing a literal last to first challenge on a track that on paper was supposed to be a Red Bull stronghold. With this, Verstappen still leads Hamilton in the drivers’ standings with Mercedes increasing their lead in the constructors. With three races to go, every single point counts. The next race is this weekend as the tripleheader rounds off in Qatar for the first-ever Qatar Grand Prix. No F1 car has ever raced at the circuit so expect another thriller in a season that continues to amaze.