SAO PAULO, Brazil — Make no mistake about it. Lewis Hamilton can still beat Max Verstappen and win the Sao Paulo Grand Prix.
For that to be the case after Hamilton was disqualified from one session, sent to the back of the grid in the next, and has a five-place grid penalty still to serve in Sunday’s race, is remarkable.
Hamilton’s charge from 20th to fifth during Saturday’s sprint race was the culmination of a Friday evening and Saturday morning of drama, which had taken place in the confines of the paddock and behind the closed doors of the stewards’ room.
Hamilton’s disqualification sets the stage
If there was any doubt over how Mercedes felt about how things panned out at Interlagos since 6.00 PM on Friday evening, team boss Toto Wolff removed it with his radio message to Hamilton after the the sprint race.
“Brilliant drive Lewis,” Wolff said. “F— them all!”
Hamilton would have started the sprint race from first on the grid — and given the way it unfolded, likely dominated it — had his car not failed a scrutineering test after qualifying. Hamilton’s rear wing was unable to clear a post-session test, with the Drag Reduction System (DRS) overtaking aid opening 0.2 millimeters more than the 85mm allowed in the regulations.
That eventually led to his disqualification from qualifying, although that decision did not come until 20 hours later the following day. The wait was made all the more interesting by Hamilton’s title rival, championship leader Verstappen, also being summoned to the stewards on Saturday morning (which we will come back to).
With Hamilton sent to the back of the grid, Verstappen finished the sprint second, increasing his championship lead from 19 to 21 points going into Sunday’s grand prix.
It’s easy to see why Mercedes felt hard done by with Hamilton’s disqualification. It was not a case of intentional wrongdoing. The stewards were categorical in stating Mercedes had not tried to circumvent the rules to gain an advantage.
Part of the rear wing had simply broken. One side of Hamilton’s DRS had either deteriorated or been damaged during the session, meaning it was then unable to pass the static tests which followed qualifying. The same rear wing had been used at the Mexican Grand Prix last week and passed all tests without issue.
Ultimately, the rules exist for a reason, but Mercedes was left frustrated the FIA showed no leniency in the final decision. Notably, the verdict said while Mercedes could not change or fix the wing after the session, had they identified it during qualifying “they would have received permission to fix the parts or tighten bolts if needed”.
Wolff, who suggested F1 had broken it’s own modus operandi by punishing Mercedes for the wing break, said this was a contradiction in the stewards’ verdict.
“Both are parc ferme situations so you could ask why during the session and not at the end of the session?” Wolff said. “Anyways, it is what it is and we can probably pick examples either way. Sometimes it was judged harsher, sometimes there was more leniency. And that’s OK.
“We expected to face the same situation as many of many races we had before. With us it was black and white, ‘you failed the test, and that’s it’.
“To be honest, I don’t care any more. This is beyond me, I’m not spending my time thinking about decisions that I can’t change anyway. I’m looking forward to the racing.”
Having a driver of Hamilton’s calibre must make it significantly easier to get over such setbacks.
Hamilton was brilliant on Saturday afternoon. If you ever wanted to show a complete F1 newcomer why Hamilton has won the races and championships he has, this was a bitesize example.
Intelligent in how he set up his passes. Clinical in how he executed them. Blisteringly fast.
There are still people who doubt Hamilton’s supreme talent, but they must simply turn a blind eye on days like these. As he has countless times, it was Hamilton living up to the motto he carries on the back of his helmet: “Still I Rise”.
He might have the fastest car this weekend, as he has had a lot over the past eight years, but if Formula One was simply a case of jumping in the fastest car and winning races and championships like Hamilton has done, then Mercedes would be paying someone else considerably less money to do just that.
Having seen the way the No.44 car cut through the field, Red Bull’s Christian Horner said Hamilton is a contender for the win, even if he is starting from the midfield.
“With Lewis’ pace that he had today, he can win this race tomorrow,” Horner said.
“It will be very hard to defend against him with that kind of pace”.
Verstappen also deserved praise for how he drove, considering he had everything to lose in the situation.
That was evident in his first lap. Verstappen barely put up a fight when Valtteri Bottas got the faster start off the line.
A scary moment for Verstappen followed as he ran wide at Turn 4 under pressure from Carlos Sainz and rejoined the track by bouncing over some turf. He avoided damage and, after getting past Sainz, seemed content to settle for second position.
His reward for keeping his nose clean was the two-point gain over Hamilton and a front-row start in the race.
On Sunday, he will have to be careful to balance the fight for victory with Bottas (and Hamilton on a different strategy) with protecting his position in the championship. He will have the benefit of starting from the left-hand side of the race track that Bottas got the jump on him from.
Verstappen has been remarkably calm in pressure situations this season, but Interlagos is one of those places where things just seem to happen in F1. Hamilton winning the title on the penultimate corner in 2008. Verstappen himself in 2018, getting hit out of the lead as he lapped Esteban Ocon.
That alone makes Sunday’s race must-see TV.
Look, but don’t touch!
By the time the sprint race happened, it felt like an entire grand prix weekend had taken place in the course of about 12 hours.
When FIA technical delegate Jo Bauer referred Hamilton’s car for an alleged breach of the regulations after qualifying on Friday, a disqualification from the session seemed like the most likely outcome.
But as the investigation dragged on and the sun started to set at Interlagos, a video of Verstappen checking and then touching Hamilton’s rear wing — the same part the stewards were investigating — surfaced on social media. The video had been taken by a fan in the grandstand opposite the start-finish straight.
On Friday evening, the stewards adjourned the Hamilton hearing for Saturday morning, and then announced Verstappen had to come and see them at 9.30 AM.
Some speculated the two were linked, that somehow Verstappen’s actions behind the car had impacted the integrity of the rear wing. The longer the verdicts took to come out, the more this idea seemed to gain traction, even though Verstappen is not the first driver to have touched a rival car and the idea he could have bent a car built to withstand crashes of huge G-forces was a hard one to subscribe to.
Mercedes felt the fan video had at least left an open question as it occurred before Hamilton’s car was inspected by Bauer’s team.
It all created a strange atmosphere in the morning, with the Hamilton and Verstappen verdicts still hanging in the air. With the media buzzing around Mercedes and Red Bull’s hospitality suites, located alongside each other at the top end of the paddock, it felt like there could be a genuinely seismic twist still to come.
Ultimately, there wasn’t. Hamilton was disqualified as expected — albeit a lot later in the day than most assumed — and Verstappen was fined 50,000 Euros, with the stewards finding he had no impact on what had happened to the Mercedes rear wing.
In the verdict, Verstappen and his fellow drivers were warned that future instances of touching other cars could be met with a harsher punishment. After the session, Verstappen joked the race stewards could use the fine to buy a dinner and some nice bottles of wine on Saturday evening.
When Sebastian Vettel, who often closely inspects rival cars in parc ferme, pulled up after the session, he made a joke to his Aston Martin team.
“I’m going to go and touch Hamilton’s wing,” he said.
When his engineer laughed and said that sounded expensive, Vettel said: “I’ll try the front wing, that might be 25,000 [Euros]”.
Verstappen’s former teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, joked that the Dutchman has won enough races this year that his bonuses should more than cover his fine.
The Brazilian Grand Prix will be live at 11.55 AM ET on ESPN2.