Treacherous. It was the most appropriate word to describe last week’s grand prix. Being an old school circuit, Interlagos doesn’t indulge drivers with copious amounts of runoff area, especially in the track’s fastest sector. Through the flat-out left hand kinks leading to the undulating start-finish stretch, there are only walls on either side. This isn’t normally a problem in dry weather as there is lots of grip that the drivers can work with. But when the rain streamed down in Sao Paulo last Sunday, there were no more guarantees, as Romain Grosjean discovered, when he crashed into the wall during his reconnaissance lap. Rain set the backdrop for another Brazilian Grand Prix classic.
The start was delayed by ten minutes before the race officially went under way behind the safety car. Seven laps later, we went full green flag as the two Mercs of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg led the field while immediately behind them, Max Verstappen began his overtaking spree, catching Kimi Raikkonen off guard at Turn One.
Under full green flag conditions, the race was tense from the get go due to the elements. There was spray everywhere and every driver was on tip-toes. Anyone could put a wrong foot down and end up in the wall. The lack of both grip and visibility through the track’s final sector was what made it extremely treacherous for the drivers and heart-pounding for the viewers. Even as I watched from the TV, I felt like I held my breath the entire race.
Not long after the race got going, Sebastian Vettel would spin around but managed to recover. Shortly after that, Marcus Ericsson crashed his Sauber at Turn 14, bringing out the safety car again. On the restart, hell broke loose down the start-finish stretch as Raikkonen spun his Ferrari, hitting the wall as a few cars barely managed to avoid running into him. Further down the back, Jolyon Palmer was lost visibility due to the spray, running into the rear of Daniil Kvyat’s Toro Rosso. It could have been a nastier accident but despite the hard hit, both drivers continued running although Palmer was forced to retire into the Renault garage. The series of incidents during the restart brought out the red flag as track conditions were deemed unfit for racing.
After the short breather of a little less than half an hour, the race resumed under safety car conditions. However, the red flag was re-introduced following several laps. Suffice it to say that the crowd in Sao Paulo was not impressed, raining down boos amidst the rain.Fans including me were getting restless not only because of the four-hour time limit but also because of the implications to the championship race between Rosberg and Hamilton. At that point, only half points would have been rewarded had the race not been resumed. The race had to reach 53 completed laps (75% race distance) for full points to be rewarded.
Why couldn’t the race just get under way again? For one, the track was slow to drain and the accident-prone area had no runoff whatsoever. The rain wasn’t heavy at all, for that matter. I imagined that the race would go on under similar conditions in a more modern circuit with lots of runoff area. But that’s not to say that Interlagos shouldn’t be an F1 track because it still is an iconic, old school venue.
If there was any problem regarding the inability to race in the wet, it wasn’t the circuit but rather the cars. Particularly, the quality of the wet tires was brought up by the commentators during the red flag period. This was a fair point given that Raikkonen lost control in the Turn 15 kink, which isn’t much of a corner. Why couldn’t drivers find grip even on a near-straight line? The tire argument was strengthened after the race when Raikkonen and the other drivers who had crashed blamed Pirelli’s wet tire compound. As the Ferrari driver mentioned, wet weather conditions wasn’t such a problem a decade ago.
Another resumption under safety car conditions provided both relief and hope to us viewers. From my time zone, it was almost two in the morning, I had not slept, and I had to go to work in a few hours. But all of that didn’t matter because a blockbuster race was about to continue unfolding. The safety car prepared to release the field yet again as the rain kept steadily falling. The track stubbornly refused to drain more water than it absorbed but at least it was safe enough to go racing again.
Hamilton again led the way but Rosberg, not wanting to take any risks in the wet conditions, was just not fast enough through the whole afternoon. Right from the restart, he was overtaken by Verstappen around the outside of Turn 3 in a mesmerizing maneuver. The teenager was just getting started then. Verstappen raced in the rain like a wizard, showing an uncanny ability to find grip by utilizing unconventional lines around the circuit. Truly deserving of Driver of the Day honors, he looked like a season rain meister. To go along with his skill, he also had a bit of luck: He had one heart-stopping moment when he span at Turn 14 but just managed to keep the car out of the wall and still be ahead of Rosberg at that time. To paraphrase what Martin Brundle said on commentary, it was not thanks to experience that the Red Bull driver turned in perhaps the season’s most spectacular drive, rather it was his pure talent. If Verstappen were a basketball player, this was his game where he couldn’t miss any of the three-point shots he attempted.
So if he was so fast, why only a third place finish? The main reason Verstappen and Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo were fast in the wet was because of having fresher tires than most of the runners. Verstappen would give up his second place position to switch from full wets to intermediate tires. The two Red Bull drivers changed tires more than anyone else so while they (especially Verstappen) took to an overtaking fiesta around Interlagos, it was all mostly making up lost track position due to pit stops.
The safety car made one final appearance when Felipe Massa crashed out of his final home grand prix on lap 48. Like most drivers, he also fell victim to the final sector of the track, losing control of his Williams at Turn 14. Thankfully, it wasn’t a huge accident as Massa climbed out of his car unhurt and waved to the crowd. The hometown hero walking back to the pits with a Brazilian flag draped around him, tears flowing, made for a beautiful scene.
While Massa’s tender and sentimental moments captured attention, pit strategists continued crunching the numbers for their drivers. During this safety car period, Red Bull decided to switch both their drivers from intermediates back to full-wets. More track position lost meant more overtaking burden for both of them but Verstappen and Ricciardo blasted through the field on their respective final stints. As such, Verstappen went as low as 14th to clamber up to third by the end, capping it off by overtaking Sergio Perez with two laps to go. I couldn’t speculate what could’ve happened had Red Bull not pitted multiple times but I could tell that Verstappen may have been able to finish at second, ahead of Rosberg. He had the pace and the confidence that the current championship leader lacked in the wet race.
Rosberg had the chance to bring home the title that day with a win but it was a real shame that he was no match to Hamilton. I didn’t see him fighting for a win but rather fighting the track conditions. Rain has never been Rosberg’s forte and it was no different in Interlagos. However, he still managed a second place finish, allowing him the luxury in the final race to afford a result as low as third in the event of a Hamilton win. Of course, victory would taste much sweeter if Rosberg can snatch that win in Abu Dhabi himself.
The chaser, Hamilton, continued inching towards another championship title with his win last Sunday. It was his first victory in Brazil but already the 52nd of his career, which elevated him to 2nd in F1’s all-time wins list. As mentioned, Hamilton will need to win and have Rosberg finish fourth or below in the season finale next week for him to claim his fourth career title. The mathematics are in favor of Rosberg’s maiden world championship but as much as Mercedes have dominated the season with one-two finishes, there are no guarantees.