Mercedes Strike Back in Thrilling São Paulo Grand Prix
Despite the Odds, Lewis Hamilton takes his 101st Grand Prix Victory at the Autódromo José Carlos Pace to close the title gap to just 14 points.
The 2021 São Paulo Grand Prix saw Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes strike back against Red Bull as they aimed to regain lost ground in the 2021 Formula 1 World Championship. Mercedes and Hamilton entered Brazil with a one-point lead in the Constructors Championship and a 19 point deficit in the Drivers' Championship and entered a track that many thought to be a venue where Red Bull were expected to thrive. Interlagos is also known as a circuit where overtaking is easy and the effect of the Drag Reduction System is powerful. Drivers can use the sequence of corners known as Junção out of turn 12 down the main straight into the S do Senna (turns one and two) to overtake. Because of these characteristics, Mercedes decided to replace Hamilton’s engine and incurred a five-place penalty for the race on Sunday. This meant that while he can participate in qualifying on Friday and the sprint race on Saturday, he will have to start five places behind wherever he finishes in the sprint race for the race on Sunday.
This Grand Prix weekend was one of three sprint race weekend formats that Formula 1 is experimenting with this season. The sprint race, which had been tried at the British and Italian Grand Prix earlier this season, adds another event to the weekend by having the standard qualifying format on Friday and having a sprint race where the drivers will race around the circuit for one-third of the normal race distance before having the actual race on Sunday. The starting grid for the sprint race is determined by qualifying on Friday and the starting grid for Sunday is determined by the finishing order of the sprint race on Saturday.
Qualifying on Friday finished with Hamilton on pole, Verstappen at second, Bottas on third and Perez at fourth. Following the top four was Pierre Gasly, the two Ferrari’s, the McLaren’s and Fernando Alonso to round out the Top 10. The Mercedes showed incredible straight line speed, trouncing the Red Bull in the run from Junção to the first corner. Heading out of qualifying on Friday, there was a general sentiment that Mercedes’ straight line speed would be too much for the Red Bulls to handle.
However, later in the day on Friday, reports surfaced from the paddock that Lewis Hamilton’s drag reduction system had failed the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile mandated test that determined whether the rear wing flap opening was under 85 millimeters. Mercedes was inquired about this failure to which they indicated that it had been a result of Verstappen briefly touching the rear wing of the Mercedes following the qualifying session on Friday. After long deliberation by the FIA, it was decided on Saturday morning that Hamilton and Mercedes had violated the rules and his qualifying results were determined to be null and void. Moreover, it was also determined that Verstappen had also violated the rules of Parc fermé and was handed a €50,000 euro fine. As a result of this violation, Hamilton had to start from last on the grid on the sprint race and incur a further five-place grid drop as a result of his engine change for Sunday's Grand Prix.
As a result of these penalties, Verstappen inherited pole position for the sprint race with all drivers moving up a spot as Hamilton started last on the grid right behind Nikita Mazepin. As the lights went out to indicate the start of a 24 lap sprint race, Valtteri Bottas got the jump on Verstappen who dropped behind him in second. Following Verstappen was Carlos Sainz who made up a place at the expense of Sergio Perez at the start of the race like Bottas had. With just around half way through the first lap of the race, Hamilton made up four places to bring him up to 16th. By lap four, he had made up a further two places making himself up to 13th place. On lap 17, Hamilton passed Pierre Gasly to bring himself up to seventh place and shortly after, he dispatched of Leclerc to put himself on sixth. On the last lap of the sprint race, Hamilton passed Lando Norris around the first section of the chicane powered by the slipstream and drag reduction system by dipping to the inside of the McLaren and putting himself in front of the 22-year-old Norris. Miraculously, Hamilton was able to make up 15 places in just 24 laps of the sprint race, valdifying Red Bull's worries of the Mercedes straight line speed. While Verstappen was able to pick up two points for finishing second in the sprint race, the sprint reminded the world what the seven-time world champion was still capable of, despite not having won a race since the Russian Grand Prix four races earlier.
Bottas lined up in pole position for Sunday’s race followed by Verstappen, Sainz, Perez, Norris, Leclerc, Gasly, Ocon, Vettel and Hamilton. At the start of the race, Verstappen overtook Bottas followed by Perez who overtook the Mercedes a few corners later. Meanwhile, Hamilton made up three places at the start in part due to Norris’ puncture which he suffered as a result of contact with Sainz. By lap five, Hamilton had put himself at third after getting past his teammate. Hamilton eventually caught up to Perez and by lap 18, the two battled for second and following a manuveure by Hamilton around the outside of S do Senna, Perez struck back at Decida do Lago (turns four and five) where Perez reclaimed second. However, on the following lap, Hamilton was able to pass without resistance from Perez. A virtual safety car caused by debris from Lance on lap 31 allowed Bottas to get a cheap pitstop effectively eliminating Perez from podium contention. Hamilton was now on the hunt for Verstappen and on lap 48, Hamilton almost caught Verstappen but the two ran off the track together at the Decida do Lago and allowed Verstappen to keep the lead. Both the Red Bull and Mercedes teams chimed into the stewards to present their side of the argument as to whether Verstappen pushed Hamilton off the track which ultimately led to the stewards deciding that there was no action necessary. 11 laps later, Hamilton had a much better run on Verstappen and was able to overtake him for the lead. Hamilton then sailed to win the 2021 São Paulo Grand Prix followed by Verstappen and Bottas for the remaining podium places.
Overall, Hamilton's performance over the entire weekend will undoubtedly go down as one of his best performances of his illustrious career. Despite the numerous twists and turns of the weekend, he was able to come out on top and remind the world, who had started to get carried away with the thought of Verstappen winning his first title, why he was the defending seven-time champion. The fight for the Drivers Championship narrows as Hamilton narrows the gap from 21 points to 14 points and Mercedes extends their one point lead for the constructors championship to an 11-point lead as the championship enters the last three races. If Hamilton and Mercedes end up winning the championship this season, this weekend's São Paulo Grand Prix has the potential to go down as the turning point for their championship campaign. Despite their outstanding performance, Verstappen still maintains the lead for the Drivers Championship and has the potential to wipe the deficit to Mercedes. Fans should only expect the season to heat up from this point forward.