By Neil Leverett
- Formula 1 rolls in Brazil this weekend for the Sao Paulo Grand Prix at Interlagos
- Max Verstappen holds 19-point lead over Lewis Hamilton; Mercedes just a single point ahead of Red Bull in Constructors’ battle
- Second of three successive weekends of racing, as Sprint qualifying returns to schedule
INTERLAGOS, BRAZIL – With just four races of the season remaining, can Lewis Hamilton stop Max Verstappen’s momentum this weekend at the Sao Paulo Grand Prix?
Interlagos concludes Americas triple
After last weekend’s fiesta in Mexico City, next, Formula 1 moves into samba mode for the Sao Paulo Grand Prix at Interlagos.
Completing back-to-back wins at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez only a matter of days ago, Max Verstappen, for the third race on the bounce further extended his World Drivers’ Championship advantage over Lewis Hamilton to 19 points.
With just four races of the season remaining, Brazil, however, could be a different story for both Dutchman and Red Bull and Mercedes are in need of a remedy, picking up a best team result of a top-six double in Austin last month, during the last two races.
But on an Interlagos track where the Silver Arrows have taken top spot on the podium during four of the last six occasions, the latest twist in the campaign seems an almost inevitability and could come this weekend.
Hamilton approaching make-or-break territory
Rolling back into one of F1’s most iconic venues, that is certainly a factor Lewis Hamilton will be pinning his hopes on, as the Briton rekindles his own fond memories of his memorable world championship win over home favourite Felipe Massa 13 years ago.
Needing to finish fifth to guarantee a first F1 title – should Massa win the race – Hamilton was sitting in P6 behind Timo Glock, as the final lap began.
As Massa looked destined to win the championship in front of his legions of fans at a sticky Interlagos in 2008, the rain came to Hamilton’s aid in the nick of time, as after a final lap downpour, Glock’s lack of grip on the final bend with old tyres, allowed the pursuing Briton to take the vital extra spot, but with neither Hamilton or Massa’s team not quite sure who had won as both drivers crossed the finish line.
This weekend is not quite the same desperate scenario for Hamilton, but given how close the season has been thus far, the Stevanage driver surely cannot afford to go to the Middle East trailing by more than his deficit into Friday.
Knowing also it was Verstappen who won here last time out in 2019, Hamilton needs a change of fortunes and fast.
Sprint qualifying returns…
Two other elements are set to come into play this weekend also: one of course is Interlagos’ notoriously unpredictable weather, but the second is the return of the hugely polarising sprint qualifying.
Rolled out for the third and final time this campaign, the schedule shake-up has been an added morsel for F1 fans to sink their teeth into this season and whilst the format has been criticised by some in the paddock, the general consensus has been its overall success.
As traditional qualification switches to Friday afternoon, further practice sessions will take place on Saturday, with the outcome of Friday’s timed lap race determining the grid for the sprint race later that day.
That in turn will then take place again over the least number of laps to exceed 100 km (62 mi), approximately one third of a normal race distance.
…could it ride to Mercedes’ rescue?
In terms of the statistics, the sprint has largely gone in the favour of Mercedes, and boss Toto Wolff will be hoping for a repeat of those results at both Silverstone and Monza earlier this term.
Whilst it was Verstappen that took sprint victory in the British GP this past summer, Hamilton had the last laugh with race victory after Verstappen was forced to retire, coming off the worse in a collision between the two. Hamilton went on to take a controversial win in the final laps.
At Monza meanwhile, it was Valtteri Bottas who dominated at the Temple of Speed, winning both classification and sprint qualifying, although the Finn was forced to finish behind the roaring McLarens in Italy.
It should also be noted, that in both sprint weekends so far this term, Verstappen has failed to finish a race, whilst teammate Sergio Perez‘ best performance was a P5 at Monza, but only the Mexican has recorded points of the two drivers.
Having seen Red Bull almost wipe out their points advantage over the last two races, Mercedes know how pivotal Brazil could be, with faster, hotter conditions to follow over the final three rounds of the season, which could benefit the Red Bull Honda engine.
But will the sprint format again be on Mercedes’ side in Brazil?
P3 ‘still doable’ for McLaren
As the season nears its conclusion, the battle for third spot between Ferrari and McLaren still remains a tight race.
Mexico City however, saw the latter fall behind Scuderia after the Prancing Horse took 18 points to McLaren’s single point last weekend.
Having leapfrogged the Woking team to third in the constructors’ championship, Ferrari have the immediate edge in the fight to finish behind McLaren and Mercedes, but as Daniel Ricciardo told F1.com, the Perth driver remains defiant that his team can still finish ahead of their rivals:
“Absolutely, absolutely, it’s still doable,” he said. “We’ve been, let’s say, third [for] most of the season; now they are. Let’s see. We’ll be the hunters and let’s see what happens. I think it’s going to go down to the last race.
“I do think we can peg it back and come back in the fight and yes, obviously Mexico wasn’t great from a points swing but no concerns, I think we’re still very much in it.”
The 2021 Heineken Sao Paulo Grand Prix takes place this weekend at Interlagos, Brazil, this weekend.
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