Sebastian Vettel has beaten Valtteri Bottas to victory in Brazil to bolster his hopes of finishing second in the drivers championship standings.
The Ferrari driver scored his consolation victory at the first turn, where he sliced down the inside of the pole-sitting Finn’s Mercedes to seize control of the race.
The fight was immediately neutralised, however, when the safety car was triggered to clean up debris from a number of first-lap collisions, principally in the esses, where Stoffel Vandoorne squeezed Kevin Magnussen into Daniel Ricciardo, retiring the Belgian and the Dane on the spot.
Further down the road Romain Grosjean oversteered into Esteban Ocon at turn six, forcing the Force India driver into his first F1 retirement and earning the Haas driver a 10-second penalty.
The race restarted on lap six, and with Vettel safely away, he went about building a gap to keep himself out of DRS range, though he was unable to extend it beyond more than three seconds.
Lewis Hamilton, meanwhile, starting from the pit lane, was climbing rapidly back into podium contention, and y lap 21 the champion-elect had climbed to fifth behind Vettel, Bottas, Kimi Räikkönen and Max Verstappen — almost one position per 16 racing laps.
Attention refocussed on the fight at the front. On lap 28 Mercedes, with Bottas closing in on Vettel, rolled the dice and attempted an undercut for the lead.
With the supersoft tyres now rapidly degrading, Vettel’s extra circulation almost cost him, but a slick Ferrari pit stop, more than half a second quicker that Mercedes’s tyre switch for Bottas, ensured the German kept his nose ahead exiting the pit lane, assuring the victory.
“Initially I had a very good getaway,” Vettel said. “I think Valtteri was struggling even more.
“After that I think we were pushing after the safety car for 65 laps flat out. I was trying to give it everything to pull a bit of a gap and control the race from there.
“It’s been a tough couple of weeks for us, but it’s nice to get it today and get both cars up here.”
Bottas, however, was obviously disappointed not to finish the job he stated for Mercedes by taking pole on Saturday.
“I didn’t want to be sandwiched [between the Ferraris] to be honest,” he said. “We started from pole, so of course the only goal for us was to win the race today.
“We lost it at the race start. After that it was very, very close.
“I tried to put pressure on Sebastian, but it didn’t lead to anything more.”
The pit stop window may have decided first place, but meanwhile Hamilton was pumping in representative laps from the front of the field on the soft tyre, his starting compound, and Mercedes held him until lap 43 before switching him to the ultrasoft tyre.
The Briton dropped to fifth, but with a brand new power unit in the back of his car — his team fitted him with a new engine after he crashed out of qualifying — the Mercedes was able to unleash its performance.
Setting fastest lap after fastest lap, Hamilton bore down on Verstappen in fourth, catching, passing him 16 laps later, and eyed Kimi Räikkönen for the final podium place.
It took Hamilton another five laps to catch Räikkönen, but by the time he had the opportunity to attempt a pass, his supersoft tyres had lost their edge. Räikkönen staunchly defended his place to the line, ending a nonetheless impressive recovery drive.
Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo finished fifth and sixth, completing an underwhelming for Red Bull Racing.
The team expected to perform strongly after Verstappen won in Mexico, but Renault, having seen four of six Renault-engined cars retire in that race, had enforced a more conservative performance profile in an attempt to guarantee reliability.
Felipe Massa stormed home in seventh, his best result since the Bahrain Grand Prix, after a lengthy duel with former teammate Fernando Alonso.
Massa’s dogged defence of his best-of-the-rest classification was equally as impressive as Alonso’s perseverance in his underpowered McLaren-Honda, and the Brazilian led the Spaniard over the line by just 0.481 seconds.
Massa was invited to the podium at the end of the race to commemorate his final Brazilian Grand Prix as a Formula One driver having announced his retirement earlier in the week.
“I’m really emotional today because of you guys,” Massa said to the crowd. “Thank you very much for all the support, for the energy that I felt today here, for making the best race I could.
“To be honest I’m so happy for my race. I did the best the car could achieve.
“Thank you very much for all of you guys. I love you guys, thank you so much.”
Sergio Perez completed a strong race to finish ninth as the last drive on the lead lap, while Renault’s Nico Hülkenberg took home the last point for tenth place.