A crash for Lewis Hamilton in qualifying forced him into a stunning fight from the back of the grid while Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel battled with the Briton’s Mercedes teammate for the victory.
The 2017 Brazilian Grand Prix had all the ingredients for the thrilling penultimate chapter of a closely contested season, but with the championship already decided in Hamilton’s favour, it proved little more than a curious dead rubber round.
It was Ferrari’s first complete weekend in months. With Hamilton out of the picture Vettel put his scarlet car on the front row alongside Valtteri Bottas, and the German effortlessly snatched the lead from the Finn at the first turn.
But Mercedes wasn’t about to give up on Bottas’s victory hopes now the Finn was finally rebounding after months of poor form. The team rolled the dice and brought him in for fresh tyres on lap 27.
Ferrari was unfazed, however, recalling Vettel to his pit box one lap later, switching his tyres 0.6 seconds faster and sending him back out with enough time to keep the lead and assure his victory.
“I was really trying to give everything to pull a little bit of a gap to control the race from there,” Vettel said. “I’m really happy, especially for all the guys in the team back home in Maranello — they’ve been working so hard.
“It’s been a tough couple of weeks for us, but it’s nice to get it today.”
It was a smooth, classy win, but it was difficult not to wonder what significance this race might have held had Vettel and Ferrari not already butchered their title chances.
Vettel’s first-lap crash in Singapore deprived him of 25 points on a weekend Hamilton scored an unlikely victory. Power unit problems deprived Vettel of the chance to qualify in Malaysia, forcing him into a mighty fightback from the back of the grid. Finally, a spark plug failure retired the German’s car at the end of lap four in Japan.
Ferrari had the fastest car at all three weekends, and had Vettel won each race, his title credentials would have been 63 points stronger. Today he trails Hamilton by just 56 points.
But Hamilton and Mercedes deserve the lion’s share of the credit. Formula One is a unique blend of driver skill, mechanical reliability and mental fortitude, and on all counts Mercedes has come up trumps.
Mercedes’s car has stood up when Ferrari’s has crumbled, Hamilton’s psychological approach has refused to yield when Vettel’s has cracked under pressure and Hamilton has kicked his performances up a gear as he honed in on the prize.
Despite his clumsy qualifying crash, the Brazilian Grand Prix was a Hamilton masterclass.
“If I was to sit back now and just relax and let someone else take the glory, sure it would be nice for other people,” he said ahead of the weekend. “But that is not what I am about.”
Starting from pit lane, Hamilton propelled himself into fifth place behind Max Verstappen by lap 21 to put himself in contention for the most unlikely of victories.
Indeed a podium seemed guaranteed until his supersoft tyres, punished to their limits by their relentless taskmaster, cried enough. Fourth place was scant reward for the champion’s drive.
“I was quicker than everyone today by a long way,” Hamilton said happily after the race. “That’s the real positive to take from it.”
Even with another double championship under their belts, Hamilton and Mercedes’s voracious appetite for victory remains undiminished — a salient warning for Ferrari it prepares for another tilt in 2018.