The Brazilian Grand Prix Strategy Report podcast features Fernando Campos from F1 podcast Dupla Aerodinâmica.
Red Bull Racing and Max Verstappen executed its most complete weekend of the season at the Brazilian Grand Prix, dominating qualifying, taking pole position and controlling as much as was possible an unpredictable race.
The RB15 was a clear cut above the rest all weekend, but while the advantage the car had during qualifying could be justified by the team’s prodigious performance in the second sector and the Honda power unit’s strong form at high altitude circuits such as this, its infallible race pace was more of a surprise.
Lewis Hamilton, after Mercedes had been most impressive during the long-run simulations on Friday, struggled all race to keep up with Verstappen. His only real opportunity to win the race came at the first safety car intervention, which Red Bull Racing expertly covered off, after which Mercedes’s race was as good as done — although this didn’t stop the pit wall from butchering the result with some uncharacteristically rookie errors.
But while Verstappen took top honours, he couldn’t overshadow some stellar performances from Pierre Gasly and Carlos Sainz, who took their maiden F1 podiums. They required some significant attrition among the regular frontrunners to get there, but their own races were perfectly judged to deliver the goods on a wacky and wild weekend in Sao Paulo.
The weekend began with plenty of carryover questions about the legality of Ferrari’s power unit after the Italian team was off the pace at the United States Grand Prix, coincidentally the same weekend the FIA issues some technical directives regarding engine operation. By the end of the weekend the Honda power unit was the talk of the track.
Honda was in fine form at the high-altitude Interlagos track, where its larger turbo compressor was helping the much-improved engine retain more of the kilowatts ordinarily lost in the thinner air. Mercedes, on the other hand, with its smaller compressor, struggled, while Ferrari existed somewhere in the middle.
Credit too goes to the Red Bull Racing chassis, which was the class of the field in the middle sector. The car seems to generate more downforce than any other — no surprises on past form — which again helps to keep the car performing at altitude.
The Ferrari matter remains somewhat unresolved — though its straight-line speed during practice was back to its powerful best, suggesting its Austin blip really was down to a setup clanger.
Of further note for the race was the warmer Sunday temperature. It meant predictions based on Friday running for a straightforward one-stop race had to be remodelled as the race unfolded.
The race-winning move
Verstappen’s clean getaway was half the job done, and when Hamilton, having slipped past Sebastian Vettel into second at the first turn, could only just keep Verstappen honest, the Dutchman was in a strong position to convert pole to victory.
Hamilton’s first undercut attempt on lap 20 got him briefly into the lead, but it was a false dawn. The Briton had used all his electrical energy on his out-lap to ensure track position, but that then made him easy meat for Verstappen, who quickly restored order.
The only time Verstappen’s lead was genuinely at risk was at the first safety car, called for Bottas’s stricken Mercedes. Staying out would have ensured track position but left him vulnerable to Hamilton were the Briton to have stopped, which he was effectively under instruction to do.
Instead Red Bull Racing gambled Verstappen’s lead on a set of relatively new soft tyres being fast enough to get back past Hamilton’s 16-lap-old mediums at the resumption. The gamble paid off, with the Dutchman soaring into a lead he’d never relinquish.
Had positions been reversed — had Hamilton stopped for fresh rubber and Verstappen stayed out — Hamilton would have had the crucial delta advantage required to finally make a move on the Red Bull Racing car. Instead he was exposed to falling off the podium.
Mercedes’s safety car antics
Mercedes’s lack of pace relative to Red Bull Racing meant it was always going to be difficult to win this race if Hamilton was second at the end of the first lap, but the team was also guilty of a lack of sharpness in Brazil that cost it a podium finish.
While doing the opposite of Verstappen at the first safety car was the right decision — doing the same would only have resulted in a stalemate — equivocating when the second safety car was deployed on lap 66, ultimately giving Hamilton the decision after feeding him incorrect information, was a serious error.
The team’s thinking was flawed on two counts. The first was that it thought it would lose only one place, to Alex Albon, and would therefore need to pass only one car to break even. In reality it lost a place to Gasly too.
The second was the pit wall underestimated how long the lap-66 safety car would remain active, not noticing the debris strewn on the track from the Ferrari crash. For a time it looked as though the race would end under caution with Hamilton in fourth, having needlessly given up second place.
In the end he got two racing laps. He made quick work of Gasly, but in his haste to chase down Verstappen he tripped up over Albon. He took the flag third but was slapped with a penalty for punting the Thai driver and was classified seventh.
The kids are all right
Pierre Gasly and Carlos Sainz scored maiden F1 podiums — though Sainz wasn’t confirmed in third until after more than an hour of post-race stewards investigations — that were equally down to perfect race management and the drama among the leading frontrunners.
Gasly was on the pace all weekend. He qualified seventh, best of the midfield, started sixth after Leclerc’s grid penalty and held that position for the entire race, making his way to second as Bottas, Leclerc, Vettel and Hamilton dropped down the order in quick succession.
Carlos Sainz, on the other hand, started from the back of the grid after a power unit problem in qualifying. Equipped with a new motor, he made strong progress to 13th, one place behind teammate Lando Norris, by lap eight, and was 10th and directly behind Norris on lap 50 after the first stops.
For Sainz, however, his first stop was his only stop. He switched from softs to mediums on lap 29 and nursed the yellow tyre all the way to the end, capitalising on second stops from Norris and Romain Grosjean and just beating the Alfa Romeo teammates to the flag by half a second on absolutely finished rubber.
Safety car winners and losers
Daniel Ricciardo also benefitted from the reduction in racing laps. The Australian was at the back of the field on a set of new softs on lap nine after a crash with Kevin Magnussen, but he made only one more stop — let’s say he effectively one-stopped this race — onto another set of softs to make it to the end. He too had a close call with Norris behind him between safety cars.
But the safety car wasn’t beneficial in the conventional sense of offering cheap stops. Norris took advantage, but the midfield was so close that he lost plenty of places anyway, only some of which he could recover.
It also disadvantaged Romain Grosjean despite the Frenchman being ahead of Sainz at the resumption on effectively the same strategy — the Haas’s cars notorious tyre problems meant he couldn’t get temperature back into his medium tyres, and he sunk like a stone from directly behind Gasly to 13th at the flag.
Ferrari nowhere (again)
There’s little to say about Ferrari after the Brazilian Grand Prix. Though it was quick over a single lap — Charles Leclerc would have topped Q3 had he not made a mistake in the middle sector of his final lap — it was off the pace in the race, and at every stop both cars lost time to Verstappen and Hamilton.
Leclerc’s recovery from 14th was decent but hampered by the team switching to the hard tyre on lap 29 in an attempt to make it to the end. A one-stop was so marginal in the conditions, however, that he was forced back onto the softs on lap 54.
The team’s race of course came to a messy end on lap 66 in a moment of friendly fire. Relatively light contact had devastating consequences for both, and though the stewards judged neither was predominantly to blame, it’s hard not to conclude from the replays that Vettel overeagerly moved into Leclerc as he blasted past with DRS.
The winner’s strategy
Max Verstappen: soft (used) to lap 21, soft (new) to lap 44, medium (new) to lap 54, soft (used) to lap 71.