Lewis Hamilton can win the Sao Paulo Grand Prix — an ordinarily unremarkable statement made extraordinary by the last 24 hours in Formula 1.
In a do-or-die weekend for Hamilton’s title aspirations he’s been blessed with the fastest car and cursed with two penalties. The first was predictable: a five-place Sunday grid drop for yet another internal combustion engine, Mercedes’s Achilles heel in the season run-in.
But the second was more extreme: exclusion from Friday qualifying after his rear win failed post-session scrutineering.
It took close to a full day for the stewards to eventually decide on the team’s guilt and what amounted to a back-of-grid penalty — a painful 20 places given Hamilton qualified fastest — in what Toto Wolff described as a break with standard regulatory standard practice that would have allowed his team to repair the apparent damage that led to the non-compliance.
Fortunately for Mercedes and any fan of racing, Sao Paulo is a sprint weekend.
The to-date lukewarm 100-kilometre race was enlivened by Hamilton starting from the back in the field’s fastest car, and having not set himself a finishing target, the Briton fully unleashed, with 15 overtakes in 30 minutes to end the race fifth.
It was damage limitation on an extreme scale. it’s dampened somewhat by the need to now serve a five-place penalty for the engine change on Sunday’s grid, but if Mercedes wields anything like its pace on Saturday during the grand prix, making up 10 places in three times as many laps should be a walk in the park — an action-packed one, anyway — for the seven-time champion.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
Distance: 4.309 kilometres
Lap record: 1:10.540 (Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 2018)
Track record: 1:07.281 (Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2018)
Lateral load: medium
Tyre stress: medium
Asphalt grip: medium
Asphalt abrasion: medium
Safety car probability: 60 per cent
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 392 metres
Pit lane time loss: 18.6 seconds
Fuel consumption: low
Tyres: C2 (hard), C3 (medium), C4 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.4 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.3 seconds
SETTING THE SCENE
Potentially to Hamilton’s advantage is Valtteri Bottas, who smoked Max Verstappen at the start of the sprint to win the short race and put himself on pole for the grand prix. If the Finn can avoid Verstappen doing to him what he did to the Dutchman on Saturday and hold the lead, he’ll have the opportunity to control the pace and ease Hamilton’s way in the first stint.
Of course defensive driving isn’t Bottas’s strong suit — remember only last week his feeble defence of the fast-starting Verstappen in Mexico or similarly rear-guard battles with the Dutchman in France or the Netherlands — but he should have the straight-line speed to at least fend off the obvious turn-one overtake to keep Hamilton within striking distance to the first pit stop window.
Also working in Hamilton’s favour is the tight midfield battle for constructors points. Ferrari, McLaren, Alpine and AlphaTauri all would have witnessed his pace and understood trying to keep him behind for any amount of time would only disadvantage them in their own battle amongst themselves for third and fifth in the standings respectively. He won’t be waved through, but resistance will probably be less than full blooded.
THE WEATHER FORECAST
Here is Mercedes’s only potential weakness relative to Red Bull Racing based on what we’ve seen so far this weekend.
Mercedes’s pace advantage has been at its greatest when the track has been cool. Overcast and chilly conditions on Friday eased Hamilton’s way to a comfortable pole, but the only warm session so far, Saturday morning practice, helped Red Bull Racing fire a shot across the German marque’s bows.
The RB16B underworks its front tyres, and in cooler conditions the drivers struggle with understeer. The front tyres then overheat as they slide across the road. The more they slide, the more they overheat, the less grip they produce, the more slide and so on.
The warm FP2 hour, when the track was around 20°C warmer than for qualifying or the sprint, ameliorated this problem, and with the grand prix run in the middle of the afternoon rather than the early evening of qualifying or the sprint, and with Sunday forecast to be the warmest day yet, Red Bull Racing can expect to be closer to the front than it has been.
Had it been warmer in the sprint, for example, Verstappen would likely have been able to attack Bottas more aggressively
Conversely, Mercedes tends to struggle with rear degradation when the mercury climbs. We haven’t seen evidence of it so far this weekend, but it will be in the back of the team’s mind as it approaches what is essentially uncharted territory for this weekend.
The sprint weekend format means all drivers have free choice for their starting compound, and in what is likely to be a two-stop race, especially if track temperatures are high, that could prove decisive.
The medium tyre will be the preferred starter after what we saw in the sprint. Though the soft performed well, particularly off the line, those who used it noted that it was finished after 24 laps, and tyre life will be worse in the heat, especially with full tanks.
A medium–hard–hard strategy is the fastest according to Pirelli data, though ending the race with a stint on the soft tyre, with lighter fuel loads and when the track will likely cool, is similar in pace. Teams won’t have to make that decision until the middle stint, when the durability of the little-used hard compound will become clear.
A one-stop strategy could be tempting if conditions are cooler than forecast and for those with strong enough straight-line speed to hold position against faster cars at the end of the final sector and down to turn one, where the bulk of the overtaking moves tend to happen. It will require management, but the pay-off will be track position ahead of the final third of the race.
Despite Hamilton’s overtaking rampage, following and passing is difficult among cars with similar performance here — there was almost no overtaking in the sprint after the first lap that didn’t involve Hamilton, with even Sergio Perez struggling to get past the slower Carlos Sainz for third.
Some of that lack of action was down to the poor risk-reward ratio of sprint qualifying, but the rest is down to the twisty middle sector spreading the field just enough to hinder a car trying to pick up a DRS-assisted slipstream onto the pit straight.
For this reason it’ll be interesting to see whether Red Bull Racing and Mercedes split their strategies if the route to victory isn’t clear early. Sergio Perez’s easy way with the tyres would make him a prime candidate to attempt a one-stop race, especially if Hamilton struggles to make up enough ground early to play on equal terms with Bottas and Verstappen.