A career-best drive from Lewis Hamilton not only won him the Sao Paulo Grand Prix against the odds, but it threatened to change the complexion of the final stint of the championship.
This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.
It’s lap 48 of 71 of the Sao Paulo Grand Prix, and Lewis Hamilton is pulling alongside Max Verstappen on the 630-metre run to Descida do Lago.
Both drivers are late on the brakes, but Hamilton has his nose ahead. Desperate to hold the lead, Verstappen plays his last card: he opens the steering and veers off track. Hamilton, on the outside, yields to avoid a crash.
“Crazy,” Hamilton radios to his team as he rejoins the track still behind the Dutchman, and to his and Mercedes’s bewilderment, the stewards decide not to open an investigation.
It was the last of what Mercedes boss Toto Wolff called “many, many punches in the face” in a seismic weekend in this wild season.
Wolff felt like his team was taking fire from all sides in Brazil, starting with Red Bull Racing amplifying its lobbying of the FIA over suspicions Mercedes is breaking the rules in pursuit of straight-line speed. Verstappen was even in on the act, feeling Hamilton’s rear wing after qualifying, which is itself against the rules.
In scrutineering an unrelated breakage was found on Hamilton’s wing and he was stripped of pole and sent to the back of the grid. Verstappen was handed a fine.
Mercedes’s loss was the sport’s gain, for it precipitated a 15-place overtaking bonanza in the Saturday sprint, a race of just 24 laps. It was vintage back-against-the-wall Hamilton.
But Wolff was unplacated. He protested that his team should have been allowed to make repairs, and he was incensed when Red Bull Racing found damage to Verstappen’s rear wing on Sunday morning and was allowed to fix it without penalty.
Having then watched Hamilton get run off the road battling for the lead after recovering from 10th, you can imagine how he felt when the stewards decided that was the time to take a hands-off approach.
“I think we’ve just had many, many punches in the face this weekend,” Wolff said. “I’ve been always very diplomatic in how I discuss things, but diplomacy has ended today.
“It felt like everything was against us, and I think that’s what Lewis has felt all his life and we now feel it together as a team.
“We’re going to fight — that is the emotion we’re feeling in the garage at the moment.”
Hamilton wasn’t content to take the beating. Already racing on a higher level to have recovered 23 places since the sprint, he lifted once more, beautifully dummying Verstappen into the first turn to force him into a slower line down to Descida do Lago.
By the time they both hit the brakes, the Mercedes was already well ahead. His 24th pass complete, Hamilton was free to take a famous 101st victory.
“I didn’t know what was possible, but I just gave it everything,” he said. “This has definitely been one of the best weekends, if not the best weekend, I have experienced in my whole career.”
The Sao Paulo Grand Prix was the opening of a final, gloves-off chapter of this title race. The fun and games of the off-track tit for tat is gone; now the barbs and accusations land personally as the reality of what’s at stake grow clearer on the horizon, and both sides appear increasingly prepared to do whatever it takes, to pay whatever cost, to get their hands on the championship first.
This weekend’s Qatar Grand Prix is crucial to setting the scene for the December finale. Verstappen can take the wind from Hamilton’s sails with a 10th victory, but if Mercedes can use the heady cocktail of Brazil as momentum to win in Doha, then Formula 1 is almost certain to arrive in Abu Dhabi with everything still to play for.
It’s the most hotly contested Formula 1 championship in years. Just three races to go.