Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.
In a time when it seems like everyone is searching for that one magic bullet to make Formula 1 more exciting, Sunday’s Brazilian Grand Prix was the prefect reminder that it’s a combination of things all coming together to deliver a dramatic race.
And most of those things can’t be forced.
You’d have been forgiven for being somewhat less enthusiastic about this weekend’s race in the build-up compared to earlier events, given that Lewis Hamilton had wrapped up the drivers’ championship in Austin, and Mercedes the constructors’ title long before that.
There was the battle for third in the drivers’ standings, but realistically, who is excited about that? There were other constructors’ positions to decide too, but overall, Brazil was a dead rubber race – a challenge of trying to win a grand prix in isolation.
Which meant the media center was a lot quieter than at recent races too, with many of the European-based journalists thinking twice about the long and expensive flight to Brazil for a weekend with so little riding on it.
Even Toto Wolff took the opportunity to give himself a Formula 1 weekend off (or at least away from the track) near the end of a grueling season for the first time since 2013, with a trip to Saudi Arabia for Mercedes’ debut in Formula E ahead of him just a few days later.
Given the distance from most European bases and its timing in the calendar, Brazil is near the top of most team members’ wish lists when it comes to selecting a race or two to miss during the season. But by Sunday night, many were wishing they had been there. What a race it turned out to be!
The 2019 Brazilian had a bit of everything: Controversy, collisions, thrilling overtaking, strategic variance, surprise podium finishers and uncertainty over the final result throughout.
Why was it so good? Well, you can thank the weather, for one. Temperatures were higher than had been seen during the rest of the race weekend, meaning the teams were having to make estimations in terms of car cooling and tire strategy ahead of the race. That led to the different approaches when it came to planning to pit once or twice, but also impacted on reliability.
And it was that reliability issue that brought the race to life.
The different strategies were playing out and set to reach a crescendo at the end of the race, but as we’d seen in Mexico just a few weeks ago, that doesn’t always lead to action. However, parts are reaching the end of their useful lives towards the final rounds of the season, and a power unit problem in Valtteri Bottas’ Mercedes (high oil consumption caused the engine to shut off) triggered a Safety Car.
Suddenly, teams had a decision to make: Pit for fresh tires and have to do some overtaking, or stay out to gain track position? The latter is usually king, but at a circuit like Interlagos, where overtaking into Turn 1 can be done on either the inside or the outside – making it tough to defend – it wasn’t a simple call.
That Safety Car bunched up the field and led to hard racing in the closing stages – it was essentially a sprint race on different tire compounds of different ages, which in turn triggered the biggest moment of controversy involving the two Ferrari drivers.
Tough one to call, this, and I agree with the stewards’ decision to take no further action; but I also place more of the blame at Sebastian Vettel’s door. Charles Leclerc had clearly picked the side he was defending exiting Turn 3, knowing Vettel had a better exit and the use of DRS. He left him space – not much, but a little more than a car’s width – on the outside, and Vettel duly took it.
Against your teammate, there is no need to risk contact at that speed in a straight line, even if it’s normal when racing to try and close off your opponent’s angle into the next corner. With the speed advantage Vettel had on the straight and the distance until the braking zone for Turn 4, it was either an unnecessary move or a worrying misjudgment if he thought he was clear of Leclerc and safe to drift across further.
That said, Leclerc had made an aggressive swipe to the inside in his early battle with Lando Norris in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to prevent the McLaren fighting back into Juncao, so he knew exactly what the car on the outside could do. He similarly had just pulled off a relatively aggressive dive down the inside of his teammate into Turn 1, so must have known Vettel wouldn’t give up the fight easily.
Both could have done things differently, and the touch was so light it could easily have ended with an angry radio message from each about feeling contact and then carrying on without damage.
What Mattia Binotto will have to do now is ensure the two drivers accept they each had a part to play and move on quickly.
Speaking of moving on quickly, that’s exactly what race control did in getting the race restarted with two laps to go with little warning, saving Mercedes’ blushes after it had appeared to pit Hamilton off the podium late on.
The restart gave us a six mile dash to the flag, and the collision between Hamilton and Alex Albon.
The Red Bull driver admitted he went a little deep into Turn 10 to cover off any thoughts of a Hamilton attack, and Hamilton’s move was half-hearted. Maybe the championship picture had an influence on his reaction, but it was refreshing to see Hamilton admit fault and not even attempt to defend himself in front of the stewards, fully accepting his subsequent penalty.
The disappointing aspect was how long it took for that penalty to be handed down, as it resulted in Carlos Sainz not getting to take part in the main podium ceremony after his first top-three finish. It has been a long time coming and Sainz deserved his moment alongside the ecstatic Pierre Gasly, but sadly had to make do with a private celebration two hours later.
We’ve seen such calls made quickly at each of the last two races – both involving Daniil Kvyat – and a similarly rapid decision was made regarding Daniel Ricciardo as he picked up a time penalty for contact with Kevin Magnussen. It seemed like a simple enough decision, and the stewards should have prioritized it given the impact it had on the podium.
Still, that delay did allow the whole McLaren team present to join Sainz on the podium, even if the thousands of fans had long gone. And those who had opted to skip the race suddenly felt tremendously disappointed at missing the team’s first podium since Melbourne 2014.
It just goes to show, you can never tell when all of the various ingredients are going to combine to create a thriller. In Mexico, they were all thrown together but the race never came to the boil. In Brazil, it blew up in a big way.
All F1 can do is try to include those ingredients as often as possible.