Verstappen Twice Leads Norris To The Flag In Brazil
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and McLaren’s Lando Norris proved to be the class acts in São Paulo, Brazil, this weekend, as the Dutch ace won yesterday’s Sprint race and today’s Grand Prix, with the British driver very much the best of the rest on both occasions.
Max Verstappen and Red Bull’s RB19 continued to be an unbeatable combination
In something of a surprise earlier this week, Mercedes’ chief technical officer, Mike Elliott, announced that he was leaving the Brackley-based team with immediate effect. He had contributed significantly to their success since the start of the turbo hybrid era in 2014 and had first become a close ally of Sir Lewis Hamilton when they worked together at McLaren back in 2007. The 49-year-old explained that he now wanted to recharge his batteries before seeking new challenges elsewhere. The current technical director, James Allison, remains in post, though, as Mercedes continues its efforts to return to winning ways.
38-year-old Hamilton arrived in Brazil determined to end the worst win-less drought of his long F1 career, with it being 42 races and almost two years since he was last victorious back in Abu Dhabi in 2021. The British multiple champion also had a secondary target of taking second place in the Drivers’ Championship this year from Red Bull’s still-under-pressure Sergio Pérez, with three Grands Prix and a Sprint race still to go. Whatever the outcome on this front, it seems likely that either Pérez or AlphaTauri’s Daniel Ricciardo will occupy the second Red Bull seat in 2024, with the Mexican having crashed out on the opening lap in Mexico after a decidedly over-ambitious overtaking attempt at the first corner and the Australian crucially having helped the Red Bull second team to climb two places in the Constructors’ Championship.
In other news, Formula 1 has just agreed to a five-year extension to the current contract for its annual visits to Brazil’s iconic Interlagos circuit, lasting until the end of 2030. The track is located in sprawling São Paulo and is steeped in the sport’s history. Fortunately, it’s also a venue where overtaking is certainly possible, and this is one of the reasons why it is chosen to host sprint races as well as full Grands Prix. However, it is also a place where interruptions to the action are commonplace. In the previous five F1 events here, we have witnessed a total of six Safety Car interventions and three virtual ones, something the teams’ strategists were all well aware of as they formulated their provisional plans ahead of this weekend.
After the serious issues raised in Mexico last weekend when drivers paused or slowed near the pit lane exit seeking a clear piece of track before heading onto the circuit during qualifying, the current race director Niels Wittich made it clear in Brazil that such behaviour would now not be allowed in the pits fast lane, which is on the right at this anti-clockwise circuit. This step certainly proved to be beneficial, if not a complete solution to the problem.
Lando Norris again proved he is very much a force to be reckoned with
With this being a Sprint weekend, there was just a single free practice session on Friday for teams to hone the performance of their cars, and the Ferraris of Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc topped the timesheets on soft specification rubber. However, we didn’t witness the true potential pace of Red Bull, Mercedes, and McLaren due to their differing tyre choices, and all was only set to be revealed come Friday’s subsequent qualifying hour for today’s Grand Prix. Adverse weather was to intervene, though, and the final part of qualifying was halted four minutes early by red flags as a result of high winds and heavy rain plus thunder and lightning, with the conditions becoming so dark that it was as if day had suddenly become night. It was perhaps very appropriate that the circuit’s Interlagos name means “between lakes”. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Leclerc claimed the front row on the grid for today’s race ahead of Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll and Fernando Alonso, who both set their times ahead of the incoming gloom. Meanwhile, Mercedes’ George Russell and the Alpine duo of Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon all received two-place grid penalties for impeding issues.
Yesterday’s Sprint Shootout qualifying began at 11am local time with the weather now dry and sunny, but close to the end of the first part of the three-stage process, Ocon clashed with Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso, and the French driver suffered a hefty rearward impact into the barriers, while the Spaniard’s damaged car limped back to the pits but failed to take any further part in the qualifying hour. There was then something akin to a phoney war for the opening half of the all-important last part of qualifying as none of the remaining drivers headed out ontrack, but when they eventually did, it was McLaren’s Lando Norris who helped himself to pole position for the Sprint race later the same day, with Verstappen, Pérez, and Russell the best of the rest.
Norris and Verstappen are really close friends, but when their helmet visors are lowered, they battle just as hard as anyone else, and the Red Bull triple champion had already swept past the McLaren driver by the very first corner on the opening lap of the Sprint encounter and remained out front to the chequered flag. Russell also got the better of Norris on that first tour in a battle of the Brits, but four laps later the latter regained second place and proceeded to make the position his own as he and Verstappen proved to be in a class of their own.
To their rear, Russell and Pérez had a great scrap for third before the Mexican asserted his authority, and throughout the field there was an abundance of close racing and mainly DRS-assisted overtaking, including a thrilling battle between Sainz and Ricciardo. This all continued through to the closing stages, during which both Leclerc and AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda got the better of Hamilton, who had to settle for seventh place.
AlphaTauri’s Japanese driver Yuki Tsunoda was thrilled to finish sixth in the Sprint
Following yesterday’s tasty Sprint appetiser, we were all hoping for plenty more of the same in today’s Grand Prix main course, and there was a real sense of anticipation and excitement in the air as the 2pm local time (5pm back in the UK) start neared. There was high drama before we even got to the famous lights-out moment, though, as a technical failure for Leclerc on the formation lap meant his Ferrari crashed out. More was to follow at the beginning of the race too, as Verstappen made a strong start, but Norris made a great one as he leapt from sixth to second behind the leading Red Bull. To their rear, though, there was contact between the Haas of Nico Hülkenberg and the Williams of Alex Albon, which resulted in the elimination of both Albon and the other Haas pedalled by Kevin Magnussen at the opening lefthander. This led to the intervention of the Safety Car, which quickly became a full red flag stoppage to enable clearance of the stricken cars and significant debris as well as allow repairs to the barriers.
Come the restart, Verstappen and Norris led the way as Alonso got the better of Hamilton for third place, and the McLaren driver initially put pressure on the leader before having to back off to protect his tyres. Soon the front trio started to edge clear of the rest of the field before Pérez, having the sort of stronger race weekend that he so needs, usurped Russell and then Hamilton to gain fourth place. Following the opening round of pitstops for all the frontrunners, the leading quartet was still Verstappen, Norris, Alonso, and Pérez, and so it remained after the subsequent second set of stops, when all switched back from medium specification rubber to softs for the final stint.
With 11 laps remaining, the third-placed veteran Alonso was forced to keep making great use of his vast racing experience to resist pressure from Pérez as both sought to claim the final step on the podium. On the penultimate tour, Pérez looked to have sealed the deal as he swept by at Turn 1, but on the very last lap, the Spaniard reversed the positions on the back straight, with both drivers fighting hard but cleanly and thrilling the massed crowds. As the duo sped across the finishing line, the gap was almost too close to call for the human eye, and the timing systems recorded it as a mere 0.053 seconds.
To the rear of the leading foursome, Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll and Sainz completed the top six finishers, and Norris claimed the additional point for the fastest lap of the race. In contrast, Mercedes had a day to forget as its drivers struggled for pace and reliability, with Hamilton finishing only eighth and Russell having to retire his car, which was suffering from an increasing and potentially terminal excessive oil temperature.
It became very dark during Grand Prix qualifying on Friday afternoon
Next up on this season’s Formula 1 calendar comes a return in just under a fortnight’s time to the USA’s Las Vegas in Nevada. F1 held a couple of races there back in 1981 and 1982, entitled the Caesars Palace Grand Prix due to the location of the temporary track used, but for this visit, a new, if still temporary, street circuit has been designed and constructed in the downtown area, incorporating part of the legendary Strip. Unusually, the Grand Prix is scheduled to begin at 10pm local time on Saturday evening, making it the latest start time ever in Formula 1’s long history, and significantly, this equates to 6am/7am the next day for the vast European viewing audiences across the Atlantic, when perhaps only the more committed fans will arise early enough to catch all the razzamatazz and racing action live.
2023 Formula 1 São Paulo Grand Prix
1 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 1hr56m48.894s
2 Lando Norris (McLaren) +8.277s
3 Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin) +34.155s
4 Sergio Pérez (Red Bull) +34.208s
5 Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) +40.845s
6 Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +50.188s
7 Pierre Gasly (Alpine) +56.093s
8 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +1m2.859s
9 Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri) +1m9.880s
10 Esteban Ocon (Alpine) Lapped
11 Logan Sargeant (Williams) Lapped
12 Nico Hülkenberg (Haas) Lapped
13 Daniel Ricciardo (AlphaTauri) Lapped
14 Oscar Piastri (McLaren) Lapped
15 George Russell (Mercedes) Retired
16 Valtteri Bottas (Alfa Romeo) Retired
17 Zhou Guanyu (Alfa Romeo) Retired
18 Kevin Magnussen (Haas) Retired
19 Alex Albon (Williams) Retired
20 Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) Did not start
2023 Formula 1 São Paulo Sprint
1 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 30m7.209s
2 Lando Norris (McLaren) +4.287s
3 Sergio Pérez (Red Bull) +13.617s
4 George Russell (Mercedes) +25.879s
5 Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +28.560s
6 Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri) +29.210s
7 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +34.726s
8 Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +35.106s
9 Daniel Ricciardo (AlphaTauri) +35.303s
10 Oscar Piastri (McLaren) +38.219s
11 Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin) +39.061s
12 Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) +39.478s
13 Pierre Gasly (Alpine) +40.621s
14 Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +42.848s
15 Alex Albon (Williams) +43.394s
16 Kevin Magnussen (Haas) +56.507s
17 Zhou Guanyu (Alfa Romeo) +58.723s
18 Nico Hülkenberg (Haas) +1m0.330s
19 Valtteri Bottas (Alfa Romeo) +1m0.749s
20 Logan Sargeant (Williams) +1m0.945s
2023 Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship
1 Max Verstappen 524
2 Sergio Pérez 258
3 Lewis Hamilton 226
2023 Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship
1 Red Bull 782
2 Mercedes 382
3 Ferrari 362