Rain prolongs the Championship battle
16 November 2016 - Autoblog
Rain and an old-school circuit are the antidotes to Formula 1's constricting technical regulations and Tilke tracks.
At Brazil's Autódromo José Carlos Pace – otherwise known as Interlagos – rain Saturday night and on race day washed away everyone's careful plans, except for those of the man at the front of the pack.
Lewis Hamilton put his Mercedes-AMG Petronas ahead of the field throughout the weekend. On Sunday, a storm-delayed start behind the Safety Car assured Hamilton of a clean path to the lead and a clear track. The Briton didn't waste it, pulling out a gap on teammate Nico Rosberg behind, and Rosberg appeared to have no interest in going hard after Hamilton.
Safety Cars and red flags kept resetting the gap to zero, though. After the Mercedes-AMG GT S led the first seven laps, it emerged again on Lap 13 for another six laps when Marcus Ericsson crashed his Sauber. Seconds after racing resumed, Kimi Räikkönen aquaplaned his Ferrari into the wall on the front straight. That caused the first red flag, leading to another eight-lap Safety Car interval, then a second red flag stoppage due to conditions on Lap 28, then three more Safety Car laps, and then, finally, racing again.
Hamilton never surrendered his lead. The Briton changed tires once during a stoppage, and drove fast enough to cover the full race distance despite the intermissions. Afterward, he said "it was a very easy race."
Rosberg had it harder, defending against the preternatural Max Verstappen in third. Barring misfortune it's already clear the Red Bull pilot has at least one Driver's Championship in his career future. In Brazil the young Dutchman drove like he's worthy of the hardware right now. After Verstappen passed Rosberg for second on Lap 34, the Red Bull driver pitted for intermediate tires on Lap 44 – a huge gamble in the conditions – coming back out in fifth. That tire wager failed, giving Rosberg a safe position in second when Verstappen had to pit for extreme wets on Lap 54 of 71.
The teenager re-emerged in 16th. Over the race's final 17 laps Verstappen passed 13 drivers at six different places on track. He ran it close-but-clean a couple of times, especially when getting around Sebastian Vettel and Sergio Perez, but he was simply untouchable. Not only did the Dutchman score an amazing third place, he put in what could be the drive of the season.
Behind him, Sergio Perez rewarded Force India with an excellent fourth place and increased the team's odds of finishing fourth in the Constructor's Championship. Sebastian Vettel finished fifth, after spending 15 laps trying to make a pass on Carlos Sainz and Sainz's year-old Ferrari engine in the Toro Rosso. Sainz, who looked good for fourth until the penultimate lap, followed Vettel home. Nico Hülkenberg battled back from an unlucky tire puncture to finish seventh in the second Force India, Daniel Ricciardo crossed the finish less than a second behind in the second Red Bull. Felipe Nasr gave Sauber an early Christmas present with ninth place, meaning the Swiss team leapfrogs Manor Racing in the Constructor's table. Fernando Alonso recovered from a big spin to finish tenth for McLaren. Romain Grosjean, Jolyon Palmer, and Felipe Massa were among those who crashed out. Grosjean did so on the formation lap, a blow to Haas F1 after making Q3. Massa's retirement allowed him to walk the pit lane in his final home race for Williams, an emotional moment for just about everyone not still driving.
With one race remaining there isn't much left to be decided. In the break since the Mexican Grand Prix, almost all the open seats were filled: Canadian Lance Stroll graduates from Formula 3 into a seat at Williams, Palmer stays at Renault, Palmer's current teammate Kevin Magnussen departs to Haas to replace Esteban Gutíerrez, and Manor's Esteban Ocon departs for Force India. Assuming Sauber holds steady and Manor retains Pascal Wehrlein, Manor has the only seat left.
At the front of the pack, with 12 points separating Rosberg from Hamilton in the Driver's Championship, Rosberg can finish third in Abu Dhabi to claim the title if Hamilton wins. Rosberg said this weekend that he'd continue racing for victories because "I want to win properly." However, after Rosberg urged other drivers to "drive within the limits," and Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff called Max Verstappen's father Jos with a suggestion to ask Max not to do anything that would unduly cock up the Championship battle, we have a feeling Rosberg will take the same pragmatic approach in Abu Dhabi as he did in Brazil; after the race, Rosberg said, "I can live with second."
We'll find out in two weeks when the desert decides the season. We'll see you then.