Max Verstappen’s pole position at the Brazilian Grand Prix was emphatic evidence that Red Bull have really come on strongly in the final part of this Formula 1 season.
The Dutchman has now been fastest in qualifying in two of the past three races. In Interlagos, he gets to keep his place at the front of the grid after a virtually flawless weekend – without the mistake he made in Mexico last month in not slowing for yellow caution flags on his final qualifying lap.
That led to a demotion to fourth on the grid, after which a tangle with Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes on the first lap and then another with the world champion’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas led to a messy race and a sixth-place finish.
On Sunday, Verstappen has a great chance to redeem himself for that, and for the error he made in Brazil last year, when he was romping to victory after a brilliant drive that included overtaking his way into the lead from fifth on the grid, only to tangle with Esteban Ocon’s Racing Point as the Frenchman unlapped himself mid-race.
Will it be Hamilton v Verstappen for the win?
On the evidence of the season so far, the race is likely to come down to a battle between Verstappen and the Mercedes pairing of Hamilton and Bottas. The Briton qualified third, while his team-mate Bottas was fifth in qualifying, but was promoted to fourth because of an engine-related penalty imposed on Charles Leclerc.
Sebastian Vettel, Leclerc’s Ferrari team-mate, starts on the front row alongside Verstappen but he said: “It will be difficult. Both Red Bull and Mercedes look a bit stronger managing tyres, but we are there for a reason: we’ve got the speed and we’ve got the power, so let’s see what the race brings.
“I am carefully optimistic. I think it should be a good race.”
Ferrari’s race pace has been a weakness this year, and the evidence of this weekend so far is that it remains so in Brazil. The race-simulation runs completed by the teams during Friday practice suggested that Hamilton has the advantage on a long run, with Verstappen next quickest and Ferrari third.
But Vettel said he had reason to believe Ferrari might be better on Sunday than some might expect.
“Obviously we know the race for us is maybe not as strong as qualifying,” he said, “but I was quite pleased with the balance and we therefore did another long run in practice and it felt much better. So that gives me hope.”
With the championship tied up, Hamilton can afford to throw caution to the wind in search of victory – not that there was much evidence of him holding back in either his first-corner clash with Verstappen in Mexico or as he chased victory on a disadvantageous one-stop strategy.
“My approach is pretty much the same all year long,” Hamilton said, “but maybe we can try to be a bit more aggressive. We can have some fun with these guys – but yeah, I don’t particularly see that there’s any reason to make any changes. That’s ultimately what’s got me to where I am today, so I’ll just continue with that.”
However he plays it, Hamilton wants to end his stellar year with more wins – another on Sunday would be his 11th, equalling his most successful season in 2015 – and Verstappen is determined to add another to victories in Austria and Germany.
A match-up between the best driver of the older generation and perhaps the strongest of the younger contenders is one to anticipate with relish.
Red Bull’s rise
There was a point during the summer when it looked as if Verstappen might emerge as a challenger for the championship – after he took two wins and a second place in a run of four races from Austria to Hungary.
Since then, a combination of issues have set Red Bull back. Verstappen crashed at the start in Spa and Italy, beginning the latter race from the back with a penalty for using too many engine parts. In Singapore, a race at which Red Bull expected to be contenders for victory, they made a mistake on set-up and qualified lower than expected.
In Japan, Verstappen was taken out at the first corner in a collision with Leclerc. In Mexico, the Dutchman made an unfathomable misjudgement in qualifying before a couple of unfortunate incidents as he sought to recover wrecked them for good. And in Austin last time out, he was a close second, splitting the Mercedes drivers.
Red Bull’s progress this season becomes clear from an analysis of the fastest lap each team has done at each race. After the first half of the season, Red Bull were 0.602 seconds slower than Mercedes on average; in the second half, that margin is down to 0.176secs.
“We’ve been continuously improving throughout the season,” Verstappen said. “Of course some tracks have been a bit better for us than others.
“Already last year I think here we were quite good but I think again we made a step forward this year.
“We learned from our mistakes in some recent races and we came back stronger and everything is working well so yeah, of course very happy with three (sic) poles but at the end of the day there are more races than that and we want more pole positions.”
Ferrari engine controversy rumbles on
In the post-qualifying news conference, Vettel was in mischievous mood, the context being the controversy over Ferrari’s engine that has raged for the past two weeks – specifically whether the end to their run of six consecutive pole positions in Austin last time out was related to the issuing of two rule clarifications from governing body the FIA.
Red Bull and Mercedes are convinced Ferrari were up to something – and equally convinced that they see in the lap-time traces a reduction in straight-line speed performance from the Ferrari that they believe can only be explained by a reduction in engine performance.
After Austin, where Leclerc finished close to a minute off the winner, Verstappen went as far as to say: “That’s what happens when you stop cheating.”
Needless to say, Ferrari are very annoyed about this and so when Red Bull showed prodigious straight-line speed in Brazil – Verstappen was fourth fastest through the speed trap, 0.5km/h faster than Vettel, although Leclerc topped it, 0.4km/h ahead – Vettel could not resist a little dig.
“It was a bit of a surprise,” Vettel said. “Not to see them that quick, but to see them so quick on the straights – a little bit suspicious.” Cue a big smile and an exaggerated look at Verstappen, who replied: “For once it’s you then!”
Joking aside, this is obviously a serious matter.
The first FIA clarification was to do with potential ways of interfering with the fuel-flow meter to get the fuel flow rate to run above its maximum for short periods, thus boosting power. It came after a series of targeted questions from Red Bull.
The second was issued by the FIA alone, and was a reconfirmation of the rules governing the restriction on adding of lubricants into the combustion chamber, which has been a bone of contention in F1 on and off for a couple of years now.
Ferrari’s position is that they have changed nothing on their engine as a result of the two clarifications and that they have not been doing anything wrong. They refer to the allegations and insinuations as “absurd”, and argue that as a team of “absolute integrity” it is not conceivable that they could cheat or engage in foul play.
Mercedes technical director James Allison was asked about Ferrari’s straight-line performance after qualifying.
He said: “They were still pretty useful on the straights but not quite as marked as it was yesterday. But that could be lots of things. We all run different power modes on Friday.
“Probably the only thing you could stand back at a distance and say is it is two races on the trot where it hasn’t been pole position for Ferrari and they had a reasonably comfortable margin.
“It’s an interesting thing but not anything you can draw any solid conclusions from. They are still a quick car on the straights. Let’s see how they are in the race tomorrow and how they are in the race to come.”
Arise, Sir Lewis?
Since Lewis Hamilton won his sixth world title, there has been a bit of a campaign to see that he is knighted in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list this year, the argument of those proposing this being that his achievement far outstrips those of other people who have already been knighted for services to sport.
On Saturday, Hamilton was asked what he thought about this.
“Honestly, I don’t really like to think too much about it,” he said. “Just the fact that people have mentioned it, it’s already an honour, but it’s not been something that I’ve been chasing in my life.
“If, at any point, that was to happen, I don’t particularly know how I would handle it. I have stood in front of Her Majesty The Queen before and it was pretty incredible and I think she’s just awesome.
“Again, I don’t think it’s going to happen, and again, it doesn’t bother me if it doesn’t. It doesn’t mean I’m not British. It doesn’t mean I’m not continuing to try and raise the flag as well as I can. But I do appreciate all the support I’ve had from my fans and also from the British media.”
Pressed on it, he said: “I just don’t think about it. I don’t know.”
Vettel butted in: “Do you get a sword? That would be cool if you get to keep the sword.”
Hamilton, clearly wanting the subject to be wrapped up, concluded: “It’s just not something that you grow up thinking of. I’m really grateful just to be… I’ve got the MBE. It’s cool.”
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