Even in a Formula One season filled with drama, the controversy at the Brazilian Grand Prix was abnormally relentless.
As the championship reaches its climax and with little to separate them in either championship, Mercedes and Red Bull, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, and Toto Wolff and Christian Horner are feuding in plain view.
Up against the odds, Lewis Hamilton delivered one of his most remarkable drives. He mitigated a qualifying disqualification and a five-place grid penalty to win and reduce Max Verstappen’s advantage to 14 points.
It quickly went from a weekend of opportunity for Red Bull to one of damage limitation. It ended with them raising questions over the legality of their rivals’ car. By the end of it all, a siege mentality seemed to have set in at Mercedes.
So where did Mercedes’ top-speed advantage come from? Are Red Bull now vulnerable? Was Verstappen right not to be penalised for his defence of the lead?
Hamilton’s new engine, and new-found pace
For several races Mercedes have hinted that that they would need to take additional power unit parts until the end of the season, risking further grid penalties at a point – with Hamilton trailing – when they can ill afford them.
The Mercedes engine is prone to a higher level of performance degradation than Red Bull’s Honda units. On Friday, a new Internal Combustion Engine was fitted to Hamilton’s car, incurring a five-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race, as happened in Turkey in October. The highest he could possibly start would be sixth, with Verstappen likely to be on the front row.
Taking a new engine is a trade-off between losing track position or losing performance. Given the format last weekend – with its Saturday sprint qualifying – the track layout (a long section at full power towards the end of the lap) and the W12’s advantage in a straight line, it made sense to do it in Brazil.
The performance jump made by Hamilton’s Mercedes from Mexico to Brazil was enormous. Clearly, the driver did have an influence and there is no doubt that the weekend was one of his strongest ever. Team-mate Valtteri Bottas, after all, was beaten by Verstappen in both the one-hour qualifying and in the grand prix. It was not just the car.
Speed trap data does not tell you everything, but shows a general picture. At the three high-speed detection points. Hamilton was mostly in the top five whilst Verstappen was in the bottom five. The straight-line advantage helped Hamilton carve through the field in the sprint qualifying.
The performance in the race’s 71 laps was emphatic. Hamilton started 10th after his penalty but was in second by lap 19 and after passing Verstappen on lap 59 he finished the race 10.5sec ahead. Compare this to Mexico where the Briton finished 16.5sec behind his rival.