Lewis Hamilton battles back brilliantly from penalty in Brazil sprint

  • Champion sent to back for DRS rule breach but comes fifth
  • Title hopes still slim as five-place engine penalty will follow

Lewis Hamilton’s Formula One world championship hopes hung by the slenderest of threads after he was disqualified from Friday’s qualifying at the Brazilian Grand Prix. Yet with typical indomitable fortitude the world champion refused to accept his fate. He delivered an exceptional performance in Saturday’s sprint to give himself a chance to keep his title hopes alive at Interlagos and stay in touch with Max Verstappen.

F1 had scrupulously followed its rules in punishing Hamilton but it was impossible to ignore the sense of disappointment that accompanied the likelihood that the most exciting title fight for years might be decided in the stewards’ room rather than on the track. Hamilton described the decision as “devastating” but had no intention of throwing in the towel.

Lewis Hamilton’s pit crew work on his car
Lewis Hamilton’s pit crew work on his car. Photograph: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Relegated to the back of the grid after the FIA confirmed his Mercedes team had broken regulations in their rear wing drag reduction system (DRS) during Friday’s qualifying, Hamilton gave a masterclass in controlled, aggressive driving to move from 20th to fifth in just 24 laps. The sprint was won by his teammate Valtteri Bottas, who will start from pole, with Verstappen in second.

“I just tried to get as far up as possible, then all of a sudden, I was chipping away at it much faster,” Hamilton said. “You just can’t give up. You just have to keep going.”

So quick and so precise was Hamilton that what had appeared to be an insurmountable task is now all to play for. He scythed through the field, including an absolutely bravura pass on Lando Norris through turn one on the final lap to take fifth, but the challenge remains significant.

With his grid penalty for taking a new engine earlier in the weekend applied he will start the grand prix from 10th. Yet such was his pace that making a tilt at the front with a full 71 laps to play with is within his grasp.

A bullish Mercedes team principal, Toto Wolff, was hugely pleased with the result especially as he felt his team had been harshly treated. “Fuck them all,” he said to Hamilton as he crossed the line. Wolff insisted the comment was not aimed at the stewards but rather an expression of building up resilience.

He believed the attention to the Mercedes wing brought by Red Bull and the refusal to allow for what he believed was damage incurred during its use was unfair. “In a way there was a gentleman’s agreement that exists, now it doesn’t any more,” he noted before celebrating Hamilton’s performance. “Today it reminded me why I love this sport,” he added. “Everything is possible, we have everything to play for tomorrow.”

Hamilton trails Verstappen by 21 points with four rounds, including today’s, remaining and 104 points available. Before the sprint Verstappen looked all set to open a chasm to the world champion, now the fight remains on albeit with the numbers still stacked up against the British driver. If Verstappen scores three points more than Hamilton on Sunday he could finish second to him in the three remaining meetings and still take his first title.

Hamilton’s team were found to have breached the technical regulation during the qualifying on Friday that decided the grid for the sprint race. His punishment was finally confirmed on Saturday afternoon and Mercedes have stated they will not appeal. Verstappen too had been drawn into the protracted steward’s enquiry and was fined €50,000 (£43,500) for touching Hamilton’s car after qualifying.

Lewis Hamilton celebrates taking pole position for the sprint race
Lewis Hamilton celebrates taking pole position for the sprint race – but he was later disqualified. Photograph: Lars Baron/AFP/Getty Images

For Mercedes it was a technical infringement that was not intentional. The rear wing passed the FIA test before qualifying but failed to do so afterwards. The stewards confirmed they believed there had been no deliberate rule breaking, reporting there was “no question of any intent to exceed the maximum dimension either by action or design”. However, they did state the issue was likely caused by a “play in parts” (contact between different elements), a fault with the mechanism or incorrect assembly.

Wolff said the team were convinced that the wing had been damaged but it had yet to be returned to them for inspection. It was a huge blow for Mercedes. Since the turbo-hybrid era began in 2014 they have been dominant and performed operationally and mechanically at an exceptionally high standard.

The sequence of events had begun after qualifying finished on Friday at 2pm in Brazil and only concluded a full 19 hours later. With Hamilton having secured pole for the sprint race with a dominant performance, Red Bull lodged a complaint about the DRS. Mercedes were then summoned to the stewards after the FIA technical delegate, Jo Bauer, had inspected and found an infringement.

The DRS opens a flap in the wing, reducing drag and allowing the car to go car faster in a straight line. The gap is mandated to be no more than 85mm and Hamilton’s was found to be marginally larger.

The stewards investigated and Mercedes put their case, and the intrigue only ratcheted up when Verstappen and Red Bull were also summoned to the stewards. They were called to explain a breach of the parc fermé rules that forbid the touching or checking of cars once qualifying is complete. Footage filmed by a fan had emerged of Verstappen inspecting and touching the rear wing of his car and then Hamilton’s under parc fermé conditions and he was duly fined.

The process ground on, only finally reaching its conclusion shortly before the sprint began, and for that brief period Hamilton’s title hopes looked absolutely forlorn. Then he took to the track, once more refused to be bowed and is on absolutely fighting form for Sunday’s race.

Contributor

Giles Richards

The GuardianTramp

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