Max Verstappen dominated (again), Fernando Alonso returned to the podium, while Mercedes was all at sea and Charles Leclerc didn’t even start.
Autoweek recaps the F1 Brazilian Grand Prix from São Paulo.
Verstappen Makes In an Even Sweeter 17
This was 2023 in a nutshell. Red Bull's Max Verstappen preserved the lead, managed the optimum strategy, and crossed the line first.
Verstappen was relatively untroubled throughout the course of the grand prix and the success was a record-extending 17th victory of the season, and 52nd of his career, to put him just one win behind Sebastian Vettel in the all-time career list.
It was a redemptive win, of sorts, as São Paulo was the sole non-Red Bull victory in the second half of 2022.
“How we’ve chosen to operate the tires is different from last year and that’s our own choice—and you can’t see the consequences of our choices—they’re subtle, it’s not an oh my god rip it up and start again,” said chief engineer Paul Monaghan. “The nice thing is the theories that surrounded last year’s performance here look like they’ve borne fruit.”
McLaren's Lando Norris dazzled once more as he swiftly surged from sixth to second to claim a 13th career podium, equaling Nick Heidfeld’s record of the most career podiums without a Grand Prix win. That accolade will surely transfer back to Heidfeld, with the excellent Norris unfortunate that his and McLaren’s current run in form is coinciding with Verstappen’s historic performance.
The highlight of the race was undoubtedly the battle for third spot, with the brilliant Fernando Alonso resisting a comeback by Sergio Perez.
Alonso and Perez swapped positions a couple of times in the closing stages and the Aston Martin racer held off the Red Bull by just 0.053 second at the finish line.
It marked a fillip for Aston Martin and Alonso after a difficult run of races, returning to the podium for the first time since the Dutch GP in August. Alonso’s performance was complemented by the display of team-mate Lance Stroll, who ran a quietly effectively race to finish in fifth place.
Mercedes’ Wretched Afternoon
Mercedes salvaged its 2022 season with a stunning 1-2 in São Paulo as George Russell claimed his maiden grand prix victory.
The situation was starkly different 12 months later.
Mercedes struggled from the outset and suffered from high tire degradation in the hot weather conditions, with its predicament accentuated by its poor top speed. Russell and Lewis Hamilton had little pace during Sprint and that trait continued in the Grand Prix, with the W14s all at sea. It was a sucker punch for Mercedes after a couple of promising rounds performance-wise—at least on Hamilton’s side of the garage—as the drop in pace came as a surprise.
“Mind-boggling weekend to understand,” said Russell. “Had relatively high expectations and just absolutely no pace at all. Same car as the last five races, so clearly we’ve got something wrong with the tyres and in a sprint race weekend when you get it wrong you can’t make amends for those issues. I mean…it’s…so many question marks. It’s the same car we had since Austin, where the car’s been capable of podiums every race – even before then, Singapore, Qatar, capable of podiums. This is clearly a substantial, one-off event. We need to understand what we’ve got wrong because right now we don’t really know.”
Russell retired once outside of the top 10 due to power unit concerns, while Hamilton struggled to finish just eighth, equaling his worst finish of the season.
Hamilton quipped “you never know with this car” in terms of performance and post-race cast doubt over Mercedes’ long-term prospects.
“I think ultimately all I can do is try and remain optimistic,” he said. “The Red Bull, I think, is so far away. I think they're probably going to be very clear for the next couple of years.”
The Monday morning debrief in Brackley is not going to be a pleasant one.
Leclerc Doesn’t Even Make the Start
Ferrari has not had a good season, and both drivers had to undertake extreme amounts of lift and coast during Saturday’s Sprint to make it to the finish.
They also opted to save their new Soft tires for Sunday’s race, giving front-row starter Charles Leclerc a slight strategic play, but the luckless Leclerc didn’t even make it that far. As he rounded Turn 7 on the formation lap a puff of smoke from the rear indicated a hydraulic failure and he was pitched into a spin that took him into the barriers.
— Formula 1 (@F1) November 5, 2023
“Why am I so unlucky,” said a disconsolate Leclerc on the team radio—minus a few choice expletives. He attempted to recover the car to the pit lane but swiftly realized the damage was terminal.
Teammate Carlos Sainz made little inroads during the race and had to settle for a subdued sixth.
Despite its low-key race Ferrari managed to trim Mercedes’ lead to 20 points in the battle for second place in the championship.
AlphaTauri Form Continues, But Ricciardo Unlucky
AlphaTauri’s recent encouraging form continued as Yuki Tsunoda claimed sixth in Sprint and ninth in the main race. Those pair of results were sufficient to lift AlphaTauri clear of Alfa Romeo in eighth in the standings and to within seven points of seventh-placed Williams.
AlphaTauri’s day could have been even rosier but Daniel Ricciardo was a victim of a first-lap accident that eliminated two of his rivals. Nico Hulkenberg tagged Alex Albon on the run to the Senna S and he speared into Kevin Magnussen, before hitting the barriers. Magnussen’s trajectory took him into the back of Oscar Piastri while a loose tyre carcass struck the rear wing of Ricciardo’s AlphaTauri. The race was initially neutralised but was suspended after the second lap, but both Ricciardo and Piastri completed only one of those safety car laps due to being in the pit lane for repairs. It meant that the Australian duo had to take the restarted race from the pit lane, already one lap down.
“I saw a tire off the rim kinda Frisbeeing through the air, getting closer, I didn’t feel anything hit me so I was happy, but I checked my mirrors and checked my rear wing was a bit off,” said Ricciardo. “That was obviously frustrating. It’s nice it didn’t hit me but then hopefully there’s a red flag, we can get back in the race, we got back to the pits, team did a great job, ready to go, but then they tell me Oscar and I are starting a lap down.
"All the excitement gets zapped out of you. There was not a green flag lap completed, I don’t know how we started a lap down… frustrating. A bit lame in the rules.”