F1 Brazilian Grand Prix: Drowning

This weekend’s Brazilian Grand Prix was an absolute masterclass of driving. The safety car led 28 laps having led the field on five occasions during the race. Well, that and there was this Lewis Hamilton bloke who led the rest of the way on a daring no-stop strategy as rain, safety cars and red flags fell his way. While Hamilton did his part for his championships, so did Nico Rosberg who finished 2nd on the day despite not being well-regarded as a wet weather driver.

A weather forecast predicting rain all race long had fans excited at the possibility of Rosberg slipping as the championship was within reach. However, the actual result was a cluster of epic proportions. Apart from Lewis Hamilton who, though his own admission, essentially sleep walked his way to victory.

However, the race got off to a bad start before the lights went out. Romain Grosjean aquaplaned into the barrier on his reconnaissance lap to the grid while several other cars had moments on their way to their starting spot. Drivers and teams were inclined to want a regular start but the FIA decided to start behind the safety car.

When the race finally went green, it didn’t stay that way for long. Eight drivers quickly made the switch to intermediate wets from full wets to undercut other drivers but the conditions caught out Marcus Ericsson. He aquaplaned coming out of the final turn on his inters and plowed into the barrier.

This caused some interesting and scary moments. Max Verstappen was also going to pit for inters and just narrowly avoided Ericsson’s car in the pit entry lane. After Max, Daniel Ricciardo pitted but after the pit entry was closed so he was given a five-second time penalty for violating the closed entry. Red Bull tried appealing that Daniel had a puncture but the stewards weren’t buying.

Following the safety car restart, Kimi Raikkonen, on full wets, aquaplaned into the barriers on the pit straight in front of the oncoming field. Raikkonen was running 3rd at the time and was narrowly missed by everyone. At this point, a red flag was called to clear the track and let conditions improve. When the red flag was withdrawn, the field ran several laps behind the safety car but returned to red when the conditions didn’t sufficiently improve.

Upon the third attempt to run the race, Hamilton resumed his Sunday drive while Verstappen hounded Rosberg for 2nd. He took different lines than the rest of the field to speed by Rosberg and quickly close in on Hamilton. It was going well until he aquaplaned out of the final turn (like so many others on Sunday). Instead of hitting the barrier, he barely managed to save his car and even retained 2nd ahead of Rosberg, such was Max’s pace.

Unfortunately for Max, his team undid all of his work. They made the call to put him on inters from full wets on Lap 42 of 71. Laps times dropped into the cross-over point when the team’s computers said to go onto inters. Unfortunately, the rain didn’t lighten up and was expected to get worse. After a safety car for Felipe Massa that was almost identical to Ericsson’s, Red Bull swapped Verstappen back to wets.

Back in 14th and with 16 laps to go, Verstappen turned it up to ten-tenths. He picked off one driver a lap for the next seven laps and the subsequent seven laps got him from 7th to 3rd. It was a master class in wet weather driving in front of the home country crown of Ayrton Senna, one of F1’s greatest wet weather drivers. If not for Verstappen, it might have been a boring race. Instead, the race was Max’s coming out party and him serving notice that he’s coming for the 2017 championship.

The win was Hamilton’s 52nd of his career which moves him to solo second on the all-time wins list ahead of Alain Prost’s 51 and well behind Michael Schumacher’s 91 wins. Rosberg did what he needed to do with another 2nd which leaves him in prime position to capture his first World Drivers’ Championship. Verstappen had the drive of a lifetime as he finished 3rd. His fastest lap of the race also gave him the record as youngest driver to set the fastest lap of a race which is only news because we all thought that he already had this record.

Sergio Perez had one of his typically quiet races en route to 4th. Sebastian Vettel didn’t make any friends as he pushed his way through to 5th. Carlos Sainz also had a quiet race as the Toro Rosso took advantage of conditions to finish 6th. Nico Hulkenberg crossed the line in 7th but could have done better if not for collecting Raikkonen’s front wing from his crash. Daniel Ricciardo might have been on a similar strategy to Verstappen but not on similar pace as he could only manage 8th. The most noteworthy result of the day was Felipe Nasr who finished in 9th to give Sauber 10th in the World Constructors’ Championship and tens of millions of dollars more in prize money to the team. And Fernando Alonso rounded out the points in 10th and ready to kill Vettel for forcing him off the track at one point.

So who wants to go over championship scenarios?

The basic formula is that Nico has to finish 3rd or above to win the title. If Hamilton misses the podium, it doesn’t matter if Nico even makes it to Abu Dhabi because the title is his.

If Lewis wins, Nico needs to finish 3rd or above to win the title. If Lewis finishes second, Nico needs to place in the top six to score the WDC. And if Lewis finishes on the bottom step of the podium, Nico needs an eighth or better. Apparently, Rosberg has a 90% chance of winning the title. However, the way this season has gone, I wouldn’t discount any possibility.

Apart from Verstappen’s drive, the highlight of the race was Felipe Massa’s final race in front of his countrymen.

While it ended in the barrier, the resulting safety car allowed an informal ceremony as he waved and wore the Brazilian flag as he tearfully walked up the pit lane to the Williams garage. Normally, the FIA would frown upon a driver not staying outside the safety barriers when walking to the paddock but this was a beautiful, human moment for a sport that seldom has them.

Massa was given a standing ovation from both fans and other team as he made his way to the Williams garage. The Mercedes mechanics gave him a guard of honour as they stood in the pitlane to greet Massa’s return. Felipe received hugs and handshakes from his former crew at Ferrari and his current Williams squad.

For those of you who are NASCAR fans, it was like the pit lane reception for Dale Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 victory. While that was at the end of the race for a man who broke a career-long drought, this was a mid-race reception for a man who was never World Champion and will never be considered one of the all-time greats. It was a special moment for a man who made a living driving fast and being a solid hand in doing so.

While wet weather safety car rules seem to be changing for 2017, we learned how restrictive weather related safety car rules are in F1.

We knew that wet races starting behind the safety car required cars to be on full-wet tyres based on the appallingly long safety car start at Silverstone. We also learned that restarts from red flags due to wet weather also required cars to be on full wets with no changes to inters allowed until the safety car is withdrawn. As such, you had cars quickly abandoning the wets for inters at multiple points in the race.

At this level of motorsport, if a driver wants to take a chance by going onto inters and risk aquaplaning into a wall, it’s their choice. If they want to be the first to make that choice and take the zero or hero risk, the FIA should let them. I realize that they’re trying to keep everyone safe but you reach a point where the sporting element of F1 is being removed.

That brings us to many questionable calls that FIA Race Director Charlie Whiting was making during the race. Safety car calls for Ericsson and Massa’s crashes along with the red flag for Raikkonen’s crash along the front straight were necessary. However, Whiting seemed to be ignoring what the drivers were saying in their cockpits.

For example, before the Raikkonen spin following a safety car, drivers were saying that the conditions were worse than when the race was previously under green. It felt like many of Charlie’s decisions were made with commercial interests in mind like TV ratings this week, the fans at the track possibly looking for refunds and wanting a closer title fight at Abu Dhabi. The easiest way to do that would be to run as many laps as possible so full points were awarded.

If you want silly season news, this is the recap for you. With Nico Hulkenberg signing with Renault before the Mexican Grand Prix, the dominoes for 2017 started falling in earnest.

Let’s start with Force India which was the first team to officially fill a vacant seat following the Mexican Grand Prix. The rumour had been gaining traction that Force India favoured Esteban Ocon over Pascal Wehrlein for the seat alongside Sergio Perez and that was made official days after Mexico. Scuttlebutt is that Ocon has advantages in feedback and attitude when compared to Wehrlein. While Wehrlein has been outperforming Ocon, the benefits to the team of fitting Ocon into the team atmosphere appears to trump raw pace.

Both of Renault’s current drivers have signed new deals for 2017 but only Jolyon Palmer will stay in Enstone next year. Having been connected with seats at Force India, Sauber and Manor, following his teammate’s departure, it was nearly academic that Palmer would be re-signed for the sake of continuity. There was also the matter of Renault not being able to sign the likes of Felipe Massa, Valtteri Bottas and Carlos Sainz as they were rumoured to be interest in at various points of time.

Almost simultaneously with the Palmer announcement, Kevin Magnussen was announced to be moving to Haas on a two-year deal to partner Romain Grosjean. Magnussen was on Haas’s radar for this season but it’s believed that Ferrari wanted one of their development drivers in the Haas so Magnussen wasn’t pursued for 2016. Now, Haas has made a significant improvement to their driver lineup for 2017. Will it help them move above their current 8th in the WCC, though?

By the way, the BBC reported that Magnussen was offered the extension at Renault first but turned it down because he wanted job security. Having only been offered a one-year extension, K-Mag chose the multi-year deal at Haas. Renault’s insistence on renewing a driver for one year may be because of a rumour saying that Carlos Sainz has been signed to a contract for 2018.

So after all the moves that have been announced, there are only four seats that aren’t confirmed and one displaced driver who hasn’t signed for 2017 or retired from F1. That would be Esteban Gutierrez. He was seen in conversation with Monisha Kaltenborn on Sunday morning. Gutierrez was with Sauber in 2013 and 2014 and scored six points from one 7th place finish. He does have the advantage of sponsorship backing from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim so Sauber would certainly be interested for that reason.

At the moment, it’s believed that Marcus Ericsson is a safe bet to be retained by Sauber. Who joins him at the Hinwil team remains the question. It’s likely to be either Gutierrez or Felipe Nasr. Given that it’s Sauber that we’re talking about, I wouldn’t be surprised that the seat goes to the highest bidder. With economic concerns in Brazil and changes in leadership at Petrobras and Banco do Brasil, it’s entirely possible that Nasr would have been on his way out without a hotly rumoured replacement.

While there have been a lot of moves in the driver market, the hottest free agent in Formula One might not be a driver but a team boss.

Over the last couple of weeks, Ross Brawn’s name has been tossed about F1 circles. The former Benetton and Ferrari technical director and Honda/Brawn team principal masterminded Michael Schumacher’s seven World Drivers’ Championships, Jenson Button’s lone title, one Benetton World Constructors’ Championship, six more WCCs for Ferrari and one more Constructors’ title for his eponymous Brawn GP.

While Ferrari has been trying to bring him back into the fold to salvage the Scuderia, F1’s new owners, Liberty Media, have been looking at splitting the F1 supremo job to have technical and commercial boxes. Brawn, and his years of experience at the top-level of the top-level of motorsport, is at the head of their wishlist to be F1’s sporting director.

In interviews for the promotion of his new book, Brawn says that Liberty hasn’t made an offer to him yet. We know that they are looking for new blood to replace Bernie but is doesn’t look like that change will be made overnight. Prior to Liberty’s takeover, Red Bull boss Christian Horner was rumoured to be on Bernie’s own shortlist of replacements. At the very least, it’s somewhat comforting that both Bernie and Liberty know they need experience from inside the sport to keep the teams happy and grow the sport.

The next round of the 2016 Formula One World Championship comes to us in two weeks’ time. It’s one final race for all the glory as the Mercedes duel between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton heads to the Yas Marina Circuit for the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

The last two years of Mercedes dominance have seen Lewis and Nico take one win each. Even if Lewis wins under the lights, he needs Nico to fall off the podium in order to clinch his third-consecutive World Drivers’ Championship. Nico only needs to finish 3rd or better to clinch his first WDC.


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