Lewis Hamilton produced one of the drives of his life to win the Brazilian Grand Prix as treacherous conditions, slips, stops and restarts lit up a rainy afternoon at Interlagos.
It was the world champion’s third consecutive victory and puts him within 12 points of Nico Rosberg, the championship leader, heading to Abu Dhabi for the final race of the season a week on Sunday.
While Hamilton got the win, it was also a special afternoon for Max Verstappen who battled through the field to finish third
Five safety cars, two red flags, drivers calling for the abandonment of the race and others for its conclusion. Through it all, Hamilton once more demonstrated that when conditions are at their worst, he is at his best.
The performance stood among some of the wet-race highlights of his career, with Fuji in 2007 and Monaco and Silverstone in 2008.
With a title to fight for, his sure- footedness to win here for the first time was even more laudable. Rosberg finished second, suffering one half-spin but otherwise doing nothing especially noteworthy.
Highly noteworthy, however, was third-placed Max Verstappen, the 19-year-old Red Bull driver, who pulled off such a string of jaw-dropping passing moves that he must now be classed as a potential driver for the ages.
But we should spare a thought for another hero of the three-hour Grand Prix, Charlie Whiting, the race director who must have anticipated a fraught afternoon from the moment he opened the curtains of his Sao Paulo hotel room.
It was a good day to be in the poncho business and men with little fear for their lives stood in the middle lanes of the roads into the circuit flogging their plastic wares. But all this rain meant, alas, that the race started under the safety car.
Parts of the track were extremely wet, notice of which perils was served when Haas’s Romain Grosjean spun off on the parade lap, his race over before it started.
More exits followed once the safety car departed. Sebastian Vettel, of Ferrari, went on to the grass and briefly ended up facing the wrong way. Then Marcus Ericsson, of Sauber. The safety car came out again.
The second it withdrew, Kimi Raikkonen spun dramatically on the start-finish straight, his car bouncing off one wall and slewing across the track to nestle close to the pit lane. Facing oncoming traffic, the Finn narrowly escaped being impaled by those coming through the clouds behind him.
Vettel led the complaints on the team radio. ‘This is just stupid,’ said the German. ‘We need to stop the race. I nearly crashed into Kimi in the middle of the straight. I couldn’t see anything.’
At this stage, the race had been running for 36 minutes, after a 10-minute delay to the start. Twenty laps had passed but only six had been free-to-race, rather than capped by the safety car driven expertly by Bernd Maylander.
There was now a 35-minute hiatus. The drivers walked around in the garages. Then it was announced they would make another attempt to get going. That lasted 14 minutes before a second red flag, despite pleas from Hamilton. ‘The track is fine,’ said the eventual race winner over the radio. ‘I don’t know why we are stopping.’
Weather forecasts at the time were doom-laden and it looked as if the afternoon’s fun might be at an end. This break instead lasted 27 minutes. Then we were off again, two laps behind the safety car and then free racing. Thank goodness. The move of the grand prix came in near blanket spray and the great cavalier racer Verstappen was its craftsman.
Running third, he passed Rosberg at the end of the Senna S. Yes, he overtook the championship leader on the outside in conditions indistinguishable from those which minutes earlier had been declared too dangerous to risk racing in at all.
And to think that Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff had told him to watch his Ps and Qs by keeping out of the championship tussle. Verstappen, Formula One’s Billy the Kid, reacted like the fastest draw in the West moments later when his wheels found the white line and he jerked fiercely.
He caught his car in time, reporting coolly over the radio: ‘My heart beat went a bit higher.’
Replays show Vettel only just avoided being collected by Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India as he span wrong way up the track
After starting behind safety car, the race finally got underway and it looked like the rain was beginning to clear off the track
FOR HAMILTON TO WIN THE CHAMPIONSHIP…
He must win in Abu Dhabi and hopes Rosberg finishes fourth or lower.
If Rosberg finishes third in Abu Dhabi on Nov 27, he wins the championship.
But Rosberg was gifted second place when Red Bull gambled by bringing Verstappen in to move to intermediate tyres. It was a strange decision with worse rain predicted and may yet have an impact on the destiny of the title. Rosberg needs only to finish third or better in Abu Dhabi to wear the crown.
While Verstappen fought his way back to the podium from nowhere, Hamilton was serene. No mistakes, extending his advantage smoothly.
Still, the drama flowed. Felipe Massa spun off in his final race on his home track. He had to walk back to the pits and as he did so, carrying his national flag on his back as he was given a hand-clapping reception. He cried so many tears I feared for another red flag.
The safety car was out for a fifth time after the Massa slip and Rosberg wanted the race to end. ‘How many more crashes do we want?’ came his plaintive cry.
No further smashes occurred. Enough mayhem had already unfolded. And so we go to Abu Dhabi, Hamilton on the hunt.