Karun Chandhok: Brilliance from Max in Brazil!

We’re used to seeing some crazy races in Interlagos, but normally that involves some rain. On this Sunday, however, it was baking hot and still the action on track was very exciting.

Max Verstappen (left) abosultely dominated the entire weekend at Interlagos, while Pierre Gasly recorded his first podium finish.   -  AFP

What an absolutely brilliant, chaotic and surprising Grand Prix we had in Brazil! We’re used to seeing some crazy races in Interlagos, but normally that involves some rain. On this Sunday, however, it was baking hot and still the action on track was very exciting to watch and there were some real feel-good stories in the paddock at the end of it.

I’ve got to start with Max Verstappen. For whatever reason, both he and Red Bull have been strong at Interlagos in recent times. Whether it’s the altitude or the undulating track layout, it seems to suit their car. It’s a tricky circuit with only eight real corners, but with a lot of camber changes in the asphalt and tricky kerbs that can upset the car. Therefore, the drivers need to be supremely confident and comfortable with the car to make sure that they hustle a lap time out of it.

Max has never been shy of confidence and Red Bull’s competitiveness was evident right from the first practice session. He topped the times in every segment of qualifying, which was very impressive to see. The fact that his Q2 time was the fastest of the session showed just how close to the edge of extracting the maximum performance he was all the way through the qualifying session.

The Ferraris provided one of the biggest talking points of the race when Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc inexcusably collided, putting them both out of the race in the final stint.   -  AP

 

I spent the race listening to the team radio channels for Max and Lewis Hamilton, among others, and the difference in their tone was really interesting. Max never seem to be flustered or frustrated (apart from, justifiably, when Robert Kubica nearly wiped him out in the pit lane). Even when Lewis got in front after the first round of pit stops, he just got his head down and used the out lap to close up to the Mercedes and attack him into the Senna S. His clarity of thought when it comes to decision-making makes him sound like a 40-year-old, and the dynamic and rapport he’s built up with his race engineer, Gianpiero Lambiase, is vital to their on-track success. He stayed calm during every restart, attacked Lewis for track position with controlled aggression, and then did just about enough to maintain a safe gap while not destroying his tyres in free air. I would give him not one decimal short of a 10 out of 10 for that weekend.

Mercedes and Ferrari weren’t as quick as Max all weekend long, and as soon as the temperatures rose on race day, we pretty much knew straight away that the red cars would have no chance of victory. They struggle with tyre degradation much more than their rivals, and as soon as we got to about lap 10 of the opening stint, Sebastian Vettel started to lose contact with the two cars up ahead. Charles Leclerc made swift progress through the midfield teams, but then didn’t really seem to make a big impression on a sub-par Valtteri Bottas or Alex Albon.

The Ferraris did provide one of the biggest talking points of the race, however, when they inexcusably collided, putting them both out of the race in the final stint. Leclerc had a fresher set of tyres and when he got passed Vettel into the first corner, he went too deep and Seb got a much better exit and a run on him out of turn three. Both drivers share some blame – Seb clearly moved left, away from the white line towards Charles and tried to squeeze him a bit like we saw with him and Mark Webber in Turkey in 2010 when they collided. Equally, Charles could have left him a bit more room considering they’re teammates, but this was an accident that was a long time coming. The pressure cooker has been waiting to go pop since Ferrari attempted some team orders back in Melbourne, and it’s now well and truly boiled over. The damage to both cars was a bit of a surprise to be honest. I didn’t expect the tyre and suspension damage to be so excessive from what was a fairly light bit of contact, but it just shows how things can go wrong if contact is made at the wrong angle.

Lewis’ lunge on Albon was another moment of drama and controversy. When we got the final safety car towards the end, it left us with only a couple of racing laps. Mercedes had opted to roll the dice and go for victory by pitting at the end, even though there was a risk that the race would have finished behind the safety car and also that it put Lewis behind both Albon and Pierre Gasly. Lewis got past Gasly immediately and he had his sights firmly set on Max ahead of him. He had a fresh set of soft tyres and I think he was desperate to get ahead of Albon quickly and set off after Max for the win.

That desperation became evident when he lunged down the inside of the Red Bull into turn 10. It’s not a normal passing spot, especially amongst leading cars and even if you’re lapping someone, and it does need a degree of cooperation from the driver being passed to make the move stick. Albon stuck to his normal line and by the time he saw Lewis had committed to the dive down the inside, the contact was inevitable. I thought it was very sporting of Lewis to apologise to Alex straight away as it cost the Thai driver his first podium in F1.

Carlos Sainz had to start at the back of the grid after and engine issue in qualifying, but he did an amazing job with tyre management to finish fourth, which was upgraded to third after Lewis Hamilton was penalised.   -  AFP

 

Through the disappointment of Ferrari, Lewis and Albon came Gasly and Carlos Sainz. Of course, their podiums today were a result of others’ misfortune, but they both totally deserved a bit of silverware for the seasons they’ve had.

Pierre has shown great strength of character since being demoted to the Toro Rosso team in Spa-Francorchamps. He’s convincingly outperformed Daniil Kvyat, and this weekend in Interlagos he was on the ball from the very first lap of free practice. To qualify as the leader of class B was a strong effort and in the race he had already broken away from his chasers like Kimi Raikkonen by a few seconds, so even without the dramas ahead for the top cars, he would have still gotten a very good result. He deserves a trophy just for the mental and emotional roller-coaster he’s been on this year, but I’m glad he earned one fighting on track, wheel to wheel right up to the finish line.

Sainz has driven an outstanding season. He would be my pick for third best in the driver rankings behind Lewis and Max, but we can discuss that after the season. This weekend he had to start at the back of the grid after and engine issue in qualifying, but he did an amazing job with tyre management. He chipped away at the pack with controlled aggression and ran a very long first stint, which allowed the team to gamble on a one-stop strategy. Later in the race, with old and worn tyres, he managed to defend against the Alfa Romeos beautifully to secure a very good result for him and the team. The penalty for Lewis was just a bonus; Carlos’s drive to fourth would rate as one of the finest out there.