After being nowhere near the pace of Red Bull and Max Verstappen in Mexico, Lewis Hamilton was on the back foot as he slipped 21 points behind the former with just four races remaining. He had lost ground in the standing in three consecutive races and it was imperative for the reigning champion to turn the tide quickly.
Over the last two weekends in Brazil and Qatar, a new venue, he managed to do just that with two stomping drives in extremely different circumstances.
The twin victories helped the Mercedes driver to cut down the deficit by 13 points to just eight with two more races left in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.
In Interlagos, the format of the race weekend was different with the Sprint Race apart from the main race, similar to the ones used in Britain and Italy.
Hamilton was on fire in the qualifying to take the pole position for the sprint race. But things got complicated for the seven-time champion as his Mercedes rear wing was found to be in breach of technical regulation. It was a tiny infraction but the FIA stewards ruled it illegal and excluded him from qualification.
Incredible win: Fans hold a banner with an image of Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, of Britain, at the end of the Brazilian Formula One Grand Prix in Sao Paulo. Lewis Hamilton registered a crucial win in Brazil despite being on the back foot consistently. – AP
This meant Hamilton had to start from the back of the grid for the 30-minute race on the Saturday. The finishing order in that race was to be used to set the grid for the main race and a determined Hamilton had a lot to do.
The Briton has always done well when the odds are stacked against him. He produced a breathtaking performance finishing fifth in the Sprint Race. However, an unscheduled engine change meant he had to take a five-place grid penalty and start tenth on the race day
Around the Interlagos circuit, the Mercedes was the strongest car and had a huge pace advantage over rivals Red Bull, but Hamilton had to ensure he did not lose time in traffic as he made his way up the field.
His rival Verstappen took the lead from Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas at the start and had his teammate Sergio Perez behind him as his wingman.
Hamilton was a man on a mission. He moved to fifth in just two laps and was on the tail of Perez in quick time. An early Safety Car too helped his cause as it did not allow Verstappen to build a lead. By lap 19, the Mercedes driver passed Perez to take the second spot.
Over the next 30 laps, it was a game of cat and mouse between Hamilton and Verstappen. Hamilton tried to undercut by stopping early on lap 25 but Verstappen responded by stopping in the next lap and coming out ahead to maintain a lead of just a few seconds.
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However, this spooked the Dutchman and he did not want a repeat of it during the second round of stops. He eventually made a pitstop on lap 40, pre-empting one from Hamilton. This time in clear air, Hamilton unleashed his pace for a few more laps before making his second stop. When he joined back, he was behind by just nine seconds.
The Mercedes, with a new engine, was faster down the straights and Hamilton quickly erased that gap. On lap 48, he tried to make a move on his rival and was ahead momentarily. Verstappen, ever the fierce competitor, braked late for the next corner but couldn’t turn in his car, running wide and forcing Hamilton wide as well along with him.
It was a very marginal move and Verstappen was lucky to not get a penalty. If not for Hamilton’s evasive action, both would have crashed.
Temporary halt: Red Bull’s Max Verstappen makes a pitstop during the F1 Grand Prix of Qatar in Doha. Verstappen had no answer to Lewis Hamilton’s pace as the latter never let his advantage slip below six seconds. – Getty Images
Over the next ten laps, Hamilton kept pushing his rival who hurt his tyres by trying to stay ahead and on lap 59, the former managed to make the pass. Once in the lead, Hamilton ran away to a crucial win during a weekend where he was on the back foot consistently. He ranked it one of the best wins of his career. Bottas finished third ahead of Perez which showed the inherent pace of Mercedes.
From Brazil, the F1 bandwagon travelled to the Middle East for the inaugural Qatar Grand Prix and it was evident after the Friday’s runs that Mercedes was the team to beat. Hamilton took pole comfortably ahead of Verstappen and Bottas.
But in a reverse of what happened in Brazil, Verstappen was at the receiving end of a penalty. The championship leader, on his final qualifying lap, did not slow down enough for a double-waved yellow flag. A double waved yellow flag is an indication to drivers to slow down and be ready to stop if needed and drivers cannot improve their times on such a lap. Verstappen was given a five-place penalty for the infringement that put him down to seventh on the grid for the race.
It was now for the Red Bull driver to charge up the field and chase down Hamilton but the Mercedes was class apart around the Losail International Circuit.
Despite Verstappen quickly getting to second within the first ten laps, he had no answer to Hamilton’s pace as the latter never let his advantage slip below six seconds. From there on, it was a processional race with two title rivals miles ahead of the rest of the pursuing pack.
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The battle was for third place between Fernando Alonso in the Alpine, Perez and Bottas. All three were trying to do a one-stop race. But having been stuck behind Alonso, Perez chose to pit early to get a jump on the Spaniard but failed in his mission due to traffic on his laps after the pit stop.
In a bid to attack later in the race on fresh tyres, Mercedes let Bottas stay out till lap 33 but the strategy backfired spectacularly as the Finnish driver suffered a puncture and had to limp to the pits suffering front wing damage as well. Seeing this, Perez was forced for a precautionary second stop as he had stopped earlier than Alonso and tried to chase down the Spaniard in the final ten laps of the race from 15 seconds behind. However, the wily Alonso was ready for the occasion and was able to match Perez’s time more often than not as the Red Bull driver struggled to get close to launch an attack.
In the end, a virtual safety car meant Perez could not try to attack as all drivers had to slow down to a control time, giving Alonso his first podium since 2014.
Verstappen made a late pit stop to set the fastest lap of the race that gave him one extra point to limit the damage in a tight title battle where every point could matter in the end.