Charging towards the Descida do Lago at more than 320km/h, Lewis Hamilton fluffed his lines and his chance to overhaul Nico Rosberg and win a thrilling Brazilian Grand Prix.
Rosberg drove the race of his life under relentless pressure to keep his team-mate at bay, but knows all Hamilton needs is second place at the title decider in Abu Dhabi to emerge as world champion. Unless his car fails him, it should not be too big an ask, given the levels of dominance Mercedes have achieved this year.
With just the finale to this spectacular title tussle remaining, Rosberg reduced the deficit to 17 points and more importantly won an enormous psychological boost after five victories on the bounce for Hamilton. Everyone heads to the desert praying double points will not play a decisive role.
There was plenty to cheer for the passionate crowd at Interlagos, who were sent into delirium when local boy Felipe Massa crossed the line third after a speedy, if at times error-strewn drive. On the circuit where he and McLaren enjoyed their last victory two years ago, Jenson Button also provided a timely reminder of his class, given the team are expected to jettison the 34-year-old at the end of the year. His rookie team-mate, Kevin Magnussen, came home a distant ninth.
It was Rosberg’s fifth win of the season — his first since the German Grand Prix in July — and the finest of his career. Hamilton, who enjoys on-track duels like the one we witnessed yesterday more than any other, gave his sparring partner a thumbs up as they drove back to the pits. The internecine warfare is on hold for now.
“No one’s fault but mine,” Hamilton said of his blunder midway through the race. Those with an eye for statistics calculated that had he not half-spun, Hamilton would have emerged from the pits in the lead. “I clearly had a lot more pace than Nico today and I know he would have seen that,” the 29-year-old added.
Rosberg, meanwhile, was full of smiles, safe in the knowledge that double points will massively aid his cause in Abu Dhabi. In any other season, sixth would have been enough for Hamilton at the last race. Second is a taller order. Toto Wolff, head of Mercedes motorsport, conceded the championship could be blighted if this freak rule swung the title, but insisted Rosberg would still be a worthy champion. “Whoever wins the championship will have his name in the record books,” he said. Wolff was also toasting another record-breaking day’s work, after they eclipsed McLaren’s 1988 record to take their 11th one-two finish of the season.
Wolff upped the pressure on Bernie Ecclestone to scrap the hated double points rule for next year, but Formula One’s ringmaster has more pressing matters on his hands, with the small teams in open revolt.
The noise off-track rose to deafening levels before the race, but the opening exchanges on it were not much to shout about. Rosberg led from pole, covering the inside line, and Hamilton followed to slot into second.
By lap four, Rosberg had a lead of 1.2 seconds over his team-mate, the rest of the field slightly further adrift. Before Hamilton could get within DRS range, and use the extra speed on the straights, the first round of pit stops intervened.
Massa, starting third, was the first in on lap five. Rosberg followed two laps later. “It’s yours to do,” Hamilton’s engineer said over the radio.
“Push, push.” He did, but it was not enough. With their stops done, it was Rosberg who better dispatched the array of backmarkers in their way.
On lap 26, Hamilton breathing down his neck, Rosberg locked up and dove straight into the pits. Sensing his opportunity, Hamilton gave it all he had.
It was too much. Coming down the Reta Oposta, doing just over 320km/h, he locked the rear tyres heading into turn four, half-spinning as he went off the track. This rare mistake cost him around seven seconds and a chance at taking the lead. Then it was a tricky balancing act for the Briton. Push too hard and ruin the tyres, he would be impotent to challenge at the end of the race. Be overly cautious, and he would never make up the ground. Twenty five laps from the end, he was back within 2.5 seconds, setting up a grandstand finish.
The German stopped for the final time at the end of lap 50. Hamilton came in the next time round and hit his marks perfectly. Massa did not. The Brazilian inexplicably went in the wrong box, and had to be waved in to correct garage. Team boss Claire Williams winced.
In the final 20 laps, always within a second, Hamilton launched his final attack in a ferocious duel, but it was not enough. He fell back, finishing 1.4sec behind his team-mate. The same again in Abu Dhabi will do.
–Daniel Johnson in Sao Paulo