BusyFormula #034: Is win no. 101 the best drive of Hamilton’s F1 career?

The 2021 Brazilian Grand Prix will go down in the record books as one of the greatest races of Sir Lewis Hamilton’s illustrious F1 career. But is it the greatest race of his career?

With 101 wins to his name in Formula1, it is undoubtedly harder to pick his greatest than most drivers; he is the most successful F1 driver by race wins, after all. But I have to say, in the 14 years that I have watched Hamilton race in F1, there are very few drives of his or any other driver that can compare to what he did in the Brazilian Grand Prix.

Faced with severe adversity and sheer bad luck all weekend long, Lewis rose to the occasion with grace and finesse that showed the true measure of the man that many now believe is the outright GOAT in Formula1. This drive was made even more remarkable by the fact that the Brazilian Grand Prix was a must-win race for Lewis Hamilton if he was to have any chance of winning this championship.

“Cometh the hour, cometh the man.” 

Nineteen points behind Verstappen with only four races to go, Hamilton looked like he was stuck between a rock and a Red Bull going into the Brazilian Grand Prix. With Max taking back-to-back wins in the US and Mexico, hopes were waning for a title showdown in the season’s final stages as Max and Red Bull looked like they were running away with the title.

However, as is typical of the German outfit, Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton weren’t ready to surrender this championship to Mad Max just yet. They had one more ace up their sleeve. That ace showed up in the form of a new engine that turned Lewis’s Mercedes into a guided missile navigating through the crowd on its way to its target, a one Max Verstappen.

Lewis was right on the pace from the beginning of the weekend, setting the pace early in Free Practice 1 by four-tenths of a second over title rival Max Verstappen and his Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez. This was crucial since it was a sprint weekend; there would be only one Free Practice session before Qualifying for the Sprint took place on Friday afternoon.

Having taken a new engine, Lewis had taken a five-place grid penalty, so it was vital for him to take Pole to minimize the effect of the penalty. And come Qualifying, Lewis did just that. Having led both Q1 and Q2 comfortably, his fastest lap in Q3 of 1m 07.934s was over four-tenths up on Verstappen’s best time. That was job done for Hamilton since by qualifying on Pole, he would have a chance to score three championship points in the Sprint and fight back from sixth on the grid for the win. Or so he thought…

Hamilton gets disqualified from Qualifying.

Quite often, drivers getting penalties only serves to reduce the excitement of a race. Front runners start races out of position, and they rarely make up the places necessary to challenge their rivals at the front. This ultimately robs the fans of the battles they want to see. That was not the case in the Brazilian Grand Prix.

Having Qualified on Pole, Hamilton expected to start the Sprint on Saturday in first place since his penalty for the engine change would take effect till the race on Sunday. However, after Qualifying, the FIA found fault with Hamilton’s rear wing that meant the rear wing was in breach of an FIA technical directive that rendered the rear wing an illegal part.

The wing failed the test that mandates that the gap between the rear wing endplate and the DRS flap must be no more than 85mm wide when the DRS is open. While Mercedes argued that this was a case of a broken part and not an illegal one, and the FIA agreed that there was no intention to breach the technical directive on the part of the Mercedes team, the decision still went against the Brackley based outfit.

Given that Mercedes had run an illegal part in the Qualifying session, the stewards elected to disqualify Lewis Hamilton from the session and relegated him to the back of the grid for the Sprint race on Saturday.

And since Hamilton already had a five-place grid penalty for Sunday, his finishing position in the Sprint was even more important since he would still have to start five places below that on Sunday. However, while Lewis was going through this series of unfortunate events, his title rival Max was not all smiles either.

Verstappen gets fined for touching Lewis’s rear wing after Qualifying

At the end of the Qualifying session on Friday, a video taken by a fan showed Max Verstappen walking up to Hamilton’s rear wing and touching it. Max appeared to be checking the gap between the two plates on the rear wing.

While checking other drivers’ cars is common in F1, especially after Qualifying and the race, it is not allowed under FIA regulations. According to the regulation, only authorized personnel can touch or work on a car once it is in parc ferme.

Verstappen’s actions were compounded by the fact that the FIA was investigating Hamilton’s rear wing for a violation against an FIA technical directive. By touching the rear wing, Verstappen had contaminated the evidence, which led Mercedes to argue that there is no way to know whether Max touching the wing did not compromise it in any way.

While the FIA found that Max was not to blame for Hamilton’s rear wing failing the test, he was still fined fifty thousand pounds for breaching the parc ferme regulations and interfering with the FIA’s investigation into Hamilton’s rear wing.

For his part, Max made it clear that he wouldn’t lose any sleep over the fine by joking that the stewards should treat themselves to a nice dinner with expensive wine at his expense. However, what happened during the Sprint on Saturday surely cost him some sleep.  

Hamilton bolts from 20th to 5th in the Sprint

With Hamilton disqualified from Qualifying, fortune seemed to favor Verstappen as he was promoted to first on the grid for the Sprint. He looked set to win the Sprint and add three more points to his gap over Hamilton.

The first to ruin Max’s day was Valtteri Bottas, who opted to start the Sprint on the faster but less durable soft tyre in hopes of stealing the lead from Verstappen at the start. Valtteri got the jump on Max at the start and never looked back as he fought off the entitled Verstappen to win the Sprint. Valtteri’s win meant Max had to settle for second place and two extra points taking his lead over Hamilton to 21.

However, the star of the Sprint was by far Lewis Hamilton, who went from last to fifth in 24 laps. Lewis was only 4 seconds off the podium positions by the end of the session, yet he started dead last in the Sprint.

It was hard to tell which of his rivals were fast and which ones were slow as he made quick work of all of them with his pace. However, the best overtake out of the 15 was the one on Lando Norris for fifth place. Granted, Lando didn’t do much to fight the move, but the daring lunge into Turn One from Hamilton, who somehow managed to keep the car on the track, demonstrated the hunger and ability still left in the seven-time World Champion.

Many credited Hamilton’s new engine for the pace of his Mercedes, but I don’t think that gives enough credit to Hamilton’s overtaking craft and his will to triumph over adversity. Lewis Hamilton has one of the scariest reactions when his back is against the wall, a fact he demonstrated again in Brazil. But as impressive as his 15 overtakes in just 24 laps were in the Sprint, they were nothing compared to his drive for the race win on Sunday.

Hamilton storms to a historic win at the Brazilian Grand Prix

Even though he finished P5 in the Sprint, Lewis started the race in 10th place due to his five-place grid penalty for getting a new engine. Even with a P10 start, many expected him to finish the race on the podium, given the pace he displayed on Sunday. However, very few, including myself, thought he could win the race. Good thing Lewis doesn’t care what the rest of us think.

Just a couple of laps into the race, and it was clear he wanted the win. By the end of Lap 3, he had made up seven places and was sitting pretty behind the pair of Red Bulls who had both overtaken Bottas on the first lap. Lewis got a bit lucky when a full Safety Car and a Virtual Safety Car were deployed to clean up the debris from incidents involving Stroll, Tsunoda and Raikonnen.  These safety cars bunched up the pack again and put Lewis right behind the pair of the Red Bulls for the race restarts.

Lewis made quick work of Sergio and set about reeling in Mad Max. However, after failing to undercut him in the pit stops, it was clear that Lewis would have to get past Max on the track. This wasn’t great since the two have crashed into each other at each of the 2 Sprints before Brazil.

Lewis made his first move at Lap 48 into Turn 4 and was deliberately crowded off track by Max, who went off track himself. To everyone’s surprise, the Stewards took note of the incident but chose not to investigate it. Nevertheless, it was deserving of at least a 5 second time penalty for Max for “forcing another driver off the track and gaining a lasting advantage.”

However, Lewis didn’t spend too much time fretting about the injustice, just sarcastically responding, “Of course, man, of course” when Bono told him that the Stewards had chosen not to investigate the incident.

Lewis kept his head down and got Max 11 laps later in a move that was orchestrated over three corners. Lewis dummied Max on the side on the run down to Turn 1, which forced Max to get off the racing line to try and block him. That defense compromised Max through turns 2 and 3, where he had been faster than Lewis all race long. This gave Lewis the advantage on the straight into Turn 4, and he completed the overtake well before getting to Turn 4. He would go on to win the race with a gap of 10s over Max Verstappen in second place.

Was this Hamilton’s best win in F1?

As I mentioned earlier, with 101 wins to his name, it is difficult to pick just one of Hamilton’s wins as the best of them all, which might need its own article. However, this win was up there with his first win in Formula1 in Canada, where he held off his teammate and the reigning world champion at the time Fernando Alonso.

It also brings back memories of his 2008 British GP win in the wet, where he lapped everyone save for the podium positions. That Silverstone win was particularly impressive because Hamilton was on a run of bad form, and it looked like he was out of the race for the championship. That is when he delivered that masterful drive that silenced all of his critics. And to in that regard, this win in Brazil was similar to that 2008 classic because the championship seemed like it was wrapped up by Max, only for Lewis to blow it wide open once again.

Whether he wins the championship or not, this was a champion’s drive from Lewis Hamilton. He drove like a man possessed and gained 24 positions in 95 laps. Plus, you can bet that he would have gained more if there were more cars to overtake. To overtake Max in the later stages of the Grand Prix and still finish 10 seconds ahead of him is not a simple thing.

The circus is now moving to Qatar, and with the newly found Mercedes straight-line speed and a potential penalty for Max Verstappen, it seems unlikely that the championship will be decided there. This means all eyes will be glued to the last two races as well. What a fantastic season of F1 we have had. I find myself wishing it never ends.

Julius Kakwenzire is a self-confessed F1 addict. When he’s not getting emotional at the race track’s proceedings, he’s working on great fintech products at Lupiiya.

Julius Kakwenzire