Max Verstappen dominated a chaotic Brazilian Grand Prix to lead an unlikely Honda one-two ahead of Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly.
Verstappen spent most of the race defending against Lewis Hamilton, but the complexion of the afternoon changed rapidly in the final 20 laps, with two safety car interventions changing the composition of the podium five times.
The first safety car, triggered by Valtteri Bottas’s smoking Mercedes, which was parked by the side of the track with oil consumption problems, momentarily gave Hamilton the lead when Verstappen took the opportunity to make a third stop onto the soft tire.
Mercedes told Hamilton not to follow him in, and while that gave him the lead, he was stuck on 16-lap-old medium tires as his only defense and was rapidly passed around the outside of the first turn at the Lap 59 resumption.
Worse for Hamilton was that both Ferrari drivers and Alex Albon in the second Red Bull Racing car behind him were also on fresh softs, leaving him as a sitting duck seemingly destined to be robbed of his podium.
Albon was the prime mover among the pursuers. Fourth at the restart, he boldly swept around Vettel’s outside at the first turn to take second and began sizing up the Briton.
But the Thai’s fight for second was overshadowed by the suddenly boiling battle between the Ferrari teammates behind, with Charles Leclerc scything down Vettel’s inside at the ever-popular Turn 1 overtaking zone.
Vettel nailed his exit from the Senna S to give himself the best opportunity to power back past the Monegasque with the aid of the DRS, but as he did so he clipped the sister Ferrari’s right-hand side, shattering Leclerc’s front-right suspension and giving himself a race-ending puncture.
A second safety car was unsurprisingly deployed, and Mercedes seized the opportunity to give Hamilton some fresher rubber, pitting him for a new set of softs.
It dropped him to fourth behind second-placed Albon and third-placed Gasly but with substantially newer tires, albeit with two laps to use them.
While Verstappen was away easily into the lead, the Briton made short work of Gasly and set about battling Albon, but the two collided, sending the Thai heartbreakingly down the order and out of contention for a first career podium and losing Hamilton a place to Gasly.
“He was very fair with where he positioned the car, so I massively apologize to Albon for the move,” Hamilton said afterwards. “Completely my fault.”
The Mercedes harried the Toro Rosso for the final lap, culminating in a thrilling drag up the hill the checkered flag, but he was unable to get past, Gasly prevailing by 0.062s to score his first career podium in Formula 1.
“For sure I will never forget it,” an overjoyed Gasly said. “It’s such a special moment, it’s so emotional. That’s what I love about motorsport — emotions, the fight.
“I just kept believing until the end. I kept pushing as much as I could and the opportunity came to us.”
Hamilton admitted he’d been fairly bested by Verstappen, his Mercedes not quick enough to challenge Red Bull Racing in a straight fight.
“We threw everything and the sink at it,” he said. “They just outclassed us in terms of overall performance.
“I raced my heart out. I gave it everything. I left absolutely nothing on the table.”
But Hamilton’s race wasn’t over at the flag. The Briton was hauled before the stewards for his crash with Albon and handed a five-second penalty for the indiscretion.
The penalty dropped him to seventh, granting Carlos Sainz his first-ever F1 podium and McLaren’s first rostrum appearance since 2014, hard-earned reward for a strong race from the back of the grid. However, Sainz remains under investigation for using DRS during double waved yellow flag conditions, leaving the final finishing order in flux.
Mercedes spent the race taking the fight to Red Bull Racing, but the Austrian team was able to absorb the pressure each time despite momentarily losing the lead early in the race.
Hamilton encouraged his team to be aggressive with strategy, and it heeded the call, bringing him in for another set of soft tires at the end of lap 20 in an undercut attempt.
Verstappen responded on the next lap, but Hamilton’s out lap was rapid, which combined with Robert Kubica baulking the Dutchman as the pair left the pit lane ensured the Mercedes gained the lead. But it was a short-lived win for the world champion, who was relieved of position on Lap 23, Verstappen mugging through the Senna S.
Hamilton tried to fight back with DRS, but his Mercedes power unit didn’t have the grunt of the Honda motor bolted to the back of the RB15. He radioed his team angrily why he wasn’t informed of Verstappen’s impending attack while his battery wasn’t fully charged, but there was little he could do in the middle stint, falling back to 3.5 seconds adrift.
Mercedes had another go of the undercut on Lap 43, and though Hamilton was able to clash his deficit from more than three seconds to only a little more than one once Verstappen neutralized on the following lap, there was little doubt the Dutchman had the pace to lead to the flag, with or without the safety car drama.
“Unbelievable,” Verstappen said. “It was a lot of fun out there and of course great to win the race.
“Lewis was very quick, so I had to keep pushing. Two times we had a good move with him, so that all the time brought us back to first. From there onwards I could control the race.”
Before Hamilton’s penalty, Sainz crossed the line a sensational fourth after starting from the back of the grid, the Spaniard the only driver of the race to make just a single stop to bypass the thick of the action. He had his hands full at the final restart, however, to keep Alfa Romeo teammates Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi at bay, overcoming the pair by just half a second at the flag.
Daniel Ricciardo executed a strong recovery from a first-stint crash to finish seventh. The Australian fell to the back of the field on Lap 8 after knocking Kevin Magnussen off the track in a battle for 12th but made strong progress thereafter, running almost the entire race with two sets of soft tires.
Lando Norris finished eighth after losing time on the hard tire in the middle stint, leading Racing Point’s Sergio Perez and Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat to the flag for the final points-paying places.