IT'S RACE WEEK: 5 storylines we're excited about ahead of the 2023 Sao Paulo Grand Prix
Into the final month of the 2023 season we go, and with it comes the third race of the last triple-header of the year. After another incident-filled weekend in Mexico, there’s plenty to discuss in Brazil, so here are some of the main talking points heading to Sao Paulo…
A triple threat to Red Bull
A year ago, Red Bull arrived at Interlagos in imperious form but hit trouble with their set-up, and it was Mercedes who took full advantage. George Russell went on to win both the Sprint on Saturday and then the Grand Prix itself from P1, leading home a Mercedes one-two.
Red Bull are keen to put that right this year with a cleaner weekend – Max Verstappen also picked up damage in both races and there was a team orders row to contend with as well – but they look set to face close competition throughout the field.
Mercedes have pushed Red Bull close in each of the past two races, with Lewis Hamilton second on the road on both occasions, while Ferrari have already shown their threat with back-to-back pole positions for Charles Leclerc.
Although McLaren are playing down their chances at a track that includes a number of medium and low-speed corners – the latter being their car’s weakness compared to rivals – they have also been particularly competitive for a number of races in a row and can’t be discounted from the fight for top honours.
Hamilton vs Perez
In amongst the fight between the top teams is an intriguing battle to be runner-up behind Max Verstappen. Most drivers say they aren’t interested in whether they finish second or third because their aim is to be champion, but the competitor inside them always wants to be as high up as possible.
So Hamilton’s second place in Mexico – coupled with Sergio Perez’s retirement – has closed the battle for P2 up once again. The gap between the two drivers is now just 20 points in Perez’s favour, with Hamilton having closed that by 35 points over the past five race weekends.
That’s an average of seven points per weekend, and given the gap between the two it means that if the same closing rate applies to the end of the season, then Hamilton would pip Perez by just a single point.
Perez heads to Interlagos off the back of a frustrating home race weekend that promised so much but ended in heartbreaking fashion. The gap to Verstappen was small in qualifying and then a brilliant launch gave him a chance of attacking for the lead into Turn 1, but the risky move ended in contact with Charles Leclerc.
Harness the positives from Mexico City and Perez will be right in the mix this weekend. But if the painful final result affects his confidence at all, then Hamilton could end up closing the gap further.
Speaking of confidence, Daniel Ricciardo appeared to have it in spades in Mexico last weekend. The Australian was taking part in just his fourth race weekend of the year due to his spell as a reserve and then his broken hand, but he had learned a lot from his previous outing in Austin and was keen to put it into practice at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.
Ricciardo duly delivered, with a hugely impressive fourth place in qualifying backed up by a seventh place in the race that could have been even better but for the timing of the red flag.
It was Ricciardo’s first points of the season and enough to move AlphaTauri up two positions in the constructors’ championship.
Now the focus is on whether that was a one-off result and performance based on the car suiting the Mexico City circuit, or Ricciardo’s getting back to his best with the sister Red Bull team. We never saw the full potential of Yuki Tsunoda due to a grid penalty and then contact with Oscar Piastri, so that will be one of the dynamics to look out for as the weekend unfolds.
Aston Martin and Haas needing responses
While there have been a number of positive performances to increase excitement heading to Brazil, two teams that are really looking to turn around their form are Aston Martin and Haas.
After such a stunning start to the year, Aston’s competitiveness has dropped off alarmingly, and after running experiments in Austin, they needed to do more of the same in Mexico before a double-DNF. Team Principal Mike Krack says the tests with different specifications of car are important for data gathering and future improvements, but he also acknowledges the importance of a strong result before the year is out to boost morale.
Similar can be said of Haas, who didn’t get the performance they expected out of their upgrade package in Austin and slipped to the bottom of the constructors’ standings last time out, with Kevin Magnussen also suffering a heavy crash.
Interlagos is the scene of Magnussen’s stunning pole in Friday qualifying for the Sprint a year ago, and that took place with rain impacting Q3. There’s wet weather in the forecast for this weekend, too, so Haas will hope to take advantage in some form once again.
A new CTO at Mercedes?
We might be in the middle of a triple-header but there was some breaking midweek news as Mercedes announced the departure of Chief Technical Officer Mike Elliott on Tuesday evening.
Elliott has been part of the Mercedes set-up for 11 years and therefore enjoyed huge success with the team, including eight constructors’ championships and seven drivers’ titles, but recent results have not been quite as positive with just one win since the start of 2022.
Having been promoted to Chief Technical Officer as part of a job swap with James Allison earlier this year, Elliott has now made the decision to leave Mercedes and take a break from F1. While there will be discussions about his impact and the recent results, it also leaves a very senior position that needs filling at one of the sport’s biggest and most successful teams.
Mercedes have a habit of promoting from within, but if the succession plan was not yet in place or boss Toto Wolff feels they needs outside influence to return to winning ways then there could be others linked to the role.