Hamilton expects to have his work cut out to beat Rosberg
“My main job is done this year,” Lewis Hamilton said after being beaten to pole for a fifth consecutive race in Brazil. “But of course [Interlagos] is a circuit I haven’t actually won at, so that’s the target. Last year I was strong in the race - I hope to be able to carry that through…”
The Briton might have clinched a third world championship crown in 2015, but the formbook doesn’t make for particularly enjoyable reading of late. Team mate Nico Rosberg has claimed five consecutive poles and took a coveted victory on F1’s return to Mexico last time out.
Worse still, Hamilton knows it won’t be easy to turn the tables on Sunday at Interlagos. Aside from the slight pace advantage that carried Rosberg to pole, the circuit isn’t particularly easy to overtake on, particularly as it is hard to follow another car in the corners leading up to each of the DRS zones.
Last year’s race played out along these lines: Hamilton started second and was arguably faster in race conditions, but could not make a move on his team mate. His tactic was to try undercut Rosberg with a later pit stop - but in pushing too hard on worn rubber he spun, scuppering his victory hopes.
It was the eighth time Hamilton has raced and not won at Interlagos, the worst record he has at any circuit. Having missed out on pole, setting that record straight will be no easy task this weekend.
Vettel aiming to ‘create a miracle’
Having wrung every last drop of performance from his Ferrari in qualifying, Sebastian Vettel had hoped to be a little closer to the Mercedes on pace. But despite the Silver Arrows' significant advantage over one lap, Vettel hasn’t given up hope of challenging Rosberg and Hamilton over the course of 71 laps.
How then does he plan to do it, given that Mercedes seemed to also have an edge over long runs on Friday?
“In order to get in front of the Mercedes we need a rocket start,” he explained after qualifying. “It is not a very long way down to turn one, and a good start always helps. Then in the race trim we are usually a bit better than in qualifying, close enough to put some pressure on them, then I think we can play around with strategy.”
And if all else fails, then the quadruple world champion is banking on luck being on his side.
“Interlagos is a crazy place, lot of things can happen, you never know what a Grand Prix can bring. It was supposed to rain when we arrived, but then we had sunshine all day, there was rain as well but at different times. Our target for tomorrow is to give everything and it is our aim to create a miracle. The chance is there and we believe in it.”
Championship battles will bring an added dimension to the action
The fight for P1 in the drivers’ standings may have been decided in Lewis Hamilton’s favour in the United States, but elsewhere the battles are raging stronger than ever. The highest profile squabble, of course, is between Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel for second place, though after the latter’s DNF in Mexico it looks increasingly likely that Mercedes will finish the season one-two.
Arguably of more interest is the all-Finnish tussle for P4 between Williams’ Valtteri Bottas and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, especially after their much debated collisions in Russia and Mexico. Bottas holds a three-point advantage heading into the race, but despite out-qualifying Raikkonen he’ll start three-places behind his rival after being hit with a grid drop for overtaking under red flags in FP2. That raises the tantalising prospect of another on-track scrap between the two, with Bottas hunting down his world champion countryman.
Elsewhere, the fight for P10 in the championship is almost as fraught, with just three points covering Toro Rosso’s Max Verstappen, Lotus’s Romain Grosjean and Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg. Hulkenberg will start the furthest forward of the three, with Verstappen and Grosjean starting four and nine places back respectively, but don’t be surprised if strategy choices mean all three are disputing the same piece of tarmac before the end of the race.
Tyres to be given a serious workout
From the very first session at Interlagos on Friday, it was clear that tyre wear would be an issue - simply put, the Brazilian circuit takes a lot out of Pirelli’s medium and soft compounds. That led to myriad mistakes and offs - even the likes of Hamilton and Vettel were caught out - and gave teams plenty of headaches for Sunday.
According to Pirelli, a two-stop strategy remains the fastest option, in theory at least, with mediums the tyre of choice once an opening stint on the softs has been completed. In this case, the stops would come around lap 17 and lap 44. However, three-stopping could be an option for teams suffering very high degradation, or merely wanting to roll the dice.
However teams play it, the sheer frequency of errors throughout Friday and Saturday indicates just how hard the tyres are being worked on such a supremely challenging circuit. On Sunday, that means drivers will be walking a constant tightrope between pace and tyre wear - and that means the smallest of mistakes could make or break each driver’s race.
Ricciardo not pinning hopes on upgraded engine
Unlike their rival power unit manufacturers, Renault opted to save their development tokens for one big upgrade, which was finally made available for the United States. In Brazil, Daniel Ricciardo took the plunge and switched to the new engine. Was it worth the wait?
“If I’m honest… no,” was Ricciardo’s terse reply when asked if there were any benefits from the new unit. “We need something better.”
To compound the bad news, the Australian had to take a 10-place grid penalty in order to switch to the new engine, meaning he will start Sunday’s race from 19th rather than the ninth place he qualified. A double blow then, made even worse by the fact Ricciardo is locked in a tense fight with team mate Daniil Kvyat for seventh in the drivers’ championship. The gamble to take a grid penalty would have been worth it had Renault’s power unit been a step forward: as it is, Ricciardo will have to be at his brilliant best in order to come through the field and stage a recovery.