Lewis Hamilton won a dramatic, rain-lashed and incident-packed Brazilian Grand Prix to take the battle for the Drivers’ Championship title to the final round in Abu Dhabi in two weeks’ time.
In a three-hour race repeatedly neutralised by safety cars, crashes and red flags, Hamilton led from start to finish to win ahead of title rival Nico Rosberg. But it was Max Verstappen who provided thrilling entertainment, with the Red Bull driver rising from 14th place in the closing stages to take the final podium place. Force India’s Sergio Perez was fourth ahead of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz.
There was drama even before the start as Romain Grosjean crashed out on his lap to grid. The Haas driver lost control on the standing water at the final corner and spun backwards into the wall damaging the rear and front of his car.
With the conditions treacherous the race start was delayed and then it got underway under the safety car. The course car stayed on track for seven laps and when racing began anger Max Verstappen was the first to advance. As Hamilton held the lead from Rosberg, the Dutch teenager passed Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen through the Senna S and stole P3.
Elsewhere a number of drivers pitted for intermediate tyres but the switch soon looked premature as first Sebastian Vettel spun dramatically while on full wets and then Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson, on inters, lost control at the final turn and crashed heavily.
His car came to rest at the pit entry, just as Verstappen elected to pit. The Red Bull man had to take evasive action to avoid the stricken Sauber but he made his pit stop for intermediate tyres cleanly. His team-mate Daniel Ricciardo was following and by the time the Australian committed to turning towards the pit entry, race control had closed the pit lane. The Red Bull driver was caught out and after stopping for intermediates he was put under investigation.
As a result of Ericsson’s smash the Safety Car was deployed and the field again bunched up behind the course car until lap 20. But as soon as it pulled off track there was more drama. Raikkonen lost control on the main straight and the Finn hit the wall on both sides of track before coming to a halt by the pit wall, facing the wrong way. As the field avoided him in the spray, the SC was deployed again before the red flags quickly came out.
The field pulled into the pit lane and it then became a waiting game as the conditions continued to make racing impossible. Eventually Race Control signalled that the race would re-start at 15:21 local time.
Track action, all conducted under the safety car lasted just eight laps, however, and as the conditions deteriorated again the decision was once again taken to suspend the race on lap 29. During the short spell on track, Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg picked up a puncture due to debris on the track and pitted for a new set of wet tyres. That dropped him from P4 to P15.
The red flag period lasted just over 25 minutes but at 16:02 local time the race resumed once more, again under the safety car. When it left the track at the end of lap 31, Verstappen was once again the man on the move, passing Rosberg for P2 with a superb move around the outside at Turn 3.
Behind him team-mate Daniel Ricciardo was also striding forward and he passed Carlos Sainz for P5 through the Senna S.
Verstappen was pushing to catch Hamilton, but his race almost ended on lap 39 when he spun on the main straight. The Dutch driver saved the moment expertly and even managed to resume and defend against the hard-charging Rosberg.
As the race developed both Red Bulls opted to move to intermediate tyres. The stops dropped Verstappen to P5 and Ricciardo to P10. Further back Vettel was making good progress and by lap 45 he was up to sixth position behind Verstappen. At the front, though, Hamilton was looking comfortable ahead of Rosberg, Force India’s Sergio Perez and Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz.
However, the race changed again on lap 47 when Felipe Massa, racing the final Brazilian Grand Prix of his career, crashed out at the final corner.
He came to a halt at the pit entry and began a long walk back to the Williams garage, applauded all the way by his home fans and then, as he walked down the pit lane, by the Mercedes and Ferrari pit crews.
During this SC phase Ricciardo, with one eye to the weather, pitted for full wet tyres. Verstappen though stayed out, even though he was increasingly concerned that he could not make any headway on the inter. The Dutchman pitted for full wets then with the hope of fighting his way back through the field from P14.
The safety car left the track at the end of lap 55 with Hamilton leading from Rosberg, Perez, Sainz and Vettel. Fernando Alonso spun just as the safety car departed and that meant that behind Vettel, Nasr held sixth ahead of Hulkenberg, Ocon, Kvyat and Ricciardo.
On fresher wet tyres the Red Bulls began to scythe through the pack, with Verstappen climbing to P6 by lap 65, behind Vettel. Ricciardo meanwhile was up to P8.
The Dutchman tried a move on Vettel on the run to Turn 4 on lap 56 but the Ferrari driver defended superbly. However, the German could not resist when Verstappen used his greater pace to pass at Turn 12. He then made short work of Sainz, who had enjoyed an excellent race to this point, to take P4.
Verstappen’s final jaw-dropping move was to pass Sergio Perez around the outside at Turn 10 to reclaim a podium finish just two laps from home.
Ahead, Hamilton held on to his lead until the flag, winning the Brazilian Grand Prix for the first time with 12 seconds in hand over Rosberg. Verstappen took an incredible third place ahead of Perez, Vettel, Sainz and Hulkenberg. Ricciardo was eighth ahead of Nasr, who scored two crucial points for Sauber, and Alonso took the final point.
With Hamilton winning, Rosberg now leads the title fight by just 12 points and the championship battle goes to the wire in Abut Dhabi in two weeks’ time.