Brazilian Formula 1 takeaways: Perez leads, Ferrari and Mercedes miss

Brazilian Formula 1 takeaways: Perez leads, Ferrari and Mercedes miss

The Sao Paulo Grand Prix was promising after an action-packed race. But after a hectic formation and opening laps that took down three drivers and took out the Australians in a single lap, the race became rather quiet.

Max Verstappen took another easy win with Lando Norris just a few seconds behind the Dutchman. They ended up in a race of their own, Sprint-style, with Fernando Alonso 25.878 seconds behind the top two to complete the podium, his mad dash to the finish line with Sergio Perez providing the most excitement. Aston Martin took a promising step forward, and did not waste its points opportunity with Lance Stroll finishing fifth.

A year after clinching one-two at Interlagos, Mercedes endured an even tougher weekend as George Russell and Lewis Hamilton struggled on the soft and medium tyres. Both drivers were spun. Hamilton finished eighth, and Russell retired due to “imminent risk of failure” of his power unit. Further down the grid, it was a weekend to forget for Alfa Romeo after both Zhou Guanyu and Valtteri Bottas withdrew from the grand prix.

The battles for second, fourth and seventh place in the constructors’ standings have intensified with two big races remaining. Formula 1 heads into a well-deserved week without racing before it travels to the United States for the Las Vegas Grand Prix.

But before we set our sights on the sector, here’s some information we learned from the Sao Paulo Grand Prix.

Red Bull vs McLaren

Imagine telling yourself in March that the topic of conversation this fall will be Red Bull’s closest rival, McLaren. Crazy, right?

Norris is only three points away from Alonso, who is fourth in the drivers’ standings, thanks to his recent rise to five podiums in the last six Grand Prix races. Norris and Verstappen found themselves in no man’s land during Sunday’s sprint and race, with the third-placed drivers trailing behind them.

Norris finished Sunday eight seconds behind the Dutchman, but according to Verstappen, the McLaren was not too far behind him. “I think most of the time, Lando matched my lap times.” It was only towards the end when the MCL60 dropped from the RB19, that Verstappen was experiencing better tire degradation.

The 23-year-old had one of the strongest starts on the grid, going from sixth to second over several metres, and was heavy on Verstappen’s tail from the jump. Before Verstappen could extend his lead, he had to defend the threatening Norris, especially in turns one and four.

It’s a notable turnaround for the Woking-based side, and one that gives some hope for next season.

“Since we brought this promotion to Austria, I have become the second highest-scoring driver on the grid,” Norris said on Sunday.

He added: “For us to go from where we were in Bahrain to getting closer and talking about fighting with Red Bull, I think these are very good signs for us, and we know that we still have a lot of things to offer next year.”

Aston Martin is in for a huge weekend

It has been 17 races since Aston Martin managed to score a top-five finish twice. It was in Australia in early April, when Alonso finished third and Stroll finished fourth.

Aston Martin had a roller-coaster weekend, starting on a high with Stroll and Alonso qualifying third and fourth for Sunday’s race. Their luck worsened in Saturday’s fast-paced shootout: Esteban Ocon collided with Alonso, and Aston Martin was unable to repair his car in time for SQ2, meaning Alonso and Stroll started the race in P15 and P17. They made up ground but finished outside the points.

Sunday marked a new day for the crew based at Silverstone. As the second row closed, Alonso and Stroll avoided the chaos of the first lap but lost positions, lining up in fourth and fifth at the start of the second half. The two have their sights set on climbing back to the top of the grid.

Although many will talk about Alonso’s epic battle with Perez, the biggest overtake in his rise to the podium was his pass on Hamilton into Turn 4. Not having to battle Hamilton for longer gave him a tire advantage across multiple stints. “It changed my race,” the Aston Martin driver said.

Between the efforts of Alonso and Stroll, Aston Martin leads by 25 points, which reduces the gap with fourth-placed McLaren to 21 points.

Why Perez’s weekend is still a step forward

It may not have been a podium finish for the Red Bull driver, but the end of this race saw Perez take another step closer to his normal form.

Pressure has mounted around him in recent months as his form has faltered while Verstappen’s has risen dramatically, and Perez recently took a huge risk during his home race and retired after crashing on the opening lap. The weekend in Sao Paulo did not get off to a great start after Friday’s third quarter session ended early due to bad weather. Perez was just half a tenth of a second behind Verstappen’s second lap in Q2 of the race, but his Q3 run was jeopardized by Oscar Piastri’s slide at Turn 12.

“We were incredibly unlucky today, I should have been on the front row,” Perez told on Friday. “My (Q3) lap was very close to Max until the last turn.”

Perez’s competitive pace was evident on Saturday as he qualified third in the sprint race and finished in the same position, coming home with a critical points lead as he attempts to maintain his grip on second place in the drivers’ standings. Third place was his best since second place at the Monza Grand Prix in September, but he was unable to push hard towards the end after using his tires to fight for that position.

“I had a bad start, and I ended up losing a place to George (Russell) and another to Lewis (Hamilton) at Turn 4,” Perez explained. “Since then I’ve been fighting, I had to use a lot of my tyres, and then I think I paid the price in the end.”

The Red Bull driver lined up ninth for Sunday’s Grand Prix and stayed ahead of the carnage that broke out with the four drivers immediately behind him. He worked his way up to seventh for the restart and proceeded to climb the grid from there. Perez methodically approached his overtakes rather than rushing at each point, such as waiting a few laps before passing Russell into Turn 1. Although the Mercedes driver had a DRS heading into Turn 4, Perez stayed on the inside, hitting the brakes at the right time. Late and cut off. Exit before Russell can hold on to the move.

Then came the photo final battle with Alonso. “I don’t think with a lot of drivers you can do this kind of maneuvers,” the Red Bull driver told F1TV. “It was really tough from start to finish, and it was a lot of fun, to be honest. I had a lot of fun.”

A podium finish would have produced big numbers to calm the hype surrounding Perez, but it is not a weekend in which he should walk away disappointed. He delivered a solid performance across the board with very few errors on his part.

Yuki Tsunoda bounces back for AlphaTauri

Normally, being the last car on the first lap is not worthy of praise. But early chaos and attrition have made the 2023 Sao Paulo Grand Prix an abnormal race of opportunity. Yuki Tsunoda made the most of his race by finishing ninth.

Tsunoda benefited from good luck on the opening lap. Starting from P16, he rode the inside line into Turn 1, ensuring he missed all the carnage caused by the collision between Alex Albon and Kevin Magnussen. His teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, has not been so lucky in the past, as his car’s tire collided and forced him to make repairs.

With his teammate off the lead for the entire race, it was up to Tsunoda to stay out of trouble, climb and secure points for AlphaTauri. He did just that, getting into the top 10 like he belonged there, with poise and precise overtakes. The result draws AlphaTauri within seven points of Williams for seventh place in the Constructors’ Championship.

It was a good result – a clean, fiercely contested race was exactly what Tsunoda needed after needlessly sacrificing points last weekend in Mexico.

Ferrari in exchange for her car

The drama began early Sunday when cameras cut from an uneventful formation lap towards Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari, which was scraped and broken in the Turn 7 barriers.

“No, I lost the hydraulics, I lost the hydraulics!” Leclerc said. “Why f-am I so unlucky?”

It’s a decent question. Leclerc’s season has been full of strategic errors and technical issues, not to mention that Ferrari has struggled to deal with the SF-23’s quirks all season.

Even if Leclerc had started, it’s not clear he would have finished on the podium. This was a weekend where the Aston Martins seemed to have better overall pace than the Ferraris – perhaps the Prancing Horses’ ceiling was sixth, with Carlos Sainz finishing the race. Sainz had a good weekend, all things considered. He felt uncomfortable with the clutch early in the race and reported late that he had lost the ability to downshift. Extracting eight points from that car is nothing to scoff at.

But losing Leclerc’s hydraulics before he can line up in P2? It’s certainly a crazy result for the team – especially considering how hard rival Mercedes have struggled in Brazil.

Mercedes in exchange for her car

“Just a few more races with this car and it will be over, and I’ll be happy,” Hamilton said after Saturday’s sprint race. “This year, you’re just counting down the days.”

You can’t fault his disdain for the W14 – it’s as Jekyll and Hyde an F1 car as it is on the grid in 2023. The last two weekends have been some of Hamilton’s best recent ones, with second-place finishes in Mexico City and Austin. (Naturally, the US Grand Prix result was excluded.) But then Mercedes brought the car to Sao Paulo, and it was suffering from what Hamilton described as “the worst (tyre deterioration) it has seen in ages”.

Both Mercedes drivers fell backwards almost as soon as the race started. Hamilton had to run his soft cars too early, creating a ‘Hamiltrain’ of cars behind the P4. Russell was initially annoyed by his teammate’s following, but appeared to settle into a defensive game as the reality of Mercedes’ atrocious tire grade came to light. Hamilton reported that his brokers were only a few laps away in the second stint.

At one point, the team asked Russell to raise the plane and descend to control the engine overheating – but he eventually retired. Hamilton continued to fall behind. It was surprising to see Pierre Gasly’s Alpine easily overtake the seven-time world champion into the first turn. Hamilton was lucky to stay in the points (he finished eighth), and Mercedes was even luckier because Leclerc did not race.

The gap between the two teams in P2 was closed to just four points today, and eight points overall during the tripleheaders. Given that Hamilton had the pace to finish second twice in those three races, it is clearly the W14’s fickle nature that is keeping this battle going as much as Ferrari’s inconsistencies. We know that both Ferrari and Mercedes desperately want to win second place. It’s not clear their cars do that.

(Main images by Yuki Tsunoda, Brazilian Grand Prix and Charles Leclerc: Rudy Carisifoli, Clive Mason – Formula 1, Douglas Magno/AFP via Getty Images)

    (Tags for translation) Formula 1

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