Highs and Lows in Interlagos

brazilian grand prix Highs and Lows in Interlagos

Hot off of a celebration of two recent championships, the Mercedes-AMG Motorsport team arrived in Brazil last Friday with the future in mind. Their strategy for the Brazilian Grand Prix, as well as the Abu Dhabi race in two weeks, was to show their leadership in Formula One, attempting to get the two remaining poles and victory. At the same time, started critical testing for 2018.

Testing is not only about the parts, but about getting as much data as possible. This data allows the team to simulate, test, and define the best setups and strategies for next season, thanks to analytics. The free practice sessions on Friday were dedicated to such testing. One thing is for sure — if the pace of the Silver Arrows was any indication of next year’s pace, next season already looks good. Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas took P1 and P2 in both free practice sessions respectively. Everything looked extremely bright until a minibus convoying team staff was attacked at gunpoint and the crew members had no choice but to give them their equipment and their belongings… a high and a low on the same day, beginning the roller coaster ride of the Brazilian GP weekend.

It’s with great professionalism that the team put this sad and shocking event behind them and concentrated on the qualifiers Saturday morning. The team had to adapt to colder weather than what they anticipated. During qualifiers, a combination of high speed and cold tires caused Hamilton to lose the rear of the car, sending him off the track and crashing the car into the wall. Hamilton was fine, taking the time to go through the procedure of stopping the engine and the batteries; however, the car suffered heavy damage. All of this happened before Hamilton had the opportunity to do a full lap. With no lap time, Hamilton was forced to start in last position on the grid. Hamilton later stated everything happened very quickly and that the crash was his mistake. Meanwhile, Bottas had a brilliant qualification, staying slightly ahead of the Ferraris with a set of ever-faster laps. The crazy roller coaster ride continued for the Mercedes-AMG Motorsport team — one car on pole position and the other one at the very back of the grid.

So how did the team adapt to these conditions? For Bottas, the gameplan was set. His weekend was ideal, as he kept improving his performance throughout, leveraging the setups predefined to adapt to the variety of weather conditions (dry/wet, cold/warm) during the various sessions. The goal for Hamilton and the engineers became to define the best strategy to stay ahead of the Ferraris. For Hamilton, it was all a matter of seizing opportunities. He was told to start from the pits, not even from the back of the grid, denying him a quick start compared to the rest of the drivers. But the team decided to fit a new power unit to his car. Normally, these changes meant that he would have a penalty of a few positions on the grid. But since he’d already start from the last position, it was irrelevant. With the new power unit came confidence in regards to reliability, so Hamilton could focus on performance. The goal for Hamilton and his engineers was to find the most aggressive strategy to gain as many positions as possible during the race on Sunday.

These Grand Prix weekends are like three-day marathons during which everything must go well. F1 drivers and cars need to be excellent at all times. It’s a principle that was a reminder to Bottas a few milliseconds at the very start of the race. Bottas lost the race when he broke traction at the start, letting Sebastian Vettel jump in the inside line. This race start fed the debate that at Interlagos, the pole position should not be on the outside (right) line. The issue became that Bottas could not overtake the Ferrari because the performance of his Mercedes was so close to that of the Ferrari. Or maybe it was that Vettel masterfully controlled his pace to be slightly ahead of Bottas the whole race. It was not a big difference, otherwise Kimi Raikkonen would have overtaken Bottas. The Mercedes-AMG Motorsport team looked at all their options and tried the undercut in the pits. However, the cars were too close, and Bottas missed taking back the lead by less than a second. The strategy set by the team favored performance versus reliability, making sure they had the best performance possible, especially from the tires. Bottas said that by the end of the race, he could not push harder on the Ferraris because his tires were shot. Bottas ended up on the second step of the podium, which is a great result, but also strengthened Vettel’s hold of the second spot in the Drivers’ Championship.

The fact that the pace between the Ferraris and Mercedes was so close made Hamilton’s performance even more amazing. Hamilton started from the pits, and then at the start of the race, averaged a gain of one position per lap. Lewis later described that he had an hour and a half long go-kart race… in a Formula 1 race. Even though he started last, he pushed until he had the lead, an accomplishment only a few drivers can claim. As a matter of fact, Hamilton himself was the last driver to do it in Hungary in 2014. He then had to change tires and ended behind Max Verstappen, who would later break the longest-running record for a race lap. But Hamilton did not stay long behind Verstappen and was soon chasing the Ferraris. And then Hamilton ran out of laps, as he did tires. The TV broadcast showed some scary close-ups of Hamilton’s tires with huge cracks as he was charging ahead towards Raikkonen. This incredible race by Hamilton showed that both the drivers and the teams never ever let go. They pushed hard the whole race, aggressively changing the strategy to adapt to ever-varying conditions (safety car, Lewis’ car catching up with traffic), leveraging the analytics models at their disposal, as well as real-time information to find the ideal balance between performance and reliability.

It was a weekend full of performance and emotion… and not only for the Mercedes-AMG Petronas. Brazilian driver Felipe Massa announced that he’s retiring at the end of the season. Of course this last home race was a very moving moment for him. The teams, especially Mercedes-AMG Petronas, showed amazing dedication. We will see a great fight in Abu Dhabi, where Bottas will do everything possible to claim the second ranking in the Driver’s Championship. And Hamilton will want to win because he’s Lewis Hamilton.

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