Victory at Interlagos might not have earned Sebastian Vettel the Formula One world championship, but it will have gone some way towards healing the figurative wounds opened by his title challenge’s damaging fall.
Vettel led the drivers’ championship with eight races to go at the end of August, only to find it beyond his grasp with three races remaining just two months later. The 30-year-old was visibly downcast in Mexico two weeks ago when Lewis Hamilton secured his fourth world title, and the Brazilian Grand Prix provided an insight into what could - and perhaps should - have been.
All year, Vettel and Hamilton looked destined to contest the championship right up until the final race in Abu Dhabi, before the German collapsed during the three Asian races in Singapore, Japan and Malaysia. Add in his moment of madness in driving deliberately into Hamilton in Baku and the Ferrari driver can blame few but himself for the two-horse race arriving at such an anti-climactic end.
Sunday’s race, though, was a reflection of the year as a whole - little to choose between the silver and red cars based on sheer speed, with races determined by minor details and fluctuations in fortune. On this occasion, it was Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate, Valtteri Bottas, who led the grid ahead of Vettel, with the Briton starting from the pitlane after crashing out in qualifying.
In the race’s decisive moment, Vettel passed the pole-sitting Bottas on the first corner and, although the Finn was rarely more than two seconds behind, the Ferrari man’s first victory since July was a mere formality when he emerged ahead of his opponent after his one and only pit-stop.
Although the championship had already been lost, there were still pertinent points to be made, and the win will certainly be of some comfort to Vettel and his team. He had said on Saturday they would have “failed” if they did not secure second place in the championship, and this win ensures that he will go into the final round in Abu Dhabi with a near-unassailable 22-point lead over Bottas.
Hamilton’s show-stealing performance, however, reminded onlookers that - even from the back - he is still the championship’s biggest draw, as he meandered his way through the field to finish in fourth, less than a second behind Kimi Raikkonen.
Monday’s newspapers were quick to praise Hamilton’s ‘magic ingredient’, while Mercedes boss Toto Wolff hailed the drive as “the best fourth-place finish I have ever seen.” The 32-year-old himself admitted that “it was fun, reminiscent of my karting days when I was starting from the back. I gave it everything; I had nothing left in my heart or in the car”.
Others, though, were less impressed with the champion’s recovery.
“It's not very attractive if you're starting at the front but it can be very attractive when you're out of position which he [Hamilton] was,” said Vettel. “So you obviously have an advantage.
“The track ramped in the end and the supersoft was clearly the faster tyre, but overall it's fair to say Lewis was very quick. But I don't think he was really a threat.”
Perhaps Hamilton was not a threat on this occasion, but one could be forgiven for thinking that Vettel’s words were tinged with a hint of envy. This was supposed to be remembered as the day he bounced back, but even in victory, he couldn’t prevent the acclaim being directed towards the man who took what might have been his.
Ferrari fuel new engine row
The International Automobile Federation (FIA) and Formula One owners Liberty Media recently revealed plans for a new engine formula to be introduced from 2021, which will be geared towards reducing costs, improving the sound of the cars, increasing competitiveness and maintaining road relevance.
Liberty has proposed to keep the current engine architecture of a 1.6-litre V6 turbo hybrid while removing one of the two hybrid elements, increasing the power of the other and consequently giving drivers greater control over hybrid energy deployment.
The plans, however, have been greeted by some stark opposition, with Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne warning that the iconic Italian outfit could quit the championship if they do not approve of Liberty’s new regulations.
Marchionne admitted that Formula One has been “part of our DNA since the day we were born,” but added that “if we change the sandbox to the point it becomes unrecognisable, I don't want to play anymore”.
His concerns followed objections made by Mercedes and Renault, both of whom complained that a new engine design would require a significant financial investment.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff expressed “strong scepticism” about whether the ideas are the right way forward, and added: “The new concept needs to tackle the deficit that has been outlined - development costs and noise level - and all that needs to be linked with a global view of Formula One. We haven't seen any of that.”
Renault chief Cyril Abiteboul was in agreement, saying that his team objected being “presented with a new engine on which we would have to make substantial development and substantial financial commitment without an understanding of the broader picture of what Formula One would look like past 2020”.
Liberty’s eagerness to cut costs might be explained by its latest financial report.
According to Forbes, the mass media company’s Formula One Group recorded net losses of US$160 million during the first nine months of 2017, largely due to increased costs and interest payments on loans. Conversely, the same period last year afforded the championship a US$289 million net profit.
Since completing its US$8 billion takeover of Formula One in January this year, Liberty has failed to secure any major new sponsors or races, while the absence of the German Grand Prix from this season’s calendar has also contributed to the series’ decline in revenue.
Future events in Denmark and the Netherlands have been mooted, but with the future of both the British and Malaysian Grands Prix also in doubt, Liberty will be looking to firm up some concrete deals in order to offset further losses in 2018.
Mercedes robbery ignites security fears
Interlagos has staged the Brazilian Grand Prix since 1990, and the classic São Paulo-based circuit is best known for its vibrant atmosphere, cheering fans and thrilling races.
The track is, however, located next to a favela in one of the less glamorous parts of a crime-ridden city, and Sunday’s showpiece was almost overshadowed by a pair of incidents on Friday night.
Hamilton confirmed that a minibus transporting Mercedes staff was held up by gunmen as the team headed back to their team hotel. Everyone escaped unharmed, but one member of the team had a gun held to his head while valuables were stolen.
On the same road, a gunman later approached a car containing officials from the FIA and tapped his weapon on the window, but the vehicle was equipped with bulletproof glass and was able to escape.
The incidents were the latest in a series of events in recent years to affect Formula One personnel at the Brazilian Grand Prix, and Hamilton said: “I love racing here. It is the fans, the atmosphere, the cheers and the energy. I don't know anything about politics and how crime appears. The incident that happened with us; it would be hard to implement something [to prevent that].
“But this weekend has highlighted it hopefully more than it ever has been as an issue. For me personally, I make sure I have security here and a police escort and am never at risk but it is not the same for everyone.
“In Mexico there is a better set-up in place. That is something hopefully we will be able to put in place here. I don't think we should shy away from these negative things. We should see it as an opportunity to improve and hopefully the government see that.”
Formula E the fashionable choice for Hugo Boss
Hugo Boss chief executive Mark Langer revealed last week that the company will make the switch from Formula One to Formula E in 2018, a move that was officially confirmed on Monday.
The German fashion house has been a partner of reigning world champions Mercedes since 2015, when it terminated its sponsorship of McLaren.
Hugo Boss will join the all-electric racing series as its official apparel partner in a deal that will see the company’s logo appear of Formula E officials' clothing, the championship's demo car and trackside advertising.
Langer told German magazine Focus: “Of course Formula One is the top class of motor racing, but Formula E is more innovative and sustainable. The engines, the races in major cities, that’s something a younger audience likes, which offers new opportunities.”
Massa bids farewell
One of the enduring images from the race weekend was that of Felipe Massa wrapped in his native Brazilian flag while waving farewell to his adoring home crowd from the podium.
The Williams driver, whose last win came at the same circuit in 2008 when he finished runner-up to Lewis Hamilton in the drivers’ championship, retires at the end of the season after a 15-year career, and said that his seventh-place finish felt “like a victory”.
Massa, who won 11 races for Ferrari, was teary-eyed in the minutes before the start of his 14th and last ever Brazilian Grand Prix, having previously admitted that it would be difficult to keep his emotions in check during his final two races.
And the São Paulo-born driver, who initially retired at the end of last year, is likely to have been stirred as he crossed the finish line, when his son Felipinho assumed control of the team radio.
“Daddy, I am so proud of you,” said the seven-year-old. “Wherever you go I will support you. I love you. By the way, I loved your start.”
“It was a race that I will never forget,” said the older Massa. “I was so emotional when I finished the race. It was a very difficult race for me. It was like many victories that I took. Today was definitely like a victory and to finish the race and feel the emotion of the people after such an amazing race.”