Lewis Hamilton’s hopes of taking a record eighth Formula One championship have been dealt a potentially severe blow after he received a grid penalty for the Brazilian Grand Prix.
The world champion gave himself a chance to fight back with a dominant performance to take pole in qualifying for Saturday’s sprint race, yet even that may not be secure. An hour and a half after qualifying, Hamilton’s car was referred to the stewards when it was found to have an irregularity in his DRS system and is under investigation. If a breach of the technical regulations is found he could be disqualified from qualifying and start the sprint from last place. However his title rival Max Verstappen could also be in trouble for an alleged breach of protocol.
The world champion’s Mercedes team opted to fit his car with a new engine this weekend and he will take a five-place grid drop and face a major task in attempting to come back and minimise his points loss to Verstappen. Nonetheless, the new engine was firing perfectly as he began strongly by beating Verstappen into second by 0.4sec in Friday’s qualifying.
“Let’s go,” a determined sounding Hamilton said as he took the pole. He was pleased but realistic about what lay ahead. “Today was a really good qualifying session, I am super happy with it,” he said. “We have the penalty but will give it everything we’ve got. It’s not easy to follow here and Max is starting on pole now. It’s going to be very hard to catch him but I will do my best to get through the field.”
Hamilton trails Verstappen by 19 points with four meetings and 107 points remaining. With the penalty the British driver will at best start from sixth if he claims pole in the sprint race, while Verstappen’s pace suggests he will at very least be on the front row. If Verstappen wins on Sunday he can afford to finish second to Hamilton in the remaining three races and still take the title.
In Friday’s qualifying Hamilton was quickest in Q1 and Q2. He then held the early advantage, setting a time of 1min 08.107sec on his first hot run in Q3 and enjoying 0.2sec on Verstappen in second. Coming to their final laps of the glorious, sweeping circuit Hamilton was in no mood to cede the lead. Verstappen set his final lap first and, a little edgy, lost time in the first sector while Hamilton found even more, finishing with 1min 07.934sec and clear daylight to the Dutchman. Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas was in third with Sergio Pérez in fourth for Red Bull.
It was the first skirmish of the weekend and Hamilton still has serious work to do. He had expected to be behind Red Bull but would have been targeting second at the very least and potentially dropping only six points to his rival. He will have a fresh engine that is delivering at maximum performance for the race, but coming though the field will by no means be easy and he can expect Red Bull to mount a strong defence at the front using Verstappen’s teammate Pérez.
Nonetheless the straightline speed he demonstrated in qualifying, particularly on the huge run up the hill from turn 12, Junção, to turn one suggests he will be able to make real progress.
The decision is a blow for Mercedes whose engines have been central to their dominance of the sport since the turbo-hybrid power units were introduced in 2014 and since which they have won all seven drivers’ and constructors’ championships. They have been virtually bulletproof in the past but in the latter part of this year plagued by reliability issues.
“We have degradation on the engine that until the end of the season is going to continue to decrease in power, we haven’t yet realised why,” said the team principal, Toto Wolff. “It’s degrading much more than the average of the past few years. If we keep the engine we are not going to be competitive [at the final two rounds] in Saudi and Abu Dhabi.”
This weekend is the final meeting at which F1 is trialling its sprint race format. Finishing positions in the 100km sprint set the grid and the top three also score 3-2-1 points respectively. Hamilton needs pole and victory in Saturday’s sprint to secure every point he can and minimise his grid drop on Sunday.
Pierre Gasly was fifth for AlphaTauri, Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc sixth and seventh for Ferrari. Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo eighth and ninth for McLaren and Fernando Alonso in 10th for Alpine.
Esteban Ocon was in 11th for Alpine, Sebastian Vettel in 12th for Aston Martin and Yuki Tsunoda in 13th for AlphaTauri. Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi were in 14th and 15th for Alfa Romeo.
Lance Stroll was in 16th for Aston Martin and Nicholas Latifi and George Russell in 17th and 18th for Williams. Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin were in 19th and 20th for Haas.