Much was made of Lewis Hamilton’s storming performance to go from 10th at the start of the Sao Paulo Grand Prix to passing chief title rival Max Verstappen in dramatic fashion to clinch a key win.
It wasn’t just the nature in the way he did it – having had to start from the back of the grid on Saturday in the sprint race initially as he progressed throughout the weekend – but the importance of it too. The triumph was crucial to keeping his hopes of a record eighth world championship in his own hands.
But as ever with Formula One, it’s not always down to the driver. Having a superior car goes a long way and there is no doubt Hamilton had a pace advantage over everyone which made him look like he was constantly hitting speed boost platforms in Mario Kart.
Lewis Hamilton celebrates winning the Sao Paulo Grand Prix ahead of Max Verstappen
The Brit’s triumph means his hopes of a record eighth world championship are still in his hands
It’s no secret that Hamilton had a brand new engine available to him for the race at Interlagos but the performance he gained from it stunned many at a venue where it was suspected Mercedes and Red Bull would be evenly matched.
There may be some chin scratching in relation to how Hamilton’s straight-line speed came on the same weekend where his rear wing failed a technical infringement, which led to him having to start from the back of the grid in the sprint race.
However, that’s a red herring, as even once Hamilton’s car complied with the regulations he was still a rocket ship around the track.
Red Bull though still have their suspicion around the Mercedes’ rear wing which they believe flexes too much on a straight, yet fully admit they do not yet have enough evidence for that. It was the reason why Verstappen was caught touching Hamilton’s car in parc ferme on Friday after the Brit took pole position for the sprint race before his disqualification.
Verstappen was fined £43,000 for touching Hamilton’s rear wing in parc ferme last Friday
The wing could play a factor but that would have also been of benefit to Valtteri Bottas who, while not as talented as Hamilton, was way off his Mercedes team-mate’s pace throughout the weekend in Brazil.
In the sprint race on Saturday, Hamilton’s top speed was 339km per hour, while Bottas was clocked running at just 303.2. That’s not a case of Hamilton just being more brave to have his foot flat on the pedal.
If we get even more technical, you could argue that in terms of the car’s set-up, Bottas was perhaps running more wing – which in essence improves the speed a car can carry through a corner through downforce, but in a straight line increases drag and thus slows down the car.
After all, Bottas was also slower than Verstappen in a straight line, whose top speed was 317km per hour in his Honda powered Red Bull, which is not as fast as the Mercedes.
Hamilton’s (left) straight line speed was no match for title rivals Red Bull at Interlagos
However, Red Bull boss Christian Horner alluded to how Hamilton was running ‘Monaco levels of downforce’ which relates to how the grand prix around Monte Carlo requires maximum downforce at the complete sacrifice of top speed.
That means he could not add more wing to the car, so Bottas could not have possibly been running more downforce.
A performance advantage like that points to the engine, and Horner believes that Max Verstappen will be a sitting duck to it, claiming Hamilton was 30km per hour quicker on the lap he passed the Dutchman in Brazil on Sunday.
Verstappen had tried to fend off the Brit earlier in the race with a controversial move that took both drivers off the track – albeit without touching – with his apparent desperation enough to force an official complaint from Mercedes.
Horner also estimated that drivers at Interlagos needed to be within 0.4 seconds at the start of a straight to have a chance of an overtake, while Hamilton had a bigger window of 0.9 seconds to be in with an opportunity of moving up the field.
Hamilton’s straight line advantage could benefit at upcoming tracks including Qatar (above), which in MotoGP has rewarded high speed bikes like the Ducati (right) on the long straight
It explains much about his charge through the pack and it will be ominous for the likes of Red Bull at this weekend’s race in Qatar which features a huge start/finish straight.
F1 cars have never raced at the Losail circuit before, but an interesting comparison could come in MotoGP where the traditional big powered bikes like Ducati have always found much favour when it comes to deploying their straight-line speed advantage at the track – especially through slipstreaming.
The new street circuit around Saudi Arabia is also set to feature long straights, while Mercedes and Hamilton have always gone well at the final race in Abu Dhabi where there are two long straights capable of getting an overtake complete – especially with the performance Hamilton’s engine gave in Interlagos.
But there is a twist – of course there is – which might give Verstappen and Red Bull hope in the final few races.
Each driver is allowed three engines per year. Hamilton’s new power unit in Brazil was his fifth (relating to his five-place grid penalty on Sunday). However, his previous engines were built to last 7,000km, while his new unit is only supposed to last 2,500km – reflecting how the focus is much more on speed than reliability.
Red Bull boss Christian Horner (left) is hopeful that Mercedes’ power advantage does not last
So there is a trade off with Hamilton’s speed and what will become apparent over the next few weeks is that his engine’s performance is expected to rapidly decline in performance.
It was already an issue with the more reliable engines. Meanwhile, Red Bull’s Honda power units while not being as quick hold their power for much longer.
‘One of the great things about the Honda PU [power unit],’ said Horner, ‘is there is virtually no drop-off in power through its life. The difference between a new one and end-of mileage is only around 0.1 seconds. It looks to be more than that on [the Mercedes].’
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff stated recently: ‘Without going into specifics, every engine is degrading and we have seen that over the past years that over 1000km, there is a certain amount of kilowatts that the engine is degrading.
The Mercedes engine (above from 2019) has been degrading in performance this season
Toto Wolff admits that the Mercedes engine sees a drop off in pace as it gains mileage
‘Ours is just degrading much more than the past few years and that increases from weekend to weekend.’
The big question now is how much will Hamilton’s new pace packed engine degrade over the last three races?
But given the success of Brazil it might not matter. For instance, would Mercedes risk another grid penalty to even take a sixth high performing engine and another storm through the pack?
One thing is for sure is that the Brazil win wasn’t all just about car superiority – come the finale in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton will almost certainly still be fighting it out with Verstappen for the world championship.