Another Lewis Hamilton masterclass keeps title fight with Max Verstappen alive

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Lewis Hamilton keeps raising the bar. Maybe that shouldn't be a surprise anymore.

Hamilton had to wait a couple of months to score his 101st F1 victory but when it came, it came in a style Hamilton has turned into an art form. Give Hamilton an ordinary car and he will deliver great things. Give him the rocket ship he drove on Sunday and he might as well be on a different circuit to the rest.

Without any of the drama that unfolded over the course of the last 72 hours at Interlagos, Hamilton and Mercedes likely would have won sprint qualifying and the race which followed at a canter. As it turned out, Hamilton was forced on multiple occasions to dig deep to ensure the championship did not slip further from his grasp.

As things mounted up against Hamilton at the beginning of the weekend it was clear Red Bull sensed this could be the moment to move the title fight one step closer towards Max Verstappen's coronation as champion. The fact Hamilton came out of it having cut the gap to Verstappen is a testimony to both his ability and his constant habit of performing at his best when the chips are down and the odds are stacked against him.

Verstappen had increased the gap to 21 points on Saturday courtesy of the two points he scored for finishing second in the sprint race, but by catching and passing the Red Bull driver on Sunday, Hamilton ensured he left Brazil 14 points behind with three places left to run.

It sets the climax to the season up perfectly, with two new F1 venues in Qatar and Saudi to come. It also keeps the outcome of the championship firmly in Hamilton's hands -- were Hamilton to win those two events with Verstappen second and a different driver scoring the bonus point awarded to the fastest lap of the race, then the two drivers would go to the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix level on points.

That's a tantalising prospect and one that would seem a worthy conclusion to what was already the best title fight of the modern era a few months ago.

Hamilton's performance across Friday, Saturday and Sunday was on brand for a championship contest with such a billing.

To recap quickly, this is how Hamilton's weekend unfolded:

  • He qualified 1st on Friday evening.

  • He started the sprint 20th after being disqualified from qualifying.

  • He finished the sprint fifth.

  • He started the grand prix 10th after serving a grid penalty for an engine change.

  • He then won the race, catching and passing Verstappen late on.

As if to put a bow on that crazy sequence of events, Hamilton's weekend formally ended with a final trip to the stewards and a 5,000 Euro fine for unbuckling his seatbelt to wave the Brazilian flag on his victory lap.

The race for that victory lived up to the drama that had preceded it. It also very nearly continued one of the quirkier themes of this season. At the previous two iterations of the sprint weekend format this year, July's British Grand Prix and September's Italian Grand Prix, Hamilton and Verstappen collided during the main race.

That was so, so close to happening a third time on lap 48.

Having reeled Verstappen in over the preceding laps, Hamilton used Turn 1 and 2 to set up the move that was to follow around the outside of the Red Bull driver at Turn 4. As they approached the apex together, Verstappen kept his car planted firmly in the middle of the road and both drivers ended up running wide -- but crucially avoided contact.

While it looked very much like Verstappen had forced Hamilton wide, the stewards did not deem it worthy of an investigation or penalty. Great on the one hand, given the repeated desire from F1 to "let them race" and not over regulate on-track battles, frustrating on the other given the ambiguity of the rule and the confusing array of different decisions made in similar scenarios in recent races.

Hamilton said he was happy the fight had stayed clean.

"In the heat of the moment I don't really know," Hamilton said on Sunday evening when asked about the incident. "I think I was ahead initially and then he held his ground and then we both ran out of road.

"Well, I think he was running out of road so I had to avoid and go off road, but I mean I didn't think too much of it. I have to watch the replay.

"It's hard battling, wouldn't expect anything less really. We didn't touch wheels, which was good."

Verstappen felt his move had been fair.

"We both tried to be ahead into the corner and so I braked a bit later to try and keep the position and the tyres were already a bit worn," he said. "So I was really on the edge of grip, so that's why I think I was already not fully on the apex.

"And it's a safer way, just running a bit wide there... Happy that the stewards decided that we could just keep on racing, because I think the racing in general was really good today."

The post-race quotes were probably less spicy than they might have been because Hamilton got past Verstappen a handful of laps, powering past on the approach to the same corner as Verstappen weaved left and right across the track in a failed attempt to keep the Mercedes behind. It was too much weaving for the stewards, who showed Verstappen the black-and-white flag denoting a final warning.

It was a page out of the much younger Verstappen's playbook, something the Dutch driver was criticised for doing too often a few years ago by Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen when his raw talent was far less polished than it is today. Rather than proof of a relapse to some of his rasher moments, it was likely more of an indication of just how hard Verstappen felt he had to fight to keep Hamilton's car behind.

Earlier in the race, Verstappen's teammate, Sergio Perez, had been easy prey for Hamilton two laps after a Safety Car restart. Perez managed to keep Hamilton behind for one lap but was a sitting duck when the Mercedes driver attempted again on lap 18.

Perez was stunned at just how fast Hamilton's car was.

"Their straight-line speed is on another planet," Perez said after the race. "I looked at my mirror at the exit and I felt pretty safe. Then I looked back into it again and he's right next to me!

"It was really impressive."

While it seems commonplace for detractors to simply point to the car and say Hamilton would have won regardless, the seven-time world champion was operating on a special level this week. You only have to look at how badly teammate Valtteri Bottas, a multiple race winner and a talented driver, has been made to look in equal machinery to see Formula One is not just about having a fast car.

The moves Hamilton pulled off were calculated brilliantly and executed supremely, providing F1 with a highlight reel of content on both race days.

The man replacing Bottas next year, Williams' George Russell, tweeted in awe of Hamilton after the race.

"I'll be watching that one back later! Congrats Lewis Hamilton, you're an absolute beast".

Sadly, it does have to keep being written that a seven-time world champion and a winner of 101 races -- someone who has won at least one race in every one of his 15 seasons regardless of the competitiveness of his car -- is one of F1's most gifted drivers of all time.

This is why Verstappen's season has been so impressive. He's gone toe-to-toe with the man who might be F1's GOAT and he's rarely flinched.

Verstappen was supreme in Austin and Mexico City, but Sao Paulo was more about damage limitations, and he did a good job of that. He wasn't a hero and he didn't need to be.

When is a racing incident not a racing incident?

The Hamilton-Verstappen incident on lap 48 was less controversial than it might have been given the outcome, but it still showed an inconsistent application of the rules on forcing a driver wide.

Race director Michael Masi officially "noted" the incident straight after it happened. From the radio communications Mercedes sent to Hamilton in the two laps which followed, the reigning world champions seemed pretty convinced a penalty would follow.

The stewards deemed no investigation was necessary, although Masi later said the front-facing camera which would have shown Verstappen's steering wheel movements was not available to the stewards. In an investigation into whether one driver forced another off the track, this would seemingly be a key piece of evidence.

Regardless, the incident was left unpunished.

"I think for the benefit of everyone it was the let them race," Masi explained on Sunday evening.

"I disagree that it is inconsistent. If you look at it, as I've said many times before, you judge the incident on its merits, and you have a look at all of it.

"Let's not forget, we have the overall 'let them race' principles, and looking at it all, with the angles we had available, that was the philosophy that was adopted."

The lack of penalty only added to Mercedes' frustrations with how the weekend had unfolded off the track, as Toto Wolff explained after the race, branding the decision not to penalise Verstappen "laughable".

"The whole weekend went against us, we had a broken part on our wing which we couldn't look at, couldn't analyse, failed the test, got disqualified, very harsh," Wolff said.

"Then you see Red Bull with three times in a row on the rear wing while being in parc ferme with no consequence. That's one thing.

"That really peaked with the decision in the race, which was really wrong defence from Max, absolutely an inch over the limit but he needed to do that to defend and Lewis just managed it even more brilliantly by avoiding the contact and ending the race that way.

"But that was just over the line and should have been a five second penalty at least, Max probably knew that, but just brushing it under the carpet is just tip of the iceberg, it's laughable."

Wolff also echoed the point made in this article about consistency, saying he would happily accept that kind of move being deemed fine if that was the copy-and-paste response to every such incident

"I'm also OK if the race director's notes are being shredded and we race hard like we did today, fine. But if the race director's notes say you can't push anybody off the track in Mexico then obviously that is valid here too and you're being driven off the track it is just not very consistent.

"To call it that way; my discussion with the race director was not broadcasted but my reaction was, and it is clear we will discuss it behind closed doors."

Thankfully, the lap 48 incident served as a footnote and not the headline of this absorbing and compelling sequence of days in Sao Paulo.

At this point it would be foolish to say with any certainty who will win the 2021 Formula One drivers' championship. After the way this one unfolded, you can safely bet Hamilton and Mercedes are ready for the fight of their lives to win it, but you can also bet Red Bull are more than willing to fulfil their side of that as well as they have throughout the season.

After a joyful return to a packed, loud and colourful Interlagos, F1 takes two steps into the unknown in Qatar and Saudi Arabia -- yet another variable to contend with in a season that is just impossible to predict.