The Brazilian Grand Prix is the penultimate race of the 2022 Formula One season, one where both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships have already been decided. It is also the final race weekend with the somewhat controversial sprint format. This is where qualifying takes place on Friday after FP1, and a sprint race of about one-third race distance takes place on Saturday (following a second practice session), which ultimately determines the grid for Sunday. It effectively adds a second race—a second lights-out moment, which is the moment in F1 racing—in place of a third (yawn emoji) practice session.
I say controversial because there are many critics of this experimental format, not least of which is two-time World Champion Max Verstappen.
“You don’t do a pitstop so you just put on the tire which will last the distance. You don’t really see a lot of overtaking unless there is a car out of position. So then it’s not really that fun for me,” Verstappen told ESPN.
Others feel the drivers don’t take chances in the sprint because the small number of points isn’t worth risking a bad starting position for Sunday. And then you have the traditionalist F1 fans, who balk at any tweak to the way things have always been. They were loudest about the halo when it was introduced, and it’s since saved several lives. As a fan of the sport, I think the sprint format adds more excitement to a weekend in general. And over the past two seasons, Brazil has proved all the critics wrong.
In 2021, we saw championship contender Lewis Hamilton take an engine penalty that had him start the sprint race from P20. He stormed through the field to finish P10 in a prelude of what was to come on Sunday. I texted a friend that evening and said that Hamilton was about to put on a clinic. That’s exactly what he did, passing everyone from from P10 to P1 and salvaging his championship hopes. Of course, a lot of that performance came from having a brand new Mercedes power unit. The press often doesn’t acknowledge how much of a performance boost that is e.g. Verstappen in Belgium this year. Regardless, the sprint format gave us one of the best Formula One performances I’ve ever seen. And it’s happening again this weekend.
Friday’s qualifying gave us a lot to talk about. It started out wet with all drivers on intermediate tires (inters) as Q1 commenced. It quickly transitioned to slicks as the track mostly dried, though the threat of rain loomed. We got to Q3 under dry conditions, but the rain would most likely come during this final session, as sprinkles could already be felt in the pit lane. The best strategy, it seemed, was to get a quick lap on slicks before the track got too wet. That initial lap time on slicks would be a lot faster than one on inters. It was possible you wouldn’t get that dry lap, which means you’d pit for inters with everyone else and do a lap or two in the wet. This scenario gave an advantage to the teams closest to the end of the pit lane—teams like Haas—because you could be first to queue up and wait for the session to start.
First in that queue was Kevin Magnussen followed by the Red Bulls and Ferraris. But one of these cars was not like the others. The Ferrari team decided to “split strategies” by sending Sainz out on slicks and Leclerc on inters. He asked his engineer if he was the only car on inters. Yes, Charles. Just you. It was a baffling call from a team that can ill afford to make these types of blunders. Indeed, it wasn’t even a risk. Because if the track proved too wet for slicks, there was plenty of time to come in for inters and set a competitive time. There was no advantage to be gained if it started raining. Leclerc would have been the first to set a time on inters…but certainly not the last. And it only got worse from there as he still decided to do a flying lap with inters on a dry track, holding up Perez in the process and ruining his lap. Leclerc ultimately would not put in a time and ended up P10.
As the rain increased slightly, drivers were desperate to set the fastest possible time before having to switch to inters, which would really be pointless. Russell locked up into turn one and went off into the gravel only to get beached. This red flagged the session. Given that the rain had pretty much arrived, there was zero chance of putting in a faster lap on inters over what had already been set on slicks. The entire F1 universe watched as the clock ticked down on Q3 with Kevin “KMag” Magnussen at the top of the time sheets. Indeed, this was one of the best moments of the 2022 F1 season, seeing KMag and Haas get their first pole and watching the team celebrate as if they’d just won the championship. The collective sentiment on F1 Twitter: This is what the sport of F1 is all about.
Saturday Sprint Race
With Magnussen starting the sprint race from pole position (had to lead with that), the Danish driver had Verstappen alongside him with Russell and Norris on the second row. Everyone started on the soft tire, save for Verstappen and Latifi who started on the medium. KMag got a great start and led the race for the first lap or so. But he wasn’t actually racing Red Bull, Mercedes or Ferrari. So Verstappen, Russell and Sainz got past within the first few laps, and it became a race among the top three teams. This is really what we’ve been waiting for all season. There was overtaking. There was wheel-t0-wheel action. Plenty of risks were taken, and there was a lot of contact. The sprint in Brazil was some of the best racing we’ve seen all year. Full stop. It was a stark contrast to the worst (most boring) race of the season in Mexico a couple weeks ago.
Verstappen was clearly struggling on the medium tires; he’d been struggling with understeer during the practice sessions, so it wasn’t necessarily the tires. Russell stayed within DRS for the first handful of laps and finally took the lead on the back straight. He quickly distanced himself and led the remainder of the race to secure his first F1 victory. Sainz and Hamilton also passed Verstappen, relegating him to P4, though Sainz will take an engine penalty. This puts both Mercedes on the front row for tomorrow. Magnussen finished P8 and earned the last point available in the sprint.
The race saw teammates of Aston Martin and Alpine tussle, and it wasn’t pretty. Alonso and Ocon came together, which caused damage to both cars. Alonso eventually lost part of his front wing, scattering debris on the pit straight in the process, and Ocon’s car caught fire in the pit lane after the race. Vettel had better pace and tried to overtake Stroll on the back straight, only to be forced off track into the grass. Stroll received a 10-second penalty for this reckless and amateurish move. The fact that both Stroll and Alonso found themselves in these types of situations in Austin and Brazil doesn’t look good for the future teammates. Perhaps they deserve one another. But the stewards may need to employ harsher penalties if this keeps up.
Sunday Race Strategy
The Mercedes team have the potential to capture its first win of the season. This could also be Russell’s first official F1 race win. As long as they don’t screw it up. Because Verstappen will be ready to pounce if the silver arrows are battling one another as opposed to working as a team. No doubt, the team is setting a strategy to not only claim victory but to finish one-two and overtake Ferrari in the constructors’ standings. There is a lot to play for tomorrow, both on track and back at the Mercedes factory. Hamilton has said as much.
The ideal strategy, in my view, is for Hamilton to support Russell in taking the victory (assuming he has the pace) and to hold up the Red Bulls and Ferraris. Russell is starting from pole and will have the advantage into turn one. The moment that Hamilton and Russell fight one another it becomes an opportunity for their rivals. If they can agree up front that this is Russell’s race to lose, it not only gives them the best chance at a one-two victory. But it sets Hamilton up for 2023, where he’s trying to win an eighth world title and Russell (realistically) just wants to win races. Russell will owe him.