Max Verstappen underlined his potential as a champion of the future on Sunday with a commanding victory for Red Bull in an astonishing and crash-hit Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos.
The 22-year-old Dutchman twice passed newly-crowned six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton in a thrilling contest that had two safety car interventions and saw the Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc clash and retire, before clinching the eighth victory of his career.
His third win this season also made up for his disappointment in last year’s race in Brazil when he looked certain to win before a late accident wrecked his hopes of victory.
He made the most of pole position and finished a dominant winner ahead of his former Red Bull team-mate Pierre Gasly, now with Toro Rosso, as they delivered a Honda-powered one-two for the Japanese company for the first time since the heyday of local hero Ayrton Senna.
Frenchman Gasly came home 0.062 seconds ahead of Hamilton, who finished third for Mercedes but was demoted to seventh following a post-race stewards’ investigation after crashing with luckless Thai driver Alexander Albon, the man who replaced Gasly at Red Bull, in the final laps.
Hamilton’s demotion gifted McLaren’s Carlos Sainz his first Formula One podium, subject to several other stewards’ inquiries.
“Lewis was very quick,” said Verstappen. “So I had to keep pushing all the time. He pitted early so we had to be on top of our pit-stops and we had a good move on him.
“I could control the race with the tyres I had, so, for me, it was unbelievable. It was a lot of fun out there and great to win the race.”
Verstappen ‘flat out’
He said his decisive second overtake of Hamilton was achieved thanks to his superior speed in the rarefied atmosphere of the 700-metre altitude Interlagos circuit.
“I was behind so I was pushing flat out on my out lap,” he said. “We knew we had great top speed the whole weekend — but that was a guess — and I’m very happy to have got past him!”
Gasly screamed with delight at his good fortune on his slow-down lap.
“This is my first podium in F1 and, for sure, I will never forget it,” he said. It’s such a special moment. So emotional…
“Toro Rosso have given me such a fantastic car since I came back. This is an amazing day… I was praying for the engine to give everything it had –- without Honda, it would not have been possible.”
Hamilton was handed a five-second penalty and two points on his racing licence.
“I fully accept it was my fault and I accept the penalty,” said the Mercedes driver.
“I was the driver behind and it was my mistake. I apologise massively to Alex –- the gap was there, but it closed pretty quickly. It was completely my fault and I hold my hands up.”
Albon, who looked certain to finish on the podium, came home 15th.
Vettel and Leclerc faced the wrath of team chief Mattia Binotto after their self-inflicted collision and double retirement.
The pair was battling for fourth position following the first safety car re-start in a tumultuous race when they clashed as Vettel retaliated after being passed through the Senna S curves.
They banged wheels as Vettel appeared to drift across the track and reduce the space for Leclerc.
Both cars were damaged, Leclerc suffering broken suspension to the front right of his car while Vettel had a rear left wheel puncture.
After both drivers had ranted on team radio, each blaming the other for the incident, team boss Binotto suggested they both had “at least a small percentage of responsibility” for an incident that heaped embarrassment on the Italian team.
He said they had “damaged the race of Ferrari”.
“I think the drivers need to feel sorry for the team,” said Binotto. “They were free to fight, but they know that silly mistakes are something we should avoid for the team itself.
“Today it has been a very small contact, I have to say, but there will be time to analyze it and there will be time to look at the video, I don’t want to do that in the heat.
“With the drivers, I had already a chat with them and I don’t want to judge now — they should not judge now. There will be a time to do it all together.”
Vettel said: “I didn’t have much space to the right and obviously had a better run out of Turn Three and tried to pass.
“That’s it… And a shame for the team, obviously.”
Leclerc said that Vettel had “started to squeeze me a little bit to the inside and we were very close. Everything happened very quickly, and as soon as he went to the inside we touched”.
The Monegasque driver added: “I’m pretty sure we are mature enough to put that behind us.”
The duo was not punished by the race stewards for the incident.
After speaking to both drivers and a representative of Ferrari, the stewards ruled both drivers could have avoided the collision.
“The stewards determined that both drivers had the opportunity to avoid or mitigate the incident and therefore that neither driver is predominantly at fault,” they said.