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Formula 1 Brazilian GP

The contenders looking to join Verstappen on the F1 Brazilian GP podium

Unless misfortune intervenes, Max Verstappen appears to be a safe bet to follow up his sprint race success by starting on pole in the Brazilian Grand Prix. But behind him, several contenders can all stake a claim for a podium place and with it a sniff of a win if anything denies the Formula 1 world champion. Here’s the state of play ahead of Sao Paulo’s Sunday action

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60, George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W14, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB19, the rest of the field on the opening lap of the Sprint race

Let's address the foregone conclusion first: if proceedings at the Interlagos circuit on Sunday bear any correlation with a standard 2023 weekend, then Max Verstappen will win the Brazilian Grand Prix. The three-time world champion has won four of the six sprints this season and, of the three he won prior to this weekend, he converted all of them into a full grand prix win. Force majeure only would stop this becoming four.

Who stands alongside him on the podium, however, is a more open question. The interruption from Friday night's storm in Sao Paulo rather scattered the key contenders in Sunday's race throughout the top 10, if their individual bursts of pace from the sprint race is anything to go by. Resurgent forces have the opportunity to battle against those who have enjoyed greater fortunes over the more recent rounds, and could plausibly yield a box-office battle for glory... behind Verstappen, of course.

Recent criticisms of the current sprint format is that the shortened race ends up being too much of a bellwether for Sunday's grand prix, which is problematic for the majority of fans who abhor predictability. But unique circumstances faced in the sprint suggest that the battle for second and third might not be a simple copy-paste from Saturday's service, as the soft tyres used during the 24-lap race may find a less visible role during the 71-lap full-length race at the Interlagos circuit.

And, should Verstappen falter for any reason, the crop of drivers in podium contention suddenly have a much greater prize on offer. Either way, it'll be up to them to work with the hand dealt to them as best as they can; some begin with a track position advantage, others have a car advantage, so there's at least some balance in how the race is poised in Brazil.

 

Let's assess the merits of the key contenders and determine who is best placed to fill Sunday's podium.

Charles Leclerc - Front-row starter looks set for fall backwards

Leclerc starts alongside Verstappen on the front row but will be racing against those behind him

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Leclerc starts alongside Verstappen on the front row but will be racing against those behind him

With Lando Norris on pole for the sprint race, Verstappen leveraged a slightly better second phase once the clutch had been dropped to occupy the inside line for Turn 1, giving Norris the more tenuous high-wire outside line into the opening corners. It worked out neatly for Verstappen, who could enjoy the remainder of the race effectively going unchallenged, while Norris took a little longer to recover after being "caught sleeping" by George Russell at the Turn 10 Bico de Pato corner.

That's something Leclerc can attempt to exploit, if his start is strong enough. Verstappen would be wise to his own trick, but there's only so much defending that he can attempt if a hard-charging Ferrari has already swarmed the space between the Red Bull and the inside wall. Ferrari didn't quite have the legs on Red Bull in Mexico, but the distance between the start line and the opening corner far exceeds the Interlagos run - so with a swift getaway, it's a chance Leclerc can employ.

This might not be enough to keep Verstappen at bay for too long, but a spell in free air can be a valuable asset for his race. Anything that affords a slight comfort barrier when it comes to strategic planning will offer more latitude, something Ferrari could covet as its overall level of tyre degradation is often higher compared to its rivals despite great advances in that area over the season.

There's the optimistic part. In truth, Leclerc's sprint race pace suggests that he will struggle to make a dent on the top three, and the nature of the Interlagos circuit does not seem to offer Ferrari the rewards that it had perhaps reaped at higher-speed venues. Without the DRS effect, Leclerc had the edge on the sprint podium finishers in Norris and Sergio Perez over the start-finish straight and a few micro-sectors here and there, but overall the SF-23 had little to contend with between Turn 6 and Turn 12, costing Leclerc almost a second a lap relative to Norris and Perez on a few occasions.

Accounting for DRS, which is likely to be employed in the early stages quite readily amid the jostle for positions, the Ferrari has even less in its favour as the not-so-long straights don't have enough distance to help the Ferrari flex its advantage. While degradation should not be anything like as high on the medium and hard compounds as it was for the softs, it would still be a surprise to see Leclerc find a sudden turn of strong and consistent pace to stake a podium claim on Sunday.

Mercedes - Limited chance to act on sprint mistakes

Both Mercedes failed to gain ground in the sprint

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

Both Mercedes failed to gain ground in the sprint

The initial rise from Russell and Lewis Hamilton in the sprint race was admirable. Russell had foisted his car up to third and then hurled his W14 down the inside of Norris, while Hamilton battled with Perez to climb as high as fourth. The Mercedes seems to thrive more in race environments, and it briefly looked as though Russell might have half a chance of homing in on Verstappen for the lead.

Except, it didn't quite work out like that. Norris postulated that Russell had taken too much out of his soft Pirelli rubber and "paid the price", which the lankier Briton confirmed when asked to assess his drop off in pace. "We didn't expect to be the fastest, we thought we'd be a couple of tenths behind Max. Maybe similar pace to Lando. But clearly, we got something wrong today. As always down the tyres - they just dropped off, story of everybody's season."

That cost one position to Norris, who reclaimed second, and then left Russell vulnerable to Perez later on when the Red Bull driver broke past Hamilton to reclaim fourth. The degradation was such across both cars that Hamilton fell into the clutches of Leclerc and was passed for fifth on the 21st lap. Yuki Tsunoda followed Leclerc past later on in the lap, sending the seven-time champion having to be content with seventh.

Hamilton reckoned that degradation had the biggest role, but the characteristics of the W14 also exacerbated the problem that the team had faced in the early phase of the race after the initial ascent up the order petered out.

"I think we have one the draggiest cars," Hamilton mused. "Our floor is not as strong as perhaps like the Red Bull for example, so we have to have a really big wing. And then we're just slow on the straight, we can't use anything smaller."

Russell suggested that the expected drop in temperatures could help Mercedes manage its tyres better, although Hamilton didn't think it would make much difference. But if Mercedes can find an easily implementable answer to its Saturday woes, then all hope is not lost. It'll be a harder road for Russell after dropping two positions on the grid after being caught impeding in the pitlane, but it's certainly not over if the harder tyres are slightly more workable.

Lando Norris - The favourite for a podium step despite starting sixth

Norris should be favourite for a podium but he'll have to fight from sixth on the grid rather than his sprint pole

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Norris should be favourite for a podium but he'll have to fight from sixth on the grid rather than his sprint pole

McLaren goes into a weekend not expecting a result? Check. McLaren turns up at a venue it expects to struggle at and secures a headline result? Double check. Norris didn't imagine that he'd be on pole for the sprint, especially as he concluded that his lap didn't feel especially good, but he nonetheless beat Verstappen to ensure he'd sit at the front of the grid. His lead lasted some metres, but not very many as he was not particularly keen to cut Verstappen's path to the lead off early, and thus had to be content with second.

Early setbacks aside, Norris's race pace was very strong. The McLaren looks to deal with the medium-speed corners well and has found improvement at the lower-speed mid-corner phase to offer hefty lap time rewards in the second sector. Remember Norris' sprint shootout pole; a poor first sector that was almost 0.3s off the best could be overcome with apparent ease in the next two parts of the lap.

There's little to suggest that Norris can't enact a repeat of the sprint race and make his way up to second, although he'll have a little more overtaking to do as McLaren's sluggish start to Q3 left it having to be content with seventh (later sixth) and 10th on the grid for Sunday's race. But, as Mexico proved, Norris is more than equipped to deal with that kind of race.

Race pace in the sprint was also much stronger than the cars who start in front of him, so if degradation levels remain the same then Norris should make short order of them.

Sergio Perez - Only ninth, but set for a resurgence

Third place in the Brazil sprint was Perez's first top-three finish, in sprints and grands prix, since the Italian GP

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

Third place in the Brazil sprint was Perez's first top-three finish, in sprints and grands prix, since the Italian GP

Much has been said about Perez of late, and of his F1 future. In moments of such intense pressure, it's the response that will truly define a driver's future in the championship. Mexico hinted at desperation, but Brazil's events so far have hinted that Perez has taken a much more relaxed route to Sao Paulo.

He seems to have overcome the worst of the issues in confidence over the Interlagos weekend, and looked closer to Verstappen in qualifying than he has been able to in months. And, while his start to the sprint was somewhat slower than the cars around him, he found the commitment to break clear of the Mercedes duo in his final efforts to keep hold of second in the championship.

"I think from Austin onwards we've been a lot better than we've shown on pace, but for some reason or another we haven't been able to put it all together," Perez reckoned. "I think in Mexico we were also strong. And obviously, here it's been a good, solid day with the morning. [On Friday] we were very unlucky with the Q3 conditions, and then getting the yellow flag at the end. But other than that, I think it's been a good pace."

Per his race pace in the sprint, he was able to remain not too far away from Norris' efforts despite a few gaps being chiselled out by the Briton here and there to keep Perez from closing in. Sunday offers another race where Perez has to fight through the order starting ninth, but he's got the equipment to do it; he's got a very real chance of returning to a proper podium finish for the first time since Monza. He'll just have to keep it clean to get there.

Aston Martin - Dark horses, or mere interlopers?

Both Aston Martins were relegated to minor place battles in the sprint due to starting way down the order

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

Both Aston Martins were relegated to minor place battles in the sprint due to starting way down the order

On overall merit, Aston Martin probably didn't have a car capable of locking out the second row of the grid, but the timing of their solitary Q3 laps yielded third and fourth for Lance Stroll and Fernando Alonso respectively. Throughout the year, Aston Martin's race pace has been better than its one-lap turn of speed, so it bodes well that the team had managed to slightly inflate its expected grid positions for Brazil.

A podium finish will be a huge ask for a team that has not lived up to its early season form, but it doesn't entirely remain out of the question. There are few indicators in the sprint race that suggest either of the AMR23s would be bonafide rostrum contenders, but that discounts the wiliness of Alonso.

If his car qualifies in a not-particularly-impressive position, Alonso can occasionally switch off after perhaps losing hope of a headline result. But when the car is perhaps higher than it should be, Alonso is equally capable of making it the widest car ever conceived on a racing circuit. He'll display his usual brand of dogged determination to coax that out into a good result.

Alonso hasn't stood on the podium since Zandvoort, and Stroll hasn't visited it at all this year, but the opportunism in qualifying can potentially pay off if Aston Martin can dig out a performance from the early-season's catalogue. It's hard to justify that on anything other than vibes, as Alonso's battles through the order against the likes of Pierre Gasly and Oscar Piastri sapped away at race pace. Starting further forward should ensure that he gets less bogged down in battles for minor placings - it all depends on how he places his car at the start.

Stroll also has a chance to get something decent from the race, although it depends what kind of mood he's in. Hopefully, he'll arrive on Sunday as the determined battler ready to arm himself to the teeth in defence of a top-five result.

Overall, one might have to make a somewhat boring prediction and suggest a repeat of the Norris/Perez podium seen in the Sao Paulo sprint. But could Alonso have a go at blowing that prediction wide apart, if Aston enjoys a problem-free race.

Who will join Verstappen on the podium in Brazil?

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Who will join Verstappen on the podium in Brazil?

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