Lewis Hamilton’s championship hopes dealt blow despite fine sprint race effort

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Lewis Hamilton’s championship hopes have been dealt a major setback – despite a brilliant drive from last to fifth in Saturday’s sprint race at the Brazilian Grand Prix.

Hamilton was excluded from qualifying and demoted to the back after his Mercedes fell foul of the technical regulations and his pole lap at Interlagos was chalked off.

Hamilton’s punishment promoted Max Verstappen to the front of the grid but Valtteri Bottas beat the Red Bull man off the line to win the 24-lap dash and claim pole position for Sunday’s Grand Prix.

Verstappen finished runner-up to claim two points and extend his lead from 19 to 21 points. Carlos Sainz took third for Ferrari.

With the result of Saturday’s sprint determining the order for Sunday’s main event, Verstappen will join Bottas on the front row. And he will start eight places ahead of Hamilton – demoted to 10th following a five-place grid drop for taking on his fifth engine change of the campaign. Only three are allowed.

Indeed, Hamilton’s dreams of winning a record-breaking eighth world title are now hanging by a thread, with Verstappen in the driving seat to extend his championship lead. Just 78 points are available following Sunday’s Grand Prix.

Following the race, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff told Hamilton over the radio: “Lewis, brilliant job, damage limitation. F*** them all.”

Hamilton replied: “Copy. It’s not over yet.”

Hamilton can take some comfort from his own superb performance and his team-mate’s triumph.

Bottas, criticised by Hamilton at the last round in Mexico City for leaving the door ajar for Verstappen, raced away from his marks here to take the lead at the opening corner, with the championship leader then falling behind Ferrari’s Sainz.

At the back, Hamilton made up four places before the opening corner, and finished the first lap in 14th. By the start of lap 13 he made his way past Daniel Ricciardo to break into the top 10 before navigating his way round Sebastian Vettel and Esteban Ocon respectively on laps 15 and 16.

Hamilton then swooped past Pierre Gasly for seventh, with Charles Leclerc 3.5 seconds up the road and seven laps remaining.

Verstappen, who overtook Sainz on lap four, moved to within half-a-second of Bottas but failed to mount a serious challenge for the lead, while Hamilton picked off Leclerc on lap 20 to take sixth and then Lando Norris on the final lap.

Hamilton started 20th after he was stripped of pole. The stewards delivered their verdict at 2.04pm local time in Sao Paulo, nearly 20 hours after an investigation was launched into the legality of Hamilton’s rear wing following a complaint by Red Bull.

It was adjudged that Hamilton’s Drag Reduction System on the back of his Mercedes was operating at a bigger gap than is permitted, allowing him to produce a greater top speed.

Mercedes sporting director Ron Meadows and trackside chief engineer Simon Cole fought Hamilton’s corner with the stewards on Friday night – and again on Saturday morning, this time joined by chief designer John Owen, who testified from the team’s Brackley HQ.

But although the stewards were in agreement with Mercedes that “something had gone wrong” with Hamilton’s rear wing – “rather than an intentional act or design” – the penalty was applied because they broke the rules.

Max Verstappen
Max Verstappen, left (Marcelo Chello/AP)

On an extraordinary day in Sao Paulo, Verstappen was also investigated after footage emerged of him touching Hamilton’s rear wing in the aftermath of qualifying.

Verstappen and Red Bull’s sporting director Jonathan Wheatley were summoned to the stewards at 9.30am. A relaxed Verstappen emerged a quarter-of-an-hour later.

After looking at the video – as well as footage from the cockpits of Fernando Alonso’s stationary Alpine and from inside both Hamilton and Bottas’ Mercedes – the stewards were “fully satisfied” that Verstappen did not interfere with Hamilton’s car. He escaped with a £42,000 fine and no further punishment.

Mercedes confirmed they would not be appealing Hamilton’s disqualification, tweeting: “We want to win these world championships on the race track.”

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