“Not too bad, huh?” Lewis Hamilton said on the podium after winning the Brazilian Grand Prix. You can say that again.
The 52nd victory of the Mercedes driver’s career kept the title fight alive for a final-race showdown in Abu Dhabi in two weeks’ time. Rosberg will start that race as a strong favourite to become world champion. But a chaotic, crash-strewn race at a treacherously wet Interlagos emphasised the gulf between the two men.
Rosberg takes a 12-point lead to the Yas Marina circuit and to clinch his first world title needs to finish only third there even if Hamilton wins.
Statistically, there is not much to choose between the two Mercedes drivers this season – they have nine wins each; Hamilton has 11 poles and Rosberg eight.
But on days like Sunday in Brazil, there is no doubt who is the great driver and who the very good one.
Hamilton was in a league of his own in conditions of extreme difficulty, untouchable even by an inspired Max Verstappen. The world champion was the only driver the television cameras did not catch making a mistake of one sort or another, all while driving at a speed beyond the reach of his rivals.
Rosberg drove a very solid race, and survived one scary moment when he very nearly stuck the car in the wall accelerating through the kinks early in the pit straight.
Had he not held that, the race would have seen the big turnaround in points that Hamilton needed to get properly back into the title race. As it is, he will almost certainly need a mechanical problem on Rosberg’s car in Abu Dhabi to win a fourth world title.
When Hamilton gets over the immediate euphoria of finally winning the Brazilian Grand Prix, where his childhood hero Ayrton Senna was held as some sort of demigod by the local populace, he may curse the fact that the crazy race he needed finally arrived but Rosberg managed to negotiate his way through it.
But for now, Hamilton will doubtless be revelling in his superiority. Adding up the gaps he built over Rosberg in this staccato race that veered between tedium and extreme drama, it comes to 36 seconds in total. Or half a second a lap on average. His real advantage was possibly even bigger than that, at least if we are to judge by the 18.5-second lead he established in the 15 racing laps before the final safety car period.
“It’s never easy but I didn’t have any mistakes for sure,” Hamilton said. “When you make mistakes it really hurts and I was more focused than ever and there was never going to be a moment I made a mistake.
“To win this, it has been a grand prix I have always wanted to win since I watched Ayrton win here in 1991. It has taken me a long time to get here and it is a historic day for me. To stand on the podium in Brazil where Ayrton was so loved was really special.”
On days like this, it is in some ways hard to believe that Rosberg, not Hamilton, is likely to be world champion this year.
This is, in large part, down to the off-set in the reliability records between the two. While Hamilton has had three engine failures affect his points total, including the one while he was leading in Malaysia which will probably turn out to be fatal to his title hopes, Rosberg’s season has been virtually trouble-free.
The German’s only technical problems have been a gearbox glitch in Silverstone that ended up dropping him from second to third and a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change in Austria, which ended up hurting him not at all the way the strategy played out.
Rosberg’s only non-finish was as a result of the crash he and Hamilton had together on the first lap in Spain, which took them both out.
Hamilton pointed this out after the race for the umpteenth time this year. He also pointed out on Saturday that his 11-8 pole advantage over Rosberg comes even though he has not actually competed in three qualifying sessions because of those engine problems.
“I feel like I have been my strongest this year,” Hamilton told BBC Sport after the race. “There were a couple of things that really got in the way.
“Nico has finished every race this year apart from Barcelona, has qualified every qualifying session and three I was not even able to take part in.
“The fact we have had these problems and we have really pulled together, I am so proud of everyone. It is what racing is about and I am just enjoying the moment and living on top of the world right now.”
And yet there are some things that Hamilton may rue when he looks back on and analyses 2016 after the end of the season.
While reliability has definitely cost him the championship lead, it is also true to say that his position is partly of his own making.
Two races stand out for the wrong reasons for Hamilton this year. He drove erratically in qualifying in Baku, where he was stunningly fast but eventually crashed after making a series of mistakes. And he had an uncharacteristically poor weekend in Singapore, where people close to him say he “just didn’t turn up”.
With better performances on those two street tracks, he would be potentially going to Abu Dhabi with at the very least the knowledge that a win would make him champion, and perhaps even with a points lead.
Just like reliability problems, though, these things tend to be part of the game in F1 and drivers have to live with them.
If Hamilton was sublime in the lead, there was an equally stellar drive from Max Verstappen.
The Dutchman was scintillating from the start, quickly grabbing third from Kimi Raikkonen when racing got under way and then pressuring Rosberg until passing him mid-race after a restart with a superb move around the outside of Turn Three.
Having built a three-second lead in five laps, Verstappen then lost control accelerating through the kinks on the pit straight but somehow caught the car, kept it out of the wall and got going again without even losing second place.
Verstappen said it was “50-50” between skill and luck. Perhaps, but it was a remarkable piece of car control all the same.
He could do nothing about Hamilton in the lead but was on a separate level from anyone else and was on course for a comfortable second when Red Bull decided to switch him to intermediates in the second half of the race.
It was worth a gamble – the track was drying, team-mate Daniel Ricciardo was setting fastest sector times on his intermediates and Red Bull felt it might even give Verstappen a chance to challenge Hamilton.
It backfired a few laps later when the rain intensified and Verstappen had to come back in under the safety car for Felipe Massa’s crash to fit extreme wet tyres.
It cost him second but was the start of a quite brilliant last 16 laps, during which Verstappen climbed from 14th to third and made everyone but Hamilton – including Ricciardo, who was making pretty strong progress himself – look ordinary.
Team boss Christian Horner described his drive as “very special” and likened it to Ayrton Senna’s famous breakthrough drive in Monaco in 1984.
There has been a fair bit of hyperbole about Verstappen since he made his F1 debut last year, but that was not part of it.
It was already clear that Verstappen was a special talent. Sunday suggested that he may soon join Hamilton in rarefied air among the very select few in the pantheon of the greatest of all time.
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