Max Verstappen is bidding to boost his advantage on a race weekend at the Sao Paulo Grand Prix that could prove crucial in helping him close in on a first Formula One world title.
Consecutive victories in the United States and Mexico have seen Verstappen grow his lead over seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton to 19 points with just four races remaining.
The result this week at Interlagos, where 29 points are up for grabs as the third and final sprint race of the season takes place on Saturday ahead of the main event on Sunday, could therefore have a seismic impact.
A third straight win would equal the best run in Verstappen’s impressive young career but most importantly put him in prime position for the biggest prize of all, which would deny Hamilton the chance to surpass Michael Schumacher and claim an all-time record eighth title.
Red Bull were clearly the faster car in Mexico as previous form proved an accurate guide to that race. They have also fared well of late in Brazil, with the Dutchman winning the last time a race was held at Interlagos in 2019 after a second-placed finish the year before.
The 19-point lead is the second-biggest gap between Verstappen and Hamilton this season. Only in Austria was it larger (32) in a year when it has been tough to separate the pair.
Red Bull have also closed to within one point of Mercedes in the constructors’ championship, the smallest gap between two teams at this stage of any season in the 21st century.
Christian Horner’s team have had both drivers on the podium in three straight races, their best run in the hybrid era, and repeating the feat here would put them closer to claiming both crowns, ending a historic spell of Mercedes dominance.
However, Hamilton will have plenty to say about that – he has 17 career wins in the Americas (seven in Canada, six in the USA, two in Brazil and two in Mexico). One more would give him the record in that category which he currently shares with Schumacher.
LAST TIME OUT
Verstappen roared to victory in Mexico, moving from third on the grid to the lead by the first corner.
Valtteri Bottas – who had started in pole position – dropped down to last after being hit from behind in a frantic start and could not recover to finish in the points, though he did claim the fastest lap to deny Verstappen an additional point.
Verstappen was rarely troubled after his fine start, claiming a 19th career win and ninth of the season by more than 16 seconds ahead of Hamilton, who held on for second in a battle with home favourite Sergio Perez, a result Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said should be seen like a win given the pace difference between the two cars.
Pierre Gasly took fourth to make it three drivers connected to Red Bull in the first four places, with the Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz rounding out the top six.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN BRAZIL
While the gap is expected to be closer at Interlagos than it was in Mexico City, Verstappen goes into the race weekend as favourite given Red Bull’s strong momentum.
However, he has not fared well in the two previous race weekends when the sprint format took place and is yet to claim a point in the main race under those circumstances.
He did claim pole – and five valuable championship points – when he won the sprint at Silverstone and came second at Monza to Bottas, who served a penalty, only to retire from each race after collisions with Hamilton.
Hamilton will be up for a scrap again as he desperately bids to remain in contention and Wolff insisted this week it is all still to play for, given the Briton impressively limited the damage with second place in Mexico, one of Mercedes’ worst tracks.
Wolff added: “We are going to Brazil – that was not much better for us than Mexico in the past but at least we believe that we can have a solid car there, more close to Red Bull than what we had.
“None of us is ever going to have the mentality of this is going away from us. There is four races to go, four wins to take, four DNFs to suffer, and we will just continue fighting.
“We know that we have a great team. When you look at the mathematical probability then I would rather be 19 points ahead than behind, but it is what it is.”
TOP FIVE OPTA FACTS
Front row vital – Fifteen of the past 16 winners in Brazil have come from the first row of the grid (eight from pole). Kimi Raikkonen was the last winner to come from further back, doing so in 2007 when he emerged triumphant from third to clinch the drivers’ title.
Unwelcome records – If he finishes second, Bottas will surpass Rubens Barrichello as the driver who has the most runner-up finishes in F1 (30) without being a world champion. He is already the driver who has the most career poles (19) without winning a world title.
Fast Fernando – Alpine star Alonso is the driver who has gained the most positions across both of the sprint races held so far in 2021 (six).
Lando luck – Since he retired in Hungary, Lando Norris – who turns 22 this weekend – has finished in the top five just once in seven F1 races (when he came second in Monza). He had been in the top five in nine of the previous 10 events before this poor run.
Fond memories – Eleven years ago on race day, Sebastian Vettel (Aston Martin) became the youngest driver to win the F1 world championship in Abu Dhabi at 23 years, four months and 11 days old.
1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 312.5
2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 293.5
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) 185
4. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) 165
5. Lando Norris (McLaren) 150
1. Mercedes 478.5
2. Red Bull 477.5
3. Ferrari 268.5
4. McLaren 255
5. Alpine 106