A soft-tyre gamble helped Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas beat Red Bull's Max Verstappen in Saturday's sprint qualifying race, handing him pole position for tomorrow's Sao Paulo Grand Prix.
Ferrari's Carlos Sainz also risked running on the soft tyres and got a similar boost as a result, beating Sergio Perez to third place.
But right behind them was the star of the sprint show, with Lewis Hamilton completing a 15-place recovery from the back of the grid to finish in fifth. Even with his engine penalty still to serve before tomorrow's race, it hands him a top ten start against the odds.
The day leading up to the sprint race had been largely overshadowed by the unprecedentedly long wait for the FIA stewards to rule on infringements by title rivals Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, to the point where even final practice had been relegated to a side show. Now the decisions were in, and while Verstappen had escaped with a fine and reprimand for his breach of parc ferme etiquette, Hamilton had been entirely excluded from the results of last night's qualifying, inflicting what could be a fatal blow to his waning hopes of claiming an eighth title in 2021.
The outcome meant that Verstappen lined up at the head of the grid for the start of the 24-lap sprint qualifying race ahead of Valtteri Bottas, Sergio Perez and Pierre Gasly; whereas Hamilton couldn't be further away, tucked up behind the two Haas cars at the very back back of the grid. It threatened to take much of the heat out of today's race, with Hamilton up against it to secure even a semi-decent grid position for Sunday's Sao Paulo GP given that he also has a five place grid drop yet to serve as a result of an earlier engine change.
Red Bull was playing safe having selected medium tyres for the sprint, but Mercedes had rolled the dice by putting Bottas on soft tyres in an attempt to take control of the start, with Gasly taking the same approach along with Ferrari's Carlos Sainz starting on the row behind. Hamilton however was on the medium tyres having decided that his car had the raw pace to dismiss the cars starting ahead of him without the need for help from the faster compound.
A quick formation lap for Verstappen left him sitting on the grid for an age while those behind him moved into position. When the lights went out, Bottas' soft tyre gambit worked and he leapt into the lead into turn 1, leaving Verstappen complaining of gear sync issues and struggling to fend off Sainz. He went wide onto the grass to avoid a collision which cost him another lost position which left him in third ahead of Sergio Perez, Charles Leclerc and birthday boy Lando Norris, but Gasly had suffered a terrible start out and dropped to seventh. Further back, Hamilton quickly took care of both Haas and Williams cars as well as Lance Stroll, and was handed another position when Kimi Raikkonen was tapped into a spin by his Alfa Romeo team mate Antonio Giovinazzi.
Once the race settled down, Verstappen took advantage of DRS to snatch second back from Sainz on lap 4 allowing him to start to close the gap to the race leader. Meanwhile Hamilton had already carved his way past Giovinazzi and Tsunoda to move into 12th place, which put Fernando Alonso and Daniel Ricciardo next on his list to pick off - neither of them easy men to get the better of. He got around Alonso down the main straight on lap 8 and finally passed Ricciardo heading into the Senna Esses moving him into the top ten on lap 13, with Aston Martin's Sebastian Vettel next to fall on lap 15.
The next items on Hamilton's to-do list were Gasly and Esteban Ocon, both of whom had started on the soft compound which was starting to wear badly by this point, making them both relatively easy prey for Hamilton who was up to seventh place by lap 17. But what was sauce for Hamilton was proving less sweet for his team mate Bottas, whose pace in the lead was waning allowing Verstappen to close within DRS range. Sainz was also similarly afflicted and struggling to hold off Perez, while behind them Norris had won himself a birthday present by pressuring Leclerc into a mistake handing the McLaren fifth place. That exposed Leclerc to Hamilton's comeback charge, and the Briton snatched sixth from the Monegasque with a dive down the inside of turn 4 on lap 20. One last push on the final lap saw Hamilton out-brake Norris for fifth, capping a memorable 15-place comeback and keeping his title hopes alive..
Bottas meanwhile had survived on the struggling softs and finished a second ahead of Verstappen to claim pole for tomorrow's Grand Prix, with Sainz also clinging on to third place despite pressure from Perez. Although he crossed the line in fifth, Hamilton's engine penalty means he will drop to tenth for the Grand Prix, only four places lower than the absolute best he could have hoped for without today's stewards decision. It promotes Norris, Leclerc, Gasly, Ocon and Vettel up a place on the grid with Ricciardo lining up in 11th ahead of Alonso, Giovinazzi, Stroll, Tsunoda, Nicholas Latifi, George Russell, Kimi Raikkonen and Mick Schumacher, leaving Nikita Mazepin in his customary last place.
Heading into parc ferme, Hamilton's race engineer Pete Bonnington came over the team radio with some cheeky advice for Hamilton: "Lewis, just make sure you don't touch any other cars or check them out in any way." Too soon, Bono, too soon!