Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc rode the Interlagos maelstrom masterfully on Friday to secure front-row starts for the 2023 Brazilian GP, and the Ferrari looks like the only challenger capable of beating the Dutchman.
Despite finishing almost half a minute behind Verstappen in a turbulent sprint, Leclerc should be much closer if he can drop the Aston Martins early on and only needs to focus on the win.
There’s a small-percentage chance he can overcome Verstappen in a clean race, while behind that pair sixth-place Lando Norris could be the favourite to claim the final podium spot.
How can Leclerc conquer Verstappen?
Focus on the start. Norris was really lazy off the line in the sprint, having got an equal launch to Verstappen there’s no way he should’ve left the inside line open, but it at least gives Leclerc a sliver of hope that he can take the lead early.
Not that he should expect Verstappen to be as welcoming – see lights out in the Austin sprint a fortnight ago.
If Leclerc can hold track position early on then he has a genuine chance of defending it for the rest of the first stint. Interlagos is known for fantastic on-track action – Hamilton made 24 overtakes over the 2021 Brazilian GP weekend – but the back-to-back DRS zones in the first sector mean defending drivers aren’t powerless.
Red Bull‘s early-season DRS dominance has also been pegged back from the start of the season, but the undercut is a potent weapon at Interlagos so Ferrari strategists should be itching to pit Leclerc early.
For those running the soft-medium-soft strategy that’s predicted to be fastest, the first pit window should open around lap 17. Mercedes were caught napping by the Red Bull pit wall at the 2023 United States GP allowing Verstappen to get a lead on Lewis Hamilton that he’d never relinquish, and Ferrari must prevent a repeat of that at all costs.
“Interlagos is a track that always delivers a lot of battles,” Pirelli‘s Director of Motorsport Mario Isola told the press. “It’s worth remembering that the undercut can be very effective here.”
There is a low-percentage chance of this working – the Red Bull looked quickest in the sprint and even if Leclerc can hold the lead after the first stint he’ll have 50 laps to defend the Dutchman. But if he’s behind Verstappen at the first pitstops, that low chance drops to zero.
“It’s very difficult to have a proper read [as to] who is fast, who is not,” Leclerc told the media after qualifying. “The feel was okay, whether this will be enough to challenge the Red Bull, I think it’s a bit of another story.
“Because this year, unfortunately, they are very strong and much stronger than us coming the Sunday, so we’ve got a lot of work to do. Realistically, I will say maybe not.
“But as always, if there’s the opportunity to pass at the start and block him for [the rest of the race], then I’ll take that.”
What is the best strategy for the 2023 Brazilian GP?
Expect similar temperatures to sprint, so a two-stop strategy should be the exciting optimal race plan if it remains dry as forecast.
The Mercedes drivers are the only ones in the top six without a new set of softs, though teams could wait until the final stint to unleash that fresh rubber when it’ll be most effective.
The other option at play is a three-stopper comprising three softs and a medium. That’d see no stint longer than about 15 laps, with drivers able to push to the limit on each set of tyres – the 24-lap sprint race required plenty of management up and down the field.
FP1 underlined that the C2 hard tyres are unlikely to be used, theoretically a medium-hard one-stop entering the pits between laps 25 and 30 is possible but the hards just look so uncompetitive – almost a second a lap slower than the softs.
“The two-stop is clearly the better option, running a mix of soft and medium,” Isola added after the sprint.
“From what we saw this afternoon, the soft has definitely shown itself to be a valid choice even over quite a long stint, and so the key will be to find the right balance between the length of the various sections of the race and the order in which to use the different compounds.
“One should not rule out a three-stop strategy, even if on paper it’s not the quickest, for those who want to try and push more without being too worried about tyre management on a track where overtaking is possible at several places.”
What about the rest of the challengers?
Don’t hold out too much hope. Lance Stroll, Fernando Alonso and most importantly the team pitwall did a fantastic job to secure third and fourth on the grid at Interlagos, but the Canadian openly admitted they’re not the fifth-quickest team on paper.
A pointless sprint race appeared to confirm that, and Aston Martin will likely be aiming to restrict the distance they go backwards rather than fire themselves into the battle for the win. All this with the caveat that it’s Interlagos, anything can happen.
Mercedes had a forgettable sprint race with Lewis Hamilton particularly underwhelming – the not-so-Silver Arrows arrived in Sao Paulo cautiously optimistic that they could fight Verstappen for victory but the chance of that materialising now appears to be in blue moon territory.
They’ll still aim for a podium if Aston do fall as expected, but Norris should have something to say about that. Aside from his dismal defence of pole position, Norris was best of the rest in the sprint and if certainly looked superior to the four cars who start immediately in front of him in the grand prix.