Fernando Alonso made his long-awaited return to the podium at the 2023 São Paolo Grand Prix, and Max Verstappen broke yet more records, shattering Ascari’s 71-year record for the highest race-win percentage in a single season.
After an exciting sprint race on the Saturday, from which Verstappen took the victory, Lando Norris finishing second and Sergio Pérez third (his first top-three finish since Monza), Verstappen had once again placed on pole in qualifying, with Charles Leclerc in second. Lance Stroll qualified an impressive third and Fernando Alonso fourth, a fantastic recovery for Aston Martin following a double-DNF in Mexico.
However, for Leclerc, a front-row start was not to be for very long. On the formation lap, he suffered a hydraulic failure and lost the power-steering, sending his Ferrari careering off into the barriers. After an already unlucky season, his team radio was heartbreaking – Leclerc has now managed to DNF, DNS and DSQ from pole position all in the same season.
The second-place spot on the grid now empty, the race got off to a dramatic start. Norris had a fantastic launch, getting past Alonso almost immediately. Verstappen shot off into the lead, but the McLaren was not far behind him. However, further back on the grid, Alex Albon and Kevin Magnussen sandwiched Nico Hulkenberg between their cars. After making contact with Hulkenberg’s car, Albon was knocked into the path of Magnussen and they crashed, sending both cars spinning off the track. Oscar Piastri got a knock on the wear ring as Magnussen’s Haas went off, and Magnussen’s tyre also flew into the air, landing on Daniel Ricciardo’s rear wing, resulting in great damage for the cars of both Australian drivers.
The red flag was waved, and Albon and Magnussen both retired. It looked as though Piastri and Ricciardo would also be forced to retire, but the engineers at McLaren and Alpha Tauri worked rapidly to repair both cars so they could restart the race – albeit from the pit lane. At the restart, Norris was now starting in second and got away well, keeping within a second of Verstappen. Hamilton was overtaken by Alonso, who got a better start than before.
When DRS was enabled, Norris was still within a second of Verstappen, and almost got past the Red Bull. However, Verstappen saw the move coming and managed to stay ahead, soon shooting off into the distance.
Here began a series of questionable tactical decisions from Mercedes – at the restart, George Russell came over the radio saying “let’s work together, I won’t attack in these early laps.” But soon after, Russell was within DRS range of Hamilton, and was asking to pass his teammate. He was losing speed to Pérez, and likely wanted to get ahead of Hamilton so that their position could be defended. However, Russell was instructed to stay behind. By lap 14, Pérez had passed Russell and was now gaining on Hamilton. By lap 18, he had overtaken both Mercedes cars.
Lance Stroll was elsewhere successfully keeping Carlos Sainz’ Ferrari at bay – the Spanish driver was chasing the Aston Martin for fourth, but was unable to get ahead. After a few pretty disastrous races for Stroll, this was certainly an impressive performance from him.
Zhou Guanyu unfortunately had to retire his Alfa Romeo on lap 23 due to technical issues. It was a disappointing weekend for the Switzerland-based team, as later on lap 40, Valtteri Bottas also had to end his race for the same reason.
Meanwhile, Piastri and Ricciardo were left to battle with each other at the back of the grid. Neither driver had a chance at scoring points, given that they were both a lap down on the rest of the field. However their teams kept them out for research purposes – Piastri was able to report back to his team on the conditions of different tyres to give his teammate Norris the best chance in the race. For example, on lap 26, Piastri reported that the medium compound was not great, and that a soft tyre was the way to go. The following lap, Norris pitted onto soft tyres accordingly. He exited still far ahead of those behind him, maintaining second position.
Pérez had meanwhile been catching up with Alonso, hot on his tail. However, the Aston Martin driver was keeping the Red Bull behind him, defending in classic Alonso style. Things were not going so well for the Mercedes drivers, Hamilton stating “I don’t know if it’s gusty, but the car is so bad in the air”. Indeed, by lap 58, conditions had worsened in Russell’s car, and he was forced to retire due to a dangerously high power unit oil temperature. It was clear that Mercedes were not having a fantastic weekend – they were struggling with a lack of straight-line speed, proven by the fact that almost all of the cars that overtook them did so on the main straight of the track, as well as with other issues that forced Russell’s retirement. However, their lack of performance during the race allowed for some impressive overtaking from other drivers, such as Alpine driver Pierre Gasly, who passed both Russell and Hamilton on laps 43 and 50 respectively.
Meanwhile, things were heating up near the front of the grid. Verstappen still maintained his lead against Norris, and Norris remained far ahead of Alonso behind him, however Pérez and Alonso were battling it out for the final spot on the podium – they were neck-and-neck.
Alonso kept Pérez at bay for many laps, however on the penultimate lap of the race, Pérez got past Alonso at turn one. Thus ensued some of the most exciting racing of the season so far. Alonso picked up the slipstream on Pérez, but was unable to get ahead of the Red Bull driver during the whole of lap 70. However, Alonso, famed for his competitive driving style, did not back down. On the final lap, Pérez went wide into turn one – Alonso failed to get past, but waited it out and lunged forward at turn four, getting past the Mexican driver. The battling continued until the very last moment of the race – it was a true photo-finish, only 0.053 seconds between the two drivers, but ultimately Alonso came out ahead, claiming his first podium since Zandvoort.
Verstappen delivered yet another victory for Red Bull and Norris claimed his sixth second place of the season. Alonso came in third with Pérez in fourth, and his Aston Martin teammate Stroll in fifth. Sainz, Gasly, Hamilton, Tsunoda and Ocon claimed the final points places.
With a disaster for Leclerc, a weekend to forget for Mercedes, and a much-welcomed return to the podium for Fernando Alonso, the São Paolo Grand Prix was a fantastic race to watch. It kept viewers on the edge of their seats until the very last moment, and maintained the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace or Interlagos circuit’s status (by popular – and my – opinion) as one of the best tracks on the Formula 1 calendar.