Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas won the sprint race to take pole position for the Brazilian Grand Prix as a dramatic day at Interlagos accelerated championship leader Max Verstappen's quest for his first Formula One title.
Verstappen finished the sprint race in second position and added two points in the standings. The Red Bull driver also saw his rival, seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton, hit by another punishment and set to start from 10th on Sunday despite an impressive run from last to fifth.
“Starting Sunday’s race from front row gives us all to play for,” Verstappen said. “Let’s try again tomorrow.”
Earlier, Hamilton was forced to start the sprint race from last after being disqualified from Friday's qualifying session — where he was fastest — due to a technical infringement by Mercedes.
Despite Hamilton's fifth-place finish in the sprint race, a separate five-place penalty means the defending champion will start 10th after Mercedes decided to change his car’s engine in Sao Paulo.
It wasn't all good news for Verstappen. The Dutch driver was fined after being seen touching the rear wing of the Mercedes car. He leads Hamilton by 21 points in the standings, including the two from the sprint race, with four races left this season.
Hamilton beat the Dutchman by more than 0.4 seconds Friday in qualifying for the sprint race, but organisers said that his Mercedes was under investigation for DRS exceeding the maximum distance when opened. The technical infringement typically leads to exclusion from a session. The decision was only announced after Saturday's practice session, and before the sprint race.
“It was clear to the stewards that the additional deflection was due to additional play either in the DRS actuator or the pivots at the end, or some combination or other fault with the mechanism, or incorrect assembly of the parts,” the decision said. “There is therefore no question in the minds of the stewards that the test failure indicates any intent to exceed the maximum dimension either by action or design.”
"Discovering that we've marginally failed the test, we are speaking 0.2 of a millimetre, to not allowing this to be fixed like the normal protocol would be... there the bullet was out of the gun," said the Austrian.
"The wing was damaged. One side was OK, the middle was OK, the right side was not OK, and that means we actually had a performance disadvantage.
"We thought that, in consideration of all these aspects, the FIA would say there was a damage and therefore we weren't in breach of the regulations."
Hamilton's disqualification put Verstappen in pole for the 24-lap sprint race, which offers three points to the winner. Bottas overtook Verstappen in the first turn at Interlagos and never lost the position again.
Starting from the back, Hamilton overtook rivals in every turn of the Sao Paulo track.
“I quickly reset, got my mind focused on doing what I could do," Hamilton said. "I have just given it my everything.”
Bottas said he “gambled a little bit” with soft tires for the start.
"And then it was all about trying to survive until the end. It was quite tricky. But Max still struggled to follow in some of the corners, so I’m glad it worked out perfectly,” Bottas said.
Verstappen was fined $57,200 by stewards after analysis of video taken from the grandstands at Interlagos.
The video recorded by a spectator shows Verstappen apparently inspecting the rear wing on the Mercedes in the Parc Ferme — a secure area for cars at the track.