By MAURICIO SAVARESE
AP Sports Writer
SAO PAULO (AP) — Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas won the sprint race Saturday 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.
Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz finished third, with Red Bull’s Sergio Perez in fourth. McLaren’s Lando Norris will inherit Hamilton’s fifth position on the grid. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc starts from sixth place.
“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. Mercedes did not appeal the decision.
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 organizers 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.”
The decision also says Mercedes argued that the rear wing design had passed FIA’s tests several times during the season and had always been approved. Mercedes denied having any intent to breach 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 50,000 euros ($57,200) by stewards after analysis of video taken from the grandstands at Interlagos. He can appeal the decision given by the stewards, who said he did not harm his competitor’s car with the touch.
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.
“Considering the fact that no direct harm was caused in this case, in the opinion of the stewards, and that no earlier precedent of penalties for this exists – on the one hand; but that it is a breach of the regulation and has potential for serious consequences on the other, the stewards determine to take action in this case and order a fine of 50,000 euros,” the stewards said.
Article 2.5.1 of the FIA sporting code says that “inside the Parc Ferme, only the officials assigned may enter. No operation, checking, tuning or repair is allowed unless authorized by the same officials or by the applicable regulations.”
Stewards said the footage showed Verstappen’s touch is clear.
“(He takes) his gloves off and puts his right hand at the slot-gap of the rear wing of his car. He then moves to (Hamilton’s) car 44 and repeats the exercise, touching the rear wing in two places, once on either side of the DRS actuation device, but on the bottom rear side of the wing, in the area of the slot gap and never near the actuator or the end fixation points,” the stewards added.
“There is absolutely no movement of any of the wing elements on car 44 when Verstappen touches the back of the wing and the stewards are satisfied, from watching all the videos, his body position and the video of the wing, that there was insignificant force when Verstappen touched the wing.”
Saturday’s free practice session, which was not very competitive, ended with Alpine driver Fernando Alonso clocking the fastest lap, more than 0.8 ahead of second-placed Verstappen.
The Brazilian GP is the third event of the season with a qualifying sprint race. The two previous sprint races were held at Silverstone and Monza.
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