SAO PAULO (AP) — Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton ended “the hardest weekend I’ve had” with a stunning victory at the Brazilian Grand Prix on Sunday, and gained momentum in his Formula One title fight with Red Bull driver Max Verstappen.
Hamilton, a seven-time world champion, beat Verstappen despite starting from 10th position on the grid due to a penalty — the second Hamilton faced this weekend in Sao Paulo.
Verstappen, the winner of the race’s previous edition in 2019, finished second and saw his lead in the driver’s championship shrink to 14 points, with three races left. The winner of a race gets 25 points.
“Let’s keep pushing,” Hamilton said on team radio after his sixth victory of the season. He took a Brazil flag to celebrate his win in the car and on the podium, just as his idol Ayrton Senna did.
Hamilton’s teammate, Valtteri Bottas, finished third and Red Bull’s Sergio Perez was fourth with the Mexican clocking the fastest lap of the race. The Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz were fifth and sixth, respectively.
Verstappen led most of the race after the first turn, when he overtook polesitter Bottas. But Hamilton, who rose from 10th to third position in just six laps, went ahead of Verstappen on lap 59, putting a raucous crowd on their feet at Interlagos.
Hamilton finished the race with a 10-second advantage over Verstappen and said he felt like he had won his first race before a joyous crowd at Interlagos.
“I was pushing as hard as I could,” an emotional Hamilton said after his 101st victory. “From last on the grid (for Saturday’s sprint race), and then another five-place penalty — I think that’s the hardest weekend I’ve had. Things kept going against us, but it just shows, never give up, keep fighting. Never, ever stop fighting.”
Mercedes is now 11 points ahead of Red Bull in the constructor standings.
Verstappen will leave Brazil 50,000 euros ($57,200) poorer. He was fined after being seen touching the rear wing of Hamilton’s Mercedes on Friday.
“We were just missing a bit of pace, but we gave it our all and had fun,” the Dutchman said. “We still have a good points lead, today was a bit of damage limitation. The coming races we will bounce back.”
Red Bull head Christian Horner said Mercedes’ pace “was just unstoppable.”
It’s definitely been a weekend to remember for Hamilton, who was forced to start Saturday’s sprint race from last place 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 meant the defending champion started Sunday in 10th after Mercedes decided to change his car’s engine in Sao Paulo.
Hamilton received a further penalty from stewards after the race ended — a 5,000 euro ($5,700) fine with an additional 20,000 euros ($23,000), which is suspended through the end of 2022, for undoing his seat belts on the in-lap at the end.
Organizers at Interlagos celebrated the return of the series to the traditional track, which will host the race for nine more years. More than 181,000 tickets were sold for the three days of action, with thousands of fans gathering in front of the podium — many of them unmasked despite health protocols.
Brazil was cut from the 2020 calendar because of restrictions in place for the COVID-19 pandemic. The Sao Paulo Grand Prix, renamed for this year, was allowed to open for full capacity only weeks ago when the state government eased restrictions for November.
Many fans saw the race as a return to a more normal life, and they liked the eventual winner. Antonio Siqueira, 45, had tears in his eyes when Hamilton drove by Interlagos’ straight with the Brazilian flag.
“Ayrton’s last title was 30 years ago, and to see the greatest driver ever have this performance here and still revere our hero was very emotional,” Siqueira said. “Today makes it official; there is a Brazilian driver on the grid, and his name is Lewis.”
Hamilton famously won his first F1 title at Interlagos in 2008 with a fifth-place finish that put him one point ahead of Brazil’s Felipe Massa.
Qatar hosts the next race on Nov. 21, followed by Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.