Lewis Hamilton delivered a world champion’s fightback from last to fourth in Sunday’s Brazilian Grand Prix.
Sebastian Vettel won for the first time since the summer break after he edged past pole-sitter Valtteri Bottas with a gutsy move at the opening corner.
But it was Hamilton’s sensational canter through the field which stole the show at the penultimate round of his title-winning year.
The Briton, who even led the race at one stage, took the chequered flag just 0.8 seconds adrift of third-placed Kimi Raikkonen.
The 32-year-old Englishman started from the pit lane after his first competitive return to action since winning the championship in Mexico two weeks ago lasted less than two minutes when he crashed out of qualifying on Saturday.
Hamilton’s Mercedes team took advantage of his pit-lane start to strap on a new engine, and Hamilton took advantage of a chaotic first lap to progress six places in the opening exchanges.
Daniel Ricciardo, Stoffel Vandoorne and Kevin Magnussen were involved in a three-way tangle at the second corner with the latter at fault for barging into Vandoorne, who in turn thudded into the side of Ricciardo’s Red Bull. Moments later Romain Grosjean and Esteban Ocon collided at turn six and the safety car was deployed.
Vandoorne, Magnussen and Ocon were all unable to continue, marking the first time in Ocon’s 27-race career that he had failed to reach the end of a grand prix.
The safety car pitted on lap five with Vettel leading from Bottas, Raikkonen and Max Verstappen. All eyes turned to Hamilton as he began to pick off his opponents one-by-one. His overtaking spot of choice was the left-handed first corner and after only nine laps he was up to 10th and in the points. The Briton was ninth by lap 10, which soon became eighth.
Force India’s Sergio Perez provided Hamilton’s first real test, but as the Mexican swooped to protect the inside line at the so-called ‘Senna S’ – named after Hamilton’s boyhood hero Ayrton Senna – the Brit swept round the outside in a perfectly executed move. Next up was Fernando Alonso, who Hamilton dispatched on lap 20 following a late lunge at the first turn. Home favourite Felipe Massa became his next victim just three corners later.
Vettel, Bottas, Raikkonen and Verstappen all stopped for fresh rubber, promoting Hamilton to the lead of the race on lap 31. The Englishman eventually made his one-and-only stop 12 laps later, and left the pits in fifth place. “We are chasing a podium,” was the message to the newly-crowned four-time world champion.
Hamilton began to light up the time sheets, posting fastest lap after fastest lap, and with 14 remaining he had caught the back of Verstappen’s Red Bull. Hamilton, on the speedier supersoft tyre, sailed past the Dutchman at turn four, for fourth.
Remarkably, he was now less than 10 seconds behind leader Vettel, with Raikkonen five seconds up the road in the battle for third. Hamilton had the Finn in his sights, but his charge ran out of steam and he fell just short of capping a remarkable drive by passing the Ferrari driver for the final spot on the podium.
Vettel’s victory – his first since July’s Hungarian Grand Prix – all but ends the race for second place in the championship as he moved 22 points clear of Bottas with just the season finale in Abu Dhabi to come later this month.
Meanwhile, Ricciardo fought back to finish sixth ahead of an emotional Massa, in his final home race, with Alonso eighth for McLaren.