In an incident-packed Brazilian Grand Prix, Valtteri Bottas finished a close second to Sebastian Vettel, with Lewis Hamilton turning in a stunning recovery drive to fourth position, just 5.4s behind the winner at the flag after starting the 71-lap race from the pit lane.
After crashing at the fast Turn 6 right-hander in Q1 on Saturday, damaging his W08 extensively, Lewis was sentenced to a back-of-the-grid start, which became a pit lane start when the team opted to make some changes to the car, including the fitment of a fresh Power Unit.
"I was taken a bit by surprise," Lewis admitted. "The car bottomed out through the corner and that often happens when the car and tyres are cold. The tyre pressures were on the lower side but the grip felt good and I hadn't gone in there any quicker than before. But it's my fault, I take full responsibility. It's been a long time since I put a car in the wall, but I'm human still!"
Valtteri responded to the challenge of upholding the team's honour in style, with a spectacular final Q3 run which was good enough to beat Vettel to pole position by just 0.04s.
"I'm happy that I could deliver," Valtteri smiled, after claiming his third pole of 2017. "The laps were getting better and better and it was all so close."
Lewis took time out to go and offer his personal congratulations. "I was really happy for Valtteri. He's worked so hard all year and his performance throughout practice meant that we were going to have a battle today if I hadn't gone off. He pulled out a great lap."
With a single-stop race - utilising the SuperSoft Pirelli tyre on which the top 10 qualified before a switch on to the Soft compound - expected to be the universal approach among the front-runners, the opportunity for strategic variation looked remote and so the start took on additional significance between the closely-matched cars. Lewis, however, from his pit lane start, would run a transposed strategy, starting on the yellow-walled Pirelli and going onto the SuperSofts for the second stint.
Unfortunately for Valtteri, the start was not one of his best: "We lost the race at the start due to initial wheelspin. As soon as I started to release the clutch, we just broke traction. I was trying to cover the inside but, honestly, looking in the mirror I could only see Kimi behind. I didn't see Sebastian anywhere. I was kind of guessing that he'd be shooting for the inside and so he did. After that, pace-wise it was very, very close."
Lewis caught a little bit of a break with a lot of opening lap action that prompted a Safety Car intervention. Kevin Magnussen, Stoffel Vandoorne and Esteban Ocon were all eliminated, with Romain Grosjean delayed and subsequently penalised after contact with Ocon. Pascal Wehrlein also needed a pit visit and Daniel Ricciardo (who, like Lewis, started on the Soft tyre) lost time when his Red Bull was clipped in the Senna Esses.
The field was led through the pits for three laps while on-track debris in the opening sector was cleared, and was not back up to full racing speed until lap 6. In fact, the delay had an almost neutral effect on Lewis' race overall. On the plus side, those on the initially quicker SuperSoft were unable to utilise them behind the Safety Car but, on the other hand, Lewis would have been on the back of the pack at the end of the opening lap anyway and now had fewer laps to utilise his pace advantage. Any small net gain was down to having four fewer cars to get through.
Once the field was released, Lewis wasted no time. He dispensed with Brendon Hartley on lap 6, Lance Stroll and Marcus Ericsson on lap 7, Pierre Gasly on lap 8, Carlos Sainz on lap 9, Nico Hülkenberg on lap 11, Sergio Pérez on lap 14, Fernando Alonso on lap 20 and Felipe Massa on lap 21. That put him into the top five, just 10s behind Max Verstappen's fourth-placed Red Bull and only 17s behind Vettel's race-leading Ferrari.
Over the next six laps, Lewis was actually able to marginally reduce the gap to Vettel, which was surprising given that his transposed strategy meant that he was on the supposedly slower Soft compound Pirelli at the time. Although team strategists would probably have said pre-race that there was zero difference in terms of total race time in the order teams ran the two different compounds, the reason that the transposed strategy panned out to be faster at Interlagos was that the track temperature was so hot - around 55 degrees - meaning drivers were struggling with blistering on the rear tyres. The Soft tyre provided just that little more resilience with the heavy fuel load at the start of the race.
No-one, however, should underestimate Lewis' contribution. Although the transposed strategy may have been better overall, we're not talking life-changing amounts - perhaps 3-4s over the entire 71-lap race distance. What impressed the Mercedes team so much was the fact that, Räikkönen apart in the final stages, Lewis was never behind any other car for more than two laps - a measure of his performance.
For the moment, though, attention turned to Valtteri and his chance of undercutting the leading Ferrari in the pit stops which, realistically, was the only way he was going to win the race. The team was comfortable that the Soft tyre had the range to get to the end at any point from lap 20 onwards. But, at that point, Valtteri did not have a pit window to Massa, Alonso and Pérez, who were running sixth, seventh and eighth. With around 22s lost in the pits, Massa & Co were still within 16s.
Ferrari might have been expected to pull the trigger and pit first - but complicating the picture for them was that Lewis' pace was such that he was still well inside Vettel's pit window and could, potentially, have slowed the lead Ferrari down, to Valtteri's advantage.
On lap 25 Valtteri was instructed to give it everything, signalling that his stop was imminent. Because tyre degradation was being well managed by every driver, team strategists were not exactly sure of the undercut strength but estimated that it would be in the order of 1.4s. Across the line on the lap before Valtteri's lap 27 stop, the gap to Vettel had been 1.6s. This was going to be close!
Vettel responded on the next lap and pitted out still in front - just. There was about a tenth of a second in it and Valtteri's data shows a slight anomaly coming up the hill out of the important final corner, Junção, which cost him around that, so it could have been closer still.
With Verstappen also pitting, Lewis led the race on lap 30, 4s ahead of Vettel and Valtteri, with Räikkönen 6.5s further back in the second Ferrari. At this point, the team could potentially have slowed Lewis down and attempted to back Vettel into Valtteri, but didn't give it serious thought. The team genuinely thought that Lewis had a shot at being on the podium and didn't want to compromise that.
The next element to get right was the timing of Lewis' pit stop. The original plan was to pit him on lap 37, leaving a 34-lap stint on the SuperSoft Pirelli to the end. But, with track temperature still very high and plenty of evidence of blistering from those who had run the SuperSoft first, Lewis was instructed "Target, plus seven."
"When I heard that around lap 30, I though 'shoot, I don't know if I'm going to get another 13-14 laps out of these tyres. But I think I managed the tyres really well," Lewis said. "Maybe we could have stopped a lap or so earlier before I hit traffic but I really don't think it would have made any real difference."
Lance Stroll proved a little unco-operative in being lapped and cost Lewis around a second on lap 41, so that when he pitted for his SuperSofts, his lead over Vettel was down to 2.7s. "I knew I had almost a whole pit stop to try and make up, but I was game for giving it a go!" he smiled.
With 25 laps to go, Vettel led Valtteri by 2,5s with Räikkönen, going better on the Softs, a similar distance behind. Verstappen was another 4s behind, with Lewis 16s behind the lead Ferrari and lapping much quicker.
Over the next 20 laps Lewis attacked hard, passing Verstappen on lap 59. With five laps to go, just 4.7s covered the first four cars and Lewis was within DRS range of Räikkönen. By then, though, he had taken the edge off his SuperSofts and Ferrari had turned the engine up a little. It was stalemate. A superb drive was ultimately not quite going to yield that podium but the new four-time Champion had again been the star of the show.
"For me, it was the best fourth place I've ever seen," Toto Wolff enthused. "If you consider starting from the pit lane and ending up 5.4s behind the leader, it was quite an astonishing drive."
Valtteri, after his pole position, was unhappy, especially given his goal of overtaking Vettel for second place in the Championship by the season finale at Abu Dhabi in a fortnight's time.
"I'm definitely disappointed after qualifying and obviously it's not so good for me in the battle we have for second place in the Championship. Sebastian has got quite a good lead now, so we need some miracles in Abu Dhabi." In essence, Valtteri needs to win at Yas Marina with Vettel lower than eighth.
Lewis, meanwhile, reflected on another fine drive: "At one point I could see Sebastian just up the road and I was beginning to think... but, actually, by the time I was on the back of Kimi, the tyres had practically gone and I could never quite get close enough. At the start of the race I was thinking maybe fifth, so I went one better!"