NASCAR & Auto Racing

Hamilton needs strong finish in Brazil to capture F1 title, but may face penalty

SAO PAULO, Brazil – Lewis Hamilton, fastest in Friday’s practice ahead of the decisive Brazilian Grand Prix, was in danger of being penalized for illegally using a set of tires.

The McLaren driver, who is trying to become the first rookie to win the title and the youngest F1 champion, was among three drivers facing penalties for using two sets of wet tires during the first practice session in Interlagos.

Hamilton was fifth in the morning session, which was conducted under light rain and slippery conditions.

FIA officials were meeting to decide whether the drivers would be penalized, but the governing body did not immediately say what kind of penalties they were facing, if any. Among possible penalties in such cases was the loss of 10 starting positions.

In the tightest race for the title in 21 years, Hamilton leads teammate Fernando Alonso by four points and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen by seven.

McLaren team chief Ron Dennis admitted it was a “mistake and clearly a breach” of regulations, but said the team did not gain any advantage from it.

“Today has not been perfect for us as we made a mistake in this morning’s session and used one set of tires too many on Lewis’ car,” Dennis said. “This was unfortunate and clearly did not provide any advantage.”

Hamilton clocked 1 minute, 12.767 seconds in the afternoon session at the 2.6-mile counterclock-wise track, .122 faster than second-place Alonso and .345 faster than fourth-place Raikkonen. Felipe Massa, last year’s Brazilian GP winner with Ferrari, was third.

Alonso said he wasn’t too familiar with the regulation.

“I don’t think we were totally aware of this rule,” Alonso said. “I probably would have done the same thing.”

The 22-year-old Hamilton impressed the racing world with a record-breaking streak of nine consecutive podiums to start his season. But the British driver has finished in the top two only three times in his last nine races.

Raikkonen was fastest in the morning, clocking 1:19.580. Raikkonen was 0.482 faster than second-place Felipe Massa, his teammate and last year’s winner in Brazil.

Hamilton, who has never raced at Interlagos, made it to the track with less than 20 minutes left in the practice and has a time of 1:21.121 after 10 laps.

With his point advantage, Hamilton can still win the title without finishing among the leaders on Sunday. A sixth-place finish will be enough, for example, if Alonso is third or worse and Raikkonen doesn’t win the race.

Hamilton has four victories this season, and finished in the top-two position in six of the first seven races.

He picked up his first DNF of the season by running off the track into a gravel trap at the Chinese GP two weeks ago – a mistake that cost him a chance to clinch the title in advance.

“All the pressure was building up and everything was going on,” Hamilton said. “It wasn’t a great weekend.”

The rookie said he is much calmer entering the Brazilian GP. A title would make Hamilton the first British F1 champion since Damon Hill in 1996.

“I feel a bit more relaxed this weekend, quite a bit more relaxed than I did at the last race,” he said. “I feel it’s going to be a good weekend, and I’m very, very confident.”

Despite his success, it was a rocky season for Hamilton.

His McLaren team was fined a record $100 million by the World Motor Sport Council on Sept. 13 after the F1 governing body FIA found the team guilty of using leaked data from Ferrari. The British team was kicked out of the manufacturers’ championship by FIA, but Hamilton and Alonso were not docked points.

Hamilton also had a difficult relationship with Alonso after the Spaniard complained McLaren was not giving him enough respect.

Hamilton downplayed the rift, however, saying their relationship was “as good as ever.”