Lewis Hamilton said his phenomenal comeback drive was inspired by a need for redemption after he delivered a world champion’s performance to fight back to fourth in Brazil.
Hamilton started last after his first competitive lap since winning the title ended in the tyre barrier when he stunningly crashed out of qualifying here on Saturday.
But while Sebastian Vettel sealed his first victory since July – after he edged past pole-sitter Valtteri Bottas with a gutsy move at the first corner – it was Hamilton who stole the show following his breathtaking canter through the field.
The 32-year-old Englishman, who even led the race at half distance due to a different strategy, had third-placed Kimi Raikkonen in his sights during the closing stages.
But Hamilton’s fine charge ran out of steam and he fell just short – less than one second in fact – of capping a remarkable drive by passing the Ferrari man for the final spot on the podium.
“I messed up in qualifying and put myself in the worst possible position,” Hamilton said.
“I was quick enough to win the race from pole to flag.
“I didn’t do that, so I made my job a lot harder.
“Waking up (yesterday morning) my goal was just to redeem myself after the mistake, do the team proud, and try and get the points back.
“I tried for third, but I just ran out of tyres in the end.
“I have to be grateful to get back to fourth.
“I enjoyed the race, and I enjoyed the battle. It continues to show to me, and also to everyone else, that I still have a lot of fire in my heart, and I am still young at heart.
“There are still many more races to go in my career.”
Hamilton vowed to see out his championship-winning season in style, but his crash left him with it all to do. Mercedes took advantage of Hamilton’s pit-lane start to strap on a new engine, and Hamilton took advantage of a chaotic first lap to progress six places.
Daniel Ricciardo, Stoffel Vandoorne and Kevin Magnussen were involved in the first collision. Moments later Romain Grosjean and Esteban Ocon crashed at turn six and the safety car was deployed.
In it came on lap five and all eyes turned to Hamilton as he picked off his opponents one by one.
After just nine laps he was in the points. By the start of lap 22, he was fifth.
The front-runners all pitted for fresh rubber, which promoted Hamilton into the lead, and after he stopped 12 laps later, the message was clear.
“We are chasing a podium,” Hamilton’s race engineer Pete Bonnington said.
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 into fourth.
Remarkably, he was now just five seconds behind Raikkonen but despite reducing the gap, there was nothing he could do about the veteran Finn.
Vettel’s victory – his first since the summer break – all but ends the race for second place as he moved 22 points clear of Bottas with just the season finale in Abu Dhabi to come.
“I had a chance to squeeze down the inside of Valtteri at the start and I think I surprised him,” said Vettel, whose title bid imploded during the second half of the campaign.
“It has been a tough couple of weeks, but it is nice to have both cars up here on the podium.”