Tales from the Tarmac: The Battle for Survival at the 2016 Brazilian Grand Prix

How one rainy day in Brazil saved one of Formula One's most prestigious teams, yet doomed another.

Tales from the Tarmac: The Battle for Survival at the 2016 Brazilian Grand Prix
Pascal Wherein defending from Felipe Nasr in the 2016 Brazilian Grand Prix

What if I were to tell you that one of Formula One's most prestigious and pensioned teams was on the brink of ruin and only two weeks away from potentially being forced to fold entirely?

The Risks and Rewards

At the back of the grid, Sauber spent most of its weekends running near the bottom of the order alongside rival team Manor Marussia. Going into 2016, FOM and the FIA wanted to ensure that there were more than 20 cars on the grid for the season, so they rushed in a very young team in Haas, which had only a year and a half of preparation before making the jump into the top flight of Motorsport. However, due to the team being rushed into the sport, the Concorde Agreement that the teams signed in 2015 was used, which meant that only the top 10 teams would receive any prize money at all. If you were to finish in 11th, or last, then you would receive nothing. This was detrimental to teams like Sauber, Manor/Marussia, and Force India who had minimal funding in the sport and their entire future depended on receiving the prize money. This meant that going into the season, there was massive pressure on these teams to ensure they didn't finish last.

The Contenders


Manor was a team that had been having a hard time qualifying for races within the 107% rule for years. However, things started to look up for them when they partnered with Mercedes, who provided them with powerful engines from 2014-2018. These engines were more potent than any other engines on the grid, which helped Manor improve their position on the field, even though they were still at the back of it.

In order to seal the deal, Mercedes also put their young development driver, Pascal Wherlein, in the car. This decision made sense because Pascal was already known as an emerging superstar in the Junior Formula, and he was also being paid to drive for the team. Manor had always struggled with funding, so bringing in a driver who was both talented and being paid to drive seemed like a smart move. Alongside Pascal, Ryo Haryanto, a pay driver, was also part of the team. However, his main contribution was providing money to a team that was already struggling financially.


Sauber entered the 2015 season with three drivers on their roster: Giedo van der Garde, who had performed well for them in 2014 and had also shown his skills in previous seasons with Caterham; Marcus Ericsson, who had driven for Sauber in both 2014 and 2015; and Felipe Nasr, a Brazilian driver who was announced as the team's newest addition just a month before the Australian Grand Prix. In that race, Nasr impressed by finishing in fifth place, which remains the highest debut finish for a Brazilian driver in Formula One history. His performance earned him a spot on the team for the following year.

Despite the promising start, Sauber encountered a setback when van der Garde, who had a contract with the team for the 2015 season, took legal action against them. The dispute resulted in the team having to pay out van der Garde's contract and additional damages, which significantly impacted their funding for the 2016 season. As a result, their car was slow and uncompetitive, and it was widely regarded as one of the weakest on the grid.

The Skirmishes

To start the year, neither Sauber nor Manor were anywhere close to finishing in the points (despite Wehrlein running in P2 after a hectic qualifying in China put him inside the top 12, the only time Manor ever accomplished this, and a chaotic start which led to both Ferrari's and Kvyat being involved in an incident). However, one weekend in Austria would change that. Going into the weekend, the Red Bull Ring had changed massively to suit the new series racing at the MotoGP track. This led to much more runoff, massively altered curbs, and the track completely resurfaced. In Austria Qualifying, Pascal Wehrlein put his Manor Marussia into a spot that had only been once before: P10.

In its entire history that goes back to the Virgin Racing era, Manor Marussia had never achieved a top 10 qualifying result, except with Pascal. However, Wehrlein was determined to change that by driving his Manor into 10th place on the grid for the Sunday race in a wet qualifying. Nevertheless, things got complicated when Pascal came to a halt in the wrong grid slot after the formation lap. Pascal mistakenly took Massa's vacant spot, while Massa was starting from the pitlane. Just half a second before the start light procedure began, Wehrlein was able to reverse into his correct slot one row behind. This quick-thinking move by Pascal saved him from incurring a penalty. In the end, retirements from Vettel, Kvyat, and Perez, along with Hamilton's failure to score due to a late incident with his title rival Nico Rosberg, put a battle for the 10th position on the table.

Nasr in the Sauber had benefited from a late Safety Car, which put him ahead of Pascal. Due to Perez' late retirement and the incident between Rosberg and Hamilton, their fight was for an all-important point—a point that could play a significant part in who finished ahead, cost millions in prize money, and even mean the entire team would survive.

On lap 62, Pascal attempted an overtake on Nasr by moving to the inside. Nasr tried to make a switchback on the exit of Turn 3. As they approached Turns 4 and 5, Pascal had the advantage, but Nasr had the inside line, causing Pascal to be pushed into the dirt. Pascal had to back off and the overtake failed.

However, on lap 65, Wehrlein had another opportunity to overtake Nasr. This time, Wehrlein was successful and managed to overtake Nasr into T5. With this, he secured a single point for his team, Manor. This point is significant for Manor's survival in the competition.

A Contentious Drivers' Market

During the summer break, Manor and Mercedes made a deal to replace Pascal Wehrlein with fellow Mercedes development driver Esteban Ocon in the middle of the season, after Ocon showed great promise in GP2. Ocon performed well enough compared to Wehrlein, and Mercedes wanted to give him a chance in a more competitive team. So, in 2017, they moved Ocon to Force India, where he was paired with Sergio Perez. Meanwhile, Wehrlein remained with Manor to continue his development.

This left a vacant seat at Manor, which was filled by Felipe Nasr, a driver from one of Manor's rivals. Nasr had shown solid promise compared to his teammate in 2016, and he demonstrated his potential in 2015 when he beat Ericsson easily. However, Nasr and Ericsson had a few collisions, on and off the track.

Felipe Nasr signed his new contract with Manor ahead of the Brazilian Grand Prix, his home race. At that time, Sauber was in a precarious position as they weren't even sure if they could compete in 2017. Finishing 10th would provide them with the prize money they needed to make ends meet, however with two rounds to go, they sat precariously in P11 with no points on the season.

The Battle of Interlagos

Going into the Brazilian Grand Prix, the Manor pair of Wehrlein and Ocon qualified in P19 and P20, ahead of the two Saubers in P21 and P22. However, something seemed different today. The weather in Sao Paulo was unpredictable as always, and spit out a massive storm that meant the race was forced to start under a Safety Car until the start of Lap 8. Due to many cars attempting to pit for Intermediate Tyres, both Manors and Saubers ran briefly inside the top 10. Marcus Ericsson, however, crashed on lap 13 on the pit straight bringing the safety car back out once again. This propelled Nasr into 6th, Ocon 8th, and Pascal 9th. After 6 laps of running under the safety car, we saw around 3 seconds of green flag running before Raikkonen had an incident almost identical to that of Ericsson, spinning across the track before hitting the wall. This meant that Nasr was in P7, Ocon in P9, and Wehrlein in P10.

The race was red-flagged, and there was a 35-minute delay before restarting again behind the safety car; however, seven laps later, it was again red-flagged as the conditions were deemed still too dangerous (see, it isn't just the new management.) This propelled Nasr into 6th, Ocon 8th, and Pascal 9th. After 10 laps of running, Pascal was struggling and dropped back into 14th, and Ocon was still running a brilliant 9th, meanwhile Nasr was holding steady in P6 in the Sauber, which this late in the race was probably starting to get a nosebleed. It was abundantly clear that this was going to be the race that decided the future of these two teams. On lap 49, Felipe was in the wall. Not our Felipe, it was Massa who was in what was supposed to be his last ever Brazilian Grand Prix.

The Manors were starting to fall back. Ocon was in 12th and Pascal was in 14th, but Nasr was holding strong in P7 as the Safety car was deployed. On lap 56, the race restarted, and Nasr was into P6 behind Vettel after Verstappen pit for Intermediates under the Safety car. There was no holding off Max, as he drove past Nasr quite easily. Hulkenburg and Ricciardo followed shortly thereafter, but Nasr was able to hold onto 9th. A P9 finish. After what was a long and grueling race, Nasr was able to hold onto P9 in his home race, scoring his and his team's first points of the season. This result was enough to put Sauber ahead of Manor in the standings, and a deficit eventually too much to surmise as Abu Dhabi had its typical boring race, and the Manor and Saubers had no chance at a good result.

Into the Sunset

At the season's end, it was announced that Manor was forced to close their doors due to finishing last and receiving no prize money for the season. In an ironic twist of fate, Manor was forced to close its doors due to the driver it had employed for 2017, Felipe Nasr, who also had his Formula One career end abruptly solely due to him having an incredible drive. Sauber, a team that has existed since 1993, fought for their life to remain in the sport, and due to the brilliance of Felipe Nasr, a driver whose career ended one race later, lived to see another day. If it wasn't for this, Manor likely would have replaced their spot and probably would be around even today.

These stories matter.

Most people may only focus on the teams and drivers at the front of the field, but in my opinion, some of the greatest racing moments and battles in history happen in the middle and bottom of the field, just below the public's view. This story shows and highlights that in a way that is unparalleled to most others that happen at the upper end of the grid.


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