RENCKEN: Last chance for F1 seconds
LAST CHANCE: McLaren's Jenson Button, who is expected to take the runner-up title at Sao Paolo this weekend, and Red Bull's Mark Webber in action at the recently Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. All images: AFP
Author: DIETER RENCKEN
The curtain will fall on the 19-leg 2011 Formula 1 World championship after Sunday’s Brazilian GP, the 39th to be hosted by the South American country and the 29th at Interlagos.
The country has a proud F1 history. Scores of Brazilians have left their mark on the sport since Emerson Fittipaldi blazed the country’s trail in the 1970’s by winning two championships. Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna added to their homeland’s title tally with three each. In fact, until Sebastian Vettel’s latest crown elevated Germany to nine titles, Brazil was second only to Britain – but arguably well ahead of all F1 host countries in the passion stakes.
F1 simply loves visiting Sao Paulo (pop. 11-million) and its historic 4.309km Jose Carlos Pace Circuit, named after the city’s 1970’s hero who won here for Bernie Ecclestone during the F1 tsar’s Brabham days.
Despite Sao Paulo’s shocking poverty and the race’s crazy ticket prices, tens of thousands of colourful locals fill the place to capacity. Imagine Rio Festival meets F1 meets caipirinha, and you’re halfway there.
The autodromo in the city’s Interlagos (‘between the lakes’) suburb, is the shortest permanent circuit on the trail - only Monaco is shorter - and has the shortest lap time (1min12.5) due to the relatively high average speeds (220km/h) facilitated by the long, arcing start/finish section taken as a continuous foot-flat left-hander lasting almost a kilometre.
As this sector, which runs from the final corner to the downhill, off-camber Turn1/2, traditionally delivers overtakes galore, the FIA has instead designated a single DRS zone on the back straight.
During qualifying, when use of the device is free, DRS will be deployed for around 60% of each lap - about the same as at Monza and Spa-Francorchamps - which provides an idea of the circuit’s characteristics.
WARMING UP: Team McLaren's Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton's tyres are prepared in the Sao Paolo pits.
The layout has 15 turns (10L/5R) of which two each are taken at more than 250km/h and less than 100km/h respectively, while full throttle is used for 75% of each lap – one of the highest such values.
Pace cars have been deployed here in seven of the last 10 races on a total of 11 occasions, so statistically Sunday’s race should feature at least one such interruption which will in turn affect tyre strategies which, for this race, focus on Pirelli’s soft and medium compounds.
Although regularly resurfaced, the ultra-narrow track is extremely bumpy. These two factors, combined with its anti-clockwise direction (one of five such 2011 circuits), undulating topography, the highest altitude of current grands prix (800m), capricious weather which switches from torrid heat to monsoon and back in an instant, plus a race length of 71 laps makes this GP one of toughest.
A fitting finale, then, for the longest season in history…
Since 2008 - when Paulista Felipe Massa (Ferrari) lost the title in the last corner of the last lap of the last GP of the season to McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton despite winning at home for the second time - a local has not featured amongst the favourites and that is unlikely to change this time around. Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel are in dominant form.
The reigning double champion (and 2010 winner) will, of course, go all out to add to his 11 victories this season, particularly as he blew out, literally, on the opening lap of the Abu Dhabi GP after a tyre instantaneously deflated. The record-setting German has his eyes set on shattering yet another record - 14 poles in a season currently shared with 1992 champion Nigel Mansell. And Vettel knows all too well that it is easier to win from the front.
HARD AT WORK: Red Bull mechanics prepare 2011 champion Sebastian Vettel's car ahead of Sunday's Brazilian GP.
However, his team mate (and 2009 Brazil winner) Mark Webber cannot be discounted. This race will be his last chance in 2011 to win with the same kit as Vettel. A win by the Australian would aid him immeasurably in his quest to be runner-up in the championship, giving Red Bull a full-house of 1-2 in the Drivers’ and the Constructors’ titles.
That said, the gritty Webber, on 233 points, is considered an outsider, for McLaren’s Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso are better placed, with the former having 255 points to the Ferrari driver’s 245. Jens has a silky-smooth style which could prove decisive should the heavens open, while Fernando is at his most relentless when chasing. So, the battle between the three is likely to prove the highlight of the race even if Vettel does disappear into the distance.
Abu Dhabi winner Lewis Hamilton, who seems to have conquered the demons that blighted other recent races, is another who could take top honours. Back-to-back wins would quell any lingering doubts he, his McLaren team and the paddock have about his form after his run of crashes which began in Spa in August and culminated in more stewards’ interviews than the season has had races.
Neither he nor team mate Button have won here so the team has every incentive to go for it, particularly as a win by either Briton would, crucially, lift the one’s win score to four this year versus the other’s three. By contrast, an Alonso win would put the Spaniard on two for the season.
Mercedes drivers Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher have also pledged to make a fight of it, particularly as Rosberg has yet to win a GP despite six years in the formula. Schumacher is facing the end of a winless two-year spell since un-retiring. While the German cars are clearly lacking performance, this GP is one of F1’s most unpredictable, so taking home the bacon just could happen.
After Sunday’s race F1 will go into hibernation until March, 2012 except for three test sessions in February, so don’t miss it, particularly as tropical showers are predicted on all three days.
Both qualifying on Saturday and the race on Sunday will start at 6pm South African time. Stay with Wheels24 for the F1 weekend.