Friday, 5 November 2010

Racing between the lakes - the Interlagos circuit

There are many reasons to dislike the Autódromo José Carlos Pace, or Interlagos as it's better known (literally meaning 'between the lakes'), where the Brazilian Grand Prix takes place this weekend. Its surrounding urban sprawl is claustrophobic and not 'in keeping' with the image that the F1 fraternity likes for itself. Its pit and paddock facilities apparently belong to another age, power failures and timing screens being wiped out are common. Organisation is usually poor. In the year 2000 the qualifying session had to be stopped three times because of advertising hoardings falling onto the track, one even being hit by Jean Alesi's Prost. Then there's the track itself: for most of its existence the bumps have been treacherous and dangerous. Indeed, the Saubers had to withdraw from the 2000 race, due to the bumps accounting for the structures of their rear wings. A succession of resurfacing jobs consistently failed to solve the problem (though the surface laid in 2007 is a big improvement). Walls are close to the track, even on fast sections such as the uphill blast at 'Boxes'. Its pit entrance there has always had an outward resemblance to a death trap. Eddie Jordan in 2001 commented on Interlagos that 'They could do with doing something with the track, in terms of knocking the place down and starting again'.

The Interlagos circuit.
Some of the outline of the old track can be seen.
Credit: Marlon Hammes / CC
Yet, the Interlagos race for many who follow F1 (me included) is one of the most eagerly anticipated of the year. Why is this? Well, unusually for a modern F1 venue it is a proper racing track. Its undulating variety of fast and medium turns provide a genuine driving challenge. Further, each year it seems to prove the adage that if you give drivers a proper racing track they'll give you a proper race. The amount of overtaking in an Interlagos race, mainly under braking into the Senna 'S', seems to outnumber the rest of the season combined. This was notably seen in Button and Hamilton's drives through the field last season.

It also seems to be a place where things happen. Since being moved to its end of season slot it has seen the resolution of the F1 championship for the last five seasons, including the epic in 2008 where Lewis Hamilton passed the struggling Timo Glock on the last corner in the rain, to pip home favourite Felipe Massa to the title. In 2003 a river running across the track at Curva do Sol accounted for most of the field it seemed, before Giancarlo Fisichella took a shock win after the race was stopped early by an accident involving Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso (don't think anything came of those two...). Though, in what surely counts as an Interlagos 'special', Fissi didn't have his win confirmed until a week later due to a timing glitch! Juan Pablo Montoya announced his arrival on the F1 scene in 2001 with an astounding outbraking move from miles back to crowbar the imperious Michael Schumacher from the lead. And then there was the two epic wins for hometown hero Ayrton Senna in the early 90s, including in 1991 where he fended off Riccardo Patrese in a late race rain shower, with only sixth gear and spent shoulder muscles. It's genuinely hard to imagine a dull race taking place there.

It also helps that each year a massive crowd of highly passionate fans come through the gates, even in the absence of a consistently front running Brazilian driver (and Rubinho seeming to be jinxed there) since Senna's death in 1994. And the fans get to sit close to the action, to the point of just about over hanging the track on the pit straight, ensuring a carnival atmosphere.

To a large extent, in an age where gleaming (and some would say identikit) Tilke facilities are encroaching on the calendar, Interlagos seems rather out of time, but definitely in a good way.

In its first incarnation Interlagos was even more spectacular. Used seven times to host the Brazilian Grand Prix between 1973 and 1980 it was close to five miles in length and dominated by fast challenging sweeps, of varying camber and slope. Most mighty was the super-quick left handed Curva 1 and Curva 2 at the start of the lap, giving the track a sort of 'oval with a spaghetti like infield section' feel. On F1's visit in 1973 Jacky Ickx, eyes alight, called it 'a real Grand Prix circuit'.

However, by 1980 it was clear that the ground effect F1 cars of the time had outgrown the Interlagos facility. Those cars, dangerous enough at the best of times, particularly didn't like the bumps there, and with barriers not even covering the length of the track safety arrangements were, in James Hunt's words, 'definitely inadequate'. There was very nearly a drivers' boycott at the last visit to the original track in 1980. This made it inevitable that the bland Jacarepaguá track near Rio would take over hosting the Brazilian Grand Prix for the time being.

By 1990 it was now Rio's turn to have become out of date, and at short notice the race was awarded back to Interlagos. Bringing the track up to modern F1 standards was hastily carried out and completed in the nick of time, with the length reduced to 2.7 miles by neat linkage of parts of the old circuit, for some part actually going down the track to the opposite direction to before. Very much like the new Spa though, the new track very much kept the character of the old. Which is something to be thankful for.

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