Saturday, 26 November 2011

Interlagos Preview: A great track, a close battle, and rain!

There are plenty of reasons why we could feel jaded heading into the final F1 weekend of the season. This year's drivers' championship was decided a full seven weeks ago. We're at the end of a long season, with 19 races, and it's almost the end of November - by a distance the latest finish of an F1 season in modern times. But none of us feel jaded, because this is Interlagos.

There's nowhere quite like Interlagos
Credit: Marlon Hammes / CC
It's impossible to think that any race at Interlagos will be a subdued end of term affair. It's a proper circuit, representing the best of old school F1 venues before the modern Tilkedromes become de rigueur. Challenging, undulating, and varied - Interlagos gives the impression of being drawn freehand, not designed precisely with computers and intricate measurements.

The circus was at Abu Dhabi two weeks ago and Interlagos, almost exactly, is everything that venue isn't, in bad ways and good. It doesn't have the gleaming architecture or the spacious, space-age facilities that are Abu Dhabi's trademark. Organisation at Interlagos has often been haphazard, it doesn't run seamlessly as it tends to do at the Yas Marina circuit. It's not, and probably never will be, a favourite of those who inhabit the Paddock Club, or for those who spend their lives trying to woo them.

But, unlike Abu Dhabi, Interlagos is a genuine favourite of F1 enthusiasts. This is partly because of the old-school charm previously outlined. It's partly also because it always attracts a large, noisy and passionate crowd of genuine F1 supporters through the gates, who are able to sit close to the action (overhanging the circuit at some points it seems). This has continued to be the case even in the absence of a consistently front-running Brazilian driver in recent times.

Interlagos races always attract a large and passionate crowd
Credit: Felipe Micaroni Lalli / CC
Further, again unlike Abu Dhabi, it's very difficult to imagine an uninteresting race at Interlagos. Things happen there, and invariably its races provide more overtaking than the rest of the season put together, it seems (I just hope that the siting of the DRS zone this year won't serve to negate genuine overtakes into the Senna 'S'). Plus, there's rain forecast, possibly for qualifying and the chances are even stronger for precipitation in the race.

And to top it all off, the times at the front from yesterday's practice look close. Taking into account their 'usual' Friday fuel loads, while Red Bull appear to be a nose ahead of McLaren in qualifying trim (thus putting Vettel into a good place to beat Nigel Mansell's record for poles in a season), on race pace there's almost nothing to choose between them. And if it rains McLaren are usually the ones to watch, partly because they can warm up their tyres more quickly and also because they have two excellent wet weather drivers on their books. Ferrari, as usual, also look not far off in a race situation, and Fernando Alonso's battling qualities can never be discounted.

And today's qualifying at Interlagos will be one for gamblers. With rain forecast for the race just how much do you nudge your set up in that direction, given it may be to the detriment of your grid slot?

Jenson Button will be looking to wrap up
second place in the drivers' standings
Credit: formulasantander.com / CC
Furthermore, even with the drivers' and constructors' titles all wrapped up, there are a number of points of intrigue for tomorrow's race. Jenson Button will be looking to confirm second place in the standings, and a podium will secure it so he holds the aces. In all probability, it will require an unusual happening such as a non-finish to deprive him. Mark Webber will be similarly minded to leapfrog Fernando Alonso for third in the table, but requires an even larger points turnaround. He'll also be keen not to finish a whole season with access to an RB7 without winning a race. Lewis Hamilton, however, is only six points shy of Webber in the standings, and will want to continue his recent momentum with a view to next year.

Then there's the intra team Mercedes battle in the table, with Robserg only seven points ahead of Schumacher. Schumi says he doesn't care whether he's ahead of his team mate in the final standings. No one believes him.

As for the constructors' standings, all of the intrigue is in the midfield. Force India have all but secured sixth place in the table, with their points haul in Abu Dhabi. Sauber and Toro Rosso though are but a point apart in seventh and eighth, and Toro Rosso's recent form suggests they've got a good chance of taking that position, along with the increased prize money that comes with it.

Alonso with an unmistakable Interlagos backdrop
Credit: formulasantander.com / CC
It's also the case that many pilots have one last chance to drive for their futures this weekend. Most of the midfield (and tail end) team's driver line ups for next year have not been confirmed. As is usually the case, there are many more qualified drivers than there are available seats, and last week's young drivers' test in Abu Dhabi served to throw even more hats into the ring, such as those of Jean-Eric Vergne and Valtteri Bottas. In F1 you're only as good as your last race, so a strong result in Interlagos could go a long way to securing a seat for 2012.

And another thing to watch out for tomorrow. Should Rubens Barrichello reach lap 37 he'll have driven 50,000 race miles in F1! That's enough to take him around the world twice!

As is usually the case at Interlagos, there will be lots to keep us entertained.

Friday practice times

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