Wednesday 21 November 2012

Interlagos Preview: Endgame

Sport has an incredible reductive quality. While prizes are usually determined by achievements over a lengthy period, somehow invariably they end up being decided in the margins, and often at the last. It goes a long to explaining why even minor setbacks in sport can cause considerable regret; the probability is that you'll need those points later.

Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso face off
Credit: Bill William Compton / CC
So it is in F1, and so it is this weekend as the 2012 year reaches its endgame at Interlagos. Even in the longest season ever, some 20 races, and thousands of miles of racing, it all comes down to the final race to decide where the biggest prize of all is to go. Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso are the protagonists, 13 points apart with 25 still at stake. And whichever of the two comes away with a smile on his face will also become the sport's youngest ever three-times world champion.

Whatever the case, it cannot be denied that Sebastian Vettel has the whip hand. He needs but a fourth place to ensure that the latest title crown is his, and that seems well within his, and on recent form his RB8's, capability. The car has been the class of the field in recent weeks and Seb is looking absolutely at the top of his confidence in taking advantage of it. What's more, a Red Bull has won at Interlagos on each of the last three visits, and on the last two they finished one-two. Heck, Seb even managed to finish second here last year having been hobbled with a dodgy gearbox for much of the way. So, surely only something very strange happening can deny Seb a fourth place at least this Sunday.

Why then after the Austin race, a race wherein lest we forget the team completed the amazing achievement of three constructors' titles in a row, did most at Red Bull have the exterior of one whose dog had just died? Perhaps part of it is that if you could pick a track to go and claim some points to get over the line for the title, Interlagos would be possibly the last that you would select.

The unusual often happens at Interlagos,
just ask Lewis Hamilton
Credit: GFDL - Self / CC
Interlagos has an intangible quality: it's a place where things happen. You could argue that it's the closest things the sport has to the Bermuda Triangle. Several strange goings-on at the São Paulo track over the years spring to mind: who could forget Lewis Hamilton's mysterious (and never fully explained) technical delay which cost him the championship in 2007 on a day when it looked like he would canter to it? Or the year before when Schumi, title also at stake, ended up close to a lap down thanks to a gearbox problem in qualifying and then a puncture in the race? There's also Lewis's epic title win clinched only after title rival Felipe Massa had crossed the line in 2008, Fisichella's crazy win in 2003 when much of the field was wiped out by a river crossing the track, Senna's struggle to victory with a spent gearbox and equally spent shoulders in 1991, the list goes on and on. I'm sure there have been straightforward races at Interlagos, but citing any is difficult.

Why should this be? Part of it may be that Interlagos could hardly be further removed from the modern-day Tilkedrome that dominates the F1 calendar these days. Rather than long, wide, smooth and with spacious run off, it is short, narrow, bumpy and has things to hit near the track at various points. The bumps and kerbs are tough on the gearboxes, as are the uphill acceleration zones which are also tough on engines. It's also at high altitude which works the engines harder than usual and loses them around 65 bhp (which also makes KERS more important, and the Red Bull KERS is weaker than most, as well as has been troublesome reliability-wise). And of course that this in the last race of the season means that both engines and gearboxes will be at the end of their life cycles and therefore most vulnerable to failure.

Then there are the elements, which also often have a say at Interlagos and are especially expected to have a say this weekend. One forecast had a 90% chance of rain for qualifying, and more recent forecasts seem to be shifting the risk onto Sunday's race instead. Rain will add an unwelcome spanner into the Red Bull works, as well as give Alonso a much-needed leg up. The Ferrari has been peculiarly good at getting heat into its tyres in the wet conditions this year, evidenced by Alonso claiming one win and two poles from the one wet race and two wet qualifying sessions of 2012.

Will there be slips between cup
and lip for Seb this weekend?
Credit: Morio / CC
Then of course there is the much-mooted matter of Red Bull's alternator. The spec of alternator that had failed on it in Valencia and Monza had since been abandoned for an earlier model, but which apparently now is close to running out. A new spec alternator was used by the other Renault-engined teams in Austin without problem, though ironically Webber's pre-Valencia spec alternator, still used by the Bulls because of it being viewed as tried-and-trusted, stopped him ahead of time in the race. Renault insist the problem is now licked but most at Red Bull don't give the impression of being entirely convinced. At the very least it'll all be an unwelcome note of worry for the team in a weekend wherein it cannot afford a breakdown.

And what about Alonso's stable mate, home hero Felipe Massa? He's looked to be in his best driving form since his 2009 accident in recent months, and its not at all outlandish to suggest that his performance in Austin last weekend was his most convincing in that time. And, while it might seem a long time ago now, there was a time when Massa was considered an Interlagos specialist. If he can rekindle some of that this weekend then all the better for Alonso. He'll welcome an ally at the sharp end.

Did a little momentum shift to Alonso in Austin?
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
Then of course there is another intangible sporting commodity, that of momentum. For weeks now it has appeared that Seb and Red Bull have been riding on the crest of a wave; everything it seemed was going their way, even Seb starting from the back at Abu Dhabi didn't alter that broad picture. As Jack Charlton once said of Kevin Keegan, you suspect that had Seb fallen into the River Tyne in that time he would have surfaced with a salmon in his mouth. But last time out in Austin things were a bit different. Not even the biggest optimists in the Ferrari garage would have bet much on Sunday morning on Seb only getting three points over Alonso that day. Seb wrapping up the title mathematically even looked a fairly strong possibility. And as mentioned the Red Bull expressions after the Austin race reflected as much. In other words, do you get the impression that, for the first time in a while, the championship momentum shifted ever so slightly towards Alonso and Ferrari in Austin? Moreover, just remember what sort of season 2012 has been. Wouldn't it be entirely in keeping with it for Interlagos to contain one more twist?

But even with all of this sight should not be lost that, even if it does rain, it'll still take the unlikely such as unreliability to stop Seb finishing fourth at least. And even if he does stop Alonso will not have a shoo-in, requiring third place himself to pinch the championship. And then of course there is Alonso's predicament: the Ferrari hasn't been near the pace in recent times - he finished some 40 seconds shy of the lead in Austin after all - and you feel to win on Sunday and thus exact maximum pressure on Seb he needs the heavens to open at vital moments on Saturday and/or Sunday, or for something even stranger than that.

But that's the beauty of sport, we just don't know. And it all comes down to one race; if anything does go wrong there will be no next time, no possibilities to atone. If that's not enough it will also all take place in the intense, notorious Interlagos melting pot. Sunday will not be one for the faint of heart.


  1. I really like your blog. Its fantastic to read! In my opinion, one of the best F1 blogs I have read so far. I would like it if you can write about each driver (important ones at least), their best and worst races in their career, strengths and weaknesses,and their defining moments in F1.It would be great! You had done one for Schumacher and on his career! It was one of the best pieces I read. Thank you so much.

    1. Thanks very much for your compliments, very nice to hear! I do enjoy writing articles about F1 drivers, like the Schumacher one. I hope to be able to write a few more (and to hear requests for which drivers to write about). Otherwise, it's just a matter of finding time to do them...