Friday 22 November 2013

Interlagos Preview: Seb on cloud nine?

You don't need me to tell you that for a good while now there’s been little to watch in F1 2013-style other than Sebastian Vettel's haughty preponderance. And as we stand before the season's final round it feels ever so slightly like the season's conclusion will be putting all of the Seb/Red Bull's rivals - long since having raised the white flag - rather out of their misery. Indeed it feels like the only thing that could put them out of their misery.

Sebastian Vettel looks set to continue
his run of wins, and a couple more
records will go his way if he does
Photo: Octane Photography
If it seems a while since Vettel was last beaten, that's because it has been. July to be precise, in the Hungarian round prior to the summer break. And now in Brazil yet another record lays vulnerable to Seb's run of success: Alberto Ascari's all-time mark of nine wins on the bounce, a record that for a long time had seemed as mythical and untouchable as the planet Magrethea. Seb in his extended spell of glory is all set to match it. He's also set to equal Michael Schumacher's high tide watermark of 13 wins in a season. And barring unusual occurrences surely he will.

But somewhere in there lies the rub, as if you're looking for a venue in which to avoid unusual occurrences Interlagos in Brazil is probably the last you'd pick. It has an intangible quality - always has - of being a place where things happen, from the sublime to the ridiculous. It has good claim to being the closest thing the sport has to the Bermuda Triangle.

History's examples run the gamut: Ayrton Senna's long overdue and highly emotionally-charged home victory of 1991, with just sixth gear remaining in the box, rain falling and shoulders spent; his follow-up win in 1993 when a freak rainstorm on the pit straight wiped out the dominant Alain Prost; advertising hoardings falling on the track in the 2000 qualifying session (one of which was hit by Jean Alesi's Sauber) which caused the session to be ended early; the madcap wet-dry race of 2003, wherein a freak river ran across the track at Curva do Sol, accounting for several cars, and Giancarlo Fisichella was an unlikely victor after a big crash involving Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso stopped the race ahead of time (and in what surely counts as an Interlagos special, Fisi didn't know about his win until a week later due to a timing glitch); Michael Schumacher's prodigious ascent through the field in his final race of his ‘first’ F1 career in 2006 after a gearbox problem in qualifying and then an early-race puncture sent him to the back, with the big finish of him putting the manners on his Ferrari replacement…; the mysterious technical problem that delayed Lewis Hamilton for almost a lap in 2007 and resulted in a freshman title slipping through his fingers, into the hands of the waiting Kimi Raikkonen; Lewis claiming the 2008 title for himself in the most dramatic of circumstances by passing a hobbled Timo Glock at the last corner, depriving Felipe Massa at home in the most heart-wrenching fashion; Nico Hulkenberg blitzing F1's frontrunners by claiming pole in 2010; and then of course last season’s corkscrew final act, which resulted eventually in Vettel seizing crown number three.

Lewis Hamilton lost the 2007 title in Interlagos unexpectedly
Credit: Morio / CC
Quite why it does this isn't entirely clear. It's in some part related to that the venue is something of a throwback: narrow, bumpy, with little run off, meaning that it can be unforgiving. It can be tough on equipment too, with many acceleration zones testing gearboxes and the high altitude testing engines (and both will be close to the end of their respective lives at the campaign's end). It's the shortest circuit on the calendar on laptime, meaning it can feel rather claustrophobic. Safety cars are frequent, as is rain, and the arrival of either can scupper chances at a stroke (more rain is forecast this weekend). But for the most part Interlagos's ability to provide drama is intangible. Some things just are.

Bad news for Vettel and Red Bull - who more than most would welcome a nice straightforward time of it. But good news for just about everyone else.

Vettel's likely closest challengers seem familiar too. As has been the way lately, his team mate Mark Webber and the phoenix-like Lotus challenge from Romain Grosjean are set to be closest again. Webber is making his final bow as an F1 driver, a matter of regret for most of us (though not for Webber himself). He's always gone better on the old school-style tracks - of which Interlagos is very much one - and he indeed triumphed here in two of the last four visits. And if he wins here he'll only be the third driver in history to win his last Grand Prix - something as Edd Straw pointed out is a rare example of a record that Vettel can't touch. Not yet anyway.

Mark Webber and Romain Grosjean have been Vettel's
closest challengers in recent times
Photo: Octane Photography
While Grosjean has been getting stronger and stronger in recent weeks in his as ever fine-handling E21, and you feel that his freshman win cannot be too far away. He likely requires something to befall Vettel to achieve it in Brazil, but if that does happen Grosjean could be the first in line to benefit.

The Interlagos circuit is all about traction, with plenty of acceleration zones in particular that uphill from Juncao onto the extended straight-finish blast. In this scenario we can look to the Sauber and in particular to Nico Hulkenberg to do well, given the C32's excellent rear and exhaust solution. And yet another strong drive from the Hulk will further underline the absurdity that a top team hasn't found a place for him yet.

In this scenario with traction critical the Ferraris might struggle, as for much of the year its rear has tended to slide fairly easily. Still, Felipe Massa has always been an Interlagos specialist while Fernando Alonso can be counted on as ever to make the best of things.

Far behind Seb and Red Bull championship placings are still be fought for, with the constructors' order getting particular focus given that's where much of the teams' bread derives from. Mercedes-Ferrari-Lotus (in that order) have been in close proximity for the squabble over runners-up spot, though are sufficiently spaced now that only odd occurrences will create a further shuffle. But as mentioned we're in a good place for odd occurrences.

Nico Hulkenberg again can be expected to shine
Photo: Octane Photography
The most tension may be over P10, which has been held by Marussia for much of the year but can be scavenged by Caterham should either of its cars finish in P13 or higher. And given the venue's capacity for craziness no one will be taking anything for granted - that the placing swung from Marussia's to Caterham's grasp at the very last of the concluding Interlagos round 12 months ago will be fresh in memories.

Pirelli as in Austin - and as in Interlagos last time - (and partly inspired by politics it seems) has gone as conservative as it can with the selection of medium and hard compounds. Still, Interlagos's short pitlane and relative ease of passing should sway most towards two stops. Some further down may be tempted to roll the dice and go for a one-stopper, hoping to benefit from a conveniently-timed safety car.

Yet whatever is the case this weekend we can all be glad that it's at Interlagos. It's about as far removed as any on the calendar from the gleaming Tilkedromes that encroach the itinerary; in terms of facilities it's far behind just behind all others. But it all lends to a distinction and olde worlde charm that are valued these days; it's a track with an organic feel rather than of one coldly created. It also always attracts a large, noisy and passionate crowd of genuine F1 supporters, 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. It's set in a natural amphitheatre, and it all contributes to an intense and crowded atmosphere.

In recent weeks and months many of us have entered Grand Prix weekends with a rather grim sense of the inevitable; of here we go again. But not this time: this time it's Interlagos.

1 comment:

  1. While Seb wants all the records, part of me thinks he's going to revel in the challenge of Brazil. A straightforward time might mean that ninth win comes easy but imagine if it doesn't and he still gets it.

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