Tuesday 10 November 2015

Interlagos Preview - A little bit crazy

F1 has entered one of those spells, one that is inevitable from time to time at least. The championships are done ahead of time and the sense of drift, almost of going through the motions, is noticeable in those remaining rounds. At times like this you can begin to understand why Bernie pushed that double points idea. A little bit.

Interlagos - where we can expect the unexpected
By Pedro Leiria [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/
licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
So not that much good news around? Well, again there's a little bit. That this weekend's fare is taking place at the Interlagos circuit in Brazil. Which is not only a good thing in itself this venue also can be counted upon as a place where things happen. Things that are a little bit crazy. Or a big bit crazy; the sort of stuff that could never have possibly been foreseen. Somehow.

It has good claim to being the closest thing contemporary F1 has to the Bermuda Triangle. So while we can be sure that this time we won't get one of its astonishing corkscrew championship conclusions, there's little else that can be ruled out with confidence.

Quite why this is the way at Interlagos isn't entirely clear. It's likely in some part related to that the venue is a throwback - narrow, bumpy, with little run off, meaning that it can be unforgiving to error especially by modern standards. The enclosed features mean safety cars can be a frequent presence to jumble things and close them up and indeed the chance of one in an Interlagos race is around 70%.

It can be tough on equipment too, with many acceleration zones testing gearboxes and engines (and both will be close to the end of their respective lives near the campaign's end). It's the shortest circuit on the calendar on lap time, and its related sense of claustrophobia is heavy. Plenty of other cars - whether you're racing them, lapping them or dodging them for a qualifying lap - tend to be around. The short lap usually ensures qualifying is tight too with minor errors another thing punished pitilessly.

Rain also is a regular feature here, and it can arrive suddenly and sharply. Forecasts for this weekend yet again have rain around, on the Friday and Saturday. And even the rain can have a seemingly back-to-front logic at Interlagos, one memorable case was in 2003 when a river from some source in a nearby spectator bank ran across the track throughout, which meant that cars had to run on inters even though for a lot of the way 95% of the tour was bone-dry. Another was in 2012 when only Jenson Button and Nico Hulkenberg twigged that staying out on slicks as the rain fell was somehow the quicker option, and they led by half a lap for a time as a consequence.

Rain may also be around
Photo: Octane Photography
But even over and above all of this rational explanation there is something in the air at Interlagos. I mean, how else do you explain that the 2000 qualifying session here had to be cut short because advertising hoardings kept falling onto the track? Or that Giancarlo Fisichella was a highly unlikely victor here in 2003 but didn't know about it until a week later due to a timing glitch?

The claustrophobia hasn't been confined to the track itself as the cramped paddock here was one rather be left behind by F1's forward march. The track is undergoing a revamp, though in what surely is an Interlagos special it's not clear the extent that the revamped facilities will be ready this time. As Bernie mused they were supposed to be ready last year...

Yet whatever is the case this weekend as mentioned we can all be glad that it's Interlagos. The event 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. That it's set in a natural amphitheatre contributes also to the intense and crowded atmosphere.

And although as outlined modernity now is slowly catching up even with this place its well-worn charm remains; as with many of the other favourites such as Spa and Suzuka that it's a track with an organic feel rather than of one coldly created is a welcome and increasingly distinct plus point. Like those two tracks too drivers consider Interlagos a genuine challenge.

Interlagos always features a large and passionate crowd
"Brazil flags 2004". Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via
Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/
In another slightly odd feature about this circuit it is one of the few on the calendar that Lewis Hamilton hasn't won at. Indeed in other contribution to this track slight other-worldliness last year he missed out in large part because of a spin(!) while attempting to overcut his team mate Nico Rosberg.

Nico got the pole that time as he has done indeed in the previous four rounds heading in this time. This is something that will not have escaped Lewis's attention and his strategy discussions in the last race in Mexico demonstrated that he is one not minded to meekly cede these dead rubber races. And we can understand why, as already the 2016 drivers's title battle has begun. Really the fight for F1 championships never ends, as Clive James for one has noted the next season begins on the same day the old one is wrapped up. Lewis and Nico both are trying to establish whatever psychological advantage they can as they know it could impact when they take up again properly next year too. Lewis is talking about winning as "a salute to" his great hero Ayrton Senna but, without disrespect, he has bigger things on his mind. So has Nico when he said that he aims to "carry my form from Mexico into this race".

It is not mere hyperbole to say that there isn't an F1 race that doesn't matter, not when it comes to intra-team fights and especially not when it's at the sharp end.

There are a few reasons to think too that the rest could be a bit closer to the Mercs this time. Some of these we've mentioned already, but to take another the Interlagos track also is at altitude, which at just over 800 metres is not a patch on Mexico's but is still significant. This saps power from the normally aspirated part of the power units and this requires the energy recovery to work harder to make up for it and many in Mexico last time out spun their turbo compressors more. The upshot there at least was that all this seemed to act as something of a leveller and aided the Renault units especially. Daniel Ricicardo indeed is to run finally the upgraded Renault unit in Brazil (though gets a 10 place grid drop for his pains) and a decision is to be made with Daniil Kvyat.

More broadly in other previous races at altitude the rest have got a little closer to the silver cars than usual. The shortest lap of the season in Interlagos also helps those with less efficient energy harvesting as running out before the lap ends becomes less of a threat. That part will be a much-needed crumb of comfort for Honda in particular.

The Mercedes vs Mercedes fight will not relent
Photo: Octane Photography
But still, last year at this venue even though the qualifying lap times were closer than was usual for 2014 the first five as well as six out of the first seven qualifiers had Mercedes power. I mentioned the long straights and uphill acceleration zones here, which should suit those with German power rather nicely.

One of those with German power that will be worth watching is Felipe Massa. He rather specialises at his home track, indeed has won here twice while last year he was third behind the Mercs in qualifying and the race, despite a few adventures in the latter.

Last year under some pressure Pirelli went aggressive with its soft and medium tyre selection even though there was a new surface which added a large element of the unknown at a track already that puts a lot of energy into the rubber. In the event tyre degradation was high, the soft tyre good for only a few laps and three-stoppers, with three stints on the medium, was the main way to go. Kimi Raikkonen tried a two stopper - largely an exercise in dice-rolling - and it didn't do much for him. It'll be interesting to see how things ave evolved over the last 12 months but multi-stoppers again can be expected.

Not that much else can be expected. As this, as explained, is Interlagos. It'll be a little bit crazy.

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