Monday 5 November 2018

Interlagos Preview - Where there's life...

And so, with Lewis Hamilton wrapping up his latest world title in Mexico last time out, in large part this forthcoming Brazilian Grand Prix is, in the tennis parlance, a dead rubber. But there are reasons not to write it off even so.

Anything can happen at inimitable Interlagos
By Eduardo Guarizo Pimentel - Formula 1, CC BY 2.0,
There's still intrigue at the front. Not least around our new-old crown recipient. Hamilton in five attempts has never won an F1 race after he has wrapped up that year's championship. It leads some to theorise that he takes his foot off the gas at such moments, something the man himself vehemently denies. In last year's round in this very scenario and at this very Interlagos venue he gave the case for the prosecution some evidence though by binning it on the first lap of qualifying. As a consequence he had to start the race from the pitlane.

And Hamilton can't afford to relax entirely this time, as the constructors' crown is not yet taped up for his Mercedes team. Mercedes is 55 points ahead with 86 available, so it should get the honours. But too much profligacy from him and team-mate Valtteri Bottas has the potential to throw the matter back into the melting pot. Particularly as Ferrari in the last couple of rounds has rediscovered its pace, and Mercedes has hit tyre troubles in both. Hamilton also has only ever won once here, in 2016's heavy rain.

Last year's Interlagos visit featured a close fight between Mercedes and Ferrari. Bottas stepped into Hamilton's vacated space to take pole, though lost the lead to Sebastian Vettel at the start which was a state of affairs he couldn't reverse for the rest of the day (it got Bottas a lot of criticism which I thought was rather unfair). Kimi Raikkonen was a close third. Hamilton though with a fresh engine and strategic freedom stormed through to take an also near-at-hand fourth.

Red Bull is unlikely to be quite as potent as in its Mexico tour de force - there is altitude here too but at around 800m it's barely over a third of that two weeks ago. Equally Red Bull is unlikely to be too far from the front and Max Verstappen has been in excellent form lately, with four podiums in the last five including a win and two second places. It'll be interesting also to see the impact Daniel Ricciardo's despair after the Mexican race has on his driving this time.

Will Ferrari run ahead of Mercedes again?
Photo: Octane Photography
More generally F1 dead rubbers can have a attraction of their own. Both drivers and strategists with less to lose feel more free to go for it and take risks. Sometimes pilots still seeking a seat for the following year go for abandon in order to distinguish themselves. Perhaps not coincidentally some of the most memorable races in F1 history came in these circumstances - Monza in 1971, Suzuka in 2005...

Then there's where we are. As it is hard to imagine weekends at the Interlagos circuit in Sao Paulo ever being straightforward.

Some of it can be explained. It is a claustrophobic place, on track as well as off. It is one of the shortest circuits on the calendar with in many parts a sense of constant twist and turn, as well as is narrow and bumpy and set in a natural bowl. Things to hit are close at various points - both in terms of rivals and barriers. By extension safety cars are a common disruption.

The Senna 'S' at the start of the lap is often the scene of dicing and grief, not least the first time through. First lap crashes are common here generally.

The track can be tough on equipment too, with the many undulations and acceleration zones testing gearboxes and engines and both will be close to the end of their respective lives. The turbos are worked harder in the altitude.

The Senna 'S' is the scene of overtaking and grief
By Pedro Leiria [CC BY-SA 2.0  (https://creativecommons.
org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Furthermore the short lap has implications for finding space in practice and qualifying as well as for hitting lapped traffic in the race. The short lap usually ensures qualifying is tight -  last year Pascal Wehrlein dropped out in Q1 with a best within 1.3 seconds of the very quickest. Finding a set-up balance can be tricky, between an incongruous twisty middle section and the full-pelt blasts elsewhere.

Rain also is a perennial threat. Both deluges and sprinkles are known here and have equal ability to shuffle the pack. In either case they tend to arrive suddenly. Long range forecasts at the time of writing suggest rain will stay away this time, but even if it stays dry temperatures here can vary between very hot and rather cool, which further confuses engineers.

Yet some of Interlagos's ways cannot be explained. After all, where else would an F1 qualifying session have to be ended early due to advertising hoardings falling onto the track? Where else has a driver taken a long-awaited debut victory only to not have it confirmed for a week due to a timing glitch?

Where else has a driver been denied an apparently sure title due an unexplained problem slowing him to a cruise for half a lap? Where else has a title destination changed with literally two corners left, thanks to a marginal intensifying of the rain? Where else has a title been won after a first lap whack that by rights should have ended his day? Where else are power cuts in the paddock so common? Where else does rain usually result in commentary boxes and the like being flooded? Only Interlagos.

Last year Pirelli degradation was near zero
Photo: Octane Photography
Even the rain can have a back-to-front logic here. In 2003 a river from a nearby spectator bank ran across the track throughout, and eliminated several cars. In 2012 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.

And as if to show that at Interlagos anything in the full gamut can happen, from the strategic angle last year tyre degradation was near zero which resulted in a 'Bridgestone-type' race with one-stoppers pretty much all round (though Verstappen talked his team into letting him have a second change late on). The hardest tyre brought, the medium, was not used at all. The low degradation also meant the undercut was weak, and would only work if you were right on the tail of the car ahead.

There was though one source of variation, with both Hamilton and Ricciardo starting far back (the latter getting a grid penalty for new engine parts) and having some joy with a 'mirror' strategy, starting on the soft rather than the super-soft. Hamilton as intimated from a pitlane start finished just 5s off the victor - he may even have won with a more fortuitously timed safety car. Another benefit of the Interlagos track is that overtaking, particularly into the Senna 'S', is a more presentable prospect than at most circuits.

This time the same three Pirelli compounds are brought as 12 months ago - the medium, soft and super-soft - though the compounds are generally 'one softer' this year.

But then again there's likely limited point in seeking to preempt what will happen this weekend. Given where we are.

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