Both of Formula One’s championships are up for grabs at the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix, as arch rivals Ferrari and McLaren battle to secure the constructors’ and drivers’ titles.
McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton holds a seven point lead in the drivers’ chase, leaving home favourite Felipe Massa needing a win and a prayer if he is to triumph.
But to secure the constructors’ championship McLaren will need to score 12 points more than Ferrari, with a maximum of 18 available – and that’s a pretty tall order.
The race will also mark the end of David Coulthard’s long F1 career – while Rubens Barrichello, Nelsinho Piquet and Sebastien Bourdais will be desperately hoping not to be joining him as exiles from the grid next year.
All this will take place on a proper old-school racetrack, with decades of tradition to draw on and a fanatical crowd that has favoured Hamilton in the past – but will be unashamedly roaring on Massa this time round.
Williams’ technical director Sam Michaels explained why Interlagos proves such a technical challenge for the teams: “[It] is positioned at a high altitude and has ambient air pressures around 930mbar which causes an 8 per cent reduction in downforce, drag and engine power compared to when we race at circuits at sea level.”
“The track’s undulating layout consists of mainly slow speed corners, but it does have a couple of high speed turns that are taken at either full throttle, or just before braking for a slow speed corner, so their effect on lap time isn’t significant.
“There are some good overtaking opportunities around the lap, particularly at turns one and four. The grid here is traditionally very tight due to the low fuel penalty and short lap time, so the midfield will probably be even closer than usual.
“Most teams will go for a one or two stop strategy and Bridgestone will supply the medium and soft tyre compounds, both options will be strong in the race.”
Bumps on the circuit’s surface will also mean that the ride height of the cars has to be increased, making their diffusers less effective and reduces downforce.
- The Brazilian Grand Prix is a 71-lap race at the 2.68-mile AutÃ³dromo JosÃ© Carlos Pace (named after a local racing driver) in Interlagos, Sao Paulo, which is situated 800m above sea level. It was completely resurfaced last year.
- It is one of only three circuits on the calendar that runs in an anti-clockwise direction, which means it is hard work for the drivers and also notoriously bumpy, even after the resurfacing work.
- Renault describes it as “a circuit of contrasting extremes, combining slow hairpins with one of the longest straights of the season.”
- This is the fourth successive season in which Interlagos has hosted a title decider.
- Interlagos hosted its first Formula One race in 1972 and stayed on the calendar until 1979, when the Brazilian leg of the competition was moved to Rio de Janeiro’s Jacarepagua track. However, Interlagos returned to the calendar in 1990 with a restructured track.
- Bridgestone says that the circuit surface often starts the race meeting very dirty, and improvements in lap times, as well as fewer mentions of graining, should be seen over the weekend as the surface improves.
- Giancarlo Fisichella scored the first of his three Grand Prix wins at Interlagos in 2003 for Jordan after a chaotic race had to be red-flagged following crashes caused by the extreme weather conditions.
- Adrian Sutil is half-Uruguayan on his father’s side – and is expected, therefore, to attract a “small but dedicated” crowd of south American supporters this weekend.
- A large chunk of the BMW Sauber team, including both drivers, will have stopped off at a fan event in Munich on the way to Interlagos which featured around 1,000 Race Club members and private demonstrations of the car.
- At Force India they are still hoping against hope to be able to take some points away from the season. And how hard-hearted would you have to be to begrudge them this modest aim?
Asked about his approach going into the race, McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton said: “Fundamentally the same way I’ve approached the previous races. Obviously, my aim for Brazil is slightly different from the other grands prix: I don’t need to win the race, but that won’t stop me from going into the weekend looking to be as strong as possible.
“Shanghai was a good example of that: we hit the ground running on Friday morning and never looked back. Our aim wasn’t to push too hard, but we found ourselves in a position at the front and took it comfortably from there.
“That’s what I am hoping to achieve in Brazil – a straightforward weekend that allows me to just focus on my car and my driving.”
Asked about Interlagos, he said: “The track always seems to provide good, close racing: one of the reasons for that is because there’s a long straight leading up to the first corner and you can slipstream other cars and overtake into turn one.
“It’s also a place where there seems to be a lot of grip so you can dice with other cars and have fun.”
McLaren CEO Martin Whitmarsh added: “While we try and eliminate as many difficulties for the race team as is possible, there is no escaping the fact that a title-deciding race is clearly very stressful.
“You’re somewhat torn because the need to score four points is considerably easier than winning – but that sort of attitude is anathema to the team.
“The reality is that Shanghai was rather more stressful because we only had a five-point cushion over Felipe and that could have been seriously dented.
“Given our performance so far this year, you’d assume that Lewis would be able to score the necessary points – but that could be affected by a sudden Safety Car period or a mechanical problem.”
He said that reliability was the biggest cause of stress for the team’s garage crew, and that it was “a constant worry”.
At Honda Jenson Button is looking forward to racing in front of the Brazilian fans.
He said: “Sao Paulo is a fantastic venue for the final race of the season as it’s such a lively city and the Brazilian fans are incredibly passionate about Formula One. There is always a good atmosphere at Interlagos.
“The circuit itself is a challenging one for the drivers, which makes it all the more enjoyable to drive. The track surface is notoriously bumpy and you have to have a good understanding of where the bumps are and do your best to minimise their impact.
“It has an anti-clockwise layout which is quite unusual and this means using muscles in the neck which aren’t used to the exertion, therefore the correct training in advance of the race is crucial.
“I’m looking forward to the weekend and, although we have had a tough year in 2008, we will go to Brazil and give our all to finish the season on a high note.”
Honda team principal Ross Brawn added: “Brazil is a fitting place to end the season with the Interlagos circuit providing an unusual and exciting challenge for the drivers and engineers.
“The location of the track in an inner city area and the passionate Brazilian fans ensure an edgy and electric atmosphere around the circuit over the race weekend.
“The track layout has an almost three-dimensional feel with the changes in elevation and the high-speed left-hand corners provide an extra physical challenge.
“By any measure 2008 has not been a great season for the Honda Racing F1 Team. We have been focusing our thoughts and efforts on 2009 for a considerable time and for us, Brazil will be the closing of the book on this year, allowing our full focus to turn to the longer term plans of the team and our return to competitiveness.”
It should be an emotional weekend at Red Bull, where veteran driver David Coulthard retires after 14 years in motorsport’s elite formula and the best points tally ever assembled by a British driver.
However the team, with its usual irreverent attitude to, well, just about everything really, is using its official race preview to point out that “Mark Webber, who still drives for Red Bull Racing, IS NOT RETIRING.”
So long as we have that clear.
Although, with wunderkind Sebastian Vettel due to join him at the team next year, we speculate that he may soon wish he had…