F1 season draws to a close in Brazil


The 2011 Formula 1 season will draw to a close this weekend the Interlagos Circuit playing host to the Brazilian Grand Prix.

The undulating Interlagos circuit is a favourite of both drivers and fans with the fast and flowing track offering one of the sternest tests on the calendar. The winners list at this great venue is a veritable “who’s who” of Formula 1 greats with 11 world champions having been victorious inSao Paulo.

Interlagos has hosted some of the most thrilling and dramatic Grand Prix in the history of Formula 1 but none was more emotional to taken the chequered flag first than Ayrton Senna who was so exhausted after winning the 1991 race that he could barely lift the winners trophy.

Senna had been denied success in front of his adoring home crowd until that day but it made the moment all the sweeter for the triple world champion and his fans. For the home faithful this weekend they will have Bruno Senna, Felipe Massa and Rubens Barrichello to cheer on.

WithMassahaving struggled throughout the season and being completely outclassed by his teammate, Fernando Alonso, the Ferrari driver will be keen for a strong result to finish his season. While a third Brazilian Grand Prix victory is surely out of his reach a first podium of the year would be a welcome prize after what has been a very trying season for the likeableMassa.

This looks set to be the last time that Formula 1 fans will be able to cheer on Barrichello. With Kimi Raikkonen or Adrian Sutil all but certain to replace him at Williams for next season it is likely that this will be the final Grand Prix of Barrichello’s record breaking career.

The Interlagos Circuit

While a lap of Interlagos may take just over 72 seconds but the circuit packs a punch in that time frame. The lap begins with the “Senna S.” A downhill left-right-left exchange where a laptime can be ruined almost before it begins. This corner has seen a series of first lap crashes, none more spectacular than 1993 when a four car pileup saw Michael Andretti’s McLaren turnover.

That crash also involved Martin Brundle who the following season was involved in one of the most disputed crashes of the last twenty years after clashing with Grand Prix debutant Jos Verstappen and Eddie Irvine at turn four, the fast right hander that ends the opening sector of the lap. The Irishman bared the brunt of the FIA for causing the accident and was given a one race ban, which under appeal was extended to three. That race also heralded the start of the “Schumacher Era.”

The German, then racing for Benetton, started the season in great form with a dominant victory after the chasing Senna spun out in the latter stages of the gruelling race. While suspicions of illegal traction and launch control dogged Benetton throughout a year that delivered Schumacher his first title the opening race of ’94 set the tone for his early season dominance.

Ross Brawn was then, as now, Schumacher’s team manager and the Englishman is looking forward to the challenge facing his Mercedes squad this weekend:

“The Brazilian Grand Prix weekend is always a lively and vibrant event,” said Brawn. “Interlagos is a fitting venue for the final race of this year’s Formula One season. Although our focus at the factory has been on 2012 for some time now, at the race track we are continuing to work hard with this year’s car and make improvements. We are determined to end the season on a high and continue the run of top six results that we have enjoyed recently, which is the upper limit of the potential of the current car. Interlagos is a very unique track which presents some unusual challenges; the high altitude location, the bumpy surface and the challenging layout all test both the drivers and engineers.”

Interlagos has been a kind track to Brawn down the years with Schumacher and Massa both winning also races for Ferrari and the Englishman’s eponymous team also clinching their lone drivers’ title success in 2009 at the Brazilian venue.

It was Jenson Button who took that title after a battling drive to finish fifth. The Englishman was seen by many as an undeserving world champion at the time but after a stunning season this year there are precious few within the paddock who underestimate the McLaren driver.

When asked about the factors that he expects to play a role this weekend Button said:

“KERS Hybrid will play an important role at this circuit because there is quite a short drag from the start line to the first corner. Towards the end of the lap you’ve got a long uphill section out of the final corner and the power will certainly help there, too. And, if you can’t get past into the first corner, then I definitely think you’ll be able to close up along the start/finish straight and then have a look at passing on the short straight ahead of Turn Four, using DRS.

A close battle at the front?

Interlagos has been a happy hunting ground for the pre-race favourites in the past with Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button all clinching world titles at the circuit. When you factor in that Red Bull has been victorious in the last two years, with both Mark Webber and Vettel winning, it is clear that this is a race track that all the leading drivers will remember fondly.

The track could be tailor made for Red Bull with the medium speed corners of the infield section obviously playing to their strengths but with rain expected to fall during the weekend the front of the field should be closely fought.

Hamiltonbounced back to form with a strong showing inAbu Dhabiand while Vettel took yet another pole position the margin to McLaren was very close. Vettel’s first corner retirement robbed Hamilton of the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with Vettel under the desert night sky and while it is highly likely Vettel would have prevailed it was very encouraging to see the Englishman perform so well.

The bumpy nature of Interlagos will make this a difficult circuit for McLaren whose car isn’t as supple as the Red Bull or the Ferrari. The team has struggled inBrazilof late and hasn’t won there since Juan Montoya in 2005.

For Ferrari this race ends what has been a disappointing season. Alonso has amassed more points this year compared to last year but without the highs of winning races on a consistent basis.  The Spaniard has taken just a single victory this year, in the changeable conditions of Silverstone, and while he has performed admirably with the car that is at his disposal this is surely a season that Maranello would prefer to forget.

Alonso though will surely have been buoyed by his performance two weeks ago when he was in superb form for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The double world champion took the fight toHamiltonand while the Ferrari is still lagging behind in terms of outright qualifying pace it still has the ability to surprise in races through superior tyre management and Alonso’s sheer force of will.

Points and prize money at stake in the midfield battle

While the leading teams have little but pride to fight for the midfield scrap is much more interesting. ForceIndiawill need a strong weekend to be capable of overhauling Renault for fifth in the Constructors’ Championship. The Silverstone based squad trails their Enstone competitor by 15 points but with Renault having fallen from grace so starkly this season and looking unlikely to even score points this weekend a wet race could give Force India the opportunity to take a large haul of points, especially with Adrian Sutil who will be keen to end his time with the squad on a high before being replaced by Nico Hulkenberg for next season.

If the race is run in dry conditions however the 15 point buffer should be enough for Renault to maintain their position. The team started the season in high spirits after a brace of podiums inAustraliaandMalaysiabut their form quickly deserted them and the team fell into turmoil with leading figures from their championship eras leaving the team. Their drivers, Vitaly Petrov and Senna, have struggled in recent races with Petrov especially critical recently and there seems little confidence within the squad of turning around their fortunes and finishing the season on a high.

The most compelling battle this weekend looks set to be waged between Toro Rosso and Sauber in their fight for seventh. The surging Toro Rosso is just one point behind Sauber in the standings. The Italian team has been in good form lately and are eager to finish the season on a high.

With the future of both drivers still undecided Jamie Alguersuari and Sebastian Buemi are sure to be motivated to put them selves firmly into the shop window for next season. Alguersuari has had a superb season and a strong race from the Spaniard might make him an attractive proposition for Renault with the recent announcement that Robert Kubica will not race at the start of next season.

Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez are both secure in their positions within the Swiss based squad for next season. The pair has enjoyed a promising season this year and while Sauber are still underfunded the team has performed admirably this season. Sauber has been outperformed by Toro Rosso in recent races the team are sure to be motivated this weekend to keep seventh in the championship. Their main hope for keeping ahead is to utilise their superior tyre strategy to make a single stop race on Sunday and hope that Toro Rosso will once again have to make additional stops.

Rain could give HRT and Virgin a lifeline

With showers forecast throughout the weekend it is likely that the season ending race will be interrupted by rain at some point. If rain does fall on Sunday it is likely to met by delight from the tail-enders.

Lotus, HRT and Virgin are all battling for the right to finish in the coveted tenth place in the Constructors’ Championship, and the considerable financial rewards that come with it. Lotus are currently tenth but if rain affects proceedings this weekend there is still a chance that HRT or Virgin could have a strong showing and with only a twelfth place finish needed to overhaul Lotus in the standings anything is possible this weekend if conditions are difficult.

This is an important race for the three teams. For Tony Fernandez squad this is their final race named as Team Lotus. With the Lotus naming rights dispute having finally been resolved in the high court this will be the final race for the squad in their current guise as Lotus before changing their name to Caterham.

Last season HRT finished tenth in the standings after a taking the highest place finish amongst the new teams and while the Spanish squad has been outperformed by Lotus throughout the season their strong showing on Friday and Saturday in Abu Dhabi shows the progress that they have made by the team.

While many, including myself, have HRT throughout their existence the team has been much more impressive as the year progressed and with Tonio Liuzzi and Daniel Riciardo at the wheel they have two capable drivers who could spring a surprise this weekend.

Technical challenges in Brazil

The nature of Interlagos means that setup is always a compromise. This was a factor that Mark Gillan, chief operations engineer of Williams, and James Key were keen to discuss in the build up to this weekends race.

The Interlagos track is a classical ‘two circuits in one’ layout,” said Gillan. ”With set-up always being a compromise between the long uphill run from T12 to the start-finish line and the medium-low speed corners within Sector 2. Both fuel effect and consumption are low for this 71 lap race so the fuel mass is low at the start of the race relative to the majority of tracks during the season.”

James Key, Technical Director of Sauber echoed those thoughts:

“There are two strategies,” commented Key. “One which is a higher downforce setting where the middle of the lap is better optimised, and the other one is a lower downforce setting which is better for the long straight up the hill through to turn one and then the second straight down to turn four. That will cause a little bit of work on the wing level, both from a strategic and also the lap time point of view.”

As far as tyres were concerned Key said:

“Pirelli will provide the medium and soft compound tyres, the same ones we had in Abu Dhabi. We think the nature of the track will allow us to get a little bit more out of the tyres over a single lap. In Abu Dhabi we were unable to get the new tyres to work in qualifying, but the nature of the track in Brazil should allow us to use the new tyres better.

Formula 1 revolves on Pirelli tyres in 2011

The 2011 season has seen some of the most exciting races in the history of Formula 1 with the Pirelli tyres providing much of the reason for that excitement. The Italian manufacturer returned to the sport as sole supplier this season and while many expected them to provide similar tyres to the previous generation Bridgestone’s Pirelli promised to be adventurous and aggressive with tyre compounds and construction.

Whereas the Bridgestone’s were durable and reliable the Pirelli’s have been much softer and therefore less durable. In the past drivers were able to be aggressive throughout a race, this season we have seen a seachange with drivers forced to nurse their tyres in a bid to make less pit stops. Over the last few races the drivers have discovered how to use the tyres to their fullest potential and the racing has suffered with some tedious races in recent weeks.Brazilthough should provide an opportunity for the tyres to show their teeth once again with Interlagos providing an abrasive surface that could be cleaned each night by overnight rain.

Pirelli’s motorsport boss, Paul Henbery, was keen to talk about the changes that his company are looking to make for next season and how the data accumulated this weekend will play a key role in the development of next year’s tyres.

“Preparations for the 2012 season are well underway,” said the Englishman. “So it will be really interesting to hear the thoughts of the drivers about the new hard and soft tyres that we will be trying out in Brazil. We’ve already collected plenty of information on the new soft tyre from the young driver test, so it will be useful to compare that to real race data.

“It’s important not to get too distracted by the names of the tyres though,” continued Hembery. “What we’re calling a ‘soft’ for now could end up as a medium for next year, as that’s what the testing process is all about. In general, the tyres are going to be less conservative next year as the second half of this season has shown how well the teams have understood our product, allowing us to make some reasonably aggressive choices such as supersoft and soft for Korea. We’re delighted to be ending the season in Brazil: not only is it a legendary circuit with an amazing atmosphere but it is also a key market for Pirelli.”

With Pirelli promising to change their compounds and reinvigorate the sport once again it’s clear that while this is the last race of the season the tyre manufacturer, and the teams, are treating this as an opportunity to learn as much as possible for next year.

 

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