By Tom Keeble, USA
The Brazilian Grand Prix could prove historic for Formula One if Fernando Alonso clinches the title and becomes the youngest World Champion in history. Although McLaren will try their best to secure another win, the crown is almost in their rival's pocket. Tom Keeble previews the race and rates the teams' chances of success ahead of the seventeenth round of the 2005 season
The Interlagos circuit in Sao Paulo hosts the Brazilian Grand Prix, and the seventeenth round of the season. The circuit is distinguished by its counter-clockwise nature, a bumpy surface, flowing corners, and a long uphill straight. Consequently, a strong engine is well rewarded, closely followed by efficient aerodynamics. The weather prediction for the weekend includes showers and isolated thunderstorms.
With Fernando Alonso looking to tie up the Drivers' Championship, there is little McLaren can do except aim for a one-two and hope the Renault driver does not finish. Of course, that result would also put the team in the lead in the Constructors' Championship.
Track: The uphill start-finish straight at Interlagos will see cars reach 185mph, before braking hard as the track gradient drops sharply on the entrance to the 55mph left hander Descida do Sol: this is the best overtaking opportunity on the lap. A flowing left-right sequence of the Senna 'S' follows immediately with an increase in speed to 92mph on the exit - which is also where the pit exit feeds on to the track. The long Curva do Sol follows: a bumpy, flat out left hander which sees drivers reach 125mph, leading on to the Reta Oposta straight. After hitting 180mph, double apex of DECed do Ago is a tight, 90mph left, and another overtaking opportunity. The second apex is very bumpy and leads to the Berra Aura straight.
The end of the straight will see drivers braking from 175mph to negotiate a slippery, off-camber, 115mph right hander, leading to a slow, tight right hander, immediately followed by the second gear 55mph left hander.
Speeds build back up to 100mph before braking hard for the slowest point on the track, the 45mph Bico de Pato hairpin. This leads to the bumpy 125mph left hander, Mergulho, before braking hard the 50mph Juncao left hander. This leads uphill through the long left hander of Subida do Boxes, and back onto the long start-finish straight.
Tyres: The dirty surface makes tyre choice on Friday awkward - doubly so if the sessions are impacted by rain - so there is a chance of teams making a mistake on the best rubber to run. On the other hand, if it rains during the race, then there will be a challenge for the drivers on both slicks and intermediates as there will be rivulets of water across the surface, even when the majority of the track is dry - despite work taking place specifically to reduce the impact.
Weather: Predictions of showers for Friday and isolated thunderstorms on the remaining days could make for a very difficult weekend for the teams - though mixed conditions should at least offer interesting prospects for the race.
Strategy: The dirty surface has some impact - choosing tyres is tricky on Friday as the dust impacts the tyre wear characteristics; then qualifying on an even number is a disadvantage for the race start. The long, power oriented main straight also demands a race set-up compromise: teams lacking power have to use lower profile wings to reduce drag, or they will be passed into turn one - which in turn compromises ultimate laptimes.
The optimum pit strategy here is a close call between two and three stops; as long as the driver gets on with passing slower cars, they can opt for three stops, but the more conservative two-stop is expected to be most popular.
Surprises: Ralf Schumacher historically struggles, so a bigger gap to Trulli than usual could be seen here in qualifying; Felipe Massa could surprise; Rubens Barrichello is likely to outperform Michael Schumacher here.
Conclusions: Juan Pablo Montoya's pace here has always been impressive; with Kimi Raikkonen also on fire, McLaren are targeting a one-two finish, though they can expect some challenge from Fernando Alonso and Renault, although Giancarlo Fisichella has not always done so well here. Rubens Barrichello will be looking for a podium. Jarno Trulli should be worth watching in qualifying, and Jenson Button in the race.
Team by Team
With the track in Belgium never really getting wet enough to establish any Bridgestone advantage last weekend, Ferrari managed to look about as far off the pace as has become usual for this season.
Since Spa, there has been more tyre testing; the potential step forward that was previously hinted for Brazil doesn't seem to have materialised, but it would seem likely there has been some progress. Besides that, the car is really not expected to struggle with this circuit; it handles bumps well, and although the aerodynamic package is not the best, this is a power circuit. Provided the team can control wear, they can push harder here that at most circuits.
Drivers: The World Champion might be handing over his crown at the end of this weekend, but he could possibly be part of the puzzle that keeps it his a while longer: Michael Schumacher will be looking for a wet weekend, and a chance to show he still has what it takes. That said, the Ferrari to watch this weekend could well be Rubens Barrichello, who has always been fast here, though unlucky. The Brazilian is also hoping for rain as his best chance.
Objectives: Qualify in the top eight, finish in the points - with a podium if it rains.
After an eventful weekend in Spa, Jenson Button finished on the podium whilst Takuma Sato crashed out - receiving a ten-place penalty for the forthcoming event for his troubles. The run by Button to third was not entirely from the car's basic performance: the Briton was able to benefit from running quickly on worn intermediates as the track dried, picking up places convincingly at the end of the race.
BAR are looking to maintain their scoring ways in Brazil. The team have a powerful engine that should allow them to minimise the aerodynamic compromise needed to maintain speed on the straight - so, if they can dial out the bumps, they are expected to put on a strong showing.
Drivers: Although Button has never finished in Brazil, he always seems to look particularly good there: the team will be hoping their fortunes don't include a smoking engine this year, in which case there is every chance of a podium.
Sato's penalty will drop him towards the back of the grid, which could compromise his race; he might well run an unusual fuel load as a consequence to get out of step with the traffic he will inevitably face as he moves forward.
Objectives: Qualify well, beat Toyota and score points - targeting a podium.
Even with the Drivers' Championship close to sown up, the work is not complete yet for Renault. Alonso made the most of a gift in Spa to claim second place, but without looking like they could challenge for the lead, it seems apparent they are going to be on the back foot for the final races. That said, another third place finish for Alonso - regardless of Raikkonen's result - will see him secure his title.
In Sao Paulo, there is an expectation that Renault will be able to up their game, considering their performance at the circuit last year; however, whilst they may reduce the gap to McLaren, delivering the same level of performance would be unexpected: fighting for a win will probably still require the intervention of some luck.
Drivers: Alonso might have a car that will let him push the McLarens, in which case, he will probably do so, if only to hope that they are going to struggle with reliability. Should he finish immediately behind them, he still seals the Championship. then again, if Ferrari, BAR or Toyota have picked up the game, he is going to be fighting for that podium spot anyway.
Giancarlo Fisichella has seen mixed fortunes in Brazil. His first race win there was lucky, but he was in the lead when the race was stopped; other years, he has simply failed to impress. This time, as the first driver on the track in qualifying, he is facing an uphill struggle to his weekend.
Objectives: Qualify in the front two rows, finish on the podium; challenge McLaren all the way to the line.
Belgium showed that even though Williams are having a tough year, they are not terribly far off the pace. Mark Webber came in fourth, despite taking the obligatory early gamble on wet tyres. Pizzonia, in attempting to unlap himself from Montoya, took himself out of the race, but was looking set for points at the time. All told, it had been a constructive weekend for the outfit.
Although they must be concerned about right-rear tyre wear issues after their last experience of a counter-clockwise circuit, Williams must see Brazil as a chance to show relatively well. They are running with a powerful engine and have been working hard on their aerodynamics; provided the traction control software is up to scratch, they ought to be able to get in amongst their peers.
Drivers: Mark Webber has run well in Brazil in the past - though his memories include a spectacular accident. The Australian is going to have to have his act together to make much of the weekend as a strong qualifying that is followed by weak race pace will see the team struggle to hold positions here; he must be aiming for a top six qualifying session in order to score in the dry.
Antonio Pizzonia is standing in again for the injured Nick Heidfeld. The driver will be appearing in front of his home crowd, which could spur him on to an impressive performance - or the weight of expectation may see his performance crumble under the pressure. Time spent testing ahead of the race has improved his confidence in the car, so he could do very well this weekend.
Objectives: qualify well; get both cars in the points.
Although McLaren are again favourites, the trouble they have had getting both cars to the finish in front together has been almost comical - and when they resolve the mechanical failures, someone gets driven off the track. To keep his title hopes alive, Kimi Raikkonen not only needs to win, but to see Alonso finish off the podium. Accordingly, if the drivers are anywhere near that elusive one-two finish and Alonso is not convincingly set for third, expect their positions to be reversed if Juan Pablo Montoya leads Raikkonen.
On the other hand, the Constructors' Championship sees Renault struggling to maintain an eight-point lead. Finishing with both the top spots on the podium locked down would put McLaren top.
Drivers: The incident with Pizzonia that ended Montoya's race early will see the Columbian qualify early in the nearest thing he has to a home race: this should be enough disadvantage to keep him off a pole that is expected to be contested between the two; however, his race pace on this circuit has been exemplary in the past.
Raikkonen remains hot favourite; he is on form and whenever his car is reliable, consistently running at the front. And even should his teammate prove a fraction faster on this particular race-day, team orders will sort that out.
Objectives: aiming for the race win - and a one-two finish.
It was an interesting outing in Spa for Sauber: with Felipe Massa qualifying eighth, the team had high hopes for the race, but an early gamble on slicks didn't work out. Jacques Villeneuve meanwhile qualified back in fourteenth, banged wheels with Jordans and got the car sideways in Eau Rouge on his way to a sixth place finish.
The team continue to show that they are able to score points, even when competing against manufacturer teams; however, the long season is making it even more trying to maintain development pace with the front runners compared to a normal season: the budget simply doesn't allow it. Despite that, the few developments that are coming through are all well focused.
In Brazil, a strong qualifying performance could net the team a point, but arguably their best odds would come from another wet race.
Drivers: Last year, Massa wowed his home crowd with a strong qualifying performance - one he will be looking to emulate this year: it's a tougher proposition, but the grid is typically very close timewise, so a good lift from the local crowd could add up to a fair few of places.
Villeneuve, despite all the hassle he has faced from the press this year, now has one more World Championship point than his feted, Ferrari bound teammate, which is not to say his prospects are better for this race, but the Canadian is clearly getting to grips with car and working better in the team; but he will be looking for a wet race to score more points.
Objectives: qualify in the top ten; score a point - beat Red Bull.
It was another difficult weekend in Belgium for the Red Bull team as David Coulthard's engine let go on early in the race, whilst Christian Klien finished ninth, behind a Jordan, after a gamble on slick tyres failed to work out. All told, it was a missed opportunity: they should have scored points.
Although the team started the season with an engine that wasn't too far off the pace, the manufacturer-backed outfits have been able to put more money and resources into developing their units, so the Cosworth power plant might be a little exposed here; the team will do well if they see either car qualify in the top ten.
As in Spa, the team must be hoping for a wet race in order for enough of the front runners to trip over each other to permit their drivers to finish in the points.
Drivers: Coulthard's early exit at Spa will see him as one of the first qualifiers on track come Saturday, which won't help at all with his session; that said, a clear head at the start could see him in a position to capitalise on mistakes at the first corner - or see him caught in an accident of someone else's making. Wet weather should let his experience tell, but otherwise it is likely to be a long day. Klien will be looking not only to beat Coulthard in qualifying, but to stay ahead of his experienced team-leader in the race.
Objectives: finish as well as possible, targeting a point. Beat Sauber, if possible.
An eventful Belgian Grand Prix saw the Toyota's qualify strongly, then run well in the race before Ralf Schumacher attempted to run slick tyres on the wet track, and Trulli's race ended bizarrely when he was unable to avoid Monteiro - who had accidentally hit the pit limiter.
Being only ten points off Ferrari, the team require strong races from their final three events: third place in the World Championship is tantalisingly close, if both drivers can perform well. Interlagos itself should suit the car fairly well: now they are basically on top of the bump handling problems of recent years, with the circuit emphasising power the Toyota engine should help close the gap to McLaren.
Drivers: Jarno Trulli seems to have some affinity for this place; as usual, a strong qualifying is on the cards, but here there is a reasonable chance of sustaining a solid race pace: certainly he has to be aiming for a podium finish. Ralf Schumacher, by contrast, seems to struggle on this circuit, at least in qualifying. The team really need him to get on top of that, though, if they are going to keep closing down Ferrari.
Objectives: target points finishes; aiming to collect another podium finish - and beat Ferrari.
Although the huge delays getting the new chassis ready cost the team considerable time and effort, the new car paid dividends in Spa, where Tiago Monteiro put in another reliable performance to make the most of a mistake-free strategy: he brought home a point with eighth place. This despite a weekend troubled by lack of running, thanks to the wet weather.
Since Spa, the team have tested at Silverstone, improving their understanding of the new car, and options for lower drag settings, but predominantly working with Bridgestone to improve their use of the tyres; the revised aerodynamics of the EJ15B offer considerably reduced drag, but it has changed the interaction between chassis, tyre and track, too: there should be more to come from the tyres as a consequence.
At Interlagos, the Toyota engine ought to offer Jordan decent power for the straights, so they will be looking for dry sessions to get the car properly set up for the bumpy corners; of course, without a rain-impacted race to upset the leaders, there's no chance of scoring more points, but the weather forecast is promising.
Drivers: Narain Karthikeyan did not have the best of weekends in Belgium, but his experience in the new car is improving - and he has fond memories of Interlagos from Formula Nippon days; he should be quick, but his erratic racing could costs opportunities from a wet race. Monteiro on the other hand is still steady rather than spectacular, but that's a good way to bring home the best result when everyone else is making mistakes.
Objectives: make a good showing of the new car, beat Minardi: target another point if the race is wet.
In Belgium, it must have seemed to Minardi that they had another cracking opportunity to beat Jordan after the wet conditions prevented the team getting out to set their car up effectively. Then it went wrong in the race as Jordan's drivers got to grips with the car, and put laps on the Minardi duo, whose strategy gambled on early rain in the race.
With the Red Bull buyout signed, there has to be concern in the team over every employee's future as they know that the outfit will eventually be merged and relocated; meanwhile, the drivers have little chance of a seat for next season: making an impression in the three remaining races is unlikely to earn them a race seat, but a good showing could earn a testing role.
Objectives: complete race distance - beat Jordan again.
Belgium saw the final round of the 2004 season, with Schumacher and Ferrari unassailable in the Championship - likewise, Barrichello and Button were decided for second and third. After the scarlet juggernaut had swept the opposition under almost all circumstances, there seemed little prospect of a change in Brazil, but there was no way Williams or McLaren were prepared to admit that.
Arriving with two wins from the previous three races, Rubens Barrichello fulfilled his promise with possibly the most popular pole position of the year - the locals went wild to see their man in front with an error free lap to remove any chance of second the placed Juan Montoya landing the spot. The Columbian, meanwhile, made the most of a resurgent Williams chassis for his place, with a tight lap getting him ahead of Raikkonen - who complained of oversteer in the first and ninth corners - for the front row spot.
Brazilian Felipe Massa surprised and delighted onlookers with a solid run to third, though he might have been quicker without a mistake on turn 11; it was enough to stay clear of the fighting BAR duo of Jenson Button and Takuma Sato, however, who filled the third row - the team looked too far from the pace to threaten a win, but seemed ready to challenge for another podium all weekend.
Ralf Schumacher's seventh place was nothing like as spectacular as his Williams' teammates efforts, but the driver has never been happy with Brazil; Fernando Alonso meanwhile made the most of an evil handling Renault to place eighth.
Other notables included the stand-in Jacques Villeneuve placing four tenths - and five places - back from Alonso, and a dismal weekend for Schumacher that included a heavy crash that required a new engine and the accompanying ten place penalty, culminating in eighteenth place on the starting grid.
As the race was about to get under way, the much-anticipated rain drifted across the surface, just wetting it enough to ensure a slippery track. All the drivers except Alonso, Villeneuve and Coulthard started on intermediate rubber as a consequence.
When the lights went out, Barrichello made a clean getaway on the clean side, followed by Raikkonen and Massa as Montoya struggled to get moving; the three dry weather shod cars struggled hugely, and soon found themselves at the back.
The damn conditions worked well for Michelin, seeing Raikkonen pass Barrichello for the lead as Button made short work of Montoya and Massa, before giving up the positions again over the next lap: his Honda engine was failing, and he'd soon be parked.
By lap four, Bridgestone's tyres were working effectively and Barrichello slipped inside Raikkonen at the end of the straight; Alonso also posted quickest lap, illustrating slicks were now the way to go, kicking off a spate of changes. Ralf pitted first, followed by Raikkonen and Montoya - who nearly touched on the way out, resulting in a post-race fine for the Finn. Raikkonen's advantage was short lived, though, as Montoya passed him on the back straight.
Barrichello's decision to remain out for another lap proved costly: his stop brought him back out in ninth, twenty seconds off the lead though some way ahead of the struggling Michael Schumacher. Massa also stayed out - leading briefly, but running slowly - before pitting to leave Alonso at the front, leading Montoya, Raikkonen, Ralf Schumacher, Sato and Barrichello.
Alonso's stint as fastest on track soon passed, and Montoya closed down the Spaniard before he pitted on lap 18, returning sixth, behind Barrichello. Montoya and Raikkonen lapped in step, though Ralf ran a little faster, closing the gap to four seconds before the second round of stops. Further back, Webber attempted to pass Klien for tenth, but the rookie failed to see the Jaguar and turned in normally, ending the race for the Australian.
Ralf led the second round of stops, before Montoya then Raikkonen pitted; Alonso ran far later than his immediate competition - a benefit of the out-of-sync strategy his start on slick tyres brought: the second stop finally saw him pass Ralf, but lose a place to Barrichello.
Things continued in processional form through the third round of stops, with Raikkonen closing the gap to Montoya by the end of the race but unable to attempt a pass. Ralf passed Sato for fifth with two laps remaining, but otherwise there was little action: Montoya left Williams a nice parting gift with his win; McLaren posted intent with Raikkonen, and Ferrari's Barrichello looked like he finally trumped the run of bad luck that traditionally sees him retire from the lead at the event!
Point Paying Positions
Pos Driver Team Time 1. Montoya Williams-BMW (M) 1h28:01.451 2. Raikkonen McLaren-Mercedes (M) + 1.022 3. Barrichello Ferrari (B) + 24.099 4. Alonso Renault (M) + 48.308 5. R.Schumacher Williams-BMW (M) + 49.740 6. Sato BAR-Honda (M) + 50.248 7. M.Schumacher Ferrari (B) + 50.626 8. Massa Sauber-Petronas (B) + 1:02.310 Fastest Lap: Montoya, 1:11.473, lap 49 Classified: 11 from 20 starters