There’s an uncomfortable contradiction centred around racing at Interlagos that makes it emblematic of the best and worst of Formula 1. Situated in the heart of sprawling Sao Paulo, in the midst of shocking poverty and the violence it spawns, the Brazilian Grand Prix is the race that for decades has most obviously showcased F1’s bubble mentality and a vulgar ability to flaunt its excesses in the most inappropriate of settings.
And yet would we be without it? Absolutely not. The future of the Brazilian GP has been fragile in recent years, with talk of a new hosting circuit in Rio, a change of promoter and political discord over how it is funded. Interlagos supposedly has a deal to remain on the F1 calendar until 2025, but there’s always a nagging fear that eventually the track will fall from its slot – and if/when that days comes fans will mourn, because for all the bigger-picture social conscience pinpricks some of us might feel about the place, it remains a fabulous place to race and watch F1 cars (even if the original, longer circuit was even better).
“Interlagos has engineered some of the best racing I’ve seen in any category”
Spa, Suzuka, Silverstone, Monza, Monaco, now Zandvoort – we’re all used to listing the so-called ‘classics’ where victories somehow mean more beyond world championship points to those drivers with a proper sense of perspective. Interlagos belongs in that group. Nevertheless, I was initially mildly surprised when I asked a race circuit designer recently which is his all-time favourite and he jumped straight to the verdant, compact 2.67-mile layout that once again welcomes F1 this weekend. Then when he explained it made sense: Interlagos should be the prime inspiration for any new circuit that springs up, especially on a piece of land confined for space.
“Everyone always talks about the difference between classic tracks and modern tracks,” said Clive Bowen, boss of Apex Circuit Design which has been responsible for a high number of new tracks over the past 20 years and is currently employed in creating the new Miami GP street course that will used for the first time in May next year. “Classic tracks were designed by people who knew how to work with the land rather than moving lumps of land. That’s why my favourite track is Interlagos. It’s topographically wonderful, aesthetically great and it has also engineered some of the best racing I’ve seen in any category. Whatever the rules and format, it provides an opportunity for good racing.”
The ‘technical’ infield section has character, and can reward and punish in equal measure those who are brave and aggressive on the brakes. But you won’t be surprised to learn that Bowen’s choice is centred on the fast bit of Interlagos – or more accurately the tricky corner that leads into it. “You have this wonderful corner, Juncao, at the bottom of the hill before that drag through the two left-handers and up on to the start/finish straight,” he says.
“Juncao is relatively bumpy, relatively late apex and it’s got a compression after the apex. Because of the geometry and because it’s bumpy and it’s quite low speed, you need to have a soft set-up on the car to get good traction. You can always tell the cars that are too stiff because they spin up the tyres and just don’t get the power down. And those who can’t get out of Juncao cleanly suffer by the time you get up the hill to the start/finish straight. You can see some significant speed differentials that aren’t always explained by power alone into Turn 1. Often there’s a pass going on there that started hundreds of metres earlier because they were able to get that traction. But having a car that can get that traction at Juncao will be a disadvantage at the high-speed esses [Senna and Curva do Sol] where you need a really solid set-up.”
It’s those contrasting set-up requirements that makes Interlagos such an inspiration to Bowen. “When we design tracks we intentionally go for sequences that are going to require a car to have a spread of set-ups, so hopefully the outcome from that is different teams, engineers and drivers choose to optimise their cars’ set-up at different locations around the track, to suit either their style or the performance parameters of their package,” he says. “With a fair wind that means we are not just going to see DRS passes.”
The contrast will be stark between Interlagos and the run of three Middle Eastern tracks upon which F1 is due to complete its season (assuming, that is, the Jeddah Corniche circuit in Saudi Arabia is as ready as race director Michael Masi has said it will be for its debut on December 5…). Of the four tracks left, which one would you choose to be the venue for the finale? It’s OK, I think I can guess your answer.
Interlagos first replaced Suzuka as the final-round venue in 2004, but it’s a shame that it became an intermittent choice rather than a permanent fixture. Compared to underwhelming but far more financially powerful Abu Dhabi, Brazilian GP finales tended to be dramatic with or without title-decider tension – because as Bowen said, the place naturally encourages good racing. Fernando Alonso won a title at Interlagos, in 2006 – and lost his last shot at a third crown there in 2012 when Sebastian Vettel recovered from first-lap contact with Bruno Senna, nursed his damaged Red Bull all the way and scored the points he needed for his own hat-trick. Fantastic drama – although 2007 and most emphatically 2008 really stand out as the defining Interlagos moments.
The first one was Kimi Räikkönen’s year, of course, when he came from 17 points back after Lewis Hamilton won the Japanese GP to win first in China and then with a dose of Ferrari team orders help from Felipe Massa in Brazil, as the Hamilton/Alonso/McLaren challenge wilted in a fashion that was entirely in keeping with the turmoil surrounding the team at that time. The final points were Räikkönen on 110, Hamilton and Alonso on 109 – with McLaren thrown out from what would have been a first constructors’ title since 1998 thanks to the ‘Spygate’ affair ($100m fine, Ron Dennis angst with Max Mosley ya da, ya da, ya da…). Kimi’s comeback might give hope to Hamilton right now that his current 19-point deficit to Max Verstappen is far from insurmountable, especially with four races to go – but he’ll also accept the odds of his eighth world title are lengthening, and fast.
But he should already have eight, of course, because even though he was a (remarkable) rookie, 2007 should have been his year. It’s also easy to forget he could have even won it on appeal over fuel irregularities found in the BMW-Saubers of Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld that finished ahead of him that day at Interlagos – not that he’d have welcomed a title win in such circumstances.
Verstappen appears to have been making the drivers' title his own in recent races, but as Chris Medland points out, the margins are small and much could still change – history tells us so
McLaren’s final humiliation that year was the title celebration party the team organised at its hotel, such was its pre-race confidence – and which still went ahead, despite the desperate disappointment everyone had been thrown into, as former chief operating officer and newly recruited Aston Martin team principal Martin Whitmarsh recalled.
“In 2007 we all went to Brazil confident of winning the world championship, it was just a question of which driver,” he said. “We didn’t believe we could screw it up… We had the celebratory party which we’d organised, and we all went – apart from Fernando.” Alonso was gone, all too obviously for good (ha!), his reputation sullied by the heavy cloud of his murky role in ‘Spygate’.
“It was a bizarre party, I was so proud of the team,” said Whitmarsh. “There’d been a fuel irregularity for Sauber-BMW which would ordinarily have caused a technical disqualification, and had it done so we’d have won the championship. So I remember after the race I was stuck in my hotel room for two or three hours remonstrating with the stewards. Not how we wanted to win a championship, but you can lose like that on a technicality, so why not? Anyway, it wasn’t going to happen” – although McLaren’s appeal wasn’t thrown out until nearly a month later. “Then at about midnight I remembered the party. I didn’t want to go, I was knackered and we’d just lost. But I felt I ought to go and put my head up. If there was no one there I’d come back and go to bed, but everyone, again apart from Fernando, was there. We had a huge party, but what a weird experience.”
Fast-forward 12 months and the story was somewhat different, after Hamilton passed Timo Glock’sToyota at Juncao – and broke the hearts of Massa, his family, everyone at Ferrari, everyone in Italy and the delirious Brazilian crowds in the Interlagos grandstands.
“In your rookie year in every championship there are no expectations, and the pressure was on Fernando in 2007,” said Whitmarsh. “We had a good car and we should have won. Fernando had the experience and the pedigree, but he got rattled by a variety of things, including Lewis, and all those things conspired for him to fail. But because no one expected Lewis to go up against and beat Fernando in his first year, he had no pressure.” That was not the case in 2008. This time there were no rookie excuses to fall back on.
“Lewis went out on the Saturday night to a sponsor function and someone threw a toy black cat on to the stage to give him bad luck, and that really affected him,” Whitmarsh recalled. “We all had that tension that we can’t f*** this up a second year. The pressure that mounted over the preceding two years was extraordinary. And to deliver, and deliver in the way that he did on the last lap, is something we’ll always remember.”
Could such a finale have played out at Abu Dhabi? Again, I can guess your answer.
“Interlagos is a bit tatty around the edges, which is often the case for circuits that don’t have much to sustain them,” says Bowen. “Their budget for its upkeep is entirely driven by the two or three major events they host in a year, and the rest of the time it’s quiet at the circuit. It’s hard to make a commercial case for a facility like that. But thank goodness it exists and thank goodness it has had adequate investment to keep it on the calendar. It will be a tragedy when it does eventually fall off.”
Interesting he uses the word “when”, isn’t it? Let’s enjoy it while we can.