The 2011 Brazilian Grand Prix Preview

By on Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Aerial view of the Interlagos Circuit

It is almost December and yet we are still racing. Five years ago, the 2006 Formula One calender ended on October 22nd but this year’s finale in Brazil will take place on November 27th, one month later than what we have been accustomed to. Uncertainty about whether the Bahrain Grand Prix would take place this year did not help the situation since the season started much later than usual. Even with the same number of races as this year, the 2005 season was over by October 16th. In 2012, it will similarly end in Brazil on November 25th (given that USA GP is in doubt, that date may be subject to change).

Brazil, which once was one of the first races of the season has evolved into the scene of a perfect showdown for quite some time now. Welcome to Interlagos, the Title Decider. Five drivers’ titles out of last seven were decided in Brazil: Fernando Alonso ('05 and '06), Kimi Raikkonen ('07), Lewis Hamilton ('08) and Jenson Button ('09). The 2010 title would have been decided in Brazil as well, had Abu Dhabi not paid a large sum of money to host the last race of 2010.

The 4.309 km circuit is the second shortest circuit on the calendar after Monte Carlo, but it holds the shortest lap time because of its high average speed. The third sector which begins just before Junçao is driven at almost full-throttle up until the end of Turn 1. This is the most favorable overtaking spot on the circuit, requiring high top speed and torque as cars climb up the hill after Junçao.

Given that overtaking here in Interlagos is not particularly difficult, the powers that be decided that there should be only one DRS zone and that it would not be on the pit straight. At first glance, it appears to be a wise decision but it could turn out to be a pass-and-retake situation as we witnessed in Abu Dhabi, where cars passed each other in consecutive DRS zones resulting in no effective change in positions.

Even though there is officially only one DRS zone, which will be on Reta Oposta - the straight after the Senna S curve, the race might turn out such that we end up having two DRS zones, one of them being an unofficial DRS zone on the pit straight, cancelling out the effect of the official DRS zone. If a driver passes the car in front of him, then the car that was just passed will have a chance to reclaim the position as they would still be very close through Senna S, which is the DRS detection zone. Drivers may choose not to overtake at Turn 1 in order to defend themselves against the official DRS zone. We’ll see.

How much attention will the Brazilian GP receive now that Vettel has run away with the title?

It is slightly strange to go to a grand prix now that both championships have been decided and the teams are merely using the remaining races of the year to test parts for 2012. Although one may wonder whether Vettel will take the last pole position and break Nigel Mansell's record or whether Toro Rosso would leapfrog Sauber in the fight for 7th in the constructors' standings, it remains to be seen how motivated people will be to follow this race closely. Obviously, there won't be as much suspense for this season's finale compared to last year in Abu Dhabi. Still, there are some matters waiting to be resolved. Such as:

  1. Who will drive for Williams in 2012. Williams have indicated that they will decide their driver line-up for 2012 this week. So, we could be hearing that Kimi Raikkonen will join the team in 2012 alongside Pastor Maldonado, leaving Barrichello without a seat. Barrichello has been very active this week, giving interview after interview to proclaim that he still has it and he has hinted that anyone would be a fool not to choose him since he is both fast and experienced.
  2. Robert Kubica. Robert Kubica issued a statement today through Lotus Renault GP that he will not be ready at the beginning of the 2012 season. Renault must now find a top class driver to be teamed up with Vitaly Petrov in 2012. Kubica’s situation is a bit tricky because his contract will end on December 31st 2011, leaving him as a free agent from 2012 onwards. Renault may not be a particularly attractive proposition for Kubica as there will be two competitive seats available in 2013, in the form of Ferrari and Red Bull. If, and a very big IF, he is able to race at all, Renault does not seem to be a good choice as things stand.
  3. New soft tyres for the race. Pirelli has made a bold move in bringing a new soft tyre compound to this race. They believe that this tyre will be harder than the old one and that it will be more durable in the race. Together with the medium tyre, the teams now will have two tyres with performances that are not too far apart from each other. The new soft tyre will not be 1.5 seconds slower than the medium tyre (reportedly only 0.5 - 0.7s slower), so teams could deploy different strategies. We may see one-stop strategies this weekend. Additionally, new soft tyres could mean that HRT or Virgin might not be able to meet 107% rule now that the performance gap between the two compounds will not be that big in Q3.
  4. Safety car and rain. Here the run-off areas are not very big compared to more recent venues on the calendar, so any error or crash would likely deploy the safety car. There are some changes made here and there to create more run-off areas for safety reasons after two fatal crashes this year, but the big changes that are on the agenda for 2012 are a new pit lane entry and revised run-off areas. According to weather reports, showers are also expected on Saturday and Sunday, so we might see a chaotic qualifying session and race.
  5. Brazilian drivers on the edge. Felipe Massa, Bruno Senna and Rubens Barichello will have a very tough race in front of their supporters. Although Massa has contract for 2012, Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo has made it clear that the Brazilian has one last chance to prove himself next season. This will mark Massa's 100th grand prix for Ferrari and a good result such as a podium will be a boost for him. Rubens Barichello, on the other hand, will have a more difficult weekend in front of him as this could be his last race in his career. Williams’ expected driver announcement will be a Sword of Damocles for him and he will have to bear it. He surely will want to have a hell of a grand prix, just like Bruno Senna who would want to the other seat available in Renault next year now that Kubica is out of the equation. He must prove himself, otherwise Romain Grosjean will be the choice of Eric Boullier.

Facts and figures: The last three pole sitters in Brazil have been three different drivers from three different teams: Massa in 2008 with Ferrari, Barrichello in 2009 with Brawn, Hülkenberg in 2010 with Williams. Schumacher and Alonso have only had one pole position each here, neither of which translated into a win. Neither Hamilton, Button nor Alonso have won the Brazilian GP, although the trio claimed their titles in here. Massa won twice from pole position, whereas Michael Schumacher won four times here in his career, none of which came from pole position. Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel are the other winners of Interlagos circuit among the other drivers on the grid. There will be three Brazilian drivers on the grid this year in the names of Felipe Massa, Rubens Barichello and Bruno Senna. There were four Brazilian drivers on the grid last year, the fourth driver being Lucas di Grassi.

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