Ferrari previews Brazil

And so we come to the penultimate round of the season, the Brazilian Grand Prix. That in itself is an unusual statement, as the race at Interlagos has brought the curtain down on the Formula 1 calendar every year since 2006. In the past three years, the fact this was the final round has added to the buzz, but even so, the current championship situation means that the weekend should provide the usual Brazilian mix of tension, drama and excitement.

In the past few years, Felipe Massa has been very much at the centre of this excitement, so it is appropriate that, for Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro, this week started under the sign of the Brazilian flag, when our driver came to Maranello and on Monday, got behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car for the first time since his accident during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix back in July. Running a privately owned F2007, fitted with tires used in GP2, the session went well, despite being interrupted by heavy rain. “The moment I got back in the car, it was exactly like before the accident, as if nothing had happened," said Felipe. “It was important to demonstrate to the people who work with me that nothing has changed, that I can be competitive and that I can contribute to what will be the new car and to next year’s fight for the title. I knew that everything was 95% alright and after the test I can even cancel out the last 5% of doubt I had." Felipe’s absence from the cockpit creates an unusual statistic in that this will be the first time since 1999 that Ferrari has not had a Brazilian driver lining up on the Interlagos grid.

Having returned home from the Far East and Japan, part of the Scuderia has already made the journey west to Brazil, with the remainder arriving in the next few days. The cars and equipment were flown directly to Sao Paulo from Japan, after the race cars had been rebuilt in the Suzuka paddock on the Sunday night after the race.

The Interlagos circuit has been good to Ferrari in past years and has provided the backdrop to some significant moments for the Prancing Horse: 2006 saw a fantastic win from Felipe Massa, dressed for the occasion in overalls bearing the Brazilian national colors. That day, Michael Schumacher did not make the podium, but emotions ran high as it was the German’s last F1 race. The following year, it was Kimi Raikkonen who clinched the win and the world title, with Felipe joining him on the podium in second place. Last year produced possibly the most exciting race and championship finish of all time, when Felipe crossed the line as winner of the race and for a short moment as winner of the Drivers’ title, only for Lewis Hamilton to snatch it away in the final few hundred meters.

While the atmosphere at Interlagos will surely be as intense and emotional as ever, Ferrari arrives here in a very different situation to those past years, fighting for the more modest aim of finishing third in the Constructors’ championship. Perhaps the team can take heart by looking back to 2005, another difficult season for the team, as back then, the cars were more competitive here than at other tracks. This year, when again the team is struggling to match the quickest cars, the F60 will benefit from the use of KERS, which should make a significant difference on the uphill sections to the main straight, as well as the shorter back straight. However, as other teams continue to develop their current car, the challenge facing the Scuderia, whose technical focus has long since shifted to 2010, gets ever tougher.

The famous anti-clockwise track demands a large degree of compromise in terms of car set-up, as it is fast in parts, but sufficient downforce is also required to deal with the slower middle sector. However, in order to improve the chances of overtaking and defending position, maintaining a good top speed level is important for Sunday afternoon. A further factor for the engineers to take into account is that the circuit is around 800 meters above sea level which saps power from the engines. At 4.3 kilometers in length, this is a very short track: last year, Massa’s pole winning lap time was a very short 1’12"368, which means the qualifying times are invariably much closer here than elsewhere. When one considers that close lap times have been a season-long feature, it could be a case of the difference between a place on the front three or back three rows of the grid being decided by hundredths of a second, therefore a perfect lap will be required to ensure a chance of delivering a reasonable result the following afternoon.

In recent races, Bridgestone have brought tires that stand next to one another in the list of compounds, but for this race, the supply reverts to the previous practice of bringing two types that are significantly different and here the choice will be between the “Supersoft" and the “Medium" which has occasionally proved problematic this year, especially in the opening round in Melbourne, although less so in Bahrain and at the Nurburgring. The Supersoft could come under severe strain because of the characteristics of the track, which would then impact on strategic choices regarding when to run it and for how many laps during the race. The weather could also play its part, as at this time of year, almost every day sees rain at Interlagos, although its time and duration is hard to predict.

Between them, our two drivers have two wins and five further Sao Paulo podiums. In fact, they are very closely linked in one instance: the 2003 race ended in rain-induced chaos and after the checkered flag, Kimi was declared the winner. It was only a few days later that it was decided there had been an error and that the real winner was Giancarlo Fisichella, then driving for Jordan. In an amusing ceremony on the grid at the following round in Imola, the two drivers duly swapped their second and first placed trophies. Kimi, who will celebrate his thirtieth birthday this Saturday, won for real in 2007, with three second places and one third since 2003, while Giancarlo finished second in 2000. Ferrari PR

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