Feature: Why Interlagos is so special
Once again we enter that odd Formula 1 equivalent of purgatory. The big prize – the world drivers’ championship – is resolved. Yet still we have to go through the motions of completing the races that remain on the calendar.
It’s also something we’re growing used to as the rule rather than the exception, as now only four of the last 11 F1 seasons have had the championship still open come the last race.
Dead rubbers can though have an attraction of their own. There always something to be said for taking the shackles off. Perhaps not coincidentally, some of the most memorable races in history came after the drivers’ crown was decided – Monza in 1971, Suzuka in 2005...
And specifically for this weekend, we can add the attraction of where we are. As it is hard to imagine Brazilian Grands Prix at the Interlagos circuit ever being ordinary. This Sao Paulo venue has shown itself over time to be a place where nothing can be ruled out, however unforeseen. Or implausible.
Some of this can be explained. It is a claustrophobic place, on track as well as off. As one of the shortest circuits on the calendar, with in many parts a sense of constant twist and turn, other cars usually are near at hand and drivers forever have their hands full.
Add that it’s narrow and bumpy and set in a natural bowl. Things to hit are close at various points - both in terms of rivals and barriers. By extension safety cars are a common disruption and variable.
Even its cramped pits have leant to the claustrophobic air. As do the fervent fans packed in the grandstands, almost overhanging the track at points, particularly in the tunnel-like Boxes start-finish section.
The Senna ‘S’ at the start of the lap is often the scene of dicing and no little grief, not least the first time through. First-lap crashes are common here generally.
The track can be tough on equipment, with the many undulations and acceleration zones testing gearboxes and engines and both, nearing the year’s end, will be close to the end of their respective lives. The turbos are worked harder in the altitude. The twist and turn, and left-handed layout and variation of corner speed, tax drivers physically as well.
Interlagos has shown itself over time to be a place where nothing can be ruled out, however unforeseen. Or implausible
Furthermore the short lap has implications for finding space in practice and qualifying as well as for hitting lapped traffic in the race. The lap length usually ensures also that qualifying times are tight – last year Carlos Sainz dropped out in Q1 with a best but just over a second slower than the very quickest. Finding a set-up balance can be tricky, between an incongruous twisty middle section and the full-pelt blasts elsewhere.
Rain also is a perennial local threat. Both deluges and sprinkles are known here and have equal ability to shuffle the pack. In either case they tend to arrive suddenly. Even if it stays dry temperatures here can vary between very hot and rather cool, which further confuses engineers.
Yet, even with all of the above, some of Interlagos’s ways cannot be explained. After all, where else would an F1 qualifying session have to be stopped three times due to advertising hoardings falling onto the track? Where else has a driver taken a long-awaited first F1 victory – with his car on fire at the end – only to not have it confirmed for a week due to an odd timing glitch? Where else has a team had to withdraw and go home as its rear wings couldn’t hold together over the bumps?
Where else has a driver been denied in the last race an apparently sure title due a mysterious, and still largely unexplained, problem slowing him to a cruise for half a lap? Where else has a title destination changed with literally one corner left, thanks to a marginal intensifying of the rain, depriving the local hero amid heartache?
Where else has a title been won after a first-lap whack that by rights should have ended his day? Where else has a victory been lost as – for the first time in however long – a backmarker tried to un-lap himself from the said leader and the cars clashed?
Where else can an aggressive new boy announce himself to the world by outbraking F1’s long-time standard bearer from a mile back to take the lead, only to later be wiped out by a backmarker?
Where else are power cuts in the paddock so common? Where else does rain usually result in commentary boxes and the like being flooded? Only Interlagos.
Yet some of Interlagos’s ways cannot be explained. After all, where else would an F1 qualifying session have to be stopped three times due to advertising hoardings falling onto the track?
And even the rain at Interlagos it seems has a through-the-looking-glass logic. In 2003 a river from a nearby spectator bank ran across the track throughout, and eliminated six cars including that of Michael Schumacher who hadn’t failed to finish an F1 race in near enough two years.
In 2012 only Jenson Button and Nico Hulkenberg twigged that staying out on slicks as the rain fell was somehow the quicker option, and they led by half a lap for a time as a consequence.
And we perhaps even so haven’t quite reached Interlagos’s panacea. Rather, that is to do with Sao Paulo hometown hero Ayrton Senna. He is in large part synonymous with the place, not least due to his dramatic victory in 1991 – which was entirely in keeping with Interlagos’s ways.
Senna by then had somehow never yet won the Brazilian Grand Prix, but that time it looked certain after he prevailed in a lengthy battle with Nigel Mansell’s Williams then Mansell dropped out with a broken gearbox, leaving Senna with a country-mile lead of 40 seconds with just 11 laps left.
But this, as explained, is Interlagos. At almost the same moment the country-mile lead over Mansell’s team-mate Riccardo Patrese started to be slashed by several seconds a lap.
It was clearly beyond any deliberate cruising to the flag, and indeed it transpired that amid gearbox problems Senna was keeping his car in sixth gear, his McLaren almost stalling in the slow corners. Worse Senna was dealing with all sorts of neck and shoulder problems. Then it started to rain too.
It looked, unbelievably, that Senna would be denied at home again, but a combination of Patrese developing his own gearbox woe and Senna’s own grim determination meant he hung on to win amid local euphoria.
There is no other place where you can stand on the grid and have such atmosphere, because the crowd is right there, they can touch you - Ann Bradshaw
Two years later Senna’s involvement in the race didn’t even look certain as, with McLaren relying on customer Ford engines and a long way off the Williams’ pace, he toyed with a sabbatical. Senna did race at Interlagos, but otherwise the expected pattern was being adhered to, particularly as Senna had to serve a stop-go penalty for passing under yellow.
But then, this being Interlagos, an extraordinary cloudburst shifted matters his way. Williams-one Alain Prost slid off, after a miscommunication meant he didn’t pit for wets, then Senna after a safety car invention sliced past Williams-two Damon Hill for a lead he kept.
“There is no other place where you can stand on the grid and have such atmosphere, because the crowd is right there, they can touch you,” Ann Bradshaw has noted.
“Absolutely electric, one of the most electric grids. It’s even more electric than Monza, much more. The tifosi are very excitable but this is was a passion: it was Ayrton’s race because that was where he came from…Ayrton is buried in Morumbi just down the road.
“The other amazing thing was that the circuit dips and dives and you see Sao Paulo all around you. It’s a great circuit and it has produced great races.”
Interlagos used to be even more of a monster. Originally it had a five-mile spaghetti-like layout. The track opened in 1940 and the rise in celebrity of Sao Paulo native Emerson Fittipaldi in the early 1970s piqued local interest. After a non-championship race in 1972 the track made its debut on the F1 championship calendar in ‘73.
The non-championship race contained perhaps an appropriately-absurdist calling card – as three of the 11 competing cars had to drop out of the race about as soon as it begun, as dust kicked up from the track by the cars ahead jammed their throttles!
The first two championship races here were both won by Fittipaldi while, continuing Interlagos’s charmed life for local victors, Carlos Pace took his only F1 championship race win there the following year.
This knack continued with Senna’s afore-mentioned wins and another local boy Felipe Massa bagging a couple of victories here. On the other hand though Rubens Barrichello’s local luck here was foul, including nine non-finishes in a row which itself conatined – in what surely was an Interlagos special – running out of fuel in 2003 when it looked like he was cruising to the win.
Come the end of the 1970s though the sharp increase in cornering speeds and in strain on equipment meant the old Interlagos track’s bumps and safety arrangements came into negative focus, meaning its days suddenly were numbered. Indeed the final visit to the old layout, in 1980, came pretty close to having an 11th-hour drivers’ boycott.
The replacement Jacarepagua track in Rio was never entirely loved though, and Interlagos, prompted by the rise of local boy Senna, got a $15million dollar facelift.
A revised layout used a lot of the previous track by neat shortcut linking of existing sections, cutting its length by around half, not least via the afore-mentioned Senna ‘S’. This helped retain much of the old character.
F1 was back at Interlagos in 1990, and – despite the odd inevitable threat – has stayed ever since. And it carved a niche all of its own.