Brazilian Grand Prix preview - two drivers, one title 30 Oct 2008
McLarens Lewis Hamilton and Ferraris Felipe Massa go head-to-head in the world championship title decider in Brazil this weekend, and it is still impossible to predict who will triumph.
The odds favour the Englishman, who has a seven-point lead after winning last time out in China. However, that was what he had over rival Kimi Raikkonen coming into this race last year, and still it all went awry at the 11th hour.
Technically, Hamilton needs only finish fifth even if Massa wins, in order to beat him by a single point. However, there is an additional complication as McLaren are still fighting Ferrari for the constructors championship, in which the red team have 156 points to the silvers 145. BMW Sauber are third, but out of the overall reckoning now, on 135. McLaren thus have to push hard and need a one-two finish to have any realistic chance of securing both titles, whereas a third and eighth would secure the constructors crown (but not the drivers) for Ferrari.
"I dont need to win the race, but that wont stop me from going into the weekend looking to be as strong as possible," says Hamilton, who will benefit from a new rear wing on his MP4-23. "Shanghai was a good example of that: we hit the ground running on Friday morning and never looked back. Our aim wasnt to push too hard, but we found ourselves in a position at the front and took it comfortably from there. Thats what I am hoping to achieve in Brazil - a straightforward weekend that allows me to just focus on my car and my driving."
Ferrari have been dominant in Interlagos for the past two years, when Massa and Raikkonen respectively won. If it is dry that may remain the case, though the signs are that McLaren have made good progress in the latter part of the season. If it rains, however, as is forecast, the odds surely favour Hamilton even more given his wet-weather form in Monaco and Silverstone, where the Ferraris struggled.
Massa has been keeping his cool and says that the pressure is off him because of Hamiltons lead. He must win with Hamilton either scoring sixth or lower or failing to finish at all. In this respect he may be helped by the Englishmans need to run his engine for a second time after China.
"Yes it's true I have a tougher job than Lewis in terms of the points situation, but my own objective for the weekend is much more straightforward than his," the Brazilian said. "I only have to focus on winning the race, hopefully with my team-mate second. The only thing I am thinking about is winning. After that, the matter is not in my hands and we will have to wait and see exactly what and how much we have won.
"For sure, Lewis will try and put pressure on me, but I have zero pressure, because I have nothing to lose.
In the second McLaren, Heikki Kovalainen must play a key role this weekend in support of his team mate, for Raikkonen will undoubtedly back Massa strongly. The Hungarian Grand Prix winner will have a fresh Mercedes engine in his McLaren. "I want to be able to help the team and Lewis wherever necessary," he says, "but the easiest way to do that is to be running at the front. The team knows I will play my part, but we are also targeting the constructors championship."
While the fight for the crown will inevitably grab all the headlines, there are plenty of other things to be resolved this weekend. There is still a mighty scrap for third place in the drivers' championship between Robert Kubica and Kimi Raikkonen, who have 75 and 69 points respectively. And Nick Heidfelds fifth place on 60 could prove vulnerable if Fernando Alonso wins again for the improving Renault team. The Spaniard has 53 points, but may himself fall victim to Kovalainen who has 51. Elsewhere, Sebastian Vettel and Jarno Trulli are battling for eighth with 30 points apiece.
Besides the Ferrari-McLaren fight for constructors honours, BMW Sauber could still snaffle second from McLaren. Renault are safe in fourth and Toyota fifth, but there is a big fight between Toro Rosso (34), Red Bull Racing (29) and Williams (26) for sixth.
The race will also be notable as David Coulthards last. At the same time, venerable race engineer Steve Hallam is also on the last lap as he will be leaving Formula One for NASCAR for 2009.
From a technical perspective, Interlagos poses two main challenges to the teams. It is 800 metres above sea level, so engine power is reduced as a result of the drop in atmospheric pressure. That also has a negative effect on aerodynamic performance.
The other problem has traditionally been the bumpy surface, though a complete resurface for 2007 caught teams by surprise since the tarmac was relatively smooth. However, some bumps remain, particularly in the braking area for Turn 4, Descida do Lago. To avoid bottoming out on these, cars have to run with increased ride heights, which reduces the effectiveness of their diffusers.
There are two favoured overtaking points. The first is going into the S do Senna at the start of the lap after a driver has been able to get a good slipstreaming run up the hill from the vitally important final corner, Juncao or Turn 12. The second is under braking for the Descida do Lago left-hander at the end of the back straight.
This year Bridgestone are bringing their medium and soft compound tyres after discovering last year that their super-soft was not quite durable enough to suit the tracks unusual characteristics. They are expecting a lot of graining early on thanks to the twisty infield section, and the initial greenness of the track before it cleans up and rubbers in.