Saturday, 1 November 2008

Brazilian Grand Prix Qualifying: Massa On Pole For Title Showdown

Felipe Massa will start the Brazilian Grand Prix, the most important race of his life, from pole position after a brilliant performance at his beloved Interlagos circuit. He knows that to stand a realistic chance of winning the Driver's Championship he needs to win the race tomorrow, and he has given himself the best possible chance. Lewis Hamilton will have to defend his seven point lead from 4th place, and possibly on a different strategy to the Ferraris. Toyota's Jarno Trulli put in an incredible performance to take a surprise second place ahead of Kimi Raikkonen.

The first of the three mini-sessions saw few problems or dramas for the major players. Massa, Raikkonen and Hamilton filled the top three spots and were all very close. Alonso showed the pace of the Renault with fourth. Kovalainen didn't get the most out of the McLaren and only managed 8th place, but was easily through regardless. At the wrong end of the grid the Force Indias struggled as expected and propped up the time sheets. Both Williams cars looked extremely poor despite previously looking reasonably strong all weekend long, and both went out along with Button who saw his team mate Barrichello just squeeze through into the final session.

The second session was a little more interesting than the first. For the first ten minutes or so everything went like clockwork. Raikkonen, Massa and Hamilton all looked supremely quick and held the top three places. Then all of a sudden some more un-fancied drivers started putting up some stunning lap times. We shouldn't be too surprised to see Kovalainen so quick given the machinery under him, but Vettel produced a great lap out of nowhere, as did Glock. Suddenly the top two teams felt a little bit of heat and were forced to send their drivers out again just in case.

In the end both Ferraris made it through, but Raikkonen in particular was flying a little too close to the wind for comfort with P6. Ferrari need a big performance from him in terms of the two titles, and he will also want a good showing to reclaim third place in the title race. His chances of that third place were aided somewhat by the poor performance of Robert Kubica who could only manage 12th fastest. It's a shame to see Kubica losing his way a little at the end of such a great season for him. His 2008 season looks to be ending with a bit of a whimper.

The third session was what everyone was really waiting for though, and it didn't disappoint. Massa was the first of the major players out on track for the opening salvoes of Q3 and he put in a fantastic first lap. 1:12.4 is a tidy lap in any conditions, but to do it with race fuel is very impressive. Raikkonen couldn't match his team mate, and nor could any one else. Hamilton had a very untidy first lap. He perhaps went out a little to fast on his outlap and over-cooked his tyres a tad. He almost lost the back end a couple of times throughout the lap, but kept it on the black stuff to set something of a disappointing lap.

The second and final hotlaps saw Massa again on great form. He managed to go marginally faster second time around, and ended up significantly faster than anyone else out there. Although we know Massa loves this race-track, we have to think that Massa is lighter on fuel considering he ended up almost half a second faster than his team mate Kimi. Hamilton improved significantly, but it wasn't enough to quite trouble the Ferraris. He was just five thousandths of a second behind Raikkonen, and it looked as though he would be sitting behind an all Ferrari front row. Both McLarens seemed to struggle in the middle sector and were significantly slower there than all the others drivers around them, with Kovalainen finishing just behind Hamilton.

When Alonso failed to match either the McLarens or Ferraris it looked for all the world as though it would be two Ferraris followed by two McLarens on the grid. Then out of nowhere Jarno Trulli put in an amazing lap to split the Ferraris and take second place! Trulli is known as a qualifying specialist, but I don't think even the most hardened Trulli fan would have expected this result. He must surely be VERY light on fuel, but Trulli's presence puts an interesting and unexpected element into the mix for tomorrow's title decider.

The other potential wild-card factor is the position of Fernando Alonso sitting in sixth, right behind his bitter rival Hamilton. Alonso has made no secret of the fact that he would dearly love to see Hamilton and his former employers fail tomorrow, and Hamilton certainly will not relish having the Spaniard right on his gearbox going into the first two turns.

If everyone finishes in the same place they start the race, Hamilton will be champion. However, he would dearly love to have been starting up on the front row. Both McLaren drivers have hinted that perhaps they are on a different strategy to those infront of him after seeing the pace of particularly Massa and Trulli. Could strategy be the deciding factor in the World Title? There is also the issue of tyre degradation. The option tyres Bridgestone have brought have been graining up badly in practice, and tyre management could well be a key factor. Of course, the other major factor may be the weather. Rain is still forecast for tomorrow, and when the rain falls anything can happen.

Provisional Starting Grid

1. Massa
2. Trulli
3. Raikkonen
4. Hamilton
5. Kovalainen
6. Alonso
7. Vettel
8. Heidfeld
9. Bourdais
10. Glock
11. Piquet
12. Webber
13. Kubica
14. Coulthard
15. Barrichello
16. Nakajima
17. Button
18. Rosberg
19. Fisichella
20. Sutil

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Friday, 31 October 2008

Brazilian Grand Prix: Massa lays down the benchmark in first practice

The two title protagonists both kicked off their weekends with impressive showings in Friday's first practice sessions. The closing minutes of the session saw Massa pip Hamilton to first place in a relatively quiet session that had been dominated by Hamilton up until that point.

The session began with ominous looking grey clouds around the Sao Paulo circuit, and a third of the way through the session rain did begin to fall. However, the rain wasn't more than a light shower and although it made conditions slippery (Raikkonen was the first man to spin this weekend) the conditions weren't too bad. All drivers though seemed somewhat cautious for much of the session, with very limited running for the first half an hour or so. Indeed, Kimi Raikkonen sat in the pits for over an hour before coming out to set a time. It didn't hold him back too much though, as he ended up setting third fastest time just a fraction slower than Hamilton.

So first blood went to Massa then, though I suspect Hamilton will be more than happy to follow Massa home as closely as that all weekend long. Both drivers look strong, and certainly Hamilton still looks odds on favourite to take the title on this form...

First Practice Times

01 F. Massa Ferrari 1:12.305 24 laps
02 L. Hamilton McLaren 1:12.495 23 laps
03 K. Räikkönen Ferrari 1:12.507 18 laps
04 R. Kubica BMW 1:12.874 24 laps
05 H. Kovalainen McLaren 1:12.925 20 laps
06 F. Alonso Renault 1:13.061 25 laps
07 M. Webber Red Bull 1:13.298 24 laps
08 N. Piquet jr. Renault 1:13.378 39 laps
09 N. Heidfeld BMW 1:13.426 28 laps
10 T. Glock Toyota 1:13.466 33 laps
11 J. Trulli Toyota 1:13.600 24 laps
12 N. Rosberg Williams 1:13.621 23 laps
13 S. Bourdais Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:13.649 30 laps
14 R. Barrichello Honda 1:13.676 28 laps
15 J. Button Honda 1:13.766 13 laps
16 K. Nakajima Williams 1:13.806 24 laps
17 S. Vettel Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:13.836 30 laps
18 D. Coulthard Red Bull 1:13.861 19 laps
19 A. Sutil Force India F1 1:14.704 21 laps
20 G. Fisichella Force India F1 1:14.821 21 laps
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Brazilian Grand Prix: Preview

So, this is it. After a year dogged by the usual fair share of self-inflicted controversy in which occasionally some racing broke out, some of it sensationally good and some just plain sensational, it all boils down to this. Two men and two teams with the fate of the championships in their hands. 71 laps of Sao Paulo's Interlagos circuit to decide that fate.

Hamilton heads into the weekend with the title tantalisingly close to his grasp. Just as with last year's dramatic season finale, the task in front of him seems all too easy. But we all know what happened 12 months ago, and Hamilton will surely have those thoughts weighing heavily on his mind throughout the weekend. He only has to finish in 5th place and the title will be his regardless of other results, but anything can happen in motor racing, and this seemingly simplistic task could easily be taken out of his hands by something like a mechanical failure or puncture. Besides, we all know Hamilton is a fiercely competitive racer and not the sort to settle for 5th place, so there is always the potential for fireworks.

By contrast, Felipe Massa will be feeling comparatively little pressure. With the odds against him he knows that all he has to do is go out in front of his home fans and try to win the race. Nobody will criticise him if he fails to win the title, and if he DOES win the title the scenes of celebration will be unprecedented for the home town hero. He has nothing to lose, whereas Hamilton potentially has it all to lose.

Ferrari are comfortably ahead in the constructor's championship, and anything other than a complete disaster for Ferrari will see them claim their second WCC in a row. Realistically, McLaren will be pinning all their hopes of glory on Hamilton taking the WDC. But they will still be harbouring dreams of snatching both titles from under the noses of their arch rivals, and will be demanding a much improved showing from Heikki Kovalainen if they are to spring a surprise. Indeed, both Finnish drivers could end up being key players in both titles if team tactics come into play, although it is a role that neither will particularly relish after both having such a torrid season.

The weather has been a massive factor this season, with thrilling races at both Monaco and Silverstone and a dramatic qualifying session at Monza springing to mind. I don't think I can remember a season in which the weather has played a role so often, and the season's finale doesn't look like it's going to disappoint. Early weather predictions suggests that there will be rain at regular intervals throughout the weekend, adding further spice to the championship mix. When the rain has fallen it has been Hamilton who has been the standout driver of the field, although he and his team did make a mistake with tyre choices in the rain of Monza qualifying. Massa has struggled badly in the past with rain, particularly his humiliating experience at Silverstone this year.

You would think that on past history the rain would favour Hamilton, but all sort of strange things can happen in the wet. None more so than at Interlagos in 2003. That race was controversially started under safety car conditions such was the severity of the rain. Then an enormous crash caused by a then naive and reckless Fernando Alonso brought about a red flag. Everyone assumed Raikkonen had deservedly won the race, but that honour instead went on count back to Jordan's Giancarlo Fisichella because he was last to pit, despite the fact that his car was a flaming mess at the side of the road by the time the red flag came out! Goes to show that anything can happen when the heavens open...

There has been talk in the gutter press about the potential of Massa or Ferrari attempting to run Hamilton off the road or vice-versa, much of it bizarrely instigated by Eddie Jordan. However, both drivers have been quick to point out that although they will be racing as hard as ever, neither driver would want to be tarnished by using any kind of underhand tactics to win the title. And quite right too.

Regardless of which way the championship is concluded, there is sure to be an incredible story and incredible scenes at the chequered flag. Either we will have the most talked about and most hyped man in motor sport becoming the youngest F1 champion in history, or we will have the underdog from Brazil winning the title on his home circuit, sparking off incredible scenes from the passionate Brazilian fans. Either way, it could be epic...
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