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Sunday, November 2, 2008

Felipe Massa and the Brazilian analysis

Felipe Massa starts the Brazilian Grand Prix from pole position with title rival Lewis Hamilton down in fourth on the grid.

But which of them is carrying the most fuel? Can Hamilton avoid trouble at the start? And how will the expected rain affect the race? Here are my pre-race thoughts on the Brazilian Grand Prix - add yours below.

The grid and the start

Felipe Massa shares the front row with Jarno Trulli, who starts from the front row of the grid for the first time this year.

Massa should be worried about what Trulli can do from that position. At Singapore Truli gained two places at the start (11th-9th), at Fuji he gained three (7th-4th) and at Shanghai he collided with the driver he started alongside. None of those scenarios are what Massa has in mind for turn one tomorrow.

What will work in Massa’s favour is that the odd-numbered slots on the grid are on the ‘clean’ side of the track: that’s good news for him and team mate Kimi Raikkonen, exactly as it was last year. As Raikkonen said today:

I am in a good starting place and I prefer to be third than second, it is a pretty good place to start.

It’s bad news for Lewis Hamilton, who starts in fourth. Heikki Kovalainen, who starts fifth, may have no option but to pass his team mate at the start. Trying anything too clever may end up in a disastrous collision. And if Fernando Alonso gets away cleanly from sixth, Hamilton could be facing a repeat of his 2007 nightmare scenario once again.

An added complication is the incline on the Interlagos grid - the driver at the front of the grid are on an uphill slope, the drivers at the rear are pointing downhill.

If it does rain tomorrow as forecast (see below) the race may be started behind the safety car as it was at Monza. That would be perfect for Massa, who would be guaranteed an unchallenged, unimpaired run into the first corner - unless he screws up the start like Rubens Barrichello did in the same situation five years ago.


Massa’s considerable time advantage (0.4s over Trulli, 0.5s over Raikkonen) has led many to speculate he’s very light on fuel. That’s probably part of it, but he’s always been good for a hot lap of Interlagos. This is his third consecutive pole position, and in 2004 he stuck his Sauber in fourth on the grid.

Although Hamilton’s first timed lap was scruffy his second was much better, so he probably tends towards being a few laps heavier. However, it would be unusual if he did not pit on the lap after Massa’s first stop, because were the safety car to come out after Massa’s stop and before Hamilton’s it would utterly destroy his race.

How far can Ferrari use Raikkonen to assist Massa? Raikkonen is very likely to stil be ahead of Hamilton at the end of lap one. And Massa needs Hamilton to finish outside the top five to win the title. So will Ferrari create a ‘Raikkonen train’ to let Massa (and potentially Trulli) get away and hope a few cars pass Hamilton?

It’s been done before - Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine adopted similar tactics with Jacques Villeneuve at Suzuka in 1997. But that was before the rule banning team orders was introduced - could Ferrari get away with such blatant team tactics in 2008?


Did Nico Rosberg qualify poorly because he has a wet weather setup?

If the forecast heavy rain does arrive, then most of the assumptions above will be thrown out of the window. The teams have done no running on the track in wet conditions this weekend and there is no provision in the rules for such practice to be added.

The teams are allowed to make some modifications to their cars if it rains, but they are limited to adding tape to brake and radiator ducts to keep them in the correct working temperature ranges.

They cannot alter any other parts of the car setup than they might normally be allowed to. It is possible that some teams gambled on wet weather coming tomorrow and put their cars on more suitable setups accordingly. A glance at the grid suggests Williams have gone towards a wet-weather setup.

The last time we saw heavy rain at Interlagos was in 2003. On that occasion several drivers aquaplaned off the road at turn three because poor drainage caused a mini-river of water to flow across the track. The resurfacing work carried out last year may have solved that problem.

For the title contenders, rain is an added threat as it brings a greater degree of unpredictability. However Hamiton will probably welcome the rain more than Massa, as he has fared much better in wet conditions this year. More analysis of the likely impact of wet weather here.

Safety car

Rain also increases the chance of safety car periods - but whether they occur in the dry or the wet they have the potential to decide the championship in a random and highly unsatisfactory manner.

As we saw in Singapore a poorly-timed safety car can destroy a driver’s race through no fault of their own. When the safety car is deployed, the pit lane entrance is ‘closed’ and if a driver is forced to pit (or face running out of fuel) they automatically incur a penalty.

Neither of the two championship contenders has suffered that misfortune this year. If it were to happen tomorrow it would be a terrible way to decide the championship, especially given that the FIA have had two years to fix the problem.


What strategies do you think the drivers are on? How do you think the start will unfold? Share your analysis below.

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