TopGear.com reports trackside from the Brazilian Grand Prix

For the deciding race of an epic F1 season, TopGear.com’s Jason Barlow will be reporting back trackside from Brazil. Check back for regular updates from Interlagos through the weekend as we find out who is going to take the title… 

Sunday, 22.30 GMT

The best F1 race ever. Not my opinion – though I wouldn’t disagree – but the conclusion of some bloke called Niki Lauda. Nelson Piquet, who conducted the podium interviews this afternoon, said much the same. They have six world championships between them, so they have a rough idea what they’re talking about.

Topgear.com shuttled frenziedly between the Red Bull garage and parc fermé to watch the race (a fabled land never normally visited by a journalist, but more of that in the next issue of Top Gear magazine), and so intense was the action that we almost certainly missed something even though it took barely 30 seconds to do the journey.

At Red Bull, you could have cut the atmosphere with a cricket bat, to quote the great Murray Walker. On the ‘prat perch’ team principal Christian Horner’s hyperactive feet were jiggling so fast he wore a groove in the metal frame on his seat. Who could blame him? An overcast morning had given way to a brief blast of heat and a glimmer of blue sky, but by the time the race started the sky was as gloomy as Albert Steptoe’s backyard. You probably know what happened in the race, but it looked like it was all over for Vettel before it had really started when he was tagged by Raikkonen and then a luckless Bruno Senna. Instead he leaves Brazil the youngest driver in history to win three world championships, as well as expanding his line in quirky observations. ‘When you get turned around at Turn Four for no reason and it becomes like heading the wrong way down the M25 it’s not the most comfortable feeling.’ It didn’t look it, though we’ve never been on the M25 facing the wrong way, thankfully.

When topgear.com asked him if this was the single most difficult race of his career, he said, ‘I said it on the radio, but again you didn’t hear it… for sure the toughest race. Being in a situation to fight for the championship means that you’re not on holiday but just look at the stuff that went wrong…’ No kidding; this wasn’t a motor race, more of a Homeric odyssey, and one conducted without the aid of radio comms to the pit-wall in a race where even the chat-averse Kimi Raikkonen would need all the help he could get. Vettel, it must be said, drove his socks off here, and demonstrated the sort of mettle, race-craft and grit that his critics routinely say he lacks. Christian Horner apparently listed all the three-time champions before him as he cruised back in. ‘You forgot Prost!’ Vettel replied. (A four-times champion, but still.)

If, in the final analysis, he deserves this championship, then Fernando Alonso – who misses out for the second time in three years at the last race by the slenderest of margins – was astonishingly gracious in defeat. I stood very close to him in the parc fermé immediately after the race, and watching him compose himself for 20 seconds before leaping into the embrace of his besotted team was a real eye-opener. To describe the guy as a class act would be a gigantic understatement. ‘If we had to repeat these 20 races I would change nothing done by the team or yours truly: no mistakes, no mechanical problems, zero problems at the pit stops, zero strategic mistakes. We definitely did not lose the title today; that happened in Spa or Suzuka.’

Ferrari’s team principal Stefano Domenicali was equally magnanimous. ‘It hurts a lot, I can assure you of that. I just want to point out that Fernando ended where he did having effectively only taken part in 18 of the 20 races. The few hundred metres he covered in Spa and Suzuka lays heavy like a rock on today’s outcome. But I want to congratulate Sebastian who is a great adversary.’

Let’s not forget Jenson, who drove a very classy race indeed. Or Hulkenberg whose performance makes you wonder why on earth McLaren have hired the increasingly wayward Perez to replace Lewis instead of him. And commiserations to Lewis himself, who leaves a hole that McLaren know full well is cavernous.

So, that’s that. The best F1 race ever, concluding a frankly epic season. Good night and good luck. It’s been emotional. Now please try to remain pointing the right way on the M25 tomorrow.

PS: in a surreal final twist, topgear.com found itself explaining to Hollywood star Owen Wilson who Nelson Piquet was during the podium ceremony. ‘Why is Massa crying?’ he then asked. ‘Because he’s Brazilian, and that’s what they do… very passionate.’

Saturday, 21.00 GMT

Firstly, apologies for the late posting; team Top Gear was working on a pretty special bunch of things today, which you can read about in the magazine… soon.

Anyway, the Sunday Afternoon Club has covered the qualifying action, so you’ll know by now that McLaren looks imperious, both Vettel and Alonso are clearly rattled by the magnitude of the situation – Alonso has been outpaced by Massa all weekend, and Vettel didn’t quite hook it up today – and as I write, it’s gearing up for more rain. A belter is in store tomorrow, no question.

Interestingly, a Ferrari ‘insider’ told me the team were actually reasonably optimistic about Alonso’s chances. Maldonado’s failure to report for his weigh-in has helped move Fernando up the grid, and he now starts seventh. In the media centre, meanwhile, a few waspish characters wondered just how far Ferrari would push Massa in aid of the cause…

Given the McLaren qualifying one-two, I thought you might want to read the interview I took part in earlier this evening, which also featured team principal Martin Whitmarsh. Some quite interesting stuff…

McLaren Q&A
 
Are you running a wet set-up tomorrow?

Jenson Button: You don’t really do that any more. You don’t need to. The way the car is normally is the best wet set-up anyway. If it’s a full downforce circuit there isn’t anything else you would do to help balance the car.

McLaren started the season on top, and you’re finishing it fastest. What happened in between?

Martin Whitmarsh: In an ideal year you start with a quick car, you develop it better than anyone else, and you stay ahead. Our season’s been a little bit mixed. We started well, faltered a bit in terms of speed and development and our understanding of the tyres, we had a few operational mistakes, had a strong period, before enduring some reliability problems, and now we’re finishing strongly. You don’t set out to do that and it’s frustrating at the time, but we have one race ahead of us, and it would be nice to win that as a team with a one-two finish. [pause] We’ve had better seasons, but we’ve had worse.

Is it more difficult to be consistent these days? Nobody has really managed it this year, have they?

MW: There are some well-funded teams, we’re in a period of comparative rule stability so it’s quite close, the tyres have been tricky, certainly in the first half of the season, there are lots of world champions fighting on the track – two of them are either side of me here – so the strength and depth on the grid in terms of drivers and teams is, in my view, the strongest it’s ever been. So yes, it’s more difficult to be dominant. And that’s good for the sport.

You ran with the 2013 Pirelli tyres on Friday morning. Verdict?

JB: The new tyre has a wider working range so it’s going to be easier for everyone to get them working. We’ve had to change the car a lot this year to get it working properly on the tyres, when normally we would spend that time developing the car. So it has hurt us this year. I don’t think that’s going to be the case next year. Even after one run on the new tyres, you get a feeling it’s back to the tyres of old. I think we’ll get the tyre working very quickly.

Who’s going to blub first tomorrow?

JB: That’s a question for Lewis, not me…
LH: Uh, well I won’t be showing you guys any tears.

Lewis, simple final question: what’s the stand-out moment for you after five years at McLaren, and as you prepare to leave the team?

LH: [long pause] Probably my first Grand Prix win. [face lights up] I couldn’t believe I was even in F1, I couldn’t believe I’d had consecutive podiums, in fact I still can’t believe today how I had that consistency back then because I’ve been struggling to do the same since! It felt like we’d really made it.

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Saturday, 13.40 GMT

Day two got off to an amusing start. Breakfast with Ferrari test driver Marc Gene, who probably qualifies as the nicest bloke in ALL motorsport. He was extremely keen to know which driver British racing fans – and media – wanted to win the championship. Alonso I reckoned, despite regularly being painted as a panto villain, and his bumpy year at McLaren. Vettel’s a cool guy, and a fully paid-up anglophile who can recite chunks of old Monty Python sketches off by heart, but are we not connecting with Red Bull like we should? I’d like to know.

While mulling that over I bumped into an old friend who is now right at the top of the Nissan food chain, the bloke who did the deal to tie Infiniti to Red Bull. How does a Red Bull/Infiniti supercar sound? It’s on the table, apparently, but first Nissan’s Nismo performance sub-brand is going to get a welcome worldwide kick in the arse.

Deliberately got myself dropped off at the track a good walk away from the main entrance so that I could sample the atmosphere. Sao Paulo is a fantastic city, full of hot-blooded lunatics, most of whom seemed to be wearing Ferrari gear. It’s a cliché, but they really do know how to have a good time all of the time over here.

Followed Nico Rosberg into the circuit, and then got invited into the Lotus garage by team owner and helpless petrol-head, the excellent Gerard Lopez (latest purchases – Ferrari F40 and late-’80s Alpina B7). Watched the guys warming the Renault engines through – it’s a sound that everyone should get to hear, in the flesh – while the grandstands opposite started to fill up. An hour or so later, the stars aligned and topgear.com found itself sitting beside race director Charlie Whiting in Race Control – more of which in the next issue of Top Gear magazine – when Kimi’s engine let go during FP3.

The guys in Race Control run a gigantically complex real-time data feed, including telemetry on every car: useful for establishing whether a driver didn’t slow down sufficiently under waved yellows, for example. A two-hour job to fit a new engine, the BBC’s brilliant technical analyst Gary Anderson told me shortly after, with no penalty. Not the best preparation for Raikkonen’s qualifying. Jenson Button, meanwhile, was running more wing for extra downforce, and stormed to the top of the time sheets on a 1.13.1, from Vettel and Webber.

Let’s see if he can replicate that in qualifying. Which is just about to start…

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Friday, 21.30 GMT

So, here we go. Sebastian Vettel v Fernando Alonso, each battling for their third driver’s world championship. Lewis Hamilton’s last race for McLaren. Michael Schumacher’s last race ever. And topgear.com is right in the thick of it.

As Formula One touches down in Sao Paulo for the last race in an epic – no other word will do – season, there’s almost too much happening. And as the sun sets over the natural amphitheatre that is Interlagos, storm-clouds really are gathering. Yep, it looks like the gladiators are going to be racing on full wets come Sunday afternoon, the 40 per cent chance of rain currently upgraded to 100 per cent. And we know what that means round this place.

You’ll get some idea from the TV coverage, but nothing quite prepares you for Interlagos. A week after the purpose-built brilliance of the US GP at the COTA in Austin, this is a relic from an era that F1 has left firmly behind. To say that the infrastructure here is somewhat old-school presupposes that there actually is any infrastructure. There are shambling favelas in the hills behind, and my taxi deposited me at a main entrance which seemed to arrive out of nowhere via a series of crumbling side roads. Sounds rubbish, but in reality it’s a fantastic antidote to most of F1’s efficient but soulless modern crucibles. Provided you don’t get car-jacked, of course.

The paddock itself is similarly makeshift. No room here for the gigantic portable ‘brand centres’ the teams haul around the world, and it’s fun to watch the sport’s grandees squeezing themselves into what are effectively sheds. I sat right beside Mercedes boss Ross Brawn deep in conversation with McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh earlier, the loss (defection?) of Lewis Hamilton clearly keenly felt at the team. There’s nowhere to hide in Interlagos.

Not that that stops the drivers from trying. Curiously, I spotted every single driver on the grid this afternoon wandering the paddock, and darting into the garages during the free practice sessions. Every driver, that is, apart from three: Vettel, Alonso and Raikkonen. Kimi was probably having a snooze; the mercury nudged an uncomfortable 34 degrees this afternoon, so who can blame him. But of the two championship rivals there was barely a sign. The word is that Vettel is pretty chipper, Alonso more visibly introspective. Lewis Hamilton, meanwhile, was fastest in the second practice session, on a 1.14.026 (quick lap round here), from Vettel (+0.274), and Webber (+0.497), with Massa and Alonso approximately half a second adrift.

We’ll know more tomorrow. TG.com will be back here first thing, and will bring you regular updates.

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