The unstoppable expansion of Sao Paolo has gradually enveloped the Interlagos circuit: high-rise apartment blocks, industrial units and the ubiquitous favelas are pushed right up to the boundary wall surrounding the track. The inevitable need for living space means that the 70-year-old circuit is now completely surrounded by the urban sprawl. It makes for a backdrop unique in racing.
The patriotically-painted kerbing around the track bears witness to the punishment that happens when soft rubber meets serrated concrete: the kerbs and subsequent run-off areas are criss-crossed with the stripes of the unfortunate or over-exuberant. You can tell from the wear on them that they have to be frequently repainted. Could these particular stripes be where Lewis Hamilton ran wide at the Descida Do Lago corner in the F1 race a couple of weeks back?!
As usual, television coverage doesn't do justice to the sweeps and dives of the circuit. The entire track is built off the slope of a hill, with the start straight along the ridge line and then the lower sections around the undulations in the folds of land below.
Brazilian interest is high this weekend, as seven local drivers are taking part, including four newcomers joining the grid for the final South American races of the GT1 season. Regular competitors Enrique Bernoldi and Ricardo Zonta (both ex-F1) have been joined by Sergio Jimenez (GP2 single seaters), Xandi Negrao (GT1) Claudio Dahruj (Brazilian GT3), Francisco Longo (Brazilian GT3) and Daniel Serra (Brazilian GT3 and brother of Francisco 'Chico' Serra, another Paulista F1 driver). Half of them are also driving in the supporting Brazilian GT race as well!
Arriving at the track the day before the racing gave me a chance to walk round the old track (more about that hallowed stretch of asphalt in another story) and also to check out the access points around the current circuit. At first sight my heart sunk: it looked like the majority of the track was dreaded Red Zone: no access allowed except for marshals. This wasn't looking good. Even worse, most of the platforms constructed for the F1 race had been dismantled (along with the grandstands) and catch fences lined the circuit.
Still, I spent a nice couple of hours hunting round the track and checking out all the famous corners I'd pounded round on so many racing games: Interlagos was always one of my tracks of choice (along with the old Hockenheim – what a shame about the eviscerated new layout!). The sinewy middle sector of the track is in a big expanse of neatly cut grass – again annoyingly not accessible on race day – but you can get great views across the whole bottom end of the track and it's a stark contrast to the surrounding cityscape.
Just across the way, inside the big opening loop of track, the terrain is completely different. Only one of the two reservoirs that were present when the original circuit was constructed in 1940 is still there: the other one has been filled in and made into a forested 4×4 track.
This patch of trees provides a natural haven for a range of wildlife seeking escape from the concrete jungle – you can hear the bird calls from as far away as the paddock. I did venture down there to investigate, but it turned out that the wildlife included a pack of dogs. I beat a hasty tactical retreat. Discretion is, after all, the better part of valour.
Also walking round were various drivers, looking less at the scenery and more at the bumps and kerbs. Here are championship leaders Andrea Bertolini and Michael Bartels of the Vitaphone Maserati team starting the long trek up the back straight from Juncao corner.
Getting Juncao right is critical for the long run to the finish line: drivers have to carry maximum speed through this corner to get the grunt to make it up the hill. You can get a move going here that you can carry through all the way to the Senna S over a kilometre away. It's a lot easier to ascend in a car than on foot…
Nearing the top of the hill you really get a sense of the banking, a signature of the old Interlagos and one of remaining sections that has stayed relatively unchanged through the years. The normal racing line actually slices down low, however, and even cuts the pit entry line.
An important piece of kit that Nissan had brought with them was a barometer – in the afternoon this was going haywire. With perfect timing as ever, as I completed the last 100 yards back to the pit-lane the air had become humid and heavy and the first spots of rain could be seen falling on the asphalt, which audibly crackled with the temperature change. It makes you realise why drivers say a track is a living thing.
Then the heavens opened. In the pits the last couple of teams still to go through scrutineering had to push their cars through the rain up to the FIA's garage, leaving some miserable looking mechanics. There often seems to be as much pushing cars around as tweaking spanners.
As night descended and the rain stopped, the illuminated pit buildings looked rather sci-fi industrial.
The lights stayed on in the garages late into the night as the teams continued preparing their cars for the practice sessions the next day.
Bring the morning, bring the noise… After the freedom to roam of the previous day, now would come the proof of where I could actually shoot from. A single media shuttle was laid on, leaving just before the cars would take to the track: half a dozen of us piled in and off we went. Down the pit-lane… out of the pit exit… onto the track itself! There were some bemused looks exchanged in the back of the bus as we merrily made our way down the back straight. Now that has never happened before!
But although we were all effectively stranded in the centre area for the whole session with no way back, there were actually great views around the Mergulho and Juncao corners. Here it looked like the Reiter Lamborghini had punctured a radiator by attacking the kerb too hard, but it might have just been overspill.
Even in practice cars were dicing for track position. Here the Brazilian-crewed MC12 shows the championship leaders in #1 the way.
Up at turn one, diving into the Senna S, finding the braking point is the challenge. It's difficult enough in practice, let alone in the race where if you stay tight and defend the inside you leave yourself vulnerable into the second turn; go wide for the optimum line and you leave the inside open to attack. It's the classic first corner conundrum, the thing that makes it such a great overtaking point.
In the 80 minute Free Practice and Qualifying sessions it was Brazilians all the way: obviously local knowledge was worth a couple of tenths. Up front was the returning #11 Mad Croc Corvette, crewed by Jimenez and Dahruj.
Next up: Brazilians. Serra and Longo in the #34 Triple-H Maserati MC12.
Third: a Brazilian (and a German). The #25 Reiter Lamborghini Murcielago with Spanish round winners Ricardo Zonta and Frank Kechele.
Fourth: Brazilians. Bernoldi and Negrao in the #2 Vitaphone MC12. But even more impressive was the fact that the entire grid was covered by just 1.3 seconds, and the first 17 cars by one second! It looks good for the race..
Next, a quick game of word association to describe my first couple of days at Interlagos in the media centre. Interweb? Useless. Coffee? Strong (very). Food? Congealed. Music? Elevator. Skin? Sizzled.
One constant was the unexpected sound of an F1 engine echoing in through the windows. It turned out to be a VR sim in a mocked-up Mercedes F1-a-like down in the paddock…
So, Sao Paulo looked like it would deliver all that was promised. The racing was going to be fast and furious, but would anyone be able to close in on the Vitaphone crew's lead in the championship? Be sure to check out the streaming race coverage – there might be a delay before my next post as we have to leave for Argentina pretty much as soon as the Brazilian race is finished!