Who’s in the Sao Paulo spotlight?

Who we’re watching and why we’re watching them ahead of the penultimate round of the F1 season in Brazil.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

There’s momentary silence on the other end of the line as Daniel Ricciardo contemplates the question. “How have I gone in Brazil?” he ponders, his mind ticking off his Formula One appearances at Interlagos one year at a time. “It’s not good, is it?” he eventually laughs, and he’s right. No, it’s not good. But perhaps, just perhaps, there’s a good omen for Red Bull Racing’s Aussie ahead of this weekend’s penultimate round of the 2016 season in Sao Paulo.

Every F1 driver has their bogey track – for Ricciardo’s predecessor at Red Bull, compatriot Mark Webber, Monza and (sadly) Melbourne were holes in an otherwise loaded CV – and for Ricciardo, Interlagos is his kryptonite. Of all of the Grands Prix he’s competed in during every season of his six years in F1, Brazil is, by some distance, his least successful. In five appearances, he’s managed just one point – a tenth-place finish for Toro Rosso in 2013 – and two top-10 qualifying spots. To put that in context, Suzuka in Japan (21 points in six appearances) is his second least-successful track. Ouch.

“There’s not any one signature corner there that jumps out at you – it’s a track that some drivers really like, but for me it’s one that makes you feel frustrated because I never quite get on top of it,” Ricciardo says of Interlagos.

“I’ve been going there for years, and you get to the end of the weekend and try to work out how many laps you’ve done that you’re 99 per cent happy with, and there’s usually not many. For whatever reason, it’s a hard place to feel completely satisfied with. The car set-up is vital there, and if you’re struggling with set-up, you can feel kind of helpless.”

The good omen we mentioned earlier? Malaysia was similarly barren for Ricciardo before 2016 – he’d managed a single point in his career there before round 16 this season, when he benefitted from Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes engine expiring and fought off teammate Max Verstappen to record his fourth F1 win, and his first for over two years as Mercedes’ stranglehold over the top step of the podium briefly abated.

“I’ve never really cracked it for a good result in Brazil – kind of like Sepang was, until this year anyway!” Ricciardo grins.

“So hopefully we can do that again.”

By finishing third – eventually – in the most recent race in Mexico, Ricciardo wrapped up third place in the 2016 drivers’ championship, extending his lead over fourth-placed Sebastian Vettel to 55 points with a maximum of 50 on offer across Brazil and the season finale in Abu Dhabi. With Ricciardo’s finishing position secure, banishing his Brazilian hoodoo is a focus ahead of this weekend’s 71-lapper at Interlagos.

There’s four more men we’re keeping an eye on as F1 makes its second-last stop of its longest-ever season this weekend, namely …

Lewis Hamilton

Given Interlagos is the circuit that played host to arguably Hamilton’s finest moment – his first world championship for McLaren in 2008 when he secured the title on the final corner of the final lap of the final race of the season – Brazil has almost been as bad for the Brit as it has for Ricciardo. Hamilton won last time out in Mexico, meaning he’s now won at every venue on the calendar with two exceptions – Baku (which only came into the sport this year) and Brazil, where he’s raced in all nine of his F1 seasons without winning once. Hamilton’s 51 career wins have come at 23 different circuits (equalling Michael Schumacher’s record), and if he’s to keep his title defence alive until Abu Dhabi, his Brazilian history can’t repeat itself this weekend.

Nico Rosberg

It’s match point for Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate in Brazil; if Rosberg wins at Interlagos, the 2016 title is his. The clock has been ticking on Hamilton’s title defence since his engine-enforced demise in Malaysia, and while the Briton has done all he can with wins in Austin and Mexico, Rosberg has been right there, never quite on his teammate’s pace on either weekend, but banking two second-place finishes that have him in the box seat for the title. The German has been the benchmark in Brazil ever since the advent of the 1.6-litre V6 turbo hybrid era that has seen the sport become a Mercedes benefit, winning in 2014 (when the title fight with Hamilton was alive) and again last year (when it wasn’t). There’s any number of statistical formulas that can see Rosberg leave Sao Paulo with his first world championship on Sunday night, but it matters not a jot what Hamilton does if Rosberg can make it a hat-trick of victories at Interlagos.

Felipe Massa

We mentioned Hamilton’s finest moment earlier, but it was that same race in 2008 where Massa cemented his F1 legacy; after winning his home race and doing everything he could have done to secure the title for Ferrari, his dignity after the race when Hamilton edged him by a single point by finishing fifth will stand the test of time, and, as Ricciardo wrote back in September, “makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up even now”.

Sunday marks Massa’s final race in front of his adoring home fans, and the proud Paulista will undoubtedly be the centre of attention despite being well behind the front-running Mercedes duo and their championship fight as his time with Williams and in F1 comes to a close. It’s been a tough final season for Massa, who sits 12th in the championship with 51 points and has a pair of fifth-place finishes in Australia and Russia as his best results – but there’d be few in the paddock who wouldn’t want him to shine one more time at a track where he’s won twice and finished on the podium on three other occasions. Massa’s farewell and the uncertainty surrounding Felipe Nasr’s plans for 2017 means Brazil is in danger of not having a driver on the grid for the first time since 1970 next season.

Charlie Whiting

Drivers complaining about penalties that were handed out, bemoaning others that weren’t, repeatedly being told to go forth and multiply by a four-time world champion … the F1 race director was the subject of discussion more than he would have liked in Mexico last time out, where multiple sanctions for multiple infractions were handed out during a fraught race where everyone seemed to be on the angry pills, and where we had the bizarre situation of one driver finishing third on the road (Verstappen), a different driver taking to the podium in third place (Vettel), and a different one again leaving Mexico City with the third-placed drivers’ trophy in his hand luggage (Ricciardo). Whiting will be undoubtedly hoping for a quieter weekend at Interlagos, but we don’t fancy his chances based on the escalating amount of whingeing and driving to the very edge of acceptable conduct we’ve seen in recent races …

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