The first day of practice for Sunday’s Brazilian Grand Prix saw some close lap times between the two leading teams, Red Bull and McLaren, promising a tense battle for the final race of the season.
McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton set the fastest time of the day, just over a tenth clear of Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, but the long runs were interesting. The Red Bull was 8/10ths faster than the McLaren, but allowing for the difference in fuel loads, they were close.
Red Bull tends to do its long runs using the fuel load it would typically start the second stint of the race with, while McLaren tend to run with full tanks. Allowing for the difference in weight their lap times are closely matched.
Ferrari is again a little bit back from the front two teams, with Mercedes a little closer than they have been. In the midfield battle Force India look in good shape to make it into the top ten in qualifying. They lie 15 points behind Renault so they need both cars solidly in the points on Sunday to have a chance of moving up to fifth in the constructors’ championship.
Further back, Lotus look they have made a step forward with their new rear wing, which has better downforce and a bigger DRS effect than before. The update looks to be worth several tenths of a second; not enough to catch the midfield cars in qualifying, but they may be able to race with Williams.
This is a track where the exhaust blown diffusers, making their final outing before being banned next year, are very important. It is very apparent, for example, from watching and listening at the entry to the Senna S how much the systems are working on the car, giving a lot of extra rear-end grip. Some drivers are using this grip to take more aggressive lines over kerbs around the track.
What was also apparent today with the Pirelli tyres is that the rear tyres are the limiting factor, as has been the case in the past with the Bridgestones. But the soft tyre looks like it will last at least 20 laps, so a two stop strategy is a good bet for many runners.
That said, the rain showers which were forecast at 60% likelihood earlier in the week now look almost certain to come and teams prepared today with that in mind. Last year’s qualifying was rain affected and we could see showers both tomorrow and on Sunday.
This would make qualifying more of a lottery than Vettel would like; he needs one more podium to set a new record for a season at 15.
It would also mean that if the race started wet, but dried out, teams would not need to use the slower medium tyre during the race. The tyre looks to be between 0.8s to 1 sec per lap slower than the soft.