Alarm bells ring as track wears thin

Sun isn't everything, especially when the air conditioning isn't working any better than the telephones. But where Silverstone is constantly the subject of lambasting by the FIA, the sport's governing body, on account of a few waterlogged fields and the inevitable traffic congestion, the Interlagos circuit near São Paulo lives happily in its own squalor. Year in, year out, Formula One treks back here and everyone bravely tries to ignore conditions which would see pretty much any other circuit struck from the calendar.

Sun isn't everything, especially when the air conditioning isn't working any better than the telephones. But where Silverstone is constantly the subject of lambasting by the FIA, the sport's governing body, on account of a few waterlogged fields and the inevitable traffic congestion, the Interlagos circuit near São Paulo lives happily in its own squalor. Year in, year out, Formula One treks back here and everyone bravely tries to ignore conditions which would see pretty much any other circuit struck from the calendar.

The pits are a disgrace, the paddock has all the appeal of a favela. Running F1 here is like booking a backstreet pub in Neasden for the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The shadowy figures who live beneath the strip of road that leads to this fading monument named after the 1975 victor, Jose Carlos Pace, would doubtless disagree, but the place survives as if by magic.

Yet for all the faults of its infrastructure, Interlagos is a special track. Not, it's true, as special as once it was in the days when it was a five-mile test of a driver's nerve, when Pace's success brought his countrymen screaming to their feet the way that Ayrton Senna's later triumphs here would. But it is different to Melbourne and Malaysia, and it poses special challenges.

There are two long straights ­ one on the back of the circuit, where Eddie Irvine, Martin Brundle and Jos Verstappen danced a dramatic automotive samba back in 1994, and the long, long climb from the last corner all the way to the finish line. But also there is the tight infield complex between the two.

Going fast here is all about striking the right compromise between downforce and speed. In qualifying you need lots of aerodynamic downloading to handle the infield, but for the race you need high top speed to give you the chance of overtaking on the straights. Suspension set-up is also critical to handle the bumps. Last year, these were so appalling that they literally shook some cars to pieces. This year, parts of the track have been resurfaced for the umpteenth time, with qualified success. "It's better on the main straight," the Sauber-Petronas driver Nick Heidfeld reported, "but everywhere else they're just the same."

Last year, qualifying was interrupted when overhead advertising hoardings fell on to the track as the slipstream of the cars dislodged them. "This year," an official joked, "they are spring-loaded so they bounce back up." Instead, a heavy moving camera fell into the Jaguar pit on Friday when it was derailed from its track. Somehow, no one was harmed.

On the streets, Minardi's team manager, Tony Lees, was deprived of his wallet at gunpoint as he left a bank, while four Williams team personnel similarly arrived at the track lighter than when they had set out.

To some, Interlagos has become the symbol of a decline in the promotion of the sport. The Benetton-Renault chief, Flavio Briatore, went on the attack with scathing criticism. "Some time when a business goes well, the big mistake is not improving the business," he said. "There's a lot of competition in sport. There's a lot of good events worldwide. The pits were pretty dead today. This is the best event for Brazil and there were only the mechanics there and nobody else. We need to improve our image, and at this moment we are doing absolutely nothing to do so."

The theme was taken up by Eddie Jordan, too. "It's very easy to be complacent when things are going OK," the team owner said. "And you get confused by the figures you see and the big interest in Formula One. Every car is properly sponsored, but I remember when you had to crawl on your knees to find a sponsor. This doesn't seem to happen now because all the teams have good sponsors, but complacency can be an incredibly dangerous situation... We need to be on our guard, I promise you."

Anywhere else, it would have been hard for them to make such comments. In the opulence of Malaysia's Sepang circuit a fortnight ago they might have been unthinkable, but in the crumbling decadence of Interlagos, somehow it seemed an apposite time to sound a verbal alarm.

And as if to signal possible change in the sport, there were developments on the track, too. After showing promise in Melbourne and Malaysia, BMW-Williams began to realise it yesterday morning. On his Michelin tyres, the Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya pushed the McLaren-Mercedes drivers, Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, and the Schumacher brothers, out of the limelight.

"This is a chance to show what I am capable of," Montoya said. "I know that I need to improve in qualifying because I've been pretty much giving away my first run, giving too much time away. I have been cautious and I need to overcome that."

Unfortunately he pushed too hard and slid off the road on his first run. As he ran back for the spare car, Michael Schumacher was already busy restoring the status quo.

The McLarens also look better here than they have all season, while Schumacher's brother, Ralf, rose to the challenge for BMW-Williams to push within three-tenths of a second, but failed to repeat Montoya's fastest time from the morning. With a grid that reads Ferrari, BMW-Williams, McLaren, BMW-Williams, McLaren, Ferrari, F1 got a much-needed shot in the arm.

The odds still favour another victory for the world champion, but the opposition is catching up at last.

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