Whilst Lewis Hamilton, Felipe Massa, McLaren-Mercedes and Ferrari will duel it out for Formula 1 World Championship glory in today's Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos, it is arguably Fernando Alonso and Renault who have set the sport alight the most over the last couple of months.

Since the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps back in early September, Alonso has notched up 35 points to just 24 for Hamilton and 23 for Massa, and Renault has tallied 41 - six more than Ferrari and nine more than McLaren.

The Spaniard's unexpected but no less richly-deserved back-to-back victories in Singapore and Japan - allied to rookie team-mate Nelsinho Piquet's improving confidence and form - enabled the R?gie to clinch the coveted fourth spot in the constructors' rankings one race early in China, and though that could be seen as something of a triumph in itself given the team's torrid start to the season when it languished woefully off the pace, executive director of engineering Pat Symonds cannot help but be a touch rueful.

"If the season had started in Belgium we would be leading both championships!" the Englishman quipped. "It was disappointing that we started the year further back than we had expected to, and had the situation remained like that it would have been quite disheartening for us.

"There were reasons for it, but in this particular case it's the facts that matter, not the reasons for those facts. I like to set very high targets, and the goal we set mid-season to finish fourth in the championship with the third-quickest car was not as ambitious a target as I would normally like us to set.

"Having said that it was, at the time, a difficult target and I am pleased that the first part of that target is both objective and proven - we've finished fourth and can't be beaten. The second part is probably subjective, although I think in the past couple of races we've shown that we have the third-quickest car, so in my eyes we've achieved both those objectives.

"The way we've turned the situation around has given us an enormous boost as we've proved we can out-develop our competitors and arguably out-develop those that are leading the championship, because we really have moved a lot closer to them. I think that's a great message to take through to next year with so many new factors being introduced, because we've shown that we can steal the initiative with this sort of thing."

Indeed, Renault has not just emerged ahead of the midfield pack in recent months, but has also indisputably overtaken BMW-Sauber as F1's third force and even put heat on McLaren and Ferrari at the head of the order. Symonds is keen to praise Piquet's contribution to that progress, as uncertainty continues to surround the Brazilian rookie's fate as he prepares for his first home grand prix in S?o Paulo today.

"It's not just Fernando who is enjoying driving the R28 because Nelson is as well," the 55-year-old underlined. "I've often talked in the past about how important it is to give a novice driver a car he can trust and feel confident in, but if you give that sort of car to a driver as good as Fernando, then he can really push it to the limits. I think that's what we're seeing now because we've got a car that is inherently very stable; it's very honest and predictable, and both drivers are exploiting it very well.

"Going into your home race at any time is a double-edged sword, particularly so when it's your first time. What I mean by a 'double-edged sword' is that although it gives you that little extra inspiration, you've also got the pressure of the local press, extra attention and high expectation.

"Having said that, I suspect the Brazilian media will be much more focussed on Massa than they are on Nelson, which is no bad thing. Recently Nelson has shown his ability through his results and just as the R28 has taken an exponential improvement curve, so has Nelson. That's what should be dominating his frame of mind as he prepares for his home race."

The Autodromo Carlos Pace holds a special place in Renault's F1 history as the circuit at which the Enstone-based outfit secured three of its four world championship successes as a fully-fledged manufacturer in its own right, with the drivers' laurels in 2005 and both drivers' and constructors' glory in 2006.

What's more, the French concern has a strong record in Brazil, having taken both pole position and the race win there in 1980 courtesy of Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Ren? Arnoux respectively. Two years later Alain Prost achieved the rare 'triple crown' of pole, fastest lap and victory.

As a constructor and engine-supplier, Renault has in total prevailed six times in the South American country, with 14 further rostrum finishes and eleven pole positions. Though the top step of the podium may prove to be a little out of reach this weekend, Symonds remains confident, now the pressure is off, that a strong finish to the 2008 campaign is on the cards.

"There is no doubt that during the last few races we've been very aware of Toyota, what they were doing and the tactics we needed to beat them," he acknowledged. "We are released from that constraint, but the reality is that over the past few races our strategy has been simply about achieving the best possible result - and that is how we will approach the final race of the season."


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