Crash.net's Russell Atkins looks ahead to this weekend's Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos, as one of the most dramatic Formula 1 seasons in recent memory nears what looks set to be a thrilling conclusion...

Formula 1 in 2007 has seen everything - on-track thrills n' spills, intrigue and controversy away from it, a new wonder kid in Lewis Hamilton, a double world champion falling out with his team in the most spectacular style, allegations of cheating, the biggest fine in sporting history and a three-way title battle right the way down to the wire.

Just seven points separate Hamilton, McLaren-Mercedes team-mate Fernando Alonso and Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen heading to Brazil, and the backdrop could scarcely be a more spectacular one. One of the most popular tracks on the grand prix calendar, Interlagos has been an F1 fixture since 1972 - and home to the Brazilian Grand Prix every year since 1990. World champions Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen, Jacques Villeneuve, Damon Hill, Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell and Emerson Fittipaldi all triumphed there en route to the crown, and this weekend will offer either Hamilton, Alonso or Raikkonen the opportunity to follow suit.

Though the Briton may be the favourite on paper - holding a four-point advantage over the Spaniard and seven over the Finn - he is the only one of the trio never to have raced at the demanding anti-clockwise track before, and arrives there under some pressure following his costly retirement from the Chinese Grand Prix a fortnight ago. As 22 F1 engines get ready to roar into life one last time this year, all bets are off.

FIA F1 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP NEWS

The biggest talking point since Shanghai has undoubtedly been the FIA's decision to designate an Interlagos official to keep a close eye on what goes on inside the McLaren garage throughout the Interlagos weekend.

Following suggestions by a furious Alonso that moves were made to disadvantage him during the latter stages of qualifying in China - when he was more than half a second adrift of Hamilton - a formal request from the Head of the Spanish Federation of Motoring, Carlos Garcia, has led to the FIA taking this unprecedented step, to widespread criticism from key figures within the sport who claim the governing body is overstepping its remit and setting a dangerous precedent.

"This is not a police state," former triple world champion Sir Jackie Stewart told international news agency Reuters, the Scot still at odds with FIA President Max Mosley who last month accused him of being 'a certified halfwit'. "Are we to be told by Big Brother how those people have to function? I don't think it is the governing body's job to interfere with private enterprise and how somebody runs their company. That is not correct. I think the governing body has to be very careful how it goes about its business. The manner in which many elements have been dealt with this year I don't think is appropriate. I think Max Mosley has probably done a very good job for some 16 years, but maybe it's time for a change."

In a further twist, it has now emerged Garcia is to be investigated by the FIA over comments he allegedly made to Spanish newspaper El Publico suggesting English people are racist, an accusation he fervently denies. The plot thickens...

NEWS FROM THE TEAMS:
McLaren - Fernando Alonso (#1), Lewis Hamilton (#2):

McLaren's duo may be heading into the final round of the 2007 World Championship in the driving seats as far as the drivers' crown is concerned, but both remain well aware nothing will be over until the chequered flag falls on Sunday afternoon.

Williams drivers Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet, after all, entered the last race in Adelaide back in 1986 lying first and second in the championship, but against all the odds bad luck conspired against the pair and it was Alain Prost who came through to pinch the title, ironically for McLaren. Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso will want to make very sure history does not repeat itself this weekend, to allow outsider Kimi Raikkonen to steal the championship from underneath their noses.

"China was another valuable lesson for me this season," remarked Hamilton following his failure to finish two weeks ago that dashed his hopes of wrapping up the title early, "and an incident I will take from and try to develop as a driver. I moved on from the disappointment pretty quickly though, and since leaving Shanghai my sole focus has been on Brazil.

"Interlagos is one of those circuits that everybody talks about. I understand it has a fantastic atmosphere, the fans are crazy for the sport and the track lends itself to great racing. It is another new circuit for me, and there has been a lot of talk by other people about how it is tricky to drive. That's why I see it as a special challenge. and when I arrive at the track I will study it hard with my engineers and start to get an understanding of it.

"I've had some great races with the team this year, and I hope to have another one in Interlagos. Whilst I might be ahead by four points, this championship is still very open. I will do what I can to score the points I need, and the rest is out of our hands."

Alonso - whose post-qualifying outburst made the headlines more than his second place finish last time out in China - is bidding to become only the third driver in the sport's history to clinch three championships in a row. Though he lies four points adrift of his rookie team-mate in the standings - and thereby needs to finish at least two places ahead of the Briton in Brazil - S?o Paolo is a happy hunting ground for the 26-year-old, and he is clearly aiming to make it three-out-of-three.

"Interlagos has a lot of great memories for me," the Spaniard affirmed, "having won both of my two world championships at the circuit. They were both quite different races, but that is a characteristic of the track. It is very bumpy - you have to have suspension that allows you to drive hard whilst not being too uncomfortable. There are some great corners that you really get to attack, and all the elevation changes make it interesting for the drivers.

"I am sure we are going to Brazil with full equality across the team and two cars capable of fighting for victory in the race and the championship. Although I am now only four points away from Lewis, I still need for there to be a lot of circumstances in my favour for me to win the drivers' title that are out of my control, but for sure I will be doing everything that is under my control to make it happen. I have to do my bit and then hope everything else falls into place."

"The Brazilian Grand Prix is an appropriate cliff-hanger of a race for what has been an extraordinary Formula 1 season," added McLaren CEO Martin Whitmarsh. "Following Fernando's strong second position in the difficult weather conditions in China, McLaren-Mercedes has both Lewis and Fernando still challenging for the 2007 World Championship.

"There have been well-publicised suggestions of there not being equality for both Fernando and Lewis, however we can categorically state they will be given the exact same opportunity to win the race and the championship. Every single member of the team is pushing hard for the victor to be one of our two drivers. It is a fantastic end to the season, and we hope to have a fantastic race for the fans."

Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Vice-President Norbert Haug echoed Whitmarsh's sentiments about parity of equipment and opportunity for both drivers in the wake of Alonso's remarks and the FIA's intervention, and insisted the number one priority is to make sure the pair retain the top two positions in the drivers' standings, as they have held since almost the beginning of the campaign.

"Twelve years ago at Interlagos we started our first Formula 1 race with our partner McLaren," the German reminisced. "Because this is obviously currently an issue for some, I would like to point out that since then all our drivers have had the same pre-conditions, technical and support-wise, and this will not be any different in the 2007 season finale.

"The surface at Interlagos offers good grip but it is often pretty bumpy. Regarding the set-up, the team has to find a good balance for the car so that it handles well over those bumps, particularly under braking. Two years ago we achieved a one-two victory here, and we have won here a total of four times since the beginning of our partnership. Hopefully that is a good omen for this final race.

"The Brazilian Grand Prix will be the end of a great Formula 1 season, which brought the most extreme challenges for the team, who have replied with optimum performances. I cordially thank every single team member for this. We have already clinched this important victory over all influences from outside the team, and we will work in the final race as focused as before to achieve the world championship title, with one of our drivers taking first and the other one hopefully as runner-up in the overall ranking.

"After the final chequered flag the points table ideally should look like it has done for the last six months - either Lewis ahead of Fernando or Fernando ahead of Lewis, following a tough and fair fight on and not off the track."

Renault - Giancarlo Fisichella (#3), Heikki Kovalainen (#4):

Renault head to Brazil with their third spot in the constructors' title chase assured, but with Heikki Kovalainen still entertaining a slim hope of overhauling BMW-Sauber's Robert Kubica for sixth spot in the drivers' standings.

The Finn has had an impressive second half to his rookie campaign in the top flight, but ninth place in China brought to an end his run of seven consecutive points-scoring finishes that have seen him vault more experienced team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella in the championship battle. Though he has never raced at Interlagos before, it is a challenge he is clearly relishing.

"It's a very physical circuit for the drivers," said the inaugural GP2 Series runner-up, who will turn 26 in the build-up to the weekend. "The surface is bumpy, and it runs anti-clockwise which means it is hard for the whole body but especially the neck, so I have been training hard to prepare for it and I will be in peak condition for the race.

"In terms of set-up I think the suspension is one of the most important factors. The car needs to ride the bumps well, and also the kerbs in the slow middle sector which we use quite a lot. If you can find a good suspension compromise to give a smooth ride and good mechanical grip, then it is a big plus in terms of lap-time.

"This is our last chance of the year to show what we can do, and that gives me extra determination. You are only as good as your last race in Formula 1, so it is important to score a good result to take into the winter and hopefully give the team some momentum too. This has been a tough year for everybody at Renault; we have made progress in the last few weeks but we have not been able to show it in dry race conditions.

"I have finished every race this year, and that's something we are all proud of. Brazil is a circuit where the team has had a lot of success in recent years, and while that doesn't mean anything for 2007, maybe it can bring us a bit of luck. I hope we can have a normal race, take the fight to BMW and finish the season with a strong, aggressive drive."

Fisichella, in stark contrast, has only scored once in the last seven outings, as his season has nose-dived to almost the same extent that Kovalainen's has flourished. The Italian - who may be beginning his last race for the r?gie this weekend should Fernando Alonso indeed return to the squad - is well aware he needs a good showing to preserve his F1 future.

"This is one of the special circuits in Formula 1," the 34-year-old enthused, "and I am really excited to be going back there again. We have won championships there in the past two years, and for me it was the venue for my first-ever F1 win in 2003.

"It's a very challenging circuit. It's twisty, with a good mix of slow and medium-speed corners. There is a lot of gradient change as well, and of course the anti-clockwise direction makes it hard physically. It is never easy to find the right set-up, because the two halves of the circuit need opposite things from the car - you want good speed on the long main straight, but lots of grip in the slow-speed infield section with the hairpins. Add in the bumpy surface as well, and you have a real challenge for the engineers to find the best compromise.

"I enjoy the country, I enjoy the city and I like the circuit - there is always an amazing atmosphere there. Hopefully we can have another good experience in 2007."

Renault registered both pole position and race victory in Brazil back in 1980, and two years later Alain Prost achieved the rare 'triple crown' of pole, race win and fastest lap. From 1992 to 1997 Renault engines would be unmoved from pole position in Interlagos, and with six triumphs, 20 podium finishes and eleven pole positions in the country, team chief Flavio Briatore knows the French outfit has a proud tradition to maintain this weekend as it bids to set itself up for a far more successful 2008.

"This year has been a disappointment," the flamboyant Italian admitted, "but it has been a lesson for next season, when we will come back even stronger. In many ways, our lack of performance was the result of the year we had in 2006 - we had to push even harder when the mass damper was banned, which meant we started late with our 2007 car and we had trouble adjusting to the Bridgestone tyres. That left us on the back foot, and we never caught up.

"Once we knew the championship position [against BMW] was gone, we put all our resources into 2008. That has been our focus for two months now. The team hasn't forgotten how to make a quick car, and I have a good feeling that we can climb back to our normal position next year."

Ferrari - Felipe Massa (#5), Kimi Raikkonen (#6):

As one of the three drivers still in world championship contention in Brazil, Kimi Raikkonen is bidding to give himself a timely birthday present, as the Finn turns 28 four days prior to the race.

Though the outsider in points terms - lying seven adrift of leader Lewis Hamilton - the Ferrari ace has vowed to take his sixth triumph of the season at Interlagos - and then the rest, as he reasons, is in the hands of the Gods...

"I have no special plans to celebrate," he insisted. "It is better to focus on the race weekend. I just hope for one present for my birthday and I hope to receive it after the race on Sunday afternoon! I'm not really the favourite for the title, but as we saw in Shanghai two weeks ago anything can happen. Whatever happens, it's going to be a very exciting race and we will give it our all.

"In the Chinese Grand Prix I had a very good feeling with the car and the team, but I think our competitors have done their job as we did. There's lots of pressure on both sides. [McLaren] have two drivers in the race for the title and they are also fighting each other. Hopefully we can benefit from that.

"I will go into this race the same way as into the last two. My aim is to win and the rest is not up to me. I have been close to winning at Interlagos, but it has never quite paid off - I've finished second three times! It is a similar situation as in 2003, when I lost the title to Michael (Schumacher). Hamilton has seven points more than us, so there's not much to calculate. We have to win and that's that."

Win is just what Raikkonen's team-mate Felipe Massa did last year, obliterating his rivals on home turf to take an inspired and hugely popular victory - then only the second of his F1 career. Ferrari sporting director Stefano Domenicali is unequivocal that a similar result for Raikkonen this weekend is the only option if the drivers' crown is to go the same way as the constructors'.

"We don't have any other choice than to be aggressive," the Italian underlined. "We need to finish first and second. We respect the work of [McLaren] but what we are going to do is try to put pressure on them, that's for sure."

Honda - Jenson Button (#7), Rubens Barrichello (#8):

Following what was irrefutably its strongest race of the 2007 campaign last time out in China - courtesy of Jenson Button's fifth place that more than doubled the Japanese squad's points total for the year - Honda head into the season finale in high spirits, and keen to build on that success.

A generally torrid year that has yielded just six points - all courtesy of the Brit - has come alive somewhat in recent events, with Button starting inside the top six on Honda's home turf in Japan and following that up with a second consecutive top ten grid position a week later in China, the prelude to an even better performance come the race.

"Interlagos is a particularly challenging circuit for the drivers," the 27-year-old confessed, "as it is one of only two anti-clockwise tracks on the calendar this year. This takes a big toll, using muscles in the neck which aren't used to such an extent on other F1 circuits. The track is also notoriously bumpy and the key to getting a good lap is having total confidence in your car, understanding where all the bumps are and doing your best to minimise their impact.

"You can overtake at turn one, which I did in last year's race, and also into Bico de Pato. The race is often wet and then without doubt the biggest challenge is the long left-hand turn three. I had a really good race at Interlagos last year and it would be great for everybody at Honda if we could round off this season on an upbeat note, however in a dry race it remains difficult for us to finish in the points."

Finishing in the points is something Button's team-mate Rubens Barrichello will be desperate to do, in order to avoid his first pointless season in an incredible 15-year career in the top flight. The Brazilian - a S?o Paolo native - has been notoriously unlucky in front of his home supporters, but is determined to end a dispiriting year on a more encouraging note.

"I was born very close to Interlagos," the F1 veteran said, "so the Brazilian Grand Prix means a great deal to me and it is always a very special weekend. However I really enjoy the circuit, not just because it is my home race but also because Interlagos has some great corners and allows good overtaking. My favourite corner is the Curva do Laranjinha, which is the most challenging corner of the lap. It's also the corner which I used to cycle to as a child and watch the races from.

"The bumpy surface of the track is also quite tricky, meaning the mechanical set-up of the car has to be very good. We have had a tough year in 2007 but I am looking forward to the race in Brazil, and we will be hoping to end the season in a positive way."

"The Chinese Grand Prix was a challenging race due to the changeable weather conditions, and our drivers lost ground in the early laps as they battled with understeer," added Honda senior technical director Shuhei Nakamoto. "We were therefore very pleased to pick up some valuable points due to a good strategy and a great drive from Jenson.

"Looking ahead to the final race of the season in Brazil, the main challenge at Interlagos is finding the best set-up on this bumpy circuit with its combination of low and high-speed corners. I am very proud that the team has kept pushing this year, and we will be doing our utmost to end the season on a high note."

BMW-Sauber - Nick Heidfeld (#9), Robert Kubica (#10):

With its runner-up spot in the constructors' standings long since sewn-up, BMW-Sauber arrives in Brazil vowing to pull out all the stops to ensure it signs off from an impressive sophomore season in style, after comfortably exceeding all expectations throughout the course of 2007.

With 94 points on the board - easily clear of main rivals Renault - the Hinwil and Munich-based outfit can be justifiably proud of what it has achieved this year. Interlagos may not have been its most successful outing of the 2006 campaign, but for Nick Heidfeld certainly, it is a place of happy memories.

"For me, the circuit in S?o Paulo is one of the best of all," the German stressed. "It is challenging, both in terms of driving skill and physically. It's an anti-clockwise track and the straight is actually a long sweeping curve that puts your neck muscles under real strain.

"Then there's the bumpy surface. The best sections come after turn three - turn five, which is an uphill double right-hander, is one of my favourites. I took my first podium finish at Interlagos in 2001 after coming third. That's something you never forget."

Team-mate Robert Kubica failed to finish inside the points on his maiden appearance at Interlagos this time last year, coming home a frustrated ninth. This time around the Pole - one of the revelations of the 2007 season, scoring points on no fewer than eleven occasions - is certainly aiming to end the year on a high.

"Of course we are looking forward to Brazil," the 22-year-old asserted. "We will try our best, and then everything we do once we get back to Europe will be new as we will be working for next year. The track itself is very bumpy and quite tricky. There is a big uphill section after the last corner where last year we were losing a lot of speed, especially in the race, so I hope we can do better this year. Though the 2006 race was not bad, I only finished ninth. This year I want to score points."

"For the BMW-Sauber F1 Team this has been a successful season," added BMW Motorsport Director Dr Mario Theissen. "We can be proud of what we have achieved, both in terms of our development work over the winter and the pace of development during the season.

"In our two start-up years we have reached our target each time. In 2007 we started out from fifth place in the world championship, with 36 championship points earned in our debut season. [In 2007] fourth place with a clear points increase was a firm commitment, third place an option. It was very gratifying to be able to see ourselves as the third-strongest team right from the start and to shore up that position in virtually every race. An administrative decision handed us second place on a plate, but that really doesn't mean anything to us as we know there are still four cars that are faster than ours. Our aim is to beat them out on the race track."

Toyota - Ralf Schumacher (#11), Jarno Trulli (#12):

Ralf Schumacher will make the last of his 54 grand prix outings for Toyota in this weekend's Brazilian Grand Prix, as the German gets set to move onto pastures new next year at the end of a frustrating 2007.

Though the F1 veteran registered a pole position and 45 points in his debut season for the Japanese marque back in 2005, and a further 20 last year, the present campaign has yielded just five, courtesy of top-eight finishes in Australia, Canada and Hungary as team-mate Jarno Trulli has by-and-large had the better of him. Schumacher is determined to add a fourth points-paying finish to that tally in Interlagos.

"I am coming to the end of my time at Toyota after three seasons," the 32-year-old acknowledged. "It has been an enjoyable and interesting time in my career, even if I would like to have had better results. It has been a hard season for me and the team, but I am really motivated to get a good result in Brazil so we can end on a high note.

"I enjoy racing at Interlagos, but it is a very demanding circuit. For the drivers it is a challenge because of the bumps, but from a technical side it is interesting as it is important to have mechanical grip in the tight infield, particularly from turn eight to turn eleven, and there is a long flat-out section through the final corners and onto the main straight. We will work hard to find the best set-up to deal with this, as well as the bumps, when practice starts on Friday. After two troubled races in Japan and China, I hope we can bounce back in Brazil."

Trulli has enjoyed a more successful season than his team-mate, though still one that has fallen some way below expectations. The Italian has qualified inside the top ten on all-but two occasions this year, but Toyota's inferior race pace has seen results on Sunday afternoons rather more thin on the ground, something he stresses he is keen to rectify in the final race of the campaign.

"I enjoy the challenge of racing at Interlagos," he argued, "so I am looking forward to this race. It is one of the trickiest tracks in Formula 1, with an enjoyable mix of high and low-speed corners. There are other factors to consider as well, for example the track is anti-clockwise so it puts extra strain on your neck, although I have trained for this so it will not be a problem. And then there are the bumps, which make life difficult with set-up, particularly on a Friday.

"It's been a really hard few races for me and the team, so I am keen to end the season with an improved result before we focus all our energies on 2008. We have the potential to score points, but we have to push hard and not make any mistakes."

"We enjoy going to Interlagos," added Toyota's senior general chassis manager Pascal Vasselon, "because in Brazil there just seem to be more fans than virtually anywhere else - they have a true passion for motorsport. The circuit itself is unique in that it is probably the only track where suspension settings are so important. Normally the main performance factors on an F1 car are aerodynamics and tyre usage. At Interlagos it is still about tyre usage, but suspension settings are clearly a major performance factor due to the bumpy nature of the track. You have to find a way to keep your wheels on the ground, so set-up parameters that are secondary everywhere else become key in Brazil.

"An interesting thing about going to S?o Paulo in 2007 is the tyre choice. Bridgestone has proposed the two softest compounds - the Monaco compounds. In terms of tyre severity, though, Interlagos is much harder than Monaco, so one of the challenges will be tyre management and we expect the track to be tough on the softer tyre in particular."

Red Bull Racing - David Coulthard (#14), Mark Webber (#15):

A late-season charge has seen Red Bull Racing close to within just four points of Williams for fourth place in the constructors' title chase, and with just one round now left in which to depose the former world champions, the Milton Keynes-based squad is heading to Brazil with all guns blazing.

David Coulthard has finished in the points in both of the last two races, and the team has notched up 18 points from the second half of the season, compared to just six from a reliability-stricken first half. With the momentum on its side, Red Bull knows it really is a case of now or never.

"Engine power is critical at this circuit," stressed Fabrice Lom, RBR principal engineer for trackside engine support, "because of the long main straight. But the circuit is also at altitude, which costs the engines around seven per cent of their power and makes life easier for the pistons. The other important area to work on is driveability - smooth power delivery through the infield can bring real benefits in terms of maintaining a stable car balance, and thus in lap time.

"We have missed a number of opportunities to score points - we're still behind Williams in the championship, and really we should be in front. Both drivers will have new engines in Brazil though, and a brand new engine is always a little more powerful than a V8 doing its second event; every little bit extra is welcome under the current rules."

Williams - Nico Rosberg (#16), Kazuki Nakajima (#17):

Williams enters the Brazilian Grand Prix weekend under pressure from a resurgent Red Bull Racing in the constructors' title chase, following a number of impressive qualifying performances from Nico Rosberg but no points from the last two races in comparison to their rivals' six.

Rosberg has been one of the stars of the 2007 campaign, and currently sits ninth in the drivers' standings with 15 points. A strong result in S?o Paolo will be enough to preserve that position at the end of his sophomore campaign in the top flight, and he is adamant he will be giving it his all.

"Interlagos is a great circuit," the 22-year-old enthused, "and I am looking forward to it. It's a cool track, with a variety of corners and surface undulations. The past two races have been difficult, so I hope to finish the season well and to hold on to my present position in the drivers' championship.

"S?o Paulo is also a place where you can have some fun in the evenings, so I would imagine it's going to be a good weekend. It's fantastic for Formula 1 to have a three-way battle for the championship going into the last race of the season, which is not a situation that happens very often. Personally, I hope Lewis manages to win because he deserves it."

There will be a different face across the other side of the Williams garage this weekend, following Alex Wurz's decision to step down from race-driving at the end of the Chinese Grand Prix. Erstwhile test-driver and GP2 front-runner Kazuki Nakajima has stepped into the breach, and is relishing the challenge ahead of him.

"I'm obviously feeling really excited about my first Formula 1 race," asserted the son of former grand prix star Satoru. "I've never driven at Interlagos before, so I've been doing lots of preparation work in the team's simulator at Grove. I've also ramped up my training in the gym to help me cope with the pressures on my neck because it's an anti-clockwise track.

"It looks like it's going to rain over the weekend, so the weather is going to make the whole process quite tricky. I'm trying not to put any pressure on myself though. I'm going to take it at my own pace, work through each session step-by-step and, above all, just enjoy it."

With six victories, eight pole positions and ten fastest laps from 29 races in Brazil, Williams has a strong history in the country, but neither of the team's cars has succeeded in completing a racing lap around Interlagos over the past two seasons, with 2006 a particular disaster after Rosberg and then team-mate Mark Webber ran into each other, prompting an early bath for both. They will no doubt be hoping history does not repeat itself this time around.

"Interlagos is a well laid-out track," commented technical director Sam Michael. "It has a lot of gradient changes over the lap and two long straights which are crucial for overtaking. The performance of the car in the corners that precede the straights is the most important consideration when it comes to car set-up.

"The grid line-up is traditionally tight due to the low fuel penalty and short lap time. Coupled with a long pit-lane, the strategy is a close call between a one and a two-stop strategy, so we will see a mix of both on race day. Bridgestone are bringing the soft and super-soft tyres to the race, but we may not get to use them as the forecast is currently predicting rain all weekend.

"As this is the last race of the 2007 season, we will be pushing hard to claim points in the constructors' championship. We have had two races in a row where we haven't scored points due to various circumstances, but we are aiming to change that in Brazil.

"Alex Wurz has retired and we thank him again for all his hard work in developing the FW29 and contributing to the constructors' points for Williams this year. He is a great guy to work with and we wish him well for the future."

Scuderia Toro Rosso - Vitantonio Liuzzi (#18), Sebastian Vettel (#19):

Following a disastrous weekend in Japan, when what had looked like being the squad's first podium finish - indeed first points of the 2007 campaign - disintegrated in front of their eyes the moment new boy Sebastian Vettel clattered into the back of Mark Webber's sister Red Bull Racing machine, Scuderia Toro Rosso headed to China a week later under something of a cloud. It left the land of the rising sun practically walking on air.

Vettel may have made a rookie error in Fuji, but he more than made up for it in Shanghai with a supremely mature drive that belied his 20 years to clinch fourth spot amongst some exalted company - the best result of both his and STR's fledgling Formula 1 careers. To make it a near-perfect day, Vitantonio Liuzzi also figured strongly two places back in sixth - thereby compensating for his own Japanese disappointment, after he was given a time penalty for passing Adrian Sutil under yellow flags that ultimately dropped the Italian out of eighth place.

The final team to get off the mark in 2007, now STR has done so it has done so in some considerable style, and a new seamless-shift gearbox brought in for Magny-Cours has seen a decided upturn in performance, to the extent that Vettel qualified inside the top ten in Japan and both drivers only narrowly missed out on a similar showing the following weekend.

Now in with a small shout of depriving an underperforming Toyota of sixth spot in the constructors' championship - what appeared almost unthinkable back at the start of the year - who's to say what STR may achieve in Brazil?

Spyker F1 - Sakon Yamamoto (#20), Adrian Sutil (#21):

Buoyed by its first-ever point, courtesy of Adrian Sutil in Japan, Spyker heads to Brazil this weekend with renewed spirits and keen to end on a positive note as the effects of its new ownership kick in.

Sutil was overjoyed to claim his maiden points finish at Fuji, and despite never having been to Interlagos before, he will be able to rely on a small, dedicated pocket of support on account of his South American heritage, the German being half-Uruguayan on his father's side.

"It's the first time I'll be there," the F1 rookie admitted, "and I'm looking forward to seeing another new track after China. Hopefully it will be a better weekend!

"I only know the circuit from the TV. Obviously it has a really long straight and it's very bumpy, so for sure it won't be easy to set the car up. We've seen already at other tracks that our car is a better in low-downforce spec, so we will run as little as possible.

"[The year] has gone very quickly - it's amazing that already my first F1 season is over. I think after 17 races everybody needs a little break, though, and I'm looking forward to having some free time after the end of the season."

Team-mate Sakon Yamamoto was one of the unsung heroes of the 2006 Brazilian Grand Prix, setting the seventh-fastest lap of the race for Super Aguri on his first appearance in S?o Paolo, and the Japanese confirmed Interlagos was one of his favourite circuits.

"I want to have a really good race there," the 25-year-old underlined. "Last year my car wasn't really great, so in that kind of situation it was an amazing result that we could be seventh-quickest in the race, and also I was second-quickest in the second sector, so I'm really looking forward to driving there again.

"I like the layout, especially sector two of course! It's very complicated - just right, left, right. As an F1 circuit it is a bit tight, but if you've got the rhythm it's really good fun.

"It's good if you have a low-downforce car there, and for sure your straight-line speed is going to be quicker. Then the problem is how you manage sector two, the twisty section, but as I said I like it and I think I can do a good job there."

Spyker struggled for much of the year before the introduction of its B-spec car towards the end of the season, boosting the team's competitiveness. Incredibly, though, the squad has led more laps than anyone except McLaren, Ferrari and Renault in 2007, thanks to chief technical officer Mike Gascoyne's inspired tyre choice for Markus Winkelhock in the wet-dry European Grand Prix at the N?rburgring back in July.

"It has obviously been a very difficult season," acknowledged Gascoyne. "We've been compromised on the development of new parts by financial circumstances. Some of the development such as the wind tunnel has taken much longer than we expected to get up and running, but we have ended the season a high, with the B-spec car scoring its first point and new owners who are very committed to moving the team forward. It's a big well done to the team for all their hard work after a difficult year. I hope we can now look forward to an improved season next year.

"I think we have made a good step forward with the B-spec. We knew it was never going to be enough to take us to the top, but we now have a lot more resources to put into development, particularly aerodynamics. We have shown very clearly that we know what we are doing and when we put parts on the car, they improve the performance as expected. Over the winter we can now get our heads down and get on with this development, and by the middle of next year I think we can expect to be truly competitive."

"If you look at the year as a whole, it has not been easy," concurred Spyker team principal and managing director Colin Kolles. "We have had many challenges and tests, but I think we can be proud of how far we have come and what we have achieved. We said this would be a year to stabilise the team, set new standards and procedures and really put down the foundations to let the team move forward over the coming seasons. I think we have achieved all of these aims.

"We set out to get a point this year and we did, but now we need to do this on-track so we can celebrate properly! Adrian did a brilliant job to get from the back of the field [in Japan], and although we did not know about the point until well after the race he thoroughly deserved a good result.

"The technical team is now working very well together and we are seeing the rewards of the investments in the B-spec. We need to have a strong finish with both cars [in Brazil] to get as much data as possible for next year. If we finish in the points it would be a good result for the winter, but let's see what the conditions are like, where we qualify and what is possible on Sunday, then I hope next year with increased resources we will be able to really challenge."

Super Aguri F1 - Takuma Sato (#22), Anthony Davidson (#23):

Super Aguri produced arguably the finest performance of its debut campaign in the top flight in last year's Brazilian Grand Prix, as both Sakon Yamamoto and Takuma Sato set top-ten fastest lap times in the season finale.

Though the Japanese squad failed to score with its four-year-old ex-Arrows chassis' in 2006, it has notched up four points in its sophomore season - until China embarrassing Honda itself by outscoring the works outfit. Though there have been no further points since Canada back in June, it has nevertheless been an encouraging rather than difficult second year.

"In general, we have been pleased with the season's performance," asserted Super Aguri head of aerodynamics Ben Wood. "We have extracted a lot of performance from this car, but in the end we cannot compete with the larger teams we are up against. It's a constant development game and if you don't develop and put parts on the car as the season progresses, you go backwards on the grid. Our race team has done an excellent job in ensuring they extract the most out of the car. We are also very proud of the fact we took our points during dry conditions and by merit earlier in the season.

"We've never had the largest aero department and we are currently a team of eleven people doing everything, so we're quite used to making the most of limited resources. However, that gets a bit difficult when you can't afford to wind tunnel test. We have not been able to put on any really serious development parts since May, so it's really hurt our on-track performance. This is one of the reasons why our situation is particularly difficult.

"The guys in the aero department have all done a fantastic job though. Each model designer, model maker and aerodynamicist has been immense in their own way. They all have different skills that blend very well together. There are no two people or jobs alike. We also thrive in having very good contact with the drawing office, race team and R&D as we all sit in the same room.

"We have a new rear wing [for Brazil] which, if it's dry, we'll be racing. We also have a few small modifications to some of the brake duct assemblies. Interlagos is a favourable downforce level for us, as are most places, and is characterised by a longish straight and several medium-speed, linked corners. I hope we can put in a showing to encourage the team going into the winter development period, after two particularly hard races in China and Japan."

TYRES:

Bridgestone's third Formula 1 World Champion is set to be crowned at the end of Sunday's Brazilian Grand Prix, following in the wheeltracks of Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher, the first two drivers to clinch the title using the Japanese manufacturer's rubber.

The Aut?dromo Jos? Carlos Pace - known as Interlagos due to its location between two artificial lakes - will provide a true test for all three championship protagonists. It is the second track this season to be run in an anti-clockwise direction, and is characterised by its undulating and particularly bumpy nature. A twisty infield section, with the possibility of a dusty circuit to start the weekend, means front tyre graining is likely to be a factor.

Heavy braking and rapid acceleration out of the corners will also place demands on the tyres, with good rear traction a particular requirement for a fast lap. Bridgestone rubber has been used on the winning car in Brazil in seven grands prix since the company's entry into F1 back in 1997.

"Interlagos looks like a circuit that would be quite severe on tyres, but this is not the case as it is not actually that harsh," stated Director of Bridgestone Motorsport Tyre Development Hirohide Hamashima. "High levels of grip are an important requirement here, especially in the infield section. Because of these grip requirements we will bring the soft and super-soft compounds, the softest tyres we have in the 2007 range. However, we expect to have less grip here than when we were in a competitive situation last year, so teams and drivers will have to work hard to find the best set-up.

"It is a track which has a lot of gradient changes, and the first turn will be a particular challenge. The corner is downhill and comes after the long straight, so identifying the correct braking point will be vital. It is very difficult and drivers often lock their front wheels here, so they will have to be careful to avoid flat-spotting their tyres. This year there is an unknown element too, as the circuit has been resurfaced."

THE TRACK:
Race Distance: 71 laps - Circuit Length: 2.693 miles (4.309km)

The anti-clockwise Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace was built in a natural bowl that has gradually been absorbed by the sprawling city of S?o Paulo. The original track, first used in 1940, twisted around itself between two lakes, hence the name Interlagos, but the new, shorter version misses out much of the old track even if it retains the original's stand-out feature - a steep start-line straight.

Frequently run on a very bumpy surface, despite regular relaying of the tarmac, the Brazilian Grand Prix invariably proves to be a true test of durability for both man and machine, heightened by the fact that the Interlagos circuit is one of the few - along with Imola and Istanbul - to run in an anti-clockwise direction. The 4.3km circuit consists of 13 medium and slow-speed corners - nine left and four right - and has a blend of long, fast straights and gradient changes.

With such a varied layout, set-up compromises are inevitable, and the challenge lies in achieving optimal aerodynamic efficiency around the lap. Interlagos is a notoriously bumpy circuit, so not only is it draining on the drivers, but the cars must have a good mechanical balance for drivability. Combined with the bumps, the track is also particularly abrasive, so harder compound tyres must be selected to ensure their survival. Engines are similarly under intense pressure in Brazil, with the long straights demanding extensive periods at full throttle and high revs, while the high altitude and thinning air saps approximately eight per cent of overall power around the lap.

For the racers, there are plenty of overtaking opportunities, but S?o Paulo also throws up its own unpredictable weather, which can cause additional problems as water drains off the hills surrounding the circuit. The atmosphere, however - come rain or shine - makes Interlagos one of the more intoxicating venues to visit, with the passionate Brazilian fans adding to the spectacle.

THE WINNER?

Who will win the 2007 Brazilian Grand Prix? That, of course, is the $64,000 question. Should Lewis Hamilton prevail, he will become the first rookie champion in Formula 1 history, but the odds are stacked against him triumphing in the race at least. On paper Ferrari's Felipe Massa would look to be the favourite, following his peerless performance in S?o Paulo last year, but should the home hero find himself in front of team-mate Kimi Raikkonen he will no doubt be asked to make way for the Finn to aid the latter's championship cause. It is at Interlagos, meanwhile, where Fernando Alonso has clinched both his championship crowns. It really is too close to call.

LAST SEASON:

Felipe Massa took a hugely popular victory in the 2006 Brazilian Grand Prix, after leading from lights to chequered flag and setting a pace nobody else could live with.

The second triumph of his Formula 1 career, Massa led home Fernando Alonso, for whom the runner-up spot was more than enough to confirm his second successive world drivers' title as rival for the crown Michael Schumacher fought valiantly back from an early puncture to steal fourth place from McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen in the dying laps. In the final grand prix of his spectacular career, the German drove like a true champion and left defeated but with his head held high, as Jenson Button joined Massa and Alonso on the bottom step of the rostrum - only the Briton's third podium finish of the campaign.

Giancarlo Fisichella came home sixth to ensure Renault walked away with the constructors' laurels too, with Rubens Barrichello scoring for Honda on home turf in seventh and Pedro de la Rosa taking the final point for McLaren in eighth. There was embarrassment for Williams, however, as Nico Rosberg and Mark Webber took each other out on the opening tour - the second year in a row the team had failed to get either of its cars beyond lap one...

1. Felipe Massa Brazil Ferrari-Ferrari 71 01:31:53.751
2. Fernando Alonso Spain Renault-Renault +18.6
3. Jenson Button Britain Honda-Honda +19.3
4. Michael Schumacher Germany Ferrari-Ferrari +24.0
5. Kimi Raikkonen FinlandMcLaren-Mercedes +28.5
6. Giancarlo Fisichella Italy Renault-Renault +30.2
7. Rubens Barrichello Brazil Honda-Honda +40.2
8. Pedro de la Rosa Spain McLaren-Mercedes +52.0

 

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