As much as I was looking forward to getting back to Brazil for the first time since 2000, I also knew that an IZOD IndyCar Series race in Sao Paulo was likely to be an entirely different event from the CART “roval” races in Rio de Janeiro.
Yep – starting with the three hours-plus we were stuck in infamous Sao Paulo traffic while traveling from the airport to Honda Brazil‘s downtown HQ. Stop. Start. Repeat. Watch in awe as motorcycle couriers weave their way through said traffic with millimeters (hey, we’re in Brazil, it’s metric, baby) to spare on either side. I wonder if Brazil has universal health insurance?
Once we got to the circuit, it was time to have a look around. Walking the track, two things were apparent right away: it was FAST, and the loooooooong back straight was BUMPY. Actually, not so much bumpy as wavy – and that’s an important difference. Rather than the sharp dips and rises you normally see on a street circuit (see: Toronto) the asphalt here had a gentler, up-and-down motion, like you might experience bobbing on a lake. No doubt about it, the damper guys were going to have a busy weekend.
Of course, what I totally missed was how slick the concrete section at start/finish and through the “sambadrome” area would be. I thought the smooth concrete would just “rubber up” as more cars made laps on track. Guess I wasn’t the only one who got that one wrong. In a lot of ways, the layout reminded me of Montreal – long straights punctuated by a couple of high-speed chicanes and a couple of hairpins.
One nice touch: the hairpin at the end of the long back straight was very wide, leading into the sambadrome. It proved to be a great place for passing (and even re-passing).
I should probably explain the “sambadrome”, which is basically a viewing area for the city’s annual Carnival parades and samba-band contests. In Brazil, they take what we call “Mardi Gras” seriously. I mean, VERY seriously. The whole freakin’ country basically shuts down the week before Lent begins. There are multiple, judged parades with floats, bands and the Brazilian kick-dancing art known as “capoeira”. There are hundreds (maybe thousands) of “samba schools” whose sole purpose is to prepare for each year’s Carnival festivities. Like I said, it’s a big deal down here.
The sambadrome – and I’m told all the major cities have one – is where these parades and contests are held each year. They feature permanent, concrete grandstands, VIP suites, reviewing stands, etc. For those of you in L.A., think “Rose Parade on Steroids”.
The track, then, incorporates the sambadrome as the start/finish straight, and then encircles a convention/meeting center area, which included a Holiday Inn (VERY convenient for those of us staying there), banquet facilities, meeting rooms, an auditorium (used for press conferences), and a large exhibition hall that was pressed into service as the paddock/garage area for the weekend.
The weekend kicked off with a Thursday afternoon press conference featuring all the Brazilian drivers, the mayor and other Sao Paulo dignitaries. Obviously, it drew a large media crowd with at least 100 people in attendance, including more than a dozen TV outlets/film crews. And that number would only grow as the weekend progressed. There were probably 100 or so legitimate reporters on site by race day, and perhaps another 100 photographers/videographers. It was by far the largest press turnout I’ve seen outside of the Indy 500.
A couple of differences were noticeable right away. The Brazilians, well-schooled in Formula One, Formula Three, etc., refer to our series as “Formula Indy”, rather than IndyCars. No problemo.
The fuel also smelled a bit different, truly 100 percent, sugarcane-based ethanol. In the U.S., the fuel is denatured with two percent gasoline for legal reasons. In Brazil, though, they don't have that two percent requirement, so the fuel was actually 100 percent ethanol (and drinkable – if you’re REALLY desperate….
And because the long back straight was also a major Sao Paulo thoroughfare, and not closed down until after rush hour Friday night, this would be a two-day event. From the start of the opening practice, it was apparent that the sambadrome – rather than the bumpy backstretch – would be the center of attention.
Throughout practice, drivers were spinning their tires all the way up through the gears, keeping their foot in it, and fighting the car all the way through the concrete section. They looked like top-fuel drag cars, with the tires standing up and shaking while the rear of the car slid and shook. Cool to watch, but not at all popular among the drivers – or the mechanics at Conquest, Dreyer & Reinbold, KV and Penske after Mario Romancini, Ana Beatriz, Mario Moraes and Helio Castroneves all managed to “drop it” and find the fence.
In the end, race officials decided to postpone qualifying and diamond-grind the concrete overnight to give it some grip. In lieu of qualifying, we ran a third practice session. Will Power ended up quickest on the day (a harbinger for Sunday’s race), followed by local favorite Tony Kanaan and his new AA (hmmm, not sure THAT abbreviation is gonna work …) teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay. Justin Wilson continued to impress with DRR in fourth, with defending series champ Dario Franchitti rounding out the top five on Saturday’s speed list.
The overnight track grinding worked a treat, although despite repeated hose-downs, the surface was still very dusty right up through the start of the race. Despite the severe dust, especially early, the track is vastly improved from Saturday. Going through the sambadrome in the pre-qualifying practice, the cars were staying straight and behaving in a much more acceptable manner.
As the dust settled and visibility improved, so did the lap times. In just a few minutes, 10 drivers were in the 1:30s, and at the end, Ryan Hunter-Reay was at 1:28.5 - almost three seconds better than his time in the third practice on Saturday. Even Milka Duno, who has struggled here, had picked up four seconds.
In the (now usual) exciting knockout qualifying, Franchitti once again proved dominant on a street circuit to take the pole. The pleasant surprises came from Alex Tagliani in second as he debuted with his FAZZT team, and Wilson in P3, although this is rapidly becoming NOT a surprise.
I understand that the race broadcast was a bit of a train wreck (that’s the risk you take when you leave the booth announcers and most of the pit road crew at home and try to “call” the race off a 10” monitor….), but in person, it was one of the best street races I’ve ever seen – and I’ve watched a lot of them over the years.
It was the mid-race rain shower and the resulting restart on a damp-but-drying track that made the race – along with a course design that promoted passing.
The first corner craziness began when Takuma Sato made a great start, passing at least one full row of cars on the run up to Turn 1, but then arriving hot and late on the brakes (probably his first time braking hard with a full fuel load), and sliding into Scott Dixon. That started a chain reaction in TWO directions, as Dixon hit Castroneves in front of HIM, and cars behind Sato and Dixon started piling into one another, culminating in Moraes ending a perfectly miserable home race weekend by sliding into, over, and finally atop Marco Andretti.
Of course those two already have a history, dating to Indy last year, and it is not a pleasant one. As Robin Miller likes to say, “hate is good” in racing.
Other highlights from the Sao Paulo Indy 300:
- Rookie Simona De Silvestro has already marked herself as One To Watch. But anyone following Formula Atlantic these last two years could tell you she was quick and fearless. HVM’s Mike Cannon used clever strategy (pitting her at the end of the first caution so that she gained a ton of positions when nearly everyone else made their first stop), and she held onto her lead until the rains came, and she eventually dinged a LR corner. Still, it was a great debut and I think she’s a keeper.
- The fighting for the lead between Briscoe, Hunter-Reay and Power was worth the price of admission alone. But just behind them was a equally exciting fight that included Rafa Matos, Vitor Meira, Dan Wheldon, Dixon, Mike Conway and Franchitti. When Vitor finally took third at the checker, you could follow his progress around the track via the cheers of the locals. By Monday, the local media was calling Meira “the Brazilian Hero of the Sao Paulo 300”. This could be huge for his career.
- The Ganassi duo of Franchitti and Dixon dominated the early going, and one of them SHOULD have won the race – despite Dixon being caught up in the first-lap skirmish. But the TCGR braintrust inexplicably kept both cars out on rain tires for several laps too long before finally changing to slicks. Took them from 1-2 back to 6-7. Penske did the same to Castroneves, but at least they “split” their strategy, with Power and Briscoe changing tires early.
- Tagliani and the entire FAZZT team made a very impressive debut, with Tags running in the thick of the lead group until Wheldon misjudged his braking, slamming Tagliani who then punted Kanaan. The victims were done then and there, while the “perp” went on to finish fifth – something the Panther team REALLY needed, though.
In general, it was an exciting opening race and a good debut for the Sao Paulo event. Circuit chief Tony Cotman and the IRL did the right things to fix the track, and they received excellent cooperation from the promoter, the mayor and other city/state officials. Word is that the backstretch will be completely repaved before next year’s race. They put on only a top coat of asphalt this year since they were short on time. A full repave should smooth out the worst of the back straight “waves’ but, trust me, this circuit will always have character a-plenty…
Attendance was reported at 46,000, including 38,000 grandstand attendees and 8,000 suite/VIP guests – among them the mayor of Indianapolis, who was in Sao Paulo as part of a trade mission.
Now we’re off to St. Petersburg and the Honda Grand Prix, which is always a great event. So far, the IZOD IndyCar Series is off to a great start for 2010.