The Brazilian GP was perhaps not the most exciting race we have seen this year, although people do tend to have short memories. At the end of the day we had two team-mates fighting all afternoon for the win, at least until Lewis Hamilton backed off in the closing laps. And the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel was close enough to ensure that Mercedes could not be too complacent.
I can assure you that over the decades I've been to many races that provided far less intrigue, with one car droning around at the front and winning with a lot more margin that Nico Rosberg had last weekend. Of course we all want to see more than one team fighting for victory, but at least Mercedes doesn't have a designated number one driver.
I always enjoyed Interlagos from my first trips there in the seventies, and I was pleased when we returned to Sao Paulo in 1990, after F1 spent the eighties in Rio – a track now lost forever I note, thanks to the 2016 Olympic Games. Mexico rightly earned rave reviews for the contribution of the fans, but it was good to note on the TV that the Brazilians were as enthusiastic as ever.
McLaren has scored many success in Brazil over the decades, the first coming with local legend Emerson Fittipaldi in 1974. Of course in the Ayrton Senna years there was a special intensity about the weekend for the Woking team. It's one of the most curious things about Ayrton's career that he took so long to win his home race, finally achieving a victory in 1991, and earning a second success two years later. Alain Prost in contrast managed to win six times, four of those wins coming with McLaren.
McLaren's most memorable Brazilian GP was in 2008, when Hamilton clinched the title with his famous last lap pass of Timo Glock for fifth place. But the race I'd like to recall here happened 10 years ago, and much like the 2015 event it saw a cat and mouse battle between two team-mates, namely Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya.
A lot of the winning that season was done by Fernando Alonso and Renault, but it was nip and tuck all year with Kimi and McLaren, the Finn winning in Spain, Monaco, Canada, Hungary, Turkey and Belgium. Montoya meanwhile triumphed in Britain and Italy – both races where Kimi was compromised by starting well down the field due to a 10-place engine change grid penalty.
Indeed engine problems hit him hard while Alonso was scoring consistently. Nevertheless Raikkonen was still mathematically in the hunt heading to Brazil, which that year was the third last race of the season. He had won the previous race at Spa, but the gap to Alonso was still a daunting one. Even the most optimistic members of the McLaren camp accepted that the chances of the Spaniard ending the season with three bad races were slim. Fernando’s destiny was in his own hands – if he finished third in Brazil, it was all over.
In those days it was single car qualifying, based on the result of the previous race (it seemed like a good idea at the time!). Second last out, Alonso pipped Montoya for top spot with a tidy lap under enormous pressure. Last man to go was Kimi, and against expectations, he was the one to crack. Braking just a little too late for Turn One, he locked up his left front and lost sufficient time to drop himself down to fifth. With Montoya, Giancarlo Fisichella and Jenson Button between himself and Alonso, it did not look good.
Overnight rain left the track damp for the Sunday morning support events, and there were still traces of moisture when the cars lined up the grid, especially off the line on the even-numbered side. Of more concern were threatening dark clouds. A deluge seemed inevitable, but somehow the rain held off, at least until the podium ceremony.
Alonso got away well, while Montoya managed to out drag the other Renault of Fisichella to hold on to second. Behind there was total chaos as David Coulthard clipped the back of Antonio Pizzonia, sending the Brazilian across the track into Williams team mate Mark Webber.
Inevitably this action brought out a safety car, but it was only needed for a couple of laps. At the restart Montoya really had some momentum, and he soon found a way past the cautious Alonso for the lead. JPM then began to pull away, while Raikkonen slotted into third, having dealt with Button and Fisichella.
The two title contenders running together on the track, albeit for second, was just what we needed. But Kimi was never in a position to pass, and after a while he began to drop back.
Alonso came in relatively early on lap 22, underlining the fact that the Renaults had run light to get to the front and keep out of trouble. Montoya stayed out for another six laps, while Kimi finally came in as late as lap 31.
The team had given him the heavier load to allow him a painless route past JPM without any embarrassing moving over. The Finn was unable to take advantage of the extra time on empty tanks as he wasn’t close enough, despite setting fastest lap just before he pitted. However, he did jump Alonso, and slotted into second. He still couldn’t make an impression on his team-mate.
“I wasn’t quick enough in the early part of the race,” said Kimi, “And also after the first stop from the beginning I was not quick enough, so Montoya got a little gap and it was enough for him. It was quite difficult today, the car was not the easiest one, but at least it was quick still.”
Now came the question – would Montoya be required to move over toassist Kimi's title quest? The answer from the McLaren pit wall was “No.” With Alonso running steadily in third, the championship was already over unless the Spaniard retired, so it was decided to let the silver cars race until their final stop.
Montoya was some 4secs clear when he came in on lap 54, but Kimi had five extra laps to run and seemingly a good chance of getting ahead.
Some extra insight was supplied several years later by Montoya's engineer Phil Prew in the excellent book McLaren: 50 Years of Racing: “Kimi was still going with what was obviously a lighter fuel load. We said, 'Right Juan, we've got to push now because Kimi's still out.' Kimi had enough fuel left to stay out for five laps, but Juan Pablo put in such a series of mega laps that, when Kimi pitted, Juan Pablo was right there. I remember Juan Pablo coming up the hill and asking: 'How much longer do I have to keep going like this?' I'm saying: 'Keep going, keep going! Kimi's pitting this lap.'”
Despite running five more laps with a light fuel load, again Kimi wasn’t able to jump his team-mate. He emerged from the pits just in front, but Montoya blasted straight past. At that JPM knew that his third win of the year, and the first over an unpenalised Kimi, was secure.
Prew believed that his man would have found a way by come what may: “We told them to just get two cars to the end. Juan Pablo was never going to lose that race. If it had worked out the other way and Juan had been told to back off, he would have ignored us completely!”
The only fly in the ointment might be a late problem for Alonso opening up Kimi's title chance once more, but the Renault ran like clockwork and status quo was maintained at the front. It was McLaren’s ninth win of the season, but the first one-two. It put the team into the lead of the constructors’ table for the first time in 2005, albeit by the slender margin of two points.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Montoya. “It was a big fight with Kimi all day long, and it was a matter of gaps. He was going longer than me so I always had to open a gap to be able to maintain it, and it was not easy. Especially after the second stop, it was close, but it was just close enough.”
“I think the positive is that we let them [Montoya and Raikkonen] race until after the final pit stop,” said Ron Dennis after the race. “Which is a good way to do it until it goes wrong, and then you feel foolish. But I think you have to practice what you preach. They both drove very, very hard, at exactly the same engine utilisation, and the outcome was apparent – it was very close at the last stop.
“And then they drove for the team to get the maximum constructors’ points. Of course, if anything had happened to Alonso in that final stint then they would have behaved appropriately. It was a strong race, and everyone could see how early the Renault stopped, and that our level of performance was still there.”
It was good to see Dennis stress that, even with one of his drivers involved in a title fight, he was prepared to let them race. That's how it should be, and that's what Mercedes has been trying to achieve for the last two years. It's not an easy balance to achieve, especially when the policy of not allowing them to run alternate strategies, in an attempt to be fair, leads to frustration for the man who loses out. Who would want to be a team boss...?