From the stands
With the 2012 F1 season heading for a thrilling climax, veteran F1 fan Steven Smith (@Stevensmith_f1f) decided he had to be there for the final race.
On his first visit to Interlagos he enjoyed the best view he’d ever had in over 50 Grands Prix, a warm and enthusiastic crowd – and a spellbinding championship showdown.
As it looked like we were heading for an exciting ending to the season I arranged with three of my friends to be in the stands for the finale.
I contacted the folks at Grandstand Motorsports* who sorted us out with a flights to Sao Paulo, upgraded seats on the plane, accommodation, weekend circuit transfers, and grandstand seats.
“The best view I’ve ever had”
The 11-hour overnight journey from London Heathrow to Sao Paulo on Wednesday passed surprisingly quickly and by Friday we were heading to the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace in Interlagos.
Subway journeys at Interlagos cost just three Brazilian Rials a journey, which is fantastic value. We stepped off at Interlagos station about 45 minutes after leaving our hotel.
After that a walk of about half a mile got us to the bottom of the circuit – but that was on the opposite side of where we needed to be. So in Friday’s scorching 34C heat we trudged uphill around the outside, past the pits complex and arrived at our grandstand.
Unusually, Interlagos does not allow movement around the circuit. You can only stay in the area of the stand you have a ticket for. All of the seats and tickets are numbered, yet no place is reserved: it’s a case of first come, first served.
Our grandstand was the second largest, uncovered, and the second-cheapest at £270. The prices rival that of Monaco – the next most expensive stand cost £510 and a seat overlooking the Senna S costs from £800 to over £1000.
But we reckoned the view there, with pit buildings obscuring the rest of the track, would not be nearly as good as that we had from Grandstand A. The view from our grandstand meant that we could see the cars for 45 seconds of their 75 second lap.
We could watch them from halfway down the Reta Oposta straight, through the big double-left curve at the end, up the hill and through the next two right-handers, and then through the left-hand curve.
Then we would lose sight for maybe seven or eight seconds before they re-appeared going downhill towards Juncao and up the hill where Lewis Hamilton broke Brazilian hearts by passing Timo Glock to deny Felipe Massa the world championship in 2008.
After that the cars briefly disappear from view, then blast back as they rounded the left-hander to come onto the pit straight and past our grandstand. I’ve been to 53 Grands Prix at dozens of circuits around the world, and this is the best view I’ve ever had.
The crime problem in Sao Paulo is well-known and the race organisers were clearly making a major effort to ensure the smooth running of the event. Security at the circuit was exceptionally tight: every bag was thoroughly searched and every person was frisked before entering. Thousands of police were visible at the track and in the city.
But once inside the atmosphere was great: the Brazilian fans were unquestionably the friendliest folk I have ever met at any circuit. I did get a bit of friendly banter when I went down to the front of the stand where someone had pinned the Brazilian national flag – and unfurled my Union Jack right next to it.
The grandstand was about one-third full when we entered, and two-thirds full by the time final practice began. Qualifying brought a big grin to our faces as our favourite drivers had locked out of the front row and nothing bad had happened to Vettel or Alonso.
After that we headed back by bus for some beer and food in the city on a very busy Saturday evening.
“Action all the way”
Having seen how the grandstand filled up on Saturday we decided to get to the circuit early for the race. So after breakfast we grabbed a taxi and took a 75 Rial (£25) ride to the track and arrived at 7.30am – to be greeted by a queue that was already 400 metres long. thankfully we only took about twenty minutes to pass security and get in.
Our latest grandstand neighbours travelled from Lima in Peru, and were so friendly that when they went to the bar for a £1.60 beer, they came back with one for me. You don’t get that at many other sports fixtures.
We watched two Porsche support races and then saw the end-of-season drivers’ photograph being taken at the start line. After that came the drivers’ parade, and as usual the majority of drivers did not bother to acknowledge the thousands of fans who have paid good money to see them perform. They were too intent on chatting with each other.
Finally the pit lane opened and the cars started to scream their way around the circuit ahead of the start. It soon became apparent Michael Schumacher was doing something special for his final appearance at an F1 race. We saw him enter the pit lane just a few seconds before it closed.
His reason became obvious just seconds later, when he emerged with a large flag bearing the words “Thank you”. For this he got a rousing round of applause as he made his way to take up his place on the grid.
By now it had started to get damp and like many in the grandstand we put on the waterproof capes purchased the day before for £3. At the lights went out, the race began and the crowd went wild.
And they got a lot wilder 15 seconds later when they saw Vettel facing the wrong way at the end of the main straight. I counted him as being in 18th position as he came past me for the first time. As the rain got heavier he climbed through the field, and was soon up into eighth.
As some drivers put on intermediate tyres it led to a little bit of confusion about who was in which position, though we could see Jenson Button and Nico Hulkenberg had stayed on slicks longer than most.
But we soon got things sorted out with the intervention of the safety car and a little help from the fans in front of us. Although Rosberg had limped past us with a puncture, it wasn’t clear why the safety car had been deployed. Then we noticed a lump of rubber midway between the pit entrance and the last corner, off the racing line.
Soon the race resumed and it was so thick with action that not once did anybody in the stand actually sit on their seat. Everybody was standing as Button and Hamilton dicing for the lead, then Hulkenberg took over and pulled away.
Massa passing Vettel received a great roar from the crowd whose support for their countryman had been reawakened. It was action all the way in the most exciting race I have been to since I was at Canada in 2007.
With around ten laps to go, it became clear that Vettel was doing enough to get his hat-trick of titles, and the crowd became more subdued as the excitement dropped a little. The final “event” for us was Paul di Resta crashing his car in front of our stand, bringing out the safety car for a final time, taking the drivers to the end of the race.
We were all buzzing about what we had seen as we all got back on the bus to return to our hotel, and probably for the rest of the evening too. It really was one hell of a race.
As we were not flying back until Monday evening we had time to see more of Sao Paulo. We decided we couldn’t visit this part of the world without going to see where Ayrton Senna was buried, so we headed for Morumbi Cemetery.
His grave sits in the prime spot in the vast cemetery, but is a simple flat plaque like every other one. There were a few others there, and flowers and flags had been left there over the weekend.
Our journey back to the airport was highlighted mainly by a man in a wheelchair in the middle of a four lane carriageway, going against the traffic begging for money from the passing cars. We must have been doing 50mph when we had to swerve around him.
The airport was chaotic, with queues everywhere. We joined one, then were asked to go to another. The Marussia pit crew who were behind us in the original queue then shot past us to be ahead in the second one. Hopefully that rare overtaking move was some consolation for losing tenth place to Caterham in the constructors’ championship.
Marussia, Lotus, Force India, Mercedes and Pirelli all had loads of folks on board for the flight home. For us the return trip marked an end to an exhilarating few days. But some of these weary team members had been away for five weeks and heading for happy reunions with loved ones at Heathrow.
*Grandstand Motorsports sponsor F1 Fanatic’s Going to a Grand Prix section. Please note this article was not paid for, Steven simply used them to book his tour.
From the stands
- Why the Spanish GP was better in person than on TV
- Watching Brazil’s spellbinding F1 season finale
- Silverstone fans’ mixed views on the rain-hit weekend
- Nigel’s memories from the last 37 British Grands Prix
- F1 Fanatics meet up in Melbourne
Images courtesy Steven Smith