The 18-race 2008 FIA Formula 1 World Championship finally reaches its climax in Sao Paulo, Brazil, next weekend. And the daunting Interlagos circuit will play host to a thrilling title decider for the fourth successive season, between Vodafone McLaren Mercedes championship leader Lewis Hamilton (94 points) and local hero Felipe Massa (87).
With each driver poised to win his first world title, it's easy to overlook the fact that the constructors' championship has also to be decided; Vodafone McLaren Mercedes currently lies 11 points behind leaders Ferrari.
Sao Paulo's Interlagos circuit was born out of a 1926 suburban construction programme which aimed to regenerate an area of the huge Brazilian city located between two enormous drinking-water reservoirs [Interlagos is Portugese for ‘in between lakes'].
The venue was finally completed in the late 1930s and hosted its first (non-championship) Formula 1 race in the spring of 1972, on the original 7.96km switchback course. The inaugural event's success led to its inclusion onto the world championship calendar the following year - a position it relinquished in 1980. After a stint at Rio de Janeiro's Jacarepagua track, Interlagos returned to the Formula 1 calendar in 1990 in a more modest 4.3km configuration.
McLaren has won the Brazilian Grand Prix on 11 occasions, including seven victories at Interlagos.
How are you approaching this final, crucial weekend of the year?
Lewis Hamilton: "Fundamentally the same way I've approached the previous races. Obviously, my aim for Brazil is slightly different from the other grands prix: I don't need to win the race, but that won't stop me from going into the weekend looking to be as strong as possible. Shanghai was a good example of that: we hit the ground running on Friday morning and never looked back. Our aim wasn't to push too hard, but we found ourselves in a position at the front and took it comfortably from there. That's what I am hoping to achieve in Brazil - a straightforward weekend that allows me to just focus on my car and my driving."
What do you think of the Interlagos circuit?
LH: "I love the circuit: it's in this incredible natural arena that is just amazing to race on. And it's anti-clockwise too - so it presents an additional challenge to the drivers. The track always seems to provide good, close racing: one of the reasons for that is because there's a long straight leading up to the first corner and you can slipstream other cars and overtake into Turn One. It's also a place where there seems to be a lot of grip so you can dice with other cars and have fun."
What do you remember of last year's nail-biting finale in Brazil?
LH: "I went to Interlagos with the title battle still up in the air and all my emotions just bubbling up and down. It was a very emotional time because I knew it would end with either great success or huge disappointment. In 2007, things didn't end up too well for me - but I still had a great first year. Everybody's always happy to finish the season in Brazil - there's a real party atmosphere in Sao Paulo on the Sunday night and it's a perfect place to end such a great season."
Sao Paulo and Interlagos have long been intertwined with the legacy of Ayrton Senna - how does that make you feel?
LH: "Ayrton has always been my favourite driver. I think he's the best driver there ever was and, still, to this day, I don't believe anyone would beat him. If I could achieve just a small part of what he achieved, it would be a dream for me."
How has your knowledge of the car and the team developed over the 2007 season?
Heikki Kovalainen: "It didn't take too long to find where I wanted to be with the team, but it's taken longer to get used to the MP4-23. Sometimes I've pushed the set-up in the wrong direction but, over the year, I've found a better direction. I've been particularly pleased with my qualifying pace; even from the first race, I was competitive. Now I'm working hard to improve my knowledge of the tyres and everything is headed in the right direction."
With the 2008 season almost finished, how are you approaching the winter?
HK: "It's been a good season overall. I've done a lot of learning throughout the year and I already feel much better prepared for next year. I now understand how to make the car fast and what I need to do to get the most out of it. I thought this year would be more difficult, but I feel I've done a good job."
What are your aims for the last race of the year?
HK: "To win it, obviously! With the championship as it is, things are a little different going to Brazil. Clearly, I want to be able to help the team and Lewis wherever necessary - but the easiest way to do that is to be running at the front. The team knows I will play my part, but we are also targeting the constructors' championship. We may be 11 points behind Ferrari, but there are 18 points available in Brazil and we go into the final race still looking at securing both world titles - that has to be our aim."
How do you assess the balance between Vodafone McLaren Mercedes and Ferrari going into the last round of the 2008 world championship?
Martin Whitmarsh, CEO Formula 1, Vodafone McLaren Mercedes: "While Ferrari was able to out-perform us at last year's Brazilian Grand Prix, we feel relatively confident that the situation will be different this year for several reasons. Firstly, looking at the trends of the season, the characteristics of our car should be better suited to Interlagos than they were in 2007. Also, the weather was exceptionally warm last year - something that tends to favour Ferrari - and the chances are that it won't be quite so hot next week. These elements should create a very tight competition, which is good for everybody."
Are there any other unusual variables to take into consideration at Interlagos?
MW: "The track is fairly bumpy, so there's a greater premium placed on finding a good, driveable balance. The track itself is situated at fairly high altitude, which has a knock-on effect on engine horsepower and downforce, both of which are a little lower than at a regular circuit. For this race, we'll also be looking at the possibility of running Lewis's engine in a safer setting so it has a bit more margin than normal. It's something we do throughout the season but, clearly, there's a greater need to be safe this weekend."
What sort of additional pressure is placed on the race team for such a high-stakes race?
MW: "While we try and eliminate as many difficulties for the race team as is possible, there is no escaping the fact that a title-deciding race is clearly very stressful. You're somewhat torn because the need to score four points is considerably easier than winning - but that sort of attitude is anathema to the team. The reality is that Shanghai was rather more stressful because we only had a five-point cushion over Felipe and that could have been seriously dented. Given our performance so far this year, you'd assume that Lewis would be able to score the necessary points - but that could be affected by a sudden Safety Car period or a mechanical problem. Both drivers just need to drive clean races; but reliability is the biggest stress-builder for the guys in the garage, and it is a constant worry."
The situation for Lewis prior to the final race is the same as last year: he will arrive in Sao Paulo with a seven-point advantage. Don't you worry that it will again not work out with the championship?
Norbert Haug, vice-president, Mercedes-Benz Motorsport: "The title win is everything but a formality. For Lewis's title contender Felipe Massa there are in Brazil only a few drivers in the field who, according to the current balance of power, are able to challenge him for the race win; Lewis and Heikki are two of them. Of course, there are races with surprising conditions or Safety Car periods which can mix up the field, like in Singapore previously, and provide unexpected results. Lewis will be as focused as the team to score the necessary points in Brazil."
Brazil is the home country of Lewis's title rival Felipe Massa. Does this mean a disadvantage for Lewis?
NH: "Of course, the majority of the crowd will support Felipe at his home race in Brazil, this will be the same for him as it was for Lewis in Great Britain. What will count in the end will be speed, reliability, to avoid crashes, and the cleverness of team and drivers. We will focus on our job. We know, of course, that we have to work a lot until Lewis will be able to clinch the title."
What is in favour of Lewis and Vodafone McLaren Mercedes in the finale in Brazil?
NH: "Four months ago, after the races in Canada and Magny-Cours, Lewis was 10 points behind the leader. In the following nine races he scored 17 points more than Felipe Massa. Lewis started from pole position five times and was second on the grid twice, which means that in the previous nine grands prix, he started seven times from the front row. In these races since July, our team won four times, Ferrari and Renault twice each, and Toro Rosso once; in these races we scored 87 points, Ferrari 65, BMW 61 and Renault 60. We now have to continue this trend in the final Grand Prix of the year. A task which we underestimate by no means."