To understand a little about the Brazilians’ passion for Formula 1, you have to go back to the beginning of the story, which began when a young Brazilian named Emerson Fittipaldi took a deep breath and set out to make his racing career in Europe, racing in Formula Ford.
That was in 1969, just over a year before the brilliant kid from Sao Paulo won the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, for Lotus, in only his fourth outing at a Formula 1 world championship event.
But we’re already getting ahead of ourselves.
Over Easter weekend, 1969, I piled into my mother’s Renault R8 and headed for Dover. Autosport magazine had agreed to pay me the majestic sum of £50 to cover the Formula 3 international event at Chimay – that daunting and luridly high-speed road circuit in southern Belgium.
The grandly titled Grand Prix des Frontieres had been an important race on the international calendar since 1926. The brainchild of local businessman Jules Buisseret, who eventually died in 1977 at the age of 85, it was race that attracted a variety of supporting events, and, on the occasion of my visit, included an event for the relatively new Formula Ford category.
The F3 event was won by the Swiss driver Jean Blanc, at the wheel of a Tecno – he took the chequered flag comfortably ahead of Brits Cyd Williams and Natalie Goodwin, both in Brabhams, and another Tecno handled by Peter Gaydon, who subsequently became a good friend of mine.
Meanwhile, in the cowpat-strewn field behind the pits that fulfilled the function of makeshift paddock, I introduced myself to a young Brazilian with a broad grin who was racing a Merlyn Mk 11A in the Formula Ford event. The guy’s name turned out to be Emerson Fittipaldi, fresh off the Boeing from Sao Paulo, and on his very first visit to Europe.
In the race, Emmo (as he wouldn’t be nicknamed until he forsook Formula 1 for Indycars) quickly became embroiled in a three-way battle for the lead with local star Claude Bourgoignie’s Lotus and the Crossle of Gerry Birrell, following this duo across the line in third place. There was no doubt he was a promising young driver and, if the way he handled Chimay’s high-speed swerves was anything to go by, a brave one, too.
Only three years later he would be Formula 1 world champion for the first time at the wheel of the classic Lotus 72. Two years later, in 1974, he won McLaren’s first ever Formula 1 world championship. There could be no doubt: the flame had been lit, and Emerson was the torch-bearer.
He was not only one of the most impressive young talents of his era, but, more importantly, he was at the very forefront of the wave of Brazilian talent that stormed the bastions of European motorsport over the next few years.
Following in his wake, Emerson was soon joined by his brother Wilson – who will celebrate his 70th birthday this Christmas Day – then Carlos Pace, after whom the Interlagos circuit was named following the Paulista’s untimely death in a light aircraft accident early in 1977.
These notable Brazilians planted the flag, and their presence set the stage for Brazil’s first world championship grand prix, staged at Interlagos in 1973 and duly won by Emerson, driving Lotus’s elegant black and gold Lotus 72. The following year, he went out and repeated the achievement – now strapped into the cockpit of a bright red and white McLaren.
Emerson’s maiden McLaren victory was written into the pages of the Formula 1 history books only a couple of weeks after team-mate Denny Hulme had opened the 1974 season by winning the Argentine Grand Prix at Buenos Aires.
Moreover, Emerson’s win at Interlagos was achieved despite the bumpy Sao Paulo track surface being brushed by a light rain shower in the closing stages, prompting the winner to point anxiously skywards as he completed his final handful of laps to victory. Truth be told, Emerson drove brilliantly throughout the entire ’74 season, balancing just enough raw speed with the tactical acuity needed to make the best of any situation which presented itself.
With a second world title under his belt, Emerson had firmly placed Brazil on the motorsport map – and it has remained a constant ever since.
Nonetheless, times change. As speeds escalated, the Interlagos bowl became increasingly outdated, and the home of the Brazilian Grand Prix duly switched from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro, first with a one-off race in 1978, and then for a nine-year stint between 1981 and ’89.
For McLaren, it was a prosperous switch.
Ten years after Emerson’s last victory in Brazil, Alain Prost notched up the first of his four McLaren victories in the Brazilian race – all at Rio’s Jacarepagua circuit.
Alain’s serene progress in Brazil contrasted with that of his team-mate, Ayrton Senna. Ayrton was absolutely revered in his home city of Sao Paulo – but it took him until 1991 to notch up the first of his two home victories. That first win was particularly resonant, for the Brazilian Grand Prix had now reverted back to Interlagos, which had reclaimed the grand prix back from Rio after introducing a truncated version of the grand old 1970s’ original track in 1990.
Emerson: Ayrton Senna, from the heart
Ayrton won again in ’93, underlining the popularity of Interlagos – whose somewhat rough and unkempt appearance was preferred by drivers over the rather more manicured Rio venue.
Indeed, the two venues couldn’t have been more different.
The coastal Jacarepagua venue was lawn-flat, and possessed of a series of long, sweeping, constant-apex corners. Almost a drag-strip with curves, if it wasn’t a particularly demanding venue, it was certainly an impressive one – the huge back straight, flanked by massive grandstands, was a spectacular overtaking spot, where ’80s grand prix cars would shower sparks high into the air as their skid-plates bottomed out on the bumpy and parched Tarmac.
Interlagos has always been something of a rollercoaster – the track itself is carved into the rolling hills pushed up between two large lakes, and cleaves to the wild, sweeping contours of the land. If it looks exciting on the TV this weekend, consider that it was (appropriately) even hairier back in the ’70s. In its original configuration, the track charged straight on at Turn One, veering through a series of fast sweepers before re-connecting to the current circuit. It was a hell of a ride.
Even in its current guise, Interlagos is jaw-droppingly spectacular – you’re greeted upon arrival by a huge green bowl, within which the track sits, flanked all around by rickety old grandstands and faded, cracked concrete buildings. On race morning, even at an impossibly early hour, the stands are filled to bursting point, the rhythmic thud of drums and percussion permeating the thick morning air. It is impossible to resist the frantic, frenzied vibe.
On the startline, the fans are pressed close to the racetrack – almost caged in by the steel catch-fencing. If you can’t quite see the whites of their eyes, you can hear the chants and the name-calling, the hoodoos and the hexes, and you can clearly witness the crowd’s collective passion for its home heroes.
And the loss of Senna – which shortly followed the retirement of three-time world champion Nelson Piquet, also from Brazil – started a trace for the next Brazilian racing star. First came Rubens Barrichello, whose red Ferrari was the protagonist to the two Silver Arrows driven by Mika Hakkinen (who took two Brazilian GP wins in 1998 and ’99) and David Coulthard (who won in 2001). Up next was Felipe Massa, also driving for Ferrari, who became the chief rival of McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton.
It was on the startline in 2008 that these two championship protagonists posed for photographs on the morning of the title denouement, the final race of the season. Both men looked cowed by the sheer voracity of the crowd – but if Lewis felt intimidated by their volume, he certainly failed to show it, and, as we all know, went on to deliver the most sensational of title deciders in F1 history.
There’s something appropriate about Brazil becoming the host of the championship finale – Interlagos is a bubbling cauldron of intensity on a quiet day. When it’s a championship decider, the place is about as close to motorsport heaven as you can get. Indeed, the demanding track and wildly unpredictable climate seem only too keen to hurl a stick into the spokes of even the most finely balanced wheel.
And so it was last year, with Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso each delicately poised to take the ultimate honours. A first-lap incident cast the German to the back of the field, leaving him dangling dangerously on the precipice – only at Interlagos could he fight back to claim the title.
Michael Andretti: a seat beside Senna
If the 2012 title fight was in the spotlight, the winner of that most recent Brazilian Grand Prix was no less important. As he’s prone to do, Jenson judged the changing conditions perfectly – at one point building himself an incredible 40-second margin – to win McLaren’s seventh grand prix of the year. It was an absolute tour de force.
By contrast, Jenson’s team-mate Lewis was also in a position to challenge for the win – until Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg misjudged his braking point, slamming into the McLaren and tearing a wheel off. It was a hugely disappointing end to Lewis’s brilliant McLaren career.
However, those two finishing positions are oddly fitting – one car on the top step of the podium, the other in the wall. Could there be a more appropriate racetrack than Interlagos at which to achieve such a wildly contrasting result?
Interlagos – where chaos reigns. What a fantastic place to end 2013, and, appropriately, the perfect venue from which to spring head-first into the new season.
Bring it on!