Like all Brazilians, I love my country. I’m proud to be Brazilian. The Brazilian national spirit will never be defeated. That’s important to me, and I thank God for it.
So Brazil will always be the land that means most to me. But, much as I love Europe - and especially the UK, for whose great Formula 1 teams, Lotus and McLaren, I won world championships in 1972 and 1974 respectively - my second home is undoubtedly the United States. I live in Sao Paulo (Brazil), the city of my birth, but I have a second home in Key Biscayne, a beautiful island town a few miles south of Miami Beach (Florida, USA), which I also adore.
That being the case, as I write, I admit that I’m excited: excited that the final two grands prix of the 2013 F1 season will take place, yes, in the United States and Brazil.
I’ve written a lot about Interlagos in previous mclaren.com/formula1 blogs over the past few months - and only the majestic Nurburgring, the formidable ‘green hell’ of Germany, prevents my naming my home circuit as the greatest racetrack of them all. Personally, I preferred the original 8.0km (5.0 mile) version, the one that was inaugurated in 1940, six years before my birth, and on which I learned to race, first on two wheels and then on four. I won two grands prix there, in 1973 (for Lotus) and 1974 (for McLaren), and those two victories are among those of which undoubtedly I’m still most proud.
But the modern incarnation of Interlagos, which came into being in 1990 and has hosted the Brazilian Grand Prix every year since then, is a wonderful challenge for our super-talented 21st-century F1 drivers, and I love watching their super-grippy 21st-century F1 cars hurtling around its daunting anti-clockwise layout. I’m already looking forward to doing exactly that in a little under a couple of weeks’ time, in fact.
The story of Fuji 1976
But, before that, the F1 circus will visit Austin, Texas, for only the second time, and to be able to write those words is exciting in itself.
Let me elaborate. The US has a very complex relationship with F1. Undoubtedly, no nation is more passionately in love with the motor car than the US, and Americans adore their motor racing with corresponding fervour, but F1 is a poor relation to the home-grown Nascar and Indycar in terms of Stateside awareness and enthusiasm. I think that’s because American sports fans tend to regard their sporting institutions with a reverence that’s rare in other countries, and that reverence encompasses a powerful purity of enthusiasm and respect for sporting heritage.
Okay, in the 1970s I lived in England long enough to know that Wembley Stadium and Lords Cricket Ground and the Wimbledon All England Club all have a special place in Englishmen’s hearts, and undoubtedly there are football stadia in Italy and Spain and indeed Brazil that stir sports fans’ souls in the same way.
But, for US racing fans, F1 has never had that kind of spiritual home. Well, not until now, because in my view Austin can indeed become that all-important and long-awaited spiritual home of F1 in America, as I’ll explain later.
But, first, here’s a bit of American history. I’ll start with a quiz question: how many venues has F1 raced at in the US? Okay, I’ll tell you. The answer is 10: Sebring, Riverside, Watkins Glen, Long Beach, Las Vegas, Detroit, Dallas, Phoenix, Indianapolis and Austin, and that's too many.
As a result, despite some of those circuits’ having staged some truly superb F1 races over the years (eg, Watkins Glen [where I won my first grand prix in 1970, and where I clinched McLaren’s first world championship in 1974] and Long Beach [where I stood on my last ever grand prix podium in 1980, having finished third in an F1 car that bore my name], in particular), how could any of those 10 venues matter to American F1 fans in the way that the mere mention of Wembley or Lords or Wimbledon causes English sports fans’ hearts to skip a beat?
As a result, how could any of those 10 venues matter to American F1 fans in the way that San Siro in Milan or Camp Nou in Barcelona or indeed Maracana in Rio de Janeiro inspire love and loyalty in the hearts of Italian, Spanish and Brazilian football fans?
As a result, most important and relevant of all, how could any of those 10 venues matter to American F1 fans in the way that the Yankee Stadium matters to New York’s baseball fans, or the Cowboys Stadium matters to Dallas’s National Football League fans, or the Staples Center matters to Los Angeles’ basketball fans?
Interlagos has something of that quality, as do Silverstone, Monza and Suzuka. But Sebring, Riverside, Watkins Glen, Long Beach, Las Vegas, Detroit, Dallas, Phoenix, and Indianapolis never stayed around long enough to do the same. As I say, I’ll come to Austin later.
Indianapolis is, of course, the spiritual home of racing in the US, and probably always will be. The Indy 500 was first held there more than 100 years ago, in 1911 to be precise, and, apart from a few years missed during World War One and World War Two, it’s been a national racing institution in the US ever since. I won the race twice - in 1989 and and 1993, both times in a Penske-Chevy - and the day I was inducted into the legendary Indianapolis Hall of Fame was a proud day indeed.
But, although I first raced in Indycar in 1984 (the CART series, to be precise), I actually first drove an Indycar at Indianapolis in a private test at the end of the 1974 season, just after having won the F1 world championship for McLaren in the last grand prix of the season, at Watkins Glen. The Indycar I drove was the fabulous orange-coloured McLaren-Offy (short for Offenhauser, the famous engine manufacturer that won the Indy 500 no fewer than 27 times) that Johnny Rutherford had earlier that year raced sensationally from 25th place on the grid to first place at the flag, lapping every car except Bobby Unser’s Eagle-Offy, and I absolutely loved it. I was quick in it, too.
The Offy was a fantastic engine, albeit pretty low-tech. It was a turbocharged 159-cubic-inch (2.6-litre) four-pot lump that belted out 800bhp - almost double the grunt of the F1 cars of the 1970s. And, as I say, the McLaren M16 was just fabulous. In fact I have a model of Johnny’s McLaren M16 on the shelf behind my desk, in my Sao Paulo office, to this day. (The real car, Johnny’s actual 1974 Indy 500 winner, was sold at the RM Auctions at Monterrey earlier this year, for US$3.5 million [£2.2 million], in case you’re interested. And, no, sadly, I wasn’t the lucky buyer!)
One of McLaren’s F1 sponsors in the 1970s was Texaco, and, after I’d tested Johnny’s McLaren M16, a plan was quickly hatched for me to drive an all-white Indycar in the 1975 Indy 500, with Texaco backing, and the car would have been called the McLaren Texaco Star. I considered the proposal very carefully, and undoubtedly it was very appealing, but in the end I declined the opportunity, because I felt that Indycar racing was still too unsafe in those days.
In time, that would change, and in the 1980s and 1990s I actually won considerably more Indycar races - 22 - than the 14 grands prix I’d won in F1 from 1970 to 1980. In so doing, I had some great times and made some great friends - most particularly the grandees of the great American racing dynasties - the Unsers (Bobby and Al), the Andrettis (Mario and Mike), AJ Foyt, Johnny Rutherford, Rick Mears, Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan and many more. They were all wonderful guys. And, perhaps principally as a result of those friendships, although F1 will always be foremost in my affections - because it’s the pinnacle of our sport, with the most challenging circuits and the most sophisticated cars - I’ll admit that I enjoyed Indycar even more, for its warm ambience, for its friendly rivalry, for its sporting ethics, and, yes, for the purity of its enthusiasm and respect for its own sporting heritage.
Anyway, I digress. I was talking about Indianapolis in an F1 context, and I’m sorry to say that the Brickyard (as we Indy veterans always called it) simply never worked for F1 - and, if you’ve been to the Indy 500, you won’t need me to tell you why.
Monza: A bitter-sweet circuit
But, if you’ve never been to the Indy 500, here’s why. The Indy 500 is utterly sensational. The spectacle of sitting trackside in the Turn One grandstand, watching big heavy powerful single-seaters thunder past your nose at around 400km/h (249mph), is quite unlike anything that any F1 fan has ever seen. The word ‘awesome’ is often over-used by sports fans and in particular sports writers, but undoubtedly the Indy 500 deserves that accolade: it’s truly awesome. As a result, US racing fans, who had grown used to having their minds blown and their guts wrenched by the Indy 500 on an annual basis, found F1 races at Indianapolis very disappointing.
Here’s why. The first Indianapolis-held United States Grand Prix took place in 2000. Before that, the last F1 race to have been staged in the US was in 1991, at Phoenix, won by Ayrton Senna, for McLaren. But, as I say (and as I remember vividly), after nine years’ absence from US soil, F1 was back in 2000, at Indianapolis of all places, and I duly drove into the Brickyard on the first day, as a very interested spectator, full of hope. The crowds duly flocked in too - indeed more than 200,000 spectators watched Michael Schumacher win the 2000 United States Grand Prix for Ferrari on the Sunday, the largest race attendance in F1 history. But by then I already had misgivings.
The infield section, despite its being a bit ‘Mickey Mouse’, wasn’t my concern, you may be surprised to hear, because slow and/or medium corners can be very spectacular for race-goers. Think of Mergulho at Interlagos, Casino Square at Monaco, or even the infamous Wall of Champions at Montreal. No, my concern was the famous banking, over which the F1 cars drove in reverse (ie, clockwise rather than anti-clockwise) and, importantly, much more slowly than the brutal Offy-engined Indycars they’d got used to watching over the years: awesome it was not.
And then came 2005, when a problem with the Michelin tyres meant that only the six Bridgestone-equipped cars could contest the United States Grand Prix - two Ferraris, two Jordans and two Minardis - which was embarrassing, shameful and probably irrecoverable in terms of ever really engaging the Brickyard devotees’ enthusiasm or respect for F1. By 2007, in fact, F1’s Indianapolis experiment had come to a close, Lewis Hamilton’s victory for McLaren marking the end of a very disappointing eight-year chapter in F1’s chequered relationship with the land of the free. Indeed, no United States Grand Prix was held in 2008, 2009, 2010 or 2011.
But, in 2012, in other words last year, F1 came to Austin, Texas. Immediately, I just knew it was right. I had no misgivings last year and I have no misgivings now. The self-proclaimed Circuit of the Americas is a truly sensational racetrack - very technical, very challenging, full of elevation changes, full of daunting turns. The facilities are excellent, too, and the safety features are state-of-the-art. And the city of Austin itself, which I’d never visited properly before last year, is lovely, boasting great hotels, superb restaurants, and lively bars.
Lewis won the inaugural grand prix there last year, for McLaren, and I’m sure he’ll be trying hard to win there again this year, for Mercedes-Benz this time, because, like me, he loves the US.
As for McLaren itself, well, as my old team nears the end of what has to be described as a difficult and disappointing year, victory will be unlikely next weekend. But Jenson Button and Checo Perez, whose many fans will pour over the border from Mexico to watch their guy do his very best, will be trying their hardest to score as many points for McLaren as they possibly can. I’ll be rooting for them.
Oh, and, by the way, as I wrote that last sentence, I was staring with undimmed enthusiasm and undiminished respect at my model of Johnny Rutherford’s beautiful 1974 Indy 500-winning McLaren-Offy.
What a car! What a race! What a country!