The arrival of Felipe Massa at his home circuit on Saturday morning was nothing significant, which in itself confirmed something significant: the strong and storied relationship between Formula One and Brazil is weakening.
Massa, the F1 driver born in Sao Paulo 32 years ago, has been travelling to Interlagos for more than a decade. In previous years, on arrival at the gates to the exclusive paddock, he has been swamped by throngs of enthusiastic spectators, photographers and local radio reporters.
This weekend, ahead of his final qualifying session with Ferrari before joining the Williams team next season, Massa arrived at the circuit with wife Rafaela and son Felipinho, and as they entered the gates, they were greeted by a smattering of followers.
Such an observation could be explained by the unavoidable issue of Massa’s sinking star, yet that in itself is one more reason why Brazil’s fanaticism for live F1 is on the wane – there is no successor to the driver who came within seconds of winning the 2008 world championship.
The once-powerful relationship between country and racing cannot be underestimated.
In a racing series struggling to hold onto its historic roots, Sao Paulo’s Interlagos circuit is one of the sport’s most famous venues, as fundamental to F1’s past as the names Fangio and Fittipaldi, Senna and Schumacher.
“We know how important Brazil is in Formula One,” Massa said.
“The history for so many drivers, so many championships, so many victories. For Brazil, Formula One is also very important. We have motor racing in the blood, so it’s very, very important to keep Brazilian drivers in Formula One.”
Emerson Fittipaldi opened Brazilian eyes to F1 when he won the first of two world titles in 1972. By the following year, his home city had joined the championship calendar, where it has remained almost uninterrupted to this day.
The driver field has annually featured a Brazilian since 1969.
Nelson Piquet became a three-time world champion; and Ayrton Senna claimed the hearts of a nation en route to becoming Brazil’s most prominent sportsman after Pele.
“For many of us, coming to Sao Paulo is like coming home after all these years to see old friends, and to enjoy this vibrant city that offers so much to the visitor,” Bernie Ecclestone, the F1 chief, wrote in the official programme for this weekend’s race.
Yet there are signs the love affair is cooling.
Ross Brawn, the Mercedes-GP team principal, spoke candidly this weekend about the passion Brazilians show for the sport, yet out in the stands there is a sense that empty seats are becoming an increasingly common sight, even if the circuit’s official figures indicate otherwise.
“Usually, on a Friday in Brazil, the crowds are pretty good, and when a local driver is winning, it is always crowded, even if it’s raining,” said Luis Fernando Ramos, a Brazilian motorsport writer who has been attending the Interlagos race since 1995.
“The past couple of years, though, have just seemed very quiet.
“This year hasn’t been helped by the weather, but also in terms of the championship, there is no excitement, and in terms of a Brazilian driver, everybody knows Felipe is not going to produce a miracle.”
Brazil, without a champion since Senna claimed his third title in 1991, desperately needs a hero, yet no longer has the grass-roots infrastructure to create one, said Massa.
When the Ferrari driver left his home country 13 years ago to pursue a career in F1, there were Brazilian drivers everywhere.
“In every category in Europe there was a Brazilian fighting for the championship,” he said.
“All the important categories were full of Brazilians. We even had a team in Formula 3000.
“Now Brazil is not in any category.
“You don’t see Brazilians fighting for championships anymore.”
When Massa looked increasingly likely to be left without a seat for next season, Ecclestone – who signed Piquet to drive for him while in charge of Brabham in the late 1970s – said he was willing to help Felipe Nasr, a 21-year-old GP2 driver from Brasilia, find his place on the grid. “I need a Brazilian driver,” Ecclestone told Globo.
Massa is working in collaboration with the Brazilian motorsport federation to try to improve the situation.
“We’re not having a great time in Brazil for the small categories, so I think it’s important to give a push and help for our future,” he said. “Because, for the moment, it doesn’t look very nice.”
Ecclestone earlier this year threatened to drop the race from the calendar unless substantial infrastructure upgrades were made.
Sao Paulo officials have since claimed a deal has been struck to remain at Interlagos until 2020 on the agreement that US$100 million (Dh367m) will be pumped into circuit redevelopments, including an entirely new pit lane and paddock area.
LENGENDARY QUICK QUARTET
Widely regarded as the catalyst to F1’s growth in Brazil, the Sao Paulo native won two world championships during a career that spanned 10 years and 144 race starts. His first title in 1972 arrived during a four-year spell with Lotus. His second in 1974 came with McLaren. His 14 race wins include two at his home grand prix in 1973 and 1974.
Often cited as the greatest to ever grace Formula One, Senna won the world championship three times in the space of four years between 1988 and 1991 with McLaren. An expert at qualifying and dominant in the rain, the Sao Paulo-born Senna took 65 pole positions and won 41 times in 161 races before his death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
Piquet, from Rio de Janeiro, was the first Brazilian to win three world titles, securing his first two championships with Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team in 1981 and 1983 before claiming a historic third title with Williams in 1987 amid a battle with teammate Nigel Mansell. Regularly ranked in polls as one of the best, Piquet took 23 wins from 204 starts, including two in Brazil.
Barrichello holds the record for most grand prix starts, beginning his F1 career in March 1993 and ending it 18 years and 322 races later at his home race in Interlagos. In that time, the Sao Paulo native won 11 grands prix, a figure that would likely have been considerably higher had he not been paired with a certain Michael Schumacher for six years between 2000 and 2005.
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