x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Legend of Ayrton Senna casts a long shadow over countrymen

Brazil has not had a Formula One world champion since 1991 and that wait does not look likely to end any time soon.

Bruno Senna, right, and Rubens Barrichello have struggled to meet the expectations of the Brazilian public in the wake of the past success of Ayrton Senna.
Bruno Senna, right, and Rubens Barrichello have struggled to meet the expectations of the Brazilian public in the wake of the past success of Ayrton Senna.

It is said Paulistas have petrol coursing through their veins. The Sao Paulo natives, born with a foot on a ball and a hand on a steering wheel, have seen their city play host to the Formula One Brazilian Grand Prix for much of the past four decades and in that time produced some of the sport's most revered drivers, between them sharing eight world championships.

Yet yesterday, as Interlagos celebrated its 40th anniversary race, three Brazilian drivers ultimately competed for little more than national pride. Felipe Massa finished fifth, Rubens Barrichello finished 14th and Bruno Senna was 17th.

"Even though I don't have a competitive car you have to dream," Barrichello had said before the race. "My dream here this weekend is to put the car in the points and have the best finishing position I can manage."

Such a dream is a far cry from the country's early dalliance with F1.

Emerson Fittipaldi, from Sao Paulo, is recognised as having opened Brazil's eyes to the sport when he won the first of two Formula One world titles in 1972.

By the following year, the Autodromo de Interlagos had taken pride of place on the calendar. Its inaugural grand prix was won by Fittipaldi - the first of three successive victories for Brazilians at the Sao Paulo race.

In the 1980s, Interlagos was replaced by Jacarepagua, a racing circuit in Rio de Janeiro, which hosted the race for nine successive years.

Nelson Piquet became Brazil's second world champion in 1981 and followed it up in 1983 and 1987 before the race returned to a renamed and reshaped Interlagos in 1990 where it has been an ever present on the F1 schedule since, and by which time Brazil had a new hero to get behind.

The memory of Ayrton Senna is inescapable in Sao Paulo. Since his death in 1994, there have been Senna tours, a major road named after him "(Rodovia Ayrton Senna") and a library ("Torcida Ayrton Senna") dedicated to his legacy.

Not a grand prix goes by where the three-time world champion's name is not mentioned, and with a film, Senna, released last year that documented his life, the attention surrounding Brazil's most famous driver has been ramped up further.

"The movie has only awakened the spirit of Ayrton to people," said the Renault driver Bruno Senna, Ayrton's nephew. "Everybody's completely touched by it."

But with fresh memories comes fresh pressures for those trying to follow in his footsteps.

Bruno said the "people in general are very supportive of my very short F1 campaign," however he concedes there is heightened expectations.

"The pressure is on," he said. "It's been on since I started and it's not going to change."

The legacy of legends such as Fittipaldi, Piquet and Senna have made being a Brazilian driver all the harder, said Luiz Razia, the young reserve with Team Lotus.

"For sure, it's a big pressure," he said. "Nobody knows about that, only us Brazilians. If we don't perform as people expect - that is to be the absolute best - then we are going to get a very hard time and sometimes it can destroy your confidence. I mean, you are giving your blood for the country, but when you have bad times, people don't support you. They only follow the victories."

Bruno believes the media make life difficult for Brazilian sportsmen because the country is used to success. The media will never be satisfied, he said, until you are the best in the world.

Razia said: "If Brazil wins in volleyball, the press love volleyball, if Brazil wins the [football] World Cup, they love that, and now we have UFC and a Brazilian - Anderson Silva - is dominating, so we love it. Nobody loved it before, yet now it is a big thing. When Ayrton was winning and Nelson Piquet too, F1 was huge and because nobody is winning now, we are getting a hard time."

Barrichello has twice been a runner-up in the title race in both 2002 and 2004, but it was Massa who came closest to becoming Brazil's fourth world champion when he lost the title to Lewis Hamilton at Interlagos on the final lap of the 2008 season despite having claimed his second victory in three years at the track.

The driver remained impressively composed afterwards in the face of his last gasp defeat, but members of the public did not.

The anger of heart-broken Brazilians was aimed at Toyota, whose driver Timo Glock had been passed by Hamilton at the final corner to gift the Briton the necessary extra point he required to win the championship. Three hours after the chequered flag, Toyota team staff had to sneak out of the circuit disguised as a rival marque.

"That race was so frustrating for everybody," Razia said. "It would have been a new beginning for Brazil."

Instead, the country's 20-year wait for another world champion continues and the driver who will ultimately end the drought is far from clear, as no Brazilian has won a race since Barrichello prevailed in the Italian Grand Prix in 2009.

"This is a problem in Brazil nowadays," said Felipe Motta, an F1 commentator for Radio Panamericano. "After Rubens and Felipe, [Massa] we don't know if Bruno will stay next year, so we are in a bit of a crisis.

"For the first time, we are not discussing who is going to be the next champion, but instead only who is going to be the next driver."

Motta - and almost every other Brazilian in and around Interlagos - are pinning their hopes on Felipe Nasr, a 19 year old who won the Formula BMW championship in 2009 and followed it up with the British Formula Three title this year.

He is hoping to continue his path towards competing in F1 by racing next season in World Series by Renault.

The pressure is intense and the reward unfathomable, but for now, the passionate Paulistas will have to rely solely on memories of the country's last champion: Senna.

"Even though we haven't been as successful as he was, we still have a lot of good feeling with the crowd," Barrichello said.

"To hear our names - to feel that - always makes me feel that Senna is involved, because people always remember whenever they are cheering that it's because of him; it's because of Nelson, it's because of Emerson, but I think even more it's because of Ayrton."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae