Brazil’s F1 Beat: At Interlagos, the sport is given a warm welcome

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The modern day Formula 1 calendar features a mix of new, vibrant and exciting venues such as Abu Dhabi and Singapore which are offset by the classic tracks and events that have been a part of its DNA since its early roots in 1950.

In the second category, you obviously have races such as the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza and the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps to name just three.

However, in recent years, no race has done more to establish itself in the F1 history books that the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos, Sao Paulo. If ever a nation embodied the spirit and passion of the sport, Brazil is arguably it.

Since shifting to the end of the F1 season for the 2004 season, this race has been the site of many a classic race and decisive round in the championship battle. Fernando Alonso won both of his world championships at Interlagos in 2005 and 2006; Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button clinched theirs at the track in the three years that followed; Sebastian Vettel kept his title hopes alive in Brazil in 2010, before clinching his third title there in 2012.

Quite clearly, this is a circuit and race that has enjoyed its fair share of drama. Hamilton’s victory in 2008 will go down in the history books as one of the most nail-biting finishes to an F1 championship and perhaps even in any sport. At the last corner of the last lap of the last race of the year, Hamilton passed Timo Glock to take fifth place and win the title by a single point, denying Ferrari’s Felipe Massa the championship.

Massa had driven his heart out on home soil, and took to the podium full of emotion. He had done all he could, winning his home grand prix for a second time. The scene of him stood on the rostrum at Interlagos in fading light, ticker tape flying and with tears in his eyes will stand the test of time.

Winning your home grand prix is always a passionate and emotional affair, but in Brazil it is particularly poignant. This is a nation that embraces Formula 1 with open arms, worshiping home heroes such as Felipe Massa. In the paddock today, many TV interviews with the Brazilian were interrupted due to the number of fans chanting his name.

Massa is one of five Brazilians to have won his home grand prix, the other four being Emerson Fittipaldi, Carlos Pace, Nelson Piquet and, most famously, Ayrton Senna.

Pace is perhaps the lesser-known driver of the quintet, but he won the race at Interlagos – back when the circuit was some 8km long – in 1975 at the age of 31. It would ultimately be his only grand prix victory, dying two years later in an aircraft accident. The circuit in Sao Paulo has bore his name ever since.

In the two years before Pace’s win at Interlagos, Emerson Fittipaldi was the man to stand on the top step of the podium, with his victory in 1974 playing a part in the first of his two world title wins. He was Brazil’s first world champion in 1972, and the big name on the grid. Marlboro said to him “where you go, we will follow” for 1974, thus beginning the brand’s long-term relationship with McLaren. Fittipaldi spent just two years with the British team before founding his own outfit, Copersucar-Fittipaldi.

In his fourteen years in F1, Nelson Piquet won the world championship three times and his home race twice, establishing himself as one of the sport’s all-time greats. His victory at the 1986 race at Jacarepagua came at a time when another Brazilian driver was quickly announcing himself on the scene: Ayrton Senna.

No driver has attracted such myth or created such a legacy as Senna. A three-time champion of the world, Ayrton’s career was relatively short when compared to many modern drivers, but he was one of the most stylish and frankly brilliant drivers to ever grace the sport. His death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix sparked a safety revolution in the sport, but denied F1 a legend that would have gone on to set so many more records.

The 2010 film Senna did much to profile the Brazilian’s career, but also his impact on Brazil as a whole. He was a hero for the nation, uniting people through his success. Senna was given a state funeral in May 1994, with 200,000 people lining the streets of his hometown, Sao Paulo, in tribute to their hero.

Arguably, his finest hour came at the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix, where he claimed a quite incredible victory at Interlagos. With his car stuck in sixth gear, Senna had to will his car home, eventually beating Williams’ Riccardo Patrese to the line as rain teamed down over Sao Paulo.

When he crossed the line, the sheer physical effort that Senna had put in was clear. He was unable to get out of his car unassisted, having to be lifted up as the fans chanted his name. The iconic shot from the podium ceremony is one of Senna, with all the might he had left, lifting the Brazilian flag aloft. For the first time, he had won at home. He would go on to repeat this feat in 1993.

Brazil has produced its fair share of F1 legends, and not all have been world champions or won at home. Rubens Barrichello was the man in the shadows throughout Michael Schumacher’s dominant spell at Ferrari, but became the first driver from Brazil to win a grand prix since Senna when he won the German Grand Prix in 2000.

So what does the future hold for F1 in Brazil? In terms of the circuit, it looks a great deal brighter than it did twelve months ago. F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone had toyed with the idea of taking the sport to Rio de Janeiro to coincide with the Olympic Games in 2016, but when Interlagos promised significant development work and funding, one of F1’s classic venues was saved. You will notice this weekend that many of the corners have received a fresh lick of paint, and the pit entry has been altered drastically.

On the driver front, the outlook appeared to be quite dim last year, with only Felipe Massa on the grid and struggling with Ferrari. However, he has since enjoyed a new lease of life with Williams in 2014, claiming a surprise pole position in Austria and finishing on the podium at Monza.

This weekend, the nation will also be celebrating a new name joining the grid in 2015 following Felipe Nasr’s confirmation at Sauber. Nasr has been racing in GP2 for the past three years, and looks set to finish this year as the runner-up to champion Jolyon Palmer. Although his funding has been instrumental in getting him the Sauber seat, we cannot ignore his immense talent. In Massa and Nasr, Brazil will have two very competent (and, admittedly, similar sounding) drivers to herald and celebrate.

The sport may keep going global, but nations such as Brazil will be mainstays on the calendar for years to come. With the fans, the history and the circuit, this is a grand prix that cannot be missed.