FEATURE

Why I look forward to ... the Brazilian Grand Prix

Ah, Brazil. With its tropical climate, gorgeous women and beguiling music, this is far and away the most exotic destination on the F1 circuit. Unfortunately, it's impossible to overlook the third-world features of the place, like the ever-present poverty and violence on the streets. Visitors from Europe moan about the disgraceful lack of facilities at the otherwise splendid Interlagos circuit, and when you think what new GP countries like Turkey and China have provided, of course the complaints are justified. But over the past 35 years I've got to know the place, and its people, really well, and I love it. For some reason Bernie Ecclestone is also enchanted by Brazil, but I have to admit that in the hard-nosed world of F1 travellers Bernie and I are probably in a minority of two.

I first went to Interlagos when the circuit was still very much as it was when it had been laid out (by two Englishmen) in the early Forties. It was a great site for a racing circuit, set in a natural depression which allowed panoramic viewing. The two lakes which give the track its name are the left-overs from the swamp that used to be there, but the ground remains soft and unstable. This means that no amount of resurfacing will ever overcome the tendency of the circuit to develop its celebrated bumps.

The original long (8 km) circuit, where the GP was staged (on and off with Rio) between 1972 and 1980, was an eye-opening mixture of fast corners and long, difficult 180-degree turns. There was a semi-banked section on the lip of the depression, some of which survives today in the run-in from the Juno (Junction) corner and up past the pits.

The formation flying team of the Brazilian air force once gave a display here, using deafeningly loud piston-engined aircraft which spent much of their time (upside-down, of course) below the level of the grandstands. The skill and the bravery on show put the talents of the F1 drivers into perspective. No offence to the brave men of the Royal Air Force, but those Brazilian pilots made the Red Arrows look like sissies.

Even before the GP days I had been going to Brazil for the series of F3 and F2 races which took place there in 1971/72, with my plane ticket and accommodation paid for by the organisers. Pocket money was tight (my salary from Motoring News had just gone up to a dizzy 1200 per year) and I didn't have a car allocated to me, so I got used to walking round town and picking up the local culture at grass roots level. It was the time of the Tropicalia movement in Brazilian music, and I bought (and played) all the great albums which came out. I still do.

It was also an era when journalists made close and genuine friendships with the drivers and their families. I had known Emerson Fittipaldi since he started racing F3 cars in England, and on several occasions I was invited to stay in the big house in Morumbi (close to Interlagos) which Emerson and his brother Wilson shared with their families. I had started to pick up some Portuguese, so Emerson decided to introduce me around socially. One of the families I met was a Fittipaldi sponsor, and it wasn't long before the head of the family started to make noises about giving me a job as the PR man for his oil additive business. When it became apparent that this also involved marrying the family's rather well-fed daughter, I beat a hasty retreat.

It was one day early in 1972, while the Fittipaldi brothers and I were having lunch at their home, that a phone call came through for Emerson. He returned in tears of laughter to inform us that the caller had been the mayor of So Paulo, who had heard that Emerson's team mate at Lotus, a long-forgotten Australian called David Walker, was not as fast as the team had expected. "So the mayor suggested we find a local driver, and he said he could recommend one. It was his chauffeur!"

Twenty-five years ago, when F1 teams were much smaller than they are now, it used to be possible for virtually everyone involved - team bosses, drivers, engineers, mechanics and press - to cram into one hotel. In So Paulo it was the Hilton, in Rio the Intercontinental. So Paulo was definitely less salubrious: one Italian journalist, much given to silk shirts and a gold Rolex, was genuinely shocked one night when he was mugged on his way to the Telex office, a good 150 yards away from the front door of the Hilton. He was even more shocked when he was robbed again the following night. After that, he reluctantly decided to become a scruff in jeans and t-shirt, like the rest of the press pack.

In Rio, the Intercontinental had a big pool, which was a major attraction for those of us who had left January's rain and fog behind in Europe. It was quite normal to find that the guy on the next sun bed was a team owner or GP winner. In those pre-mobile days, the Swiss journalist Roger Benoit would have an extension lead so that he could hold court at poolside and answer calls from Zurich. Once, when Roger was getting a drink from the bar, his editor called. The voice that responded was Niki Lauda's, which definitely improved the Benoit credibility back home.

Later, in February 1984, I went to cover the pre-season tests in Rio which were a feature in F1 at the time. I had an assignment to interview a newcomer, Ayrton Senna, who had yet to race an F1 car. He wanted to do the interview at home in So Paulo, so we flew back together. Rather than put me in a hotel, Ayrton offered me his room while he bunked in with his kid brother. The interview turned out to be one of the best that I ever did, providing the base material for countless future stories, and I also took some good pictures of him relaxing by the family pool.

Today, such an event would be impossible. Personal friendships between journalists and drivers are almost unknown, and most encounters are monitored by one of the grim-faced "press officers" employed by teams with the specific intention of making sure that the little darlings don't get too chummy with the media and allow themselves to tell the unvarnished truth. I much preferred it the old way, and I am confident that my readers did, too.

After a brief period of sharing the race with Jacarepagua in Rio, So Paulo finally recovered the event in 1991, when Interlagos had been rebuilt, with a cut in circuit length to 4.3km and the elimination of the great fast corners which had once made it so daunting. Ayrton Senna, whose early karting career had started at Interlagos, was determined to win at home, and somehow he managed to do it at the "new" Interlagos -- despite having lost most of the gears in his McLaren-Honda. It was an emotional moment for the local boy, whose mental and physical exertions meant that he had to be lifted from his car after he'd crossed the line.

As part of that 1991 rebuilding, we journalists got a slighter improved press centre, directly over the pits. Back in 2003, the year that Giancarlo Fisichella lucked into a win in the rain, we got a splendid view of Paddock Club members getting caught in a thunder shower as they gathered for the pitlane walk on Sunday morning. Sponsors and guests, accompanied by their fat wives in their finery, were soaked to the skin as the teams firmly shut up their garage doors to deny them access to any shelter.

My, how we pressmen smirked. Until, that is, the guttering outside collapsed under the weight of water, allowing part of the roof to collapse as the water surged in to our press centre. Suddenly we, too, were ankle-deep in it, with laptops exploding all around as the mains connections short-circuited.

The Brazilian GP has had more than its fair share of mini-disasters like that. Nevertheless, such is the enthusiasm of Brazil and its people for Formula 1 that I am confident about the race's future. It has been run without a break since the first non-championship "rehearsal" event in 1972, and with Bernie's support I'm sure it will continue to do so. Despite minor revolutions, the dodgy economy and a famous attempt by a careless local electrician to electrocute the entire TV compound, it has developed into a classic event.

Even I have to admit, though, that it would be improved if the team's working areas were brought up to modern standards, and if the security "guards" could be persuaded not to let their friends in after dark to liberate a few expensive laptops from the garages. But then it wouldn't be the Brazilian GP, would it?

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