A HACK LOOKS BACK

Brazil

So, after 16 of the best races I can remember in one season, we won't know until Sunday whether it's going to be Hamilton, Alonso or Raikkonen who will wear the crown. For only the ninth time in the 38-year history of the FIA's World Driving Championship, three drivers will be in contention for the title in the final round. The last time this happened was in 1986, in Adelaide, where the two favourites, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet, fell at the final hurdle because their team, Williams-Honda, treating them with scrupulous fairness, stuck rigidly to its policy. On that occasion it was an overjoyed Alain Prost who snuck through after an incident-packed race to steal the title. Oh, and nobody thought to send referees to the Williams garage to make sure there weren't any team orders imposed.

Assuming that Bernie invites everyone to follow the same script this weekend, it's not looking good for young Lewis. That's because only three times in the previous eight three-way showdowns has the man leading the championship gone on to clinch the title. So could we be looking at Finland's third champion? Only time will tell. No disrespect to the Kimster, but I'm praying that Lewis is going to hold on. Not only will it be good for F1 to have a rookie champion, but Lewis Carl Hamilton, like the Olympic sprinter whose name he carries, possesses genuine charisma. He's a tad more articulate than The Iceman, too.

Word reaches me that Lewis - an Interlagos virgin - has been trying to make up for his lack of knowledge by practising on his Playstation. What no electronic device could reproduce, however, are the vicious bumps which have been jarring the spines of F1 drivers in Sao Paulo since 1972, the year of the first Brazilian GP. It's a natural phenomenon at Interlagos, which was built on unstable swampland, and the bumps appear spontaneously as the earth settles unevenly. Every couple of years, therefore, someone persuades the city to front up with a few million to resurface the track. For a week or two, a gang of workmen with a wheelbarrow and a roller spread a bit of asphalt around, while most of the money mysteriously disappears.

This year, though, things were different. Not only was the budget produced, but plans were shown to the FIA of a project to sink piles into the ground to stabilise the hitherto wobbly underpinnings. President Max even sent his own Mr Fixit, north eastern hard man Alan Donnelly, to check that things were being done properly. For once, it seems, the taxpayers of Sao Paulo are going to get value for their money, and the racing drivers should see the benefit in terms of lower bills for chiropractic services. That's the theory, anyway.

That first race, in 1972, followed the then-current FIA rule that countries which had not previously had a world championship round should be required to demonstrate their competence by running a non-championship event. In fact the Brazilian federation, the CBA, already had some solid race organising expertise, having run a string of international events, including a couple of pre-war races at the Gavea road circuit in Rio which attracted "Silver Arrow" entries from Germany. Still, I suppose a dress rehearsal made good sense.

The Fittipaldi brothers had become good friends during my days as an F2 reporter, and in the days before the race I happened to be staying with them in the big house at Morumbi which they shared with their wives and families. Emerson had completed a year of racing for Lotus, and was a GP winner, so he was something of a local hero. We were all sitting down to lunch when he was asked to take a phone call. He returned, laughing out load, to say that the call was from the mayor of Sao Paulo, who had heard that Emerson's team mate, the Australian driver Dave Walker, was having difficulty making the jump from F3 to F1.

"The mayor asked me to speak to Colin Chapman about putting someone else in the car, just for this race," said Emerson through tears of laughter. "He said he had found someone who was not only familiar with local conditions but who could handle high-powered machinery like a true professional."

"Who did he suggest?" asked a bemused Wilson.

"His chauffeur!" responded Emerson.

Emerson went on to win that year's world championship, repeating it in 1974 after he had moved to McLaren. Behind the wheel he seemed to have a Fangio-like sense of caution, always aware of the dangers of his sport at that time yet ready, when the moment came, to push right to the limit.

In business, though, this otherwise thoughtful operator was a gambler. In 1975, when a megalomaniac sugar tycoon offered to fund an all-Brazilian team for 1976, the Fittipaldi family became team owners, though Emerson (still with McLaren) remained the silent partner. Indeed, Emerson won his second title for McLaren, although at the end of the year he inexplicably decided to abandon the famously winning M23, joining his brother at the wheel of the much reviled Copersucar.

Emerson should have known better. Copersucar's first season, with Wilson driving, had been a disaster. The car's designer, my old friend Richard Divila, had made the bold step of putting the radiators at the back of the car, greatly reducing the frontal area. Unfortunately, the extra heat seeped into the gearbox, ruining reliability and making ratio changes something which only mechanics with asbestos hands dared to attempt.

The Copersucar experiment dragged on for another five or six years. In 1977 the brothers compromised by hiring a British draughtsman who came up with a carbon copy of the Ensign, and in 1978 they got the Brazilian national aerospace company to design a car which actually took a couple of podiums. Eventually, after the cock-eyed dream of an all-Brazilian car had been abandoned, there was an amalgamation with the rump of the Wolf team. But with money running out fast, everyone lost interest and Emerson made what can only be described as a hurried exit. I understand the manager of Barclays Bank in Maidenhead is still hoping that one of the Fittipaldi brothers will come in soon to discuss the state of their account.

Later, Brazil would have her other great champions. Nelson Piquet, always a great admirer of the Fittipaldi theory that the car should do as much of the work as possible, was already twice champion when Ayrton Senna arrived on the scene. The crowds adored Senna, a local boy who had grown up in a fairly tough local neighbourhood, albeit in a nice house protected by high walls. Although Senna's F1 career began in 1984, it would not be until 1991 that he won at home. That happened to be the year when F1 returned to Sao Paulo after a number of years in Rio. With only one gear ratio still working in the gearbox of his McLaren, Senna somehow managed to hold on to the lead from Patrese's Williams. Exhausted, he had to be helped from the car by Wilson Fittipaldi, driving the FIA safety car.

Rubens Barrichello, whose grandmother's house overlooks the circuit, has been even less lucky at Interlagos than his fellow Paulistano. Like English football fans, Brazilians can be acidly realistic about sporting figures who haven't quite made it to the top, and so it is with Rubinho. Four years ago, with eight solid DNFs behind him in his country's own Grand Prix, Rubens was at last leading the race for Ferrari, no doubt smiling inside his helmet at the prospect of making all those local sourpusses eat their words about him. Then the wretched thing ran out of fuel ...

Sad to say, I won't be in Brazil this year. Instead, I shall be watching the race with friends in London from the comfort of their sofa, quite possibly with a caipirinha - that magic amalgam of cachaca, limes, sugar and ice which is surely the finest cocktail ever invented - to keep me in the Brazilian spirit. Dare we hope that Brazilian TV will follow the leaders instead of the backmarkers that usually (and mysteriously) get the director's attention?

Talking of TV, allow me to mark the end of the 2007 season with an anecdote that I picked up from fellow scribe Frank Keating, a writer who normally pays no attention to sports which don't involve either bat or ball. Writing in The Spectator, Keating recalled BBC television's first attempt at covering motor racing, the British GP at Silverstone in 1947.

"They sent game-for-anything Max Robertson to cover it," recalls Keating. As the two ace drivers, Raymond Mays (Maserati) and Giuseppe Farina (Ferrari), diced wheel-to-wheel, good Max breathlessly identified 'Maserati in his Mays and Ferrari in his Farina.' They let him stick to tennis after that."

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