Interlagos - Year Zero

I have a book at home entitled "South America on a Shoestring". Let me quote a small passage in the chapter on Brazil.

"To like Sao Paulo," it says, "you need skin as thick as a rhino's hide, a gas mark, cotton wool in your ears and a gallon of eye drops. Either that or plenty of money and a big black limousine. Without a fistful of dollars to cushion the blow you're in for a totally vicious and unending assault on anything that can be considered even vaguely human."

OK, I thought, I must take lots of dollars with me and then everything will be all right. When I got to the hotel it was a rather different story.

"Whaddyamean, you don't accept dollars?" I screamed. "Um momento, faz favor, nao compreendo. This is Formula 1. We invented the dollar. I'll give you my credit card.

"Whaddyamean, you don't accept credit cards!"

It was a shock. Brazil was in the middle of an economic crisis.

"Interesting times," smiled Ligier's designer Richard Divila, sitting one evening in the hotel foyer. A Chinese proverb came to mind. A curse on he who lives in interesting times. That was the first evening in Sao Paulo and, along with the whole F1 circus, we were holed up in the hotel charging everything to the room. There really wasn't much choice.

By the end of another day Sao Paulo was becoming fun. Visiting nasty places is always easier when you've been somewhere nastier and Sao Paulo was, at least, alive. Not at all like the morgue we had visited in Phoenix a fortnight beforehand.

The first two Grands Prix of 1990 have been a curious combination. Phoenix offered Grand Prix racing a cold shoulder and Sao Paulo reached out and grabbed it in a crushing, sweaty, embrace. The Brazilians wanted - no stronger than that - lusted for F1. And F1 looked back as though it had trodden in something unpleasant.

In Phoenix, although no-one cared that we were there, the image was right. It had tree-lined streets and glistening tower blocks; its ritzy shops from Paris and fancy golf courses.

In Sao Paulo, an awful polluted industrial city with terrible shanty towns and fearful crime, Grand Prix racing was like a fish on bicycle; like the guest who turns up for a dinner jacket affair, dressed as a chicken. It was very funny.

Of course, we knew that ultimately, unlike most Brazilians, we could get on a plane and leave. The sun setting through the smog was suddenly almost beautiful. We laughed about each new absurd Brazilian bill and, in the true spirit of Hemingway and Malcolm Lowry, we found that there is no problem that cannot be solved with a large gin and tonic.

For a day we became financial correspondents, trying to explain to the world what was going on in Brazil. More than one of my colleagues was told to dump the sport and write about the economic crisis.

Dinners were notably expensive. One splendid affair ran into such telephone number-sized bills that we couldn't figure out if it had cost US$1,000 or US$10,000. Nor did we care. It had been a good dinner and as nothing had any value, the numbers meant nothing.

Our benefactor (bless him) happily signed the bill 'Dinsdale Piranha' (which, I will let you into a secret, is not his real name) and with a passable impersonation of Mick Jagger, said, "Come on everybody, let's go and throw the minibar out of the window. I own the hotel."

Then we had the hire car bill. It was a pretty grotty car, as hire cars in Latin America tend to be. It smelled of methanol, cut out when hot, and the boot didn't really work. It came out at something in the region of US$1,600 for five days.

Mr. Piranha (who once again should remain nameless) was on his way to take a bunch of vegetarians to a churrascaria -- a place where anything with four legs fears to tread -- when the bonnet on a car in which he was travelling broke. "Never mind," he said. "Throw it away. That's what they do here." The bonnet is now the roof of a very natty favela.

The spirit among the racing folk was truly that of Dunkirk. It would make for fanciful stories when we were old and grey.

A fortnight earlier in Phoenix, there was definitely need for that same Dunkirk spirit, but with steaks sizzling on barbecues and dollars in the pocket, the gravity of the situation was entirely different.

Whatever the problems in Sao Paulo, the pollution and the shabbiness, racing was suddenly exciting again. The enthusiasm -- like the water -- was contagious. And it beat the hell out of Phoenix.

North Americans do not understand -- nor do they want to understand -- F1 racing. South Americans not only understand it, they love it and will do almost anything to ensure there is an annual visitation from the F1 circus.

Bernie Ecclestone blamed the problems of Phoenix on bad promotion.

"We just need to work harder to make everyone aware of the race and the date," he said. "It takes a long time to build an event."

But it doesn't! Look at Brazil. The Mayor of Sao Paulo decided only eight months ago that her city wanted the Grand Prix of Brazil. She rode like a Valkyrie across all the normal procedures, raised the money, found a private building company to turn Interlagos into a racing circuit of the 1990s. The work was achieved in just 84 days and all this despite a terrible economic crisis and the seasonal rains. And the crowds flocked in.

The answer is that there are four Brazilians in F1, one of them Ayrton Senna. There are no American drivers in F1 and it seems unlikely that this will change. Bernie's attitude has been to try to sting the Americans into action with jibes, but they haven't responded yet, nor do they look likely to.

The American market understands an Unser, a Petty or an Earnhardt. It does not understand that Ayrton Senna is a greater driver.

The truth is that F1 needs the American market to attract the huge multi-national sponsors in Grand Prix racing today. Phoenix does not want F1 and it certainly doesn't need it.

Now imagine if Rick Mears and Danny Sullivan had been lined up on the grid at Phoenix. In all likelihood they would have been blown away by the Europeans. Then the American audience could say "Hey this Senna guy was faster than Mears." It would be a start.

Instead of attacking the Americans would it not be better to pay them to race?

Most important of all, F1 has to stop walking the streets of America and find itself a proper race track, a circuit which can show just how technical advanced these machines are.

When Senna wins Phoenix at an average speed of 90mph, and a NASCAR race turns in a time of 200mph small wonder the Americans reckon these European superstars are just a bunch of affected primadonnas.

There is a beautiful irony in the success of the new Interlagos track when compared to the 'intersection' race circuit at Phoenix.

Interlagos was built in 1939 on a design copied from a track at Roosevelt Field -- in America.

The Americans, it seems, can appreciate a good race track.

So what is the answer for F1? Build an exact copy of Interlagos in southern California, where the weather is good and the people sufficiently internationalized to appreciate what they are seeing. And make sure that at least one or two drivers in the field are Americans. Then, and only then, will F1 make it in North America.

Why have two bad weekends when you can have one good one and one really bad one. A race at Interlagos America Inc. followed by a street race in Sao Paulo.

If something isn't done along these lines, F1 will continue to pitch its tent in cities which think that the glamour of F1 will rub off on them.

"See you in Boise, Idaho," said an American pressman as he was leaving Phoenix on Sunday night.

Boise, Idaho? Why?

"Because Formula 1 isn't working here in Phoenix and Grand Prix racing will just pick another place and try that. Boise, Idaho. That would be the answer. The Potato Grand Prix of America".

And he laughed and strolled off.

Phoenix or Sao Paulo, the one thing that F1 definitely doesn't need right now is a President who wanders around followed by a man with a sub-machine gun in a case.

Something has been overlooked when such a thing can happen. Motor racing is a sport. In the real world it doesn't mean anything. It isn't worth shooting people over. It's just a game -- no matter how much money is involved and how many insults are hurled.

Power might grow out of the barrel of a gun, but respect is an entirely different thing.

Is the world inhabited by the FIA President so treacherous that he feels the need to surround himself with gorillas and guns? Is he living on the same planet as the rest of us?

Take a tip from Benjamin Disraeli, Jean-Marie. "The more you are talked about, the less powerful you are."

There are others in F1 and, indeed, in the FIA, who understand such things.

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