There’s been no shortage of Brazilian Formula 1 drivers over the years, ranging from Ayrton Senna to Pedro Diniz. But something that you won’t find very often is a Brazilian rally driver, despite the fact there was once a round of the World Rally Championship in Brazil (in 1981 and 1982, when it was won by Ari Vatanen and Michele Mouton). So hardly an event for amateurs. More recently, there was also a Brazilian event that formed part of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge in Curitiba (won by Kris Meeke on both occasions, 2009 and 2010).
All these illustrious drivers have fond memories of competing on Brazilian stages – which consist mainly of fast gravel tracks – so what happened?
Mainly the issue is that racing culture is so engrained in Brazil (along with football) that there’s no room for anything else beyond four wheels and a circuit. Rallying is something that the neighbouring (and not always loved) Argentinians do instead.
Have you ever heard of a Brazilian bike champion? Exactly. But one man is trying to break the mould: in every sense. Enter Paulo Nobre: a well-established Brazilian rally driver on the world championship (in fact, the only one) who has always competed with Pirelli, but in a way that’s somewhat different to everyone else.
Paulo conforms to the national stereotype in that he’s obsessed with football. Specifically, with one team: Palmeiras, from Sao Paulo. He’s one of about 18 million supporters of the squad, but he’s got a bit of an advantage because he was elected president of the club in 2012: basically, in charge of everything.
One of his priorities was internationalising Palmeiras, and that’s why during his time in the World Rally Championship, his MINI WRC wore a distinct green and white Palmeiras all-over logo. As a marketing trick, it worked perfectly. We’re even talking about it now, aren’t we? His was a unique story: the high-profile football chief who was also a rally driver.
The results, for an amateur, were also extremely respectable: generally in the top 20 on events as tough as Monte-Carlo and Sardinia. He’d frequently be attending a match in Brazil and then flying straight to start a recce in Europe the following day, so he was doing many of the rallies more or less blind, with his spare time available for testing and practice extremely limited.
What’s even more impressive though, was how well this worked for Palmeiras themselves. Under his presidency, the team won the Brazilian B division in 2013, the Copa do Brasil in 2015, and the A division in 2016. Mission accomplished.
“It was an amazing mix of motorsport and football, and with this we managed to do something quite special,” points out Nobre – also known on rallies for his brightly-coloured sunglasses, and seemingly unstoppable energy.
With his four-year presidency having come to an end in 2016, Nobre has recently been able to devote a bit more time to rallying. By his own admission, his schedule was getting crazy when he was trying to do both, and he was close to burning out. He’s always done things to the maximum, having played football as well until he broke his leg aged 33. While he was recovering, he spent time watching other sports – and that’s what first attracted him to motorsport. In 1999, he made his rally debut. And everything grew from there: he’s even attempted the Dakar.
More recently, now aged 51, he’s returned to rallying on the European Rally Championship. This time at the wheel of a Skoda Fabia R5, but still on Pirelli tyres.
The time away from the wheel hasn’t blunted him that much: earlier this year he won a rally in his native Brazil, and on the European rounds he’s shown himself capable of finishing inside the top 10. He’s also taking rallying more seriously than ever: he’s done 18 rallies so far this year, including six world championship rounds.
His philosophy of life is a simple one: “There is no doubt that I am a versatile person,” he says. “I like very different things, and I take everything that I do seriously. I cannot say that I always reach my goals, but I do my best to strive for them, without thinking about giving up. It is important to have achievable challenges in life, so that you do not become an angry person. My main goal is to fulfil my life, be happy and never regret what I have done.”
There’s a lesson in there for all of us.
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