Back in 1973 Emerson Fittipaldi had just won the first of his two world titles, with Lotus. The second one would come the following year, with McLaren. Following this revelation, which unleashed the sort of popular partisan support in the grandstands more usually associated with football (and we’re talking about Brazilian football here, so truly manic levels of fandom…) there were two other drivers with green and gold passports who went on to inspire adoration from their fans: firstly Nelson Piquet, and then Ayrton Senna. Both champions, of course, whose destiny was linked with Pirelli. Piquet claimed his final win on Pirelli tyres, at the 1991 Canadian Grand Prix with Benetton. Senna made his world championship debut with Pirelli driving for Toleman in 1984.
Fittipaldi, Piquet, Senna: for more than 20 years these great Brazilians made the F1 circus dance to a samba beat, at more than 300kph. And it’s been a winning samba as well: between the three of them they won 78 grands prix and eight world titles throughout 20 seasons from 1972 to 1991. In other words the Brazilians were on top for nearly half this unforgettable and emotional period of Formula 1, right up to that fateful May 1st in 1994, which snuffed out the life of both Ayrton Senna and the period of Brazilian domination in F1.
Brazil continues to be represented in Formula 1 by Felipe Massa: a driver who was meant to have retired this year, before the extraordinary turn of events that led to Nico Rosberg hanging up his helmet, Valtteri Bottas taking his place at Mercedes, and Massa cancelling his retirement to return to Williams. Whether this year will see the end to his F1 career is yet to be confirmed. But the Brazilian Grand Prix will always have bitter-sweet memories for Massa, as in 2008 he could so easily have become world champion there, adding to the legend of Brazilians in F1, had it not been for two incidents that deprived him of the title that was so tantalisingly within reach.
That year, Massa scored six of his 11 career wins. Five of them were condensed into what was practically just half a season: from Bahrain in April to Belgium at the beginning of September. That was Ferrari at its best in the post-Schumacher era: a Ferrari that was born competitive and then able to evolve at the crazy pace that was needed to keep up technically.
Then came Singapore: the very first race on the city-state street circuit, with its party atmosphere and dazzling lights to mark the very first night race in the history of Formula 1. Massa was perfect and did everything he had to do: taking pole position and making a great start to lead the race. Right up to the pit stops, that is: one of the most unfortunate stops in Ferrari history and probably one of the most unfortunate in the entirety of F1. It’s impossible to forget the fuel hose stuck to the Ferrari after that fateful stop. And Felipe Massa, unaware, just went. Briefly. He soon came to a furious halt at the end of the pit lane after seeing that that the hose was spraying fuel everywhere – with all the associated risks in a crowded pit lane surrounded by machinery at high temperature. In the end, there was no fire and nobody was hurt. But all hopes of victory or even just points for the unfortunate Massa were gone.
The second ‘sliding doors’ moment of the cruel 2008 season came at the final race of the season, at home in Interlagos, where Felipe could literally smell the title. And again he did exactly what he needed to do and won the race convincingly. It was just a shame for him that sudden heavy rain – one of those thunderous showers that can so quickly transform Interlagos into a hazardous skating rink – meant that it all kicked off further down the field. Some way behind Massa was Alonso, Raikkonen and Vettel. Behind them in turn was Timo Glock in the Toyota, which unbelievably hit problems on the very final part of the final lap. The stricken white and red car fell back during the climb towards the finish line, allowing Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren to get past only a few hundred metres before the finish. This was one of the most important overtaking manoeuvres of Hamilton’s life, as that fifth place allowed the now three-time world champion to claim his first world title by just one point. The memories remain that remain of that fateful final lap at Interlagos will always be linked to the disbelieving look on the face of Massa’s father, Luis Antonio. His unalloyed joy at the championship was transformed in an instant to a stunned hell, as he saw Hamilton take the fifth place he needed at the very last moment and so deprive his son of the longed-for title.