With Felipe Massa retiring at the end of this season there will be no Brazilian drivers on the F1 grid in 2018. And that is a news story in itself. Or perhaps not, which sort of proves the point. Because, if not having any Brazilians on the grid is hardly a big deal these days, only a few years ago it would have provoked a scandal. As recently as the 1990s, you were practically tripping over Brazilian drivers in Formula 1. It was sort of a fashion back then, just as during other periods it was fashionable to have French or Italian drivers. The boom years were between 1981 and 1991, where of the 11 world championships that were awarded, six went to holders of a Brazilian passport. Specifically, three to Nelson Piquet and the same number to Ayrton Senna. You could call it a period of utter domination. And then, at the turn of the millennium, two more Brazilians showed up at Ferrari. From 2000 onwards, Rubens Barrichello was there, but had no real chances of claiming the world title for the simple reason that he had Michael Schumacher as his team mate, who implemented a strict scorched earth policy when it came to winning championships, for five seasons on the trot from 2000 to 2004. ‘Rubinho’, as he was known in the team, then made way for his compatriot Felipe Massa. And that allowed the Brazilian racing public to continue to dream that they had finally found an heir to Senna. Massa came agonisingly close to being champion for a few seconds in 2008, when an overtaking manoeuvre in the last 500 metres of the last Grand Prix of the year, in Interlagos of all places, allowed the championship to go to Lewis Hamilton by just one point. The memories of those few seconds form part of F1 legend, especially the facial expressions of Felipe Massa’s father that were transmitted all over the world, who in the space of an instant went from unfettered joy to the depths of a despair that he could hardly believe. The six championships that were claimed by Piquet and Senna were far from being the only ones to have been won by Brazilians. The first driver from Brazil to seal the honour was Emerson Fittipaldi. Before him, South America had already made its mark on the world championship but under the Argentinian flag. Juan Manuel Fangio won the championship five times between 1951 and 1956, while Froilan Gonzalez was a worthy winner, with the highlight being his victory in the 1951 British Grand Prix, which will go down in the history books as being the first Formula 1 win for Ferrari. Carlos Pace from Brazil became a very fast and consistent driver with Brabham before losing his life in a banal aeroplane accident in the mid 1970s. Wilson Fittipaldi, Emerson’s older brother, was not quite as good: having failed to make a big impression during his time in F1. And then there was of course Ingo Hoffmann who only made his Grand Prix debut because Emerson (World Champion in 1972 with Lotus and then again two years later with McLaren) masterminded the Copersucar project: a car that was entirely Brazilian, with backing from the national sugar company and huge ambitions behind it. But it never had the results to match the expectations. This was the background to what became an era of Brazilian drivers in Formula 1. When, at the end of 1970s, Nelson Piquet first rocked up, people asked who he was: they had never heard of him. Carlos Reutemann, who famously lost the 1981 title to Piquet at the final race of the season, said at the time: “It was incredible. I remember when at Brabham he was working as a general dogsbody, cleaning the cars.”
It was all true. Piquet had to work for his success. He presented himself to Bernie Ecclestone
with the lowest profile in the world, but the then-owner of Brabham decided to give him a go as a sparring partner for Niki Lauda; who had arrived from Ferrari the previous year off the back of two world titles, putting the Prancing Horse back at the top of the F1 tree. Of course, no money changed hands – or at least not in Piquet’s direction. To cut a long story short, he quickly became a complete driver: fast, precise and aggressive but never ill-mannered. The Brazilian won the 1981 world championship at an all-American season finale that was set up in the car park of the Caesar’s Palace Hotel in Las Vegas. He repeated the feat in 1983, again for Brabham, but this time with the BMW turbo engine installed that was seemingly unbeatable: perhaps also thanks to fuel that aroused more than a few suspicions…
And then, with two titles in his pocket, Piquet was ready for the biggest duel between two drivers of the same nationality that Formula 1 has ever seen: against Ayrton Senna.
Senna was actually called da Silva. The Senna name belonged to his mother Neide, a guiding light of the family. But it was the name he had written on his helmet even from the early categories of karting and he would not countenance anything else. Him and Piquet soon clashed. Piquet could not stand the upstart: Senna did not bow his head in deference to the established order, said whatever he wanted, and above all Ayrton had the palpable aura of a true champion – a presence that the greatest drivers carry with them even before they achieve the success that merits it.
The young Brazilian began to win in only his second season of Formula 1 thanks to an artistic performance under the driving rain at the 1985 Portugal Grand Prix. He carried on in 1986 and 1987 with a Lotus that was light years away from the dominant Williams Honda of the period, which gave Piquet another title in 1987. Then, for Senna, the McLaren era dawned. And not just McLaren, McLaren Honda: in other words, the turbo engine that had been previously been in the back of the Williams, which then suffered a notable fall from grace in its absence. The rest is not necessarily recent, but still unforgettable, history, Senna took his first title in 1988 before beaten by his team mate Alain Prost following some controversial antics at the penultimate race of the 1989 season in Japan. Then in 1990 and 1991, Senna claimed the championship again. And that more or less closed the story of Brazilians on top of Formula 1. With a small appendix, which is also to do with Pirelli. Senna’s debut, in the 1984 Brazilian Grand Prix with a Toleman-Hart, was on Pirelli tyres. His second race in South Africa yielded sixth place and some points. The same result again at the next race in Belgium. And then, there was one of the strange political situations that were not uncommon at the time, which allowed the British team to switch tyres...
Bookending this story nicely is the fact that Piquet also starred on Pirelli tyres in the closing stages of his career. He won in Canada in 1991 with a P Zero-equipped Benetton, then at the last race of the year he flew under the deluge of Adelaide in Australia, taking huge chunks of time out of Senna, who was leading. For Pirelli, it was a great way to sign off from the previous era of Formula 1. Senna soon realised how quickly the Italian wet tyres were reeling him in, and started to gesture skywards to the race stewards. It worked. The race was stopped after just 14 laps and 24 and half minutes: still the shortest grand prix in F1 history.
Brazil, Pirelli and an epic duel between the two greatest Brazilian drivers. That’s what you call heritage.