Thursday 21 March 2013

Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore IX - Jacarepaguá Brazilian Grand Prix

Picturesque view of the mountains from the track

Today on March 21st fifty-three years ago, in a small neighbouring city to Sao Paulo Ayrton da Silva was born. At a much later stage before he started racing in F1 he had decided to change his surname to that of his mother’s. Senna fitted well as he started winning the British and Formula Ford championship’s in the early 80’s and thus knocking doors of the many constructor teams in F1.

He started his F1 career in the season of 1984, the year I was born. And before I could understand what F1 meant, he was long gone. I feel at times, I did not get the privilege of watching him race live on TV and all I got was to read stories about his driving and the way he went about racing.  In this edition of Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore, I will write about the circuit where Senna made his F1 debut with Toleman.

It all began in the year 1978 for this circuit; built around a city with backdrop of scenic mountains of Rio de Janeiro. It was a visual treat. The distance was just over 5 km; the circuit was a permanent racing facility and was the first from outside Sao Paulo. Brazilian Grand Prix was included in the F1 calendar only in 1973 (Interlagos), though the championships had begun in 1950. It was won by the local Sao Paulo resident Emerson Fittipaldi. It is interesting to note that, Brazilian drivers in the 1970’s were mainly from Sao Paulo. But the Sao Paulo was not going to be the only circuit in Brazil, as there was another circuit (modified and re-built) in Rio which was ready to host the event. The growing interests in the exotic place of Rio resulted in it getting a foot into Formula One. 

Jacarepaguá (named after the neighbourhood in which it is located) was ready to welcome the F1 world and it hosted its first Grand Prix in 1978. It was a significant one for Michelin Tyre Company as they registered their first victory with Carlos Reutmann winning the race. Emerson Fittipaldi came second and thereby scoring the first podium finish for Fittipaldi-Ford car.
After an eventful inaugural race, the event moved to Sao Paulo the following season. But it didn't last long. Safety issues with the track with complaints like bumpy track surface, deep ditches, inadequate barriers and improper embankments surfaced in 1980. In fact, prior to the race several drivers protested for the aforementioned reasons. But in F1, the show must go on and so it did, but Interlagos faced a lot of embarrassment. In addition to the concerns, with F1 becoming a glamour sport the slums of Sao Paulo was at odds for Formula One's new found international image.

Luckily for Brazil, Jacarepaguá was an alternative which was immediately available and from 1981, the race shifted to Rio. 

Emerson Fittipaldi, twice F1 World Champion hailed from Sao Paulo. With his increased business interests, the country needed a new hero, not just in Sao Paulo. Though, there were many talented drivers, none could go on to win championships (Fittipaldi had won in 1972 and 1974). That was all to change at the beginning of the next decade. Nelson Piquet started out his sports career in tennis before switching to karts after getting bored with the former. He hailed from Rio and made his way to the top in F1 after advice from Fittipaldi to race in Europe. After creating quite an impression, he made his debut in the year 1978 with Brabham. By the time the Brazilian GP had shifted its attention towards Rio, the crowd had a local who by merit had all the signs of a future world champion.

In 1981, the circuit had a carnival atmosphere and the expectations of the local crowd went high as their city boy Nelson had taken the pole position. The race track was wet at the start and Nelson Piquet started the race with dry slicks. It didn’t help him as he was easily overpowered by both the Williams drivers Reutmann and Alan Jones. Carlos Reutmann went on to win the race despite the clear instructions to finish behind the 1980 World Champion, his team mate Alan Jones which made Jones furious and later refused to come on the podium to take his 2nd place. Nelson Piquet could not finish in points, but he did win the World Championship in his Brabham-Ford, the first of his three and Brazil had a new hero and this time it was not from Sao Paulo.

Nelson Piquet and the eventual world champion Keke Rosberg finished 1st and 2nd respectively in the 1982 edition. But both the places were disqualified due to the car being underweight promoting Alain Prost as the winner. This resulted in FOCA teams boycotting the SanMarino GP.

The local boy eventually tasted the victory champagne at his home circuit the following year while Keke Rosberg (the 1982 World Champion) was disqualified from his 2nd position for the second year running. Nelson Piquet took his second World Championship and this time with Brabham-BMW.

While the nation was celebrating their new found hero in Piquet, another kid (so to speak) was finding his feet in F1. He was none other than Senna. Debuting for Toleman, the Brazilian didn’t have a good time, but did show early signs about being a champion material. Alain Prost, the French driver nicknamed ‘Professor’ took his second title at the Brazilian GP. He repeated this feat by driving his McLaren-TAG powered engine to the top step in 1985 too.

After having two unsuccessful seasons at Brabham (1984 and 1985), Nelson Piquet shifted to Williams powered by the reliable Honda engine. The 1986 race in Jacarepaguá was the first to be held after the disastrous car accident to Sir Frank Williams in France. Nelson Piquet went on to win the 1986 Grand Prix, but was unable to win the overall title, which went to Alain Prost for the second time.

Alain Prost by this time was simply unstoppable. His rivalry with Nelson Piquet was intense but never so controversial. Prost went on to win his 4th Brazilian GP in 1987 but the McLaren driver was beaten to title by Nelson Piquet. Nelson won his 3rd World Championship title and joined the ranks of Fangio, Brabham, Jackie Stewart and Niki Lauda as the only drivers to win three or more World Championship titles.

By the time the season started in 1988, a lot of changes had taken place; Piquet was no more with Williams and he had joined Lotus. Senna joined Prost at McLaren and thus began an epic rivalry for the next 2 years. In the meantime, there was a change made to the circuit as well. It was renamed as ‘Autódromo Internacional Nelson Piquet’, a tribute to the local hero and for being the only Brazilian triple World champion. In his first race since it was renamed after him, Piquet finished driving a Lotus-Honda, finishing behind the McLaren-Honda of Alain Prost (won his 5th Brazilian GP title), and the Ferrari of Gerhard Berger. By the end of the season, Piquet’s career had taken a nose-dive and he had to be content with the fact that Senna was the new face of Brazilian motorsports as he won his first World Championship title.

The last race at Jacarepaguá paralled with the career of Nelson Piquet, the attention was now towards Sao Paulo and its new hero. In 1989, Senna took the pole and Mansell became the first man since Mario Andretti in 1971 to win on his Formula One debut for Ferrari, a feat that was not matched until Kimi Raikkonen won for Ferrari at the 2007 Australian Grand Prix.  Nelson Piquet who was slowly losing his aura finished in ninth.
The baton was not just in the drivers but it again coincided with change in location. With Senna’s growing popularity and more importantly Interlagos, newly shortened and safe circuit provided a tempting offer and finally the FIA awarded the Brazilian GP to Interlagos, Sao Paulo in 1990. FIA and F1 have not looked back and till date the Brazilian Grand Prix is hosted at Interlagos.

In total, it hosted 10 races in a period of 12 seasons. And there will not be any more additions to this tally as there won’t be any further F1 race hosted at Jacarepaguá. The track and motorsport facilities were finally demolished last November and will be re-built as training facilities venue for the Rio Summer Olympics in 2016.

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