From Senna to Massa: A look at Brazil's Formula One legends

Interlagos -- a fast, rolling race track located in the city of Sao Paulo. Nestled in the midst of high-rise buildings in a ‘bowl’ between two artificial lakes, the circuit is a cramped, crumbling, dilapidated facility, much in need of a facelift but a magical place nonetheless.

A track that has seen its fair share of Formula One history, it comes alive every year to the sound of passionate fans beating their drums, the atmosphere charged with a festive Carnival-like spirit, as the crowd rhythmically chants the names of their local heroes.

“Massa! Massa! Massa!” the fans repeatedly sang in support of Felipe Massa in 2008 as the Ferrari driver headed into the race with a shot at the title.

“Ruuuuuubinho! Ruuuuuuuubinho!” the crowd chanted for Rubens Barrichello when their former hero was sat in a dominant Ferrari.

“Ole, ole, ole, ole! Senna! Senna!” they sang for their most cherished hero as he overcame gearbox trouble and physical exhaustion to take his first victory on home soil in 1991.

 From Senna to Massa: A look at Brazils Formula One legends

Felippe Massa. Associated Press

Without a doubt, the circuit with its ‘stadium’ feel is right up there with Monza, as probably one of the best places at which to watch a Formula One Grand Prix and like the Italians, the Brazilians are without a doubt among the most passionate fans of the sport.

The Italian passion for the sport is rooted in the Ferrari name, the entire country captivated by the mythical aura that surrounds the Maranello-based squad that elevates it from being just another Formula One team to something more, something of a national treasure.

And while Brazil may not quite have the equivalent of a Ferrari, a national team so to say, one can argue that they have Ayrton Senna, no less a national icon to Brazilians than Ferrari is to the Italians and without a doubt comparable to Ferrari as a legend of the sport.

However, Brazil’s association with Formula One predates Senna and stretches back to the very early days of the sport, the country’s passion for racing stemming from a rich and successful history, a tryst that has yielded three multiple world champions with eight titles between them.

But success was slow to come for a country far removed from the United Kingdom and mainland Europe, the traditional heartland of not just Formula One but also all of the feeder series that a young driver had to work his way through, and the few Brazilians who competed in the sport in the 1950s only drove in a handful of races yielding very little in terms of results.

In fact, it wasn’t until 1970 that a Brazilian driver made his mark on the world stage when a young Emerson Fittipaldi made his Formula One debut towards the end of that year with Colin Chapman’s Lotus team , the ‘Paulistano’ driving the third car alongside team-mates Jochen Rindt and John Miles.

“Emerson was the first chap that was prepared to leave the warmth and comfort of his native Brazil,” legendary motorsport commentator Murray Walker recalled in a McLaren film.

“He comes from, I wouldn’t say a wealthy family, but he comes from a very well off family. And he came -- as they all did subsequently and particularly Senna -- from the warmth and love of Brazil to freezing old Snetterton … and he must have wondered what the hell he’d let himself in for.”

“The thing I’ll always remember him for was that he was literally a pioneer and trailblazer.”

The son of a motorsport journalist who caught the racing bug at a relatively young age, Fittipaldi’s debut was by no means easy and he found himself thrown in at the deep end and thrust into the role of team leader after just three races when Jochen Rindt was tragically killed in practice for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

Fittipaldi admirably stepped up to the task and won his first Grand Prix only two races later at Watkins Glen in the U.S., becoming the first Brazilian to win a Formula One Grand Prix, while his victory also ensured that the title went to Rindt, who to this day remains the sport’s only posthumous world champion.

The next year, his first full season as Lotus team leader, Fittipaldi finished sixth overall in the championship standings, his form affected by a road car accident he and his wife had been involved in, before bouncing back in 1972 to duly win the world championship behind the wheel of the iconic Lotus 72 and, at just 25 years of age, become the youngest world champion in the history of the sport.

After conceding the title to rival Sir Jackie Stewart the following year, Fittipaldi went on to win his second championship in 1974 for McLaren.

But that was to be the last title success for the soft-spoken and likeable Brazilian with the shoulder length-hair and bushy sideburns, as after losing the title to Ferrari’s Niki Lauda in 1975, he stunned the motorsport world by announcing that he would leave McLaren to join his older brother Wilson at a new team set up by the two brothers and funded by Brazil’s state-owned sugar cooperative, Copersucar.

The move was a disaster and proved fatal to Fittipaldi’s career, the former world champion finally bowing out of the sport as a driver in 1980 after five seasons with the woefully uncompetitive team.

But Fittipaldi had blazed a trail for other Brazilian drivers to follow and as his career faded, the country’s next Formula One star was already starting to make a mark.

Advised by Fittipaldi to move to Europe after promising outings in local races in Brazil, Nelson Piquet – who had given up a tennis career that his father wanted him to pursue -- made his Formula One debut during the course of the 1978 season.

Initially driving an Ensign and later a privately-entered McLaren, he was snapped up by Bernie Eccelstone who had spotted his talent and hired him to drive for his Brabham team ahead of the last race in 1978.

Ironically, Piquet’s first job in Formula One was with the Brabham team in 1974, making tea, sweeping the floors and watching over the cars.

Piquet continued with Brabham in 1979 as team-mate to Niki Lauda, Eccelstone intending for the rookie to learn at the then double world champion’s knee, and was thrust into the team leader role when Lauda abruptly walked away from the sport during the Canadian Grand Prix weekend, the Austrian bored of driving around in circles.

After finishing second to Australian Alan Jones in 1980, Piquet followed in Fittipaldi’s footsteps to clinch his first and Brazil’s third world championship the following year in the Brabham, winning three races en route to the title in a season that saw seven drivers stand on the top step of the podium.

Piquet was unable to defend his title, however, and the 1982 season was effectively a write-off for the Brabham team with unreliability hampering their charge as they perfected their BMW turbo engine.

But the hard work paid off and Piquet was once again triumphant in 1983, winning the championship from Alain Prost despite the Frenchman claiming victory in four races to Piquet’s three.

His next title success came four years later in 1987 when driving for Williams. Piquet played the ultimate percentage game that year and used all his cunning and guile to come back from a massive shunt early in the season and beat team-mate Nigel Mansell to the championship despite the Briton winning six races to the Brazilian’s three.

The season was notable for the bitter rivalry between the two team-mates with Piquet resorting to mind games and verbal jibes – that included calling Mansell an “uneducated blockhead with a stupid and ugly wife” – in an effort to destabilise his rival.

“The situation was like this -- I have to create a division inside the team, to survive and try to win the championship,” Piquet explained in a television interview at the 2013 Goodwood Festival of Speed with the Festival’s Fortyonesix website.

“And I had a very strong head to do things like that. I tried to fight him all year round but he was too educated to hit me.”
Piquet, an outspoken playboy who loved playing practical jokes, was never the most popular champion but following that last hurrah in 1987, Piquet’s star waned.

Now at Benetton and being regularly outclassed by rookie Michael Schumacher, Piquet eventually called time on his career at the end of 1991.

By then, Brazil already had a new darling in Ayrton Senna who had firmly established himself as the top driver in Formula One and had already won his third world championship when Piquet retired.

Senna. What does one say about him that hasn’t already been said? His career is well documented, right from when he spectacularly burst onto the scene in 1984, his debut year, nearly winning the Monaco Grand Prix in torrential conditions in an uncompetitive Toleman, to his tragic death at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994.

Widely hailed by fans and peers alike as probably the greatest driver ever, Senna backed his searing talent up with an intensity, commitment and dedication to racing the likes of which had never been seen before.

“If anybody ever sold their soul to win a championship, Senna did,” former Formula One driver John Watson is quoted as saying in Formula 1: The Autobiography after Senna won his first world title in 1988.

“The commitment was just frightening. Every time he was in the car he was out to prove to everyone he was the next world champion.”

Extremely religious and compassionate outside the car, he had a fierce self-belief that he was the best and was ruthless in that he was prepared to go places his rivals had never even contemplated and push the boundaries of racing ethics in his quest for victory.

His rivalry with Alain Prost, probably one of the most intense the sporting world has ever seen, and the incidents that spilled over from it – such as the two famous accidents at Suzuka that decided the 1989 and 1990 titles -- have gone down in motor-racing folklore and defined both drivers’ careers.

In the end, he won three world titles and forty-one races but Senna’s legacy transcends the numbers. He was extremely charismatic and he inspired a whole generation of drivers, not just in Brazil but all over the world, like Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton and no driver -- not even Michael Schumacher -- has had as big an impact on the sport since.

But while Senna, Piquet and Fittipaldi as world champions might have shone the brightest of the 30 Brazilians who have competed in Formula One, let’s also spare a thought for those drivers who didn’t have as much in terms results but were legends in their own way.

Drivers like Jose Carlos Pace, who won his home race in 1975 but was tragically killed in a plane crash before his career could blossom and deliver on its promise.

Or Rubens Barrichello, whose legacy in Formula One could have been so different had he not had to spend his best years playing second fiddle to Michael Schumacher and who was eased out of the sport at the end of 2011 without a proper farewell.

Or Felipe Massa, for that matter, who came oh so close to joining Fittipaldi, Piquet and Senna as Brazil’s next world champion only to have the title snatched away from him by Lewis Hamilton some 30-odd seconds after he crossed the line.

Massa hasn’t come close to the title since as a near-fatal accident in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2009 reduced him to a shadow of his former self, the 32-year-old on his way out of Ferrari following Sunday’s race after being able to recapture nothing more than mere flashes of the brilliance that brought him to the brink of winning the title.

But despite that, this is sure to be an emotional race for Massa as the partisan crowd throws its weight behind the Paulistano and Interlagos reverberates to chants of “Massa! Massa! Massa!” once again.

Updated Date: Nov 23, 2013 20:40:31 IST