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Brazzil - Behavior - April 2004
 

F1 Heroes and Mad Drivers of Brazil

What about the present Brazilian crop in Formula One? The top
Brazilian driver, Rubens Barrichello, is number two to Michael
Schumacher in all senses of the word. There are also Christiano
da Matta and Felipe Massa in thre race. All of which tells us Brazil
will not be toasting a world champion any time soon.

Guy Burton


Sunday's inaugural Formula One race in Bahrain was high on action, albeit from third place down. But while a Brazilian finished second, it is worth noting that generally they are the worst drivers in the world. If you don't believe me take the eight-hour bus ride from Rio to Vitória in Espírito Santo state. Along the road, north of the miserable town of Campos there is a row of cars. They sit outside the police station, all crumpled and smashed up, the legacy of a speeding driver who lost control or braked too late.

In Rio itself, bus drivers compete with each other. My youngest brother recalls being on a bus and the driver becoming agitated because the bus in front had cut him up. So what did he do? He tailgated him to the next traffic lights, got out and promptly started beating him up as the horrified passengers from both buses looked on.

That's perhaps no surprise when you consider the amount of testosterone in Brazilian men. They definitely are hairier than most other countries. And they have the ego to boot. "Get out of the way, get off my road," they seem to say as they career from one side of the road into the other, failing to look into the rear mirror and almost causing a mass pile-up in their wake.

Only when they reach their destination does the mirror become useful, to check their hair is fixed. No wonder my father simply refuses to let me borrow his car when I visit them in Rio. Even my cousin's offer last year to use his was met with a cold stare by my father.

Part of the reason for this shockingly lax approach to driving is the utter belief by Brazilian men that despite the risks they run that they are utterly competent behind the wheel. It's therefore little wonder then the vast majority fancies themselves as a potential Formula One driver.

But while Rubens Barrichello has clearly accepted his position as Ferrari's number two, this year is the tenth anniversary of the death of a driver who would never have settled for second: Ayrton Senna. One of the brightest talents of his and all ages, by 1994 this Brazilian driver had won three world championships and 41 grand prix (GP) victories.

I remember watching him jostle with his main rival, Frenchman, Alain Prost, in Japan in both 1989 and 1990. Like the current world champion, Michael Schumacher, he was prepared to stretch the rules as far as he could to win, determined to win at all costs.

And so it was in May 1994 that Senna's determination, his obsession with being number one, brought his demise. It was the seventh lap of the San Marino GP; he was running behind. He had to push himself to make up for lost time. A day earlier another Formula One driver had suffered a car crash. Senna was worried, concerned that this might was sign. But he would never have pulled out of a race. So instead he was in the race and into the seventh lap.

But at a bend in the track he failed to turn in time. Over 160 miles per hour he crashed into the wall and was killed. His death was treated as a national tragedy; his coffin was lined with thousands of mourners.

Senna was just one in a number of Brazilians who graced Formula One. Before his victories were Emerson Fittipaldi and Nelson Piquet. Both Fittipaldi and Piquet won the world championship twice, Fittipaldi during the 1970s and Piquet in 1981 and 1987.

F1's Golden Era

Then Formula One was more interesting—or at least I imagine it to be. As a boy, I watched the races with fascination, only to eventually lose my interest as the cars became more reliable and overtaking more of a rarity.

But as I was lost to Formula One, another member of the family arrived to take my place. In 1999, my father took my two brothers down to São Paulo. He had tickets for the three of them to go to the Brazilian GP at the Interlagos track. He was partly helped by the sponsorship that the company he worked for were putting into the BAR company whose drivers included the former world champion Jacques Villeneuve.

And that, as they say, was that. My middle brother came back to England transformed. Where a few years earlier he had moaned when I turned the TV to the motor racing every other Sunday, now he was hooked. But not just hooked, he was obsessed. Suddenly, every Sunday afternoon, the television was booked, so that he could follow the events of the race and his team—BAR—through it all.

But soon the races themselves were not enough. Saturday mornings became vital viewing as he watched the qualifying session, with the cars trying to produce a fast enough lap in the one hour session to qualify for a high enough position on the grid. And when the races took place on the other side of the planet, after midnight, he would set the video to record it.

Soon he had graduated away from simply talking about the races to wanting to get involved. A runner in the film industry, he saw an opportunity to get closer to the action. A film school graduate, he wrote a proposal for a documentary and sent it to BAR, offering to film behind-the-scenes; not only would it be good publicity for them, it would also give him work for a year as he followed the drivers and the mechanics in their British-based headquarters and at one or two GPs during the year.

But it wasn't to be. Not only would any resulting film be difficult to screen, owing to the ban on tobacco advertising on British TV, but all Formula One footage belonged to one man, Bernie Ecclestone.

For those not in the know, British-born Ecclestone is the godfather of motor sport. Although not usually seen in public, nothing is done or happens without the man's say-so. Size-wise he resembles Napoleon, but he more than compensates by being bigger than the sport he controls, having absolute power over both the teams and the sport's contracts with broadcasters.

And it is also believed his influence stretches beyond the confines of the racetrack and into politics: in 1997 it was suggested he donated £1 million to the party of the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in exchange for a delay on the ban for tobacco advertising—which he duly got.

Not bad for a man who, my parents once informed me, came for a business dinner at our Rio flat in the early 1980s—although I hesitate to imagine what he made of my three siblings and I as squabbling toddlers at the time and how that reflected on my father.

Even with this tenuous connection though, my brother was unable to get his project off the ground, which was probably just as well, for the following few seasons BAR managed to regularly under-perform. Ironically though, with the departure of Villeneuve at the end of 2003, the team appears to have returned with a bang. And even though it is early days in 2004, the team appears to be doing well, sitting in fourth place in the constructors' championship.

Brazil's New Crop

But what about the present Brazilian crop in Formula One? Where are they now? For the last few years it would seem the top Brazilian driver is Rubens Barrichello, who hails from São Paulo. A Ferrari driver, he is number two to Michael Schumacher in all senses of the word. This was shown most publicly and humiliatingly two years ago when, after leading for much of the Austrian GP, he braked his car just before the finish line, thereby allowing his team mate to come through and win.

Outrage ensured and vitriol was heaped on both Barrichello and Ferrari for fixing the result in favour of Schumacher. But Ferrari's justification was that because Austria was one of the earlier races in the year, they wanted Schumacher to wrap up as many points as quickly as possible so that he could tie up the championship.

At the time, there was a crisis in the sport, but for some observers the surprise was that such behaviour hadn't been noticed before. By this reasoning Barrichello's crime—if it was one—was to make his manoeuvre too obvious; had he been more subtle, by racing each of the last few laps at a slower pace, Schumacher might have caught him and no one would have been any the wiser.

Whatever the comment and rights or wrongs, Austria 2002 firmly labelled Barrichello as little more than a prop for Schumacher. Needless to say, this makes for deep disappointment in the Brazilian racing public. Although Schumacher not only drives the best car, but is also the best driver in the world, it is dispiriting that the only individual with the same technology as him, a Brazilian, is either holding back or is barred from competing under team orders.

Other than Barrichello, there are two other Brazilians currently competing in Formula One: Christiano da Matta and Felipe Massa. Despite one having been Ferrari's test driver in 2003, both now race for smaller teams and therefore have not yet had the chance to show what they can do.

Indeed, with Barrichello in the position he is at Ferrari, the only conceivable challengers to Schumacher appear to be Juan Pablo Montoya, Kimi Raikonnen and Schumacher's brother, Ralf, who have driven for larger teams like Williams-BMW and McLaren-Mercedes.

All of which makes it seem that Brazil will not be toasting a world champion any time soon. With this in mind it is little wonder that as the anniversary of that San Marino GP approaches, most Formula One fans will probably look back with nostalgia to Senna, the last Brazilian champion.

At the time of his death Senna was near the peak of his abilities; Schumacher meanwhile, had only a few years' experience. I am sure I'm not alone in wondering that had Senna lived, whether the present Schumacher dominance might not have been checked—and the prospects of Brazilian motor racing not been rosier.


Guy Burton was born in Brazil and now lives in London. He has written on a number of different subjects for Brazzil. He occasionally watches Formula One, but has found he can usually count on his brother to provide him with a lap-by-lap commentary. He can be contacted at gjsburton@hotmail.com and has just started a blog at http://guyburton.blogspot.com
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