On his Badger GP debut, Kevin Ayres takes us on a journey through the history of Brazilian drivers in Formula 1, and shares with us his thoughts on the possible participants of the future.
Before this season, the last time that a Brazilian driver failed to compete in a Formula One season was 1969. Whilst the Brazilian faithful did not have to wait long back then for not only a Brazilian driver, but also a Grand Prix winner and World Champion in Emerson Fittipaldi to emerge, things look fairly more grim in 2018. The Brazilian Grand Prix this year will not be contested by any Brazilian drivers this year. So what has gone wrong for a nation that not only has passionate, samba loving fans but has produced countless Grand Prix winners and three legendary world champions? Let’s go back to where I think the troubles began…
Loss of an Icon
1st May 1994 will be a date that will be forever etched on many a Formula One fan’s memory, sadly for all the wrong reasons. Ayrton Senna, in his fourth race with new team Williams, still had something to prove against the young emerging talent in Michael Schumacher and his so far dominant Benetton team. The last three races were largely forgettable affairs for the three time world champion and his Grove based squad. The FW16 had speed in abundance but lacked the stability and consistency to convert this into victory. To compensate for this, Ayrton had to drive beyond the limit, possibly at times beyond what both he and the car could withstand. Tragedy struck on the Sunday when, inexplicably, Senna’s car veered off the circuit at high speed, hitting the concrete perimeter wall. Ayrton Senna was gone.
In a way, Brazil was fortunate not to lose another driver on the same weekend of the San Marino Grand Prix. Rubens Barrichello, a shining new talent under the guidance of Eddie Jordan’s eponymous team, survived a horrific crash during Friday practice thanks largely to the medical expertise and quick thinking of FIA medical chief Professor Sid Watkins. The fact that Rubens and Ayrton only raced against each other for little over a year makes you wonder what lessons the three time World Champion could have imparted to the young Barrichello. Instead, in the blink of an instant, the young and inexperienced Jordan driver was thrust from Ayrton’s apprentice to Brazil’s talisman. Barrichello now carried the hopes of a nation on his shoulders.
Politics of the Sport
Barrichello continued with the British outfit until the end of the 1996 season, most notably scoring his and the team’s first ever pole position at the Pacific Grand Prix in Aida, 1994. For a moment, it looked as though the young Brazilian had answered his nation’s call, evidence if ever it were needed that Barrichello could compete with the best. Sadly, this along with a couple of podiums was to be the high points of his time with the Silverstone-based squad. A switch to Jackie Stewart’s newly-formed team did little to change fortunes – once again a solitary pole position at Magny Cours in ’99, coupled with a handful of podiums were the best results Barrichello could achieve in three seasons.
For Rubens, it looked as though the top echelons of the sport were out of reach. However an extraordinary turn of events on the eve of the 2000 season would see a Brazilian driver back in a race-winning, competitive seat for the first time since Senna’s stint at Mclaren. Following Ferrari’s refusal to renew Eddie Irvine’s contract for the 2000 season, the seat was offered to Barrichello, who duly accepted. At last, a Brazilian was back at the front of the grid, or so the Brazilian fans would have thought. The problem was they did not count on Michael Schumacher being Barrichello’s teammate, and the Brazilian had hired to fill the void left by Irvine and his title tilt in 1999 as the number two driver. This was no more evident at the Austrian Grand Prix in 2002 when, leading his team mate in the race, Rubens was given the instruction to move over for Schumacher, despite the German comfortably leading the driver’s championship. Understandably defiant, Barrichello continued to lead the field, having driven a faultless, commanding race so far. The call from Jean Todt, then Ferrari Team Principal, came again: “Move over for Michael”. Making his feelings clear, Rubens eventually heeded the call in the most embarrassing fashion for the Prancing Horses – metres from the finishing line he slowed almost to a stop to let Schumacher win. Embarrassment was compounded on the podium, when Schumacher thrust Rubens onto the top step in recognition of his sterling drive. From this point on, it was clear who the Ferrari hierarchy favoured, whilst in a scarlet car with Schumacher as his team mate, Barrichello would never have the chance to emulate Ayrton and claim a world championship.
Victories came as a Ferrari driver – those that spring to mind are his first at Hockenheim in 2000 and the British Grand Prix in 2003, displaying both his racecraft and sometimes tactical brilliance – but they often came at the expense of Schumacher, who had either retired from the race or ran into difficulty. In a straight fight, Barrichello could never beat Schumacher because he was never allowed to. Austria 2002 was a case in point.
Playing second fiddle was not Barrichello’s style – at Jordan and Stewart he was able to galvanise each team and make his mark on proceedings. At Ferrari, he was merely the bit-part player in Schumacher’s and the team’s quest for championship dominance. He moved to Honda for 2006, partnering Jenson Button for three seasons. A minor, positive blip in 2009 (when the team had morphed into Brawn GP) was all Rubens could show in a career which began to slide. An ill-judged move to Williams for 2010 (possibly influenced by the fact that Schumacher was returning from retirement to the team Rubens had just vacated) saw the Brazilian driver competing for points rather than podiums. At the end of the 2011 season, Rubens had called it a day – after 326 Grand Prix, 11 victories and 68 podiums, Brazil would have to turn to another driver – by this time another had already emerged and, for a brief moment, they had their champion…
A Rising Star
Felipe Massa began his career at the height of Ferrari’s powers in 2002, driving for Sauber. The Brazilian connection continued with the Maranello team when Massa was hired as test driver for 2003. A brief return to Sauber for 2004and 2005 only yielded several points finishes for the talented young Brazilian who clearly had the desire to achieve more (sound familiar?). In 2006, following Barrichello’s switch to Honda, the opportunity arose for Massa to follow in his compatriot’s footsteps and join Ferrari as second driver to Schumacher. Times, they were a’changing, however. Whilst Barrichello joined the Prancing Horses at the height of Schumacher’s career, Massa had been signed at the twilight of it. Unbeknown to Ferrari at the time, this was to be Michael’s last season (in a Ferrari at least), all of which meant that 2006 could serve as an apprenticeship to the young Massa before being able to become de facto team leader. Finally, Brazil has a driver who is given equal opportunity to compete for the championship in a race winning, title challenging team. As 2008 proved; many will say Lewis won the title on the final corner of the final lap in Interlagos. I tend to refer to the fact that Ferrari lost the title for Massa way before this – engine failure in Hungary when the Brazilian was comfortably leading, followed by the costly refuelling rig blunder at Singapore, again whilst leading, more likely consigned Massa to the runner’s up spot. Victory in that year’s Brazilian Grand Prix was aptly his final F1 win and that for a Brazilian driver.
A freak accident at the following season’s Hungarian Grand Prix left Massa with potentially life-changing injuries, missing the remainder of the 2009 season as a result. Massa’s return for Ferrari in 2010 saw a surprising return to the podium for the recuperated Brazilian driver in the opening race of the season in Bahrain, following newly-signed team mate Fernando Alonso home in a Ferrari 1-2. Just as in 2002 for Barrichello, however, team orders would rear their ugly head again at the 2010 German Grand Prix. Rob Smedley, Massa’s race engineer at the team, gave coded message to Felipe that “Fernando is faster than you” mid-way through the race. Again, like Barrichello, Massa was comfortably leading his more illustrious team mate and did not look like he could be challenged for the win. His own team had other ideas. Once again a Brazilian driver had to make way for their team mate which ultimately did not have any real outcome in the respective championship in which it happened. Schumacher still won the championship comfortably in 2002, Alonso still lost the championship in 2010 despite the extra seven points he was gifted. Another Brazilian driver in Massa realising that the chance given to claim his first world championship in 2008 no longer exists, not least while having Alonso as his team mate.
Like Barrichello and Senna before him, Massa eventually switched to Williams for his final seasons as an F1 driver. Multiple podiums and a surprise pole position at Austria in 2014 followed, but he could never reach the dizzying heights again that he reached during the 2008 season. Whether that was as a result of his injuries as well as change in teams, we will never know for certain. What was for certain was that, as from 2018, Brazil was without a representative on the F1 grid for the first time in 48 years.
So what does the future hold for Brazilian participation in the sport? Well, the signs aren’t looking good.
Review the junior categories and you’ll see that the number of Brazilian drivers is sparse – F2 and GP3 only have one apiece, despite being the feeder categories for Formula One. Whilst the likes of Pedro Piquet (son of Nelson and younger brother of Nelson Junior) are beginning to show promise, having won the last round at Silverstone, it will be a couple of seasons at least before he would be considered for an F1 seat. Being a second generation driver isn’t a guarantee of success in F1 either – after all, Pedro’s only got to ask his brother…
Speaking of keeping it in the family, another notable driver worth mentioning is Pietro Fittipaldi, grandson of two times World Champion Emerson. As recently as 2017, Pietro came away with the World Series Formula V8 3.5 Championship, beating the likes of Alfonso Celis Jnr. and Roy Nissany to the title. A crash in the opening round of the WEC ‘Superseason’ at Spa this year has curtailed his season, suffering broken legs in a high speed impact at Eau Rouge. Time will only tell if the injuries will curtail his career also.
Sadly at present it looks as though Brazil won’t have another driver on the F1 grid for some time, which for me is a shame. Since Senna’s death in 1994, only two Brazilian drivers have been in a position to challenge for victories on a regular basis. Sadly for both Barrichello and Massa, internal team politics at Ferrari denied both drivers the chance to add to Brazil’s tally of three World Champions. Let’s hope the next Senna, Piquet or Fittipaldi is just around the corner.