…so that was it, then? The 2012 Grand Prix season. Twenty magnific…oh, hang on! There is yet one to run…Brazil! While Iain Robertson, whose entire journalistic energy was directed at the 19th Round of this year’s F1 Championship, now past, in spectacular and supremely well-received Texan manner, might have believed it was all over bar the shouting, he has a few tales left to tell about Sao Paolo.
// Season Swan-Song
If you define the name ‘Interlagos’, it comes out as ‘between the lakes’, no matter what language you speak. It is all but identical to ‘Interlaken’, a Swiss town that resides ‘between the lakes’ and was named rather cutely by a French urban planner, who went by the name of Alfred Agache. Now, Alfred had an interesting past, which reached both its zenith and its nadir within the space of a handful of years during the late-1920s.
While I remain immensely proud about my British ancestry, in particular the Scottish aspects of it, the truth is, I have never compiled these pre-ambles about each of the world’s racing venues, while wearing nationalistic head-gear. Therefore, if I sound apologetic, it is largely because I am apologetic, notably when I regurgitate the fact that it was another Brit, somebody from the ‘Old Country’, who was commissioned by the city fathers of Sao Paolo, to develop parts of the fast-growing Brazilian city.
In fact, despite possessing a name that sounded more Californian than Croydon, Louis Romero Sanson was the British engineer having a strong enough repute to assume the responsibility for what was intended to be a multi-facetted resort, between the lakes. Before this becomes all too confusing, I should highlight that the ‘lakes’ in Sao Paolo’s case were actually a pair of freshwater reservoirs that served the burgeoning population of the entire area and the land between them is what became the focus of Louis’s attention.
Louis was born in Trinidad, Tobago (hence the UK connection), and, after qualifying as an engineer in Caracas, Venezuela, he ended up residing in Brazil for some 45 years, during which time he formed a partnership and the company S/A Derrom-Sanson, which was involved in civil earthworks, roads-building and related services. It was Sanson’s firm that contracted the services of Frenchman, Agache. However, the entire project, which was massively ambitious, was doomed to failure by the Wall Street Crash in 1929 and, without funding, it lay dormant for the best part of five years. Agache was ‘destroyed’ by the events.
However, it was a project that would not disappear. The concept of turning the massive water-courses into leisure areas by importing sand and creating immaculate beaches around their edges, was as much to do with attracting buyers into local properties, as the opening of a multi-purpose sports venue, which would include the Interlagos racetrack.
Up to the mid-1930s, Brazil’s racing drivers used to turn the local city streets or villages into their competitive arenas and, with a growing and worrisome number of fatalities, it was deemed preferable for a purpose-built venue to exist instead. The will for the racetrack was immense and, once finances were a little more secure in the mid-1930s, the development work recommenced and a layout started to take shape.
Although the inauguration of the circuit did not take place until November 26th of 1939, when the Second World War was already grabbing Europe by the throat, the first bunch of ardent racers, led by Manoel de Teffe, took to the 7.9-kilometer track in April of that year. Sadly, the inaugural race could not start due to inclement weather conditions (it was bucketing down). However, as the roads infrastructure was also incomplete and not even the local tramway could reach the main tourist spots, it was not until May 12th, 1940 that the first official race took place.
Lined by wooden fences, draped over which was a crowd of around 15,000 local people, who were all grateful that attending a GP race was not as a expensive as they might have believed it to be at first, the initial race was won by Arthur Nascimento Junior in a 3.5-liter Alfa Romeo. Chico Landi took second in a 3.0-liter Maserati, with Geraldo Avelar in another Alfa grabbing third spot. Even at that time, the dam at Guarapiranga could not sustain the traffic originally intended for it and it would take some years and a new highway, built well into the late-1950s, before a higher class of residents would feel comfortable with relocating to Interlagos, thus helping it to achieve Sanson’s original aims.
// Brazilian GP
Sao Paolo had been buoyed by the success of the October 1933 GP of Rio de Janeiro, held on the streets of nearby Gavea but nicknamed apocryphally ‘The Devil’s Seesaw’. The renowned Sao Paolan Avenida Brasil reverberated to the sound of racing cars on that weekend of July 12th 1936. The venue was prestigious. Those streets were paved with money. Yet, the event was fated after a crash involving Mariette Helene Delangle, better known as French ace, Helle Nice, who was a model, a dancer and also a GP driver.
Lying second in the race to Brazilian Champion, Teffe, as she rounded one of the city corners, her Alfa Romeo clouted a straw-bale that had been punched into the centre of the track by another car. Unable to avoid the bale, at around 100mph, her Alfa took off, somersaulted through the air and crashed directly into the grandstand. The car killed four spectators instantly and injured over forty other people. Mariette was thrown from the car and landed on a young soldier, whose body took the full weight of her impact. He died immediately and, in a coma, it was believed that she too had died. Fortunately, she recovered three days later and after two months of convalescence at the Sao Paolo hospital, she reappeared to a heroine’s welcome. Although she died in October 1984, aged 83 years, it is said that she was haunted throughout her life by the events at Sao Paolo.
In the dark shadow of the tragedy, Sanson was ushered back into the limelight by the former president of the Automobile Club of Brazil, Eusebio de Queiroz Mattozo. So rushed were proceedings that, even before the tarmac was laid on the circuit, the Club had sanctioned the venue. However, the entire infrastructure was incomplete. The facility needed some pit and paddock buildings, let alone grandstands, canteens, toilets, a control tower and parking spaces for up to 10,000 spectators’ vehicles. Racing did continue, as the venue was built up around the teams attending. However, it was not until March 30th 1947 before a proper international meeting was held at Interlagos.
Interestingly, partly to recoup some of his investment, Sanson remained in control of Interlagos until 1954, when he turned it over to the people of Sao Paolo, to be managed by the city, for a nominal (token) sum of money. It was his parting gesture and one that was appreciated by all people of the region. A massive redevelopment took place in 1957, when the original long circuit was reduced to two shorter tracks. Yet, a decade later, it was closed for just over two years to effect a major renovation, reopening in March 1972 for a non-Championship F1 race, which was won by Carlos Reutemann (Argentina), with Ronnie Petersen (Sweden) taking second and local driver, Wilson Fittipaldi Junior, lying in third place. Less than a year later, in February 1973, Interlagos would host the opening round of the FIA Formula One World Championship, a just reward for its patient endeavours.
// Driving Interlagos
While Interlagos is the venue for the last round of this year’s series, a relocation of the event, to be known as the Rio de Janeiro, or the Jacarepagua GP, occurred in 1978 and remained in the calendar until 1989. The reclaimed marshland venue of the Autodromo Internacionale Nelson Piquet would be home to five of Frenchman Alain Prost’s six Brazilian GP victories. In 1984, it was also the debut circuit for local lad, Ayrton Senna de Silva, who would progress to immortality just a decade later at San Marino.
To suggest that nobody would miss Jacarepagua would be an understatement. It continues as a race circuit in much diminished form, now doubling as a training camp for the forthcoming Rio Olympics, although some club racing still takes place at the venue.
Interlagos is not merely the spiritual home to the Brazilian GP but it has developed enormous appeal to many drivers over the years. A lot of them are drawn to its tremendous geography, which introduces gradients and height differences that create challenges on every single lap. While it is a high-speed circuit, it features enough slow areas to give the chassis set-ups a rigorous work out and it is not exactly known for tyre conservation.
Named after Carlos Pace, a former Brazilian race ace, who died in a light plane accident in 1977, the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace was returned to its status as the season-closing race last year.
The drivers start the event in the section of track known as ‘Tribunas’, which features a moderately long straight, with a gentle uphill that turns immediately left into the ‘S do Senna’ named after Brazil’s ‘most famous’ son, at Turns 1 and 2. There is nothing straightforward about this sequence, which involves a left, a right, then another left. While the drivers love it, it is not unknown for several of them to suffer at its severity, because each of the turns features a different approach angle, a different radius, a different length, a different camber and also a completely different shape, mainly due to the changing terrain.
The ‘Curva do Sol’, or Turn 3, is altogether more regular, being a constant-radius, downhill left-hander that leads onto the ‘Reta Oposta’, which is a kind of backwards reference to the ‘Opposite Straight‘, or the disused longer back straight of the pre-1990 circuit, with which it runs parallel. Although it is the circuit‘s longest straight, intriguingly, it is not the fastest.
From the ‘Reta Oposta’, it is hard braking into a pair of downhill left-handers (Turns 4 and 5) that are known locally as ‘Descida do Lago’, or ‘Lake Descent’, that opens onto a short section of straight that also drops lower and into a tricky complex of different elevations and bends, for which the names seem wholly appropriate. Turn 6 is ‘Ferradura’, or ‘The Horseshoe’, a gentle right into Turn 7, ‘Laranjinha’, or ’Little Orange’, another, tighter right-hander.
With the tyres having experienced torture, the drivers also having to contend with around 5.0g of lateral forces, the turn to the right continues with the slowest part of the entire track, at Turn 8, negotiated in second gear, travelling at around 45mph. This leads into ‘Pinheirinho’, or ‘Little Pine Tree’, a constant radius left-hand bend, taken at around 65mph in second gear, while pulling in excess of 3.8g. The ‘Bico de Pato’, or ‘Duck Bill’ at Turn 10, is a tricky second gear hairpin-right, preceded by a fast kink to the right, before accelerating hard and fast to ‘Mergulho’, which translates into ‘Dive’, at Turn 11, which is a fabulous constant-radius left-hand corner that slingshots the driver towards the third gear left-hander at ‘Junção’, or ‘Junction’, at Turn 12.
The final section of circuit is one of the greatest uphill climbs of any and Turn 13, an up-hill kink to the left, marks the start of the longest, most enthralling and potentially the most dangerous maximum-speed section. As the track climbs, through the ‘Subida dos Boxes’ (literally ’Up To The Pits’) at Turn 14, the road continues turning left, yet feels like a straight. It is a remarkably steep climb here and demands every ounce of power that the car can produce.
At Turn 15 to the left, ‘Arquibancadas’, or ‘The Bleachers’, the pit lane entrance dives off to the left and drivers need to avoid creeping over the safety markings too often. It is here that the cars hit their absolute top speeds, in front of the main grandstands, which is what makes a lap at Sao Paolo so invigorating. Interestingly, despite the fact that it is not a straight at all, this is one of the longest full-throttle stretches of any circuit (with the exception of Paul Ricard, near Marseilles, South of France, which is only used these days for private testing, alternatively perhaps the Kemmel Straight at Spa is similar).
While this is the last race of the season, none of the teams can afford to throw caution to the winds. I am not even going to pitch for a victor, as the race could go any of half a dozen ways. All that I know is that the 2012 GP Season has been one of the best on modern record. It started out as a genuine open house. It took the first third of the Championship before a repeat winner occurred. Several drivers have staked their maiden victories in 2012. Several others have paved a way for their future careers. If 2013 gets off to as great a start as 2012 did, then I shall find it impossible to miss any single round. In the meantime, be pleased for whichever driver wins at Sao Paolo, because it is a genuine toughie.