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F1 History 18

Formula 1 in Rio

They’ve dug it up to make room for the 2016 Olympics – and I expect I will be sad in the same way that I have come to miss Hockenheim’s spooky, loopy blat through the forest.

I refer to Autodrómo Internacional Nelson Piquet in Rio.

It lay not far from Copacabana Beach, with lush mountains fringing its horizon. In other words it was situated on a pancake-flat piece of reclaimed swamp that jutted into a lake – think 80 per cent humidity – with ‘Eastern Bloc’ tower blocks shimmering in its middle-distance.

It was a humdrum place: a bumpy, abrasive sequence of constant-radius corners. Here is a précis of Motor Sport’s first impression: no fun to drive on; no fun to watch at; and no sensible overtaking places.

It suited Alain Prost from his velvety right boot to his touchy-feely gloves.

history  Formula 1 in Rio

The Frenchman appeared to simply roll around its corners on his way to five Brazilian Grand Prix victories in nine attempts here. He inherited one of those wins (1982) thanks to a couple of disqualifications. But such fortuitousness was balanced by his performance and result of 1989, when a clutch problem prevented his planned second stop for tyres and yet still he finished second. Smooth.

Ayrton Senna, in contrast, met with little but trouble here. It was the scene in 1984 of his GP debut: he impressed with his commitment and speed before the Toleman’s turbo provided the season with its first retirement. Thereafter, dodgy electrics, two first-corner shunts, an engine failure and a disqualification (caused by switching to the spare car after his race chassis jammed in first gear on the formation lap in 1988) blighted his progress on home soil.

So, a Prost ‘laboratory’ rather than a Senna ‘amphitheatre’.

That is to say it didn’t send the blood pumping – despite the rhythm sections in the crowd. It never seemed to provide thrilling racing – although I do remember Keke Rosberg being good value, caning his atmo Williams while muttering darkly about “turbo bullshit!”

history  Formula 1 in Rio

There was, however, always something of note going on.

Rio was helped in this respect by being the curtain-raiser to a new season on seven occasions. Its four other GP hostings occurred after Buenos Aires (1978), Long Beach (’81) and Kyalami (’82) had taken first bow.

Carlos Reutemann has particular reason to remember it. In 1978, driving for Ferrari, he scored the first F1 victory on Michelin’s radials. In ’81, he ignored the imploring JONES-REUT signal of his Williams team to win again. (He stated later that he had intended to let AJ by on the final lap that never happened because of this wet race’s two-hour curfew. This from a man who had set his fastest lap one from home.) And in ’82, he punted out Niki Lauda’s McLaren and René Arnoux’s Renault, the latter collision also ending his own race. These unusually clumsy actions from this balletic driver were the last of his career: he announced a surprise retirement a few days later.

In 1985, Arnoux himself charged to fourth place after an early rear puncture. He seemed restored to his old chipper self after a parlous 1984, during which his qualifying prowess had deserted him.

He never drove for Ferrari again due to a lifestyle that clashed with the needs of the team and the wants of its owner.

history  Formula 1 in Rio

And then there was the man after whom the circuit was renamed in 1988: Piquet, who copped good and bad here when it was called Jacarepaguá in honour of its locality. He beat the turbos in ’82, a pummeling victory on rock-hard suspension in searing heat that caused him to crumple on the podium. His head-lolling effort came to naught, however, when 29 days later his lightweight Brabham BT49D, its dual-action brake-cooling tank drained well before the race’s end, was deemed too light by the governing body and struck from the results.

His wins in 1983 and ’86 stuck. On the former occasion he drove a BT52, another Gordon Murray lovely – the only design on the grid tailored for the flat-bottom regs that had been summarily announced the previous November. The latter occasion marked his maiden drive with Williams – and the first for the team after its founder’s life-altering road accident.

And in 1988, as the reigning world champion and on his debut with Lotus, he undertook as anonymous a drive to a third place as it is possible to imagine. His regrettable tirade in a concurrent local edition of a soft porn mag against former team-mate Nigel Mansell and – indefensibly – Nigel’s wife Roseanne was an even poorer show.

Yes, he’d grabbed the headlines – and his name was above the door – but he was unworthy of both that weekend.

The Rio happenings at the forefront of my recall, however, epitomised the racing fortunes of Mansell and another equally bold, brave British driver.

history  Formula 1 in Rio

In 1984, on his debut with Renault, Derek Warwick was 10 laps from a first GP victory when his front suspension collapsed, a failure attributable to a much earlier contact with the McLaren of a forceful Lauda.

Third, second and fourth in the next three rounds, it seemed only to be a matter of time before ‘Delboy’ would ‘put matters right’. Fate deemed otherwise. In 1985, he chose to remain with Renault rather than accept an offer from Williams.

Mansell was the beneficiary of this decision. Thirteen majestically theatrical GP wins with Williams later, he found himself behind the wheel (with paddles) of a Ferrari. Designer John Barnard’s groundbreaking semi-auto gearbox had given nothing but trouble throughout testing, practice and qualifying. As a consequence, early return flights had been booked.

Mansell’s unexpected but totally merited victory created the legend of ‘Il Leone’.

The always lion-hearted Warwick finished fifth in his Arrows that same March day in 1989.

Winning is clearly important, but the essential thing is fighting well.

Anyway, they’ve dug it up to make way for the Olympics. Sadly.

history  Formula 1 in Rio

Add your comments

18 comments on Formula 1 in Rio

  1. James McGavin, 21 February 2013 12:42

    Still seems odd to have Brazil as the last race of the season, it always brings back memories of being the first race of the year, looking forward to seeing the new cars, drivers in new teams, new rules, and seeing how they would perform.

  2. Mario Carneiro Neto, 21 February 2013 13:35

    (I apologize in advance for the 3-part commentary, but the site won’t allow me to post it all at once..)

    The demolishment of Jacarepaguá isn’t just sad for nostalgia’s sake. It’s a serious demonstration of the lack of investment/care given to motor racing by the Brazilian government, and a very worrying sign of times to come. You see, the problem is Rio now has no circuit capable of hosting big races. Even our Stock Cars will cease to race there. All of that so they could build an olympic village, which could have been built in hundreds of other areas where another sport would not be adversely affected by its existence.

  3. Mario Carneiro Neto, 21 February 2013 13:35

    I’m from São Paulo, and I am a fervent supporter that F1 remains here forever, despite Bernie’s constant bickering and despite the circuit owners’ insistence in being glacially slow about fixing the facilities. But Rio is an important city, and it is extremely important that there be motor racing going on there. We need these locations to exist because that’s where the next potential Brazilian stars of the sport would have a taste of racing before sizeable crowds.

  4. Mario Carneiro Neto, 21 February 2013 13:35

    The latest reports in F1 ratings show Brazil to be the biggest single market for F1 on TV, but you don’t need to know much about the sport to know that that number will decline as soon as Felipe Massa leaves Ferrari for a less competitive team. We are all rooting for Luiz Razia, and Felipe Nasr continues to impress in the lower categories, but realistically, there has long been a huge deficit in truly talented Brazilian drivers, and that has to do with idiotic initiatives like demolishing an important circuit in order to build structures for an event that comes and goes in a matter of a month.

  5. Mario Carneiro Neto, 21 February 2013 13:44

    I encourage any enterprising reporter from Motor Sport to write a story about the current issues being faced by Brazilians who want to make a career in motor racing vis-a-vis government and private support. The two most important federations here who run the races have been in a constant state of war, and have pretty much done a shabby job of promoting or allowing any entry level race series (one of them started by Felipe Massa) to succeed. The Stock-Car series here enjoys some popularity only because the country’s biggest TV station is behind it, but even it has been losing steam and realistically none of the drivers make it to single-seater categories.

    An article by the magazine might ruffle some feathers here, and who knows, it might even do some good. People tend to get overly defensive when not-so-great articles appear about Brazil in the foreign press, but at least it’ll bring attention to the matter.

    We are a Motor Sport loving people – as anyone who’s been to Interlagos can attest – but the probability of the next Massa, Castroneves, Kanaan, Barrichello, Senna, Piquet, Pace, Fittipaldi or Landi showing up gets smaller by the day….

    (OK, sorry, 4 parts)

  6. dave cubbedge, 21 February 2013 17:00

    This news saddens me because it is the Olympics driving the bus. The same Olympics that recently announced that they are considering eliminating wrestling from the games. Never mind that it is one of the original Olympic sports, but the fact remains that they’ll get rid of it for world class tiddly-winks or more beach volleyball. Sad that sport has descended into this – a battle for television ratings…. RIP Jacarepaqua (sorry, can’t call it by its’ newer name…)

  7. Paul Fearnley, 21 February 2013 18:04

    Dear Mario,

    You deliver a very cogent and eloquent argument.

    Oddly, my first blog for Motor Sport concerned the same subject: the search for Brazil’s next F1 star.

    Imagine world football without Brazil. Scary.

  8. Mario Carneiro Neto, 21 February 2013 18:28


    I do remember your blog post, and I think I may have commented on it myself. I can’t remember, though, perhaps I’ll look it up later today.

    In any case, I still believe that the background of the Brazilian racing federations’ inability to function properly makes for a good story which involves the Fittipaldi family (in a good way) and many other great racing drivers from my country who simply became exhausted trying to fix the constant mess…

    It’s sad, but I hope we get over it soon, and start promoting our talented drivers. France did it with ELF’s help in the 70′s and early 80′s and produced many competent drivers. Germany did it in the 90′s and reap the benefits to this day. Sir John Surtees’ initiatives seem to be gaining traction, and even the Ferrari Driver Academy means Italy may have a few good drivers in the top tier soon. Seems like we’re lagging happily in front of our TV sets…

    Don’t get me started on football. Can’t believe they put Neymar on the cover of Time magazine…

  9. chris b, 21 February 2013 19:44

    i still can’t get used to the F1 season not starting in South America,

    Paul, without going back to my old MOTOR SPORTS i don’t recollect what the circuit looked like off the top pf my head, so a diagram would be useful, that was always a feature of the 60′s MS’s they always included the diagram

  10. Paul Fearnley, 21 February 2013 23:55

    It looked like thisá.svg
    That is to say like a Scalextic track. Or Aurora AFX. Or TCR

  11. Paul Fearnley, 21 February 2013 23:57

    Scalextric, of course, was much better. We could only afford Scalextic in our house!

  12. IM, 22 February 2013 08:32

    Couldn’t really care less about this circuit but the castration of Hockenheim is really sad – another circuit with something a bit different about it biting the dust.

  13. Paul Fearnley, 22 February 2013 08:51

    The new Hockenheim is superbland and yet has produced some okay racing.

  14. Ivan Carlos Ruchesi, 22 February 2013 19:23

    Some recollections of the 1982 Brazilian GP…
    The weather was awfully hot and the drivers were not prepared to stand the huge G-forces developed by the cars there, so they got neck massages between outings to alleviate the pain (watch Piquet’s head on the side of the car in the last laps!).
    After the race Gilles said Piquet’s passing maneuver was perfect and that his shunt when leading was a mistake from him when aiming to the curve, which showed again how honest he was.
    It was thought that Rosberg could have won easily, but he punished his Goodyear tyres at the beginning when they required carefully driving until getting the right temperature, running out of tyres at the end of the race.
    The incident between Reutemann, Lauda and Arnoux was in fact caused by the later as his faulty (but fast in the straight) car blocked the two Cosworth powered men.
    While in Kyalami Carlos enjoyed a nice car, in Brazil it got gearbox failings and a lot of problems again (reminiscences of Las Vegas?) while Keke’s was a rocket surely for being underweight, which cost him disqualification after the race.
    Was Carlos’ car also underweight? did he know it and choose not to finish the race to avoid the technical scrutiny and the shameful disqualification of the ’81 WDC runner-up? We’ll never know, but all of these plus the annoying Kyalami drivers strike, the events at Zolder the previous year, his age, dislike of the cars high physical demands, unreliability of his own and escalating South Atlantic islands tension must have been the causes of his quiet retirement afterwards.

  15. Scott Coe, 23 February 2013 08:32

    Regarding Warwick’s 5th place in 1989, he had actually finished just 18 seconds behind Mansell…but had suffered a 25-second delay in his pit stop. Who knows – he might have given Arrows (and himself) their first F1 wins…

    Also worth remembering that in this same race, another Brit made big headlines for himself. Johnny Herbert had to be carried to his car for the race but, thanks in part to the relative lack of corners for which you needed hard, late braking, he finished just ahead of Warwick, mere months after his horrific F3000 crash at Brands Hatch.

    Meanwhile, regarding Keke’s 1983 race, he had got the pole with what I believe Peter Windsor described at the time as “probably the lap of the year”. Rosberg finished second to Piquet that day but had survived a refuelling fire (this was the first race when refuelling had “officially” been reintroduced). He had quite understandably leapt out of the car when apparently Patrick Head “laid a hand on his shoulder” and asked him if he would mind awfully if he would get back in the car. Rosberg’s reply: “What do you want me to do? Burn off my bloody moustache?”

  16. zantimisfit66, 23 February 2013 14:03

    Quite a dull track. Didn’t realise it had been renamed after Nelson Piquet – what an extraordinary thing to do!

  17. Ray FK, 24 February 2013 18:38

    Back in the old school days of Formula 1 when drivers had balls some people would have called this circuit average but I really enjoyed the Jacarepaqua circuit.In fact I would say it was very underrated but it was used at a time when Formula 1 had some truly great circuits.It would probably be deemed to dangerous by today’s drivers.How times have changed.

  18. Chris Hall, 24 February 2013 22:05

    Quite an interesting history as a circuit having had both road and oval circuits both of which changed in various ways over time.

    Memories for me ? Ronnie’s pole there in 78, Johnny Herbert’s brave drive to fourth which was nearly 3rd in 89, in car footage from Thierry Boutsens Williams as a bit of debris neatly removed his mirror and more sadly Philipp Strieff’s career ending accident during testing and Mark Blundell desperately aiming for the back of Mauricio Guglemins car in an effort to slow himself before hitting the wall when his Indycar throttle stuck open in 1996

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