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The search for Rubinho’s heir

It will be sad if we have seen the last of Rubens Barrichello in Formula 1. For the category’s most experienced competitor is also its most engaging.

Unashamedly emotional, his tears have rolled genuinely in victory and defeat, and at numerous other occasions betwixt, yet he displayed commendable stoicism whenever he was shackled at Scuderia Schumacher.

And it was only two seasons ago, remember, that he proved that he could still win given a competitive car.

f1 history  The search for Rubinhos heir

The fear that his Brazilian send-off – if that’s what it proves to be – might fall flat given his refusal to bid farewell was a misreading of the situation.

The Interlagos amphitheatre has been in a Latin fomentation since bowsers hosed it down in the early 1970s, the Paulistas’ support for its own unswerving and vociferous, and laid over a samba beat. Nothing was going to change that. This was a celebration. A party. If ‘Rubinho’ returns next season, they’ll hold another one. If he doesn’t, ditto.

But might that rhythm miss a beat one day soon?

f1 history  The search for Rubinhos heir

Brazil’s F1 victory count has been stuck on 101 since Barrichello outperformed his Brawn GP team-mate Jenson Button at Monza in September 2009.

Who will make it 102?

Felipe Massa has the pressure – from within and without – of knowing that 2012 will be his last chance at Ferrari. And I fear the worst for him.

Bruno Senna has the potential, personality and peerage to squeak the second Lotus seat next season. But does he have the ultimate speed and smarts? His racing education, understandably placed on hold after the death of his uncle, has left him with much ground to make up.

f1 history  The search for Rubinhos heir

Luíz Razia (above), who has flashed occasional promise in GP2, replaced Jarno Trulli at Team Lotus during the first Friday practice at Interlagos, and was a fraction more than a second slower than Heikki Kovalainen.

Teenager Felipe Nasr, probably the next big hope, won this year’s British Formula 3 Championship. He did so by a large points margin, but without displaying that indefinable something that marks out young racers with the ability, tenacity and mentality to be mainlined directly to F1 in the manner of Nelson Piquet or Ayrton Senna.

f1 history  The search for Rubinhos heir

Nasr’s compatriots, Pietro Fantin and Lucas Foresti, also scored poles, wins and fastest laps in this hothouse of future racing talent in 2011, but lacked consistency.

There is a very real sense, therefore, that Brazil might soon have no figurehead to Ordem e Progresso its F1 challenge.

There has long been an aura about Brazilian racing drivers. The whey-faced among us feel expectation and jealousy rise in equal measure when we read that insouciant Pedro from Ipanema is about to light up a wet and woolly Snetterton. Sure, he’s never seen the place before, has little experience of driving in driving rain, but he will start as favourite, partly because he isn’t called Nigel and doesn’t hail from Hall Green.

But it is not as straightforward as some have made it appear. Mario Haberfeld (1998), Antônio Pizzonia (2000) and Nelson Piquet Jr (2004) won the British F3 title yet made little or no positive impact in F1.

There is no divine right. The next generation will just have to dig in and tough it out – like pioneering Chico Landi did.

Born Francisco Sacco Landi in São Paulo on July 14 1907, this dyed-in-the-wool racer – small and slight, and sporting a Flash ’Arry ’tache – became the first from his country to start a World Championship Grand Prix.

At Monza 60 years ago, his on-loan, patriotic yellow-with-green detailing Ferrari 375 failed to complete a lap before its transmission failed.

He would contest five other such races, all in Maseratis, and conclude them with a distant fourth at the 1956 Argentinian GP in a 250F shared with Italy’s Gerino Gerini. These are the first 1.5 World Championship points scored by a Brazilian.

This, though, was the tip of the iceberg of a remarkable career that began in 1934 at the wheel of a Bugatti T37A, and ended with a third place alongside son Luiz and Antônio Castro Prado in a Ford Maverick V8 at the 1973 Interlagos 25 (sic) Hours.

Steady and unflurried, Landi (below) possessed neither the skill nor enjoyed the overseas impact of Argentina’s Juan Manuel Fangio and José Froilán González – no disgrace in that – but he did beat them to the European punch by winning the Bari GP in May 1948. In doing so he registered the maiden Formula 2 victory for Ferrari, in Scuderia Besana’s 166SC.

Behind him that day were the Cisitalia D46-Fiats of Felice Bonetto and Achille Varzi, established stars both, and the works 166SC of Tazio Nuvolari. The latter, already coughing his way to an early grave, was forced to hand over to Franco Cortese. Also defeated were retirees Alberto Ascari, Luigi Villoresi, Nino Farina and Piero Taruffi.

f1 history  The search for Rubinhos heir

Landi’s performance, rightly, was big news, and a major boost for Brazil’s burgeoning yet still insular racing scene.

The development of Interlagos had been vital to his progress. He finished second in its inaugural São Paulo GP of May 12 1940, his 3-litre Maserati defeated by Arthur Nascimento Jr’s more powerful Alfa Romeo 8C-35, but went on to win a host of races there in pre- and post-war single-seater Alfa and Ferrari.

Also, in 1960, he shared a landmark Mil Milhas Brasileiras victory with Christian ‘Bino’ Heins in a locally built, FNM-badged Alfa Romeo 2000 coupé.

Landi was important out of the cockpit too.

He attempted to introduce Formula Junior to his country, and co-built with Ottorino Bianco Brazil’s first single-seater. It looked like a ‘sharknose’ Ferrari, and met with death and disaster in 1963.

He had a more beneficial effect as Interlagos’ administrator after the track had lost the Grande Prêmio in 1981, and for the forseeable future, to Rio’s Jacarepaguá. The latter was blander but closer to form-man Piquet’s family roots, and less bumpy – a deal-clincher for drivers of F1 cars with rock-hard rides.

The tireless Landi helped to unravel Interlagos’ structural and procedural problems and, eventually, its circuit diagram. The original 4.9-miler was rare in that its convolutions always befuddled at first topographical glance. The revised version was more manageable – less of a schoolboy Scalextric fantasy – at 2.7 miles, yet retained its character.

The race returned to its spiritual home in 1990, by which time Landi’s ashes had been scattered at the track. He had succumbed to a heart attack in June of the previous year.

Barrichello’s reluctance to walk away smacks of that same spirit, of a greater love for the sport than for the win. There’s no harm in that. But pending win 102 is pressing. It might yet be Brazil’s most important since Emerson Fittipaldi opened its account in 1970.

Never humdrum, yet reflective now that the drums have fallen silent: that’s where F1’s historically most exciting nation is at right now.

Add your comments

9 comments on The search for Rubinho’s heir

  1. Mario Carneiro Neto, 2 December 2011 06:01

    Great article. As a Brazilian I have a little more faith in Bruno and Felipe, and I still believe Rubens will be back next year, but the long term does not look good for us.

    You did forget to mention, however, that Landi was invited to Modena by Mr Ferrari himself, and was invited to be a Scuderia driver, until he told the Old Man that he would only drive a Ferrari painted green and yellow. That’s patriotism for you…

  2. Adrian Muldrew, 2 December 2011 14:55

    Everyone loves Rubinho and I, for one, would be very sad if he can’t get a drive next year. I can imagine some people will disparage what they would regard as the attempts of an old guy to cling on after his time has passed, but that’s not fair in Rubens’ case – as Paul rightly says, it’s only two years since he was winning GPs and indeed very nearly winning the world title. Since then it’s been his misfortune to go to WGPE just as the lowest point in that great team’s history approached. To see Rubens take a Williams back to the podium would cheer the romantic inside all of us twice over, but no-one could have come close to that in the FW33, it pains me to say. Give Ruby another chance, Frank… or somebody… he still deserves it and the paddock is a sour enough place these days without losing his smiling face too.
    As for the long-term future, I’d just say to Mario and all our Brazilian friends not to worry. These things go in cycles. A few years ago, no-one could imagine a grid without any Frenchmen, but it happened, and then my French friends went to the other extreme, wondering if there would ever be another of their compatriots in F1. Well, next year, there will be Pic and quite possibly Grosjean, and waiting in the wings is a better prospect than either of them, Vergne, who has the full force of Red Bull behind him. Maybe we haven’t seen the next Brazilian world champion yet, but don’t doubt he’s out there somewhere, even if he’s just a kid in karts right now. With a massive population, a fast rising economy and such a rich F1 heritage, it couldn’t be otherwise.

  3. Adrian Muldrew, 2 December 2011 15:22

    Must just pick you up on one thing from your excellent article, Paul – your slightly derogatory description of the old Interlagos as a schoolboy Scalextric fantasy.
    I understand what you mean, but it’s surely no way to talk about that wonderful old configuration, although you’re right to say the new layout has retained its character, and indeed most people would say it remains one of the best three or four circuits on the calendar.
    I’ll tell you one thing. If the original Interlagos design really had been the result of a schoolboy’s mind running riot with his Scalextric for half an hour, it would have been time much better spent than all the months and years (and millions of dollars) that Mr Tilke and his team put into each of their rather less than fantastical creations, which with surprising irony serve only to produce races which do indeed seem as though the cars are slotted immoveably into the track.

  4. Andrew 27, 2 December 2011 18:14

    I think it’s a great shame the track isn’t still the long layout for two reasons. The first corner was one hell of a tester, I would have loved to have seen the Ligier through there in 1980. Secondly, the complete outer part of the track links together to make a phenomenal oval. Put some proper Indycars on there, that would be some sight, and very fast.
    The other advantage of the old track was that I think you could see most of the track all the time. Still, that would be far too good for today’s spectators.
    Would be sorry to see Rubens go but he’s had a pretty good run. I fear far more for Williams.

  5. Lewis Lane, 2 December 2011 18:28

    I’ve always thought that too much of the old circuit was discarded, and the current one (great as it is) is too short. I’d be sorry to see Rubens go if it comes to pass. Despite his age, i still think he can produce the goods – in the right car he’d still be winning races i think. And he’s a good bloke (not that that has any bearing on racing matters) who would be missed. Like Andrew 27, i’m more concerned about Williams. To my eye, it appears that Sir Frank appears to have left a larger part of the running than before to others, and now Patrick Head is apparently moving on from the team too. I can’t help thinking that with Sam Michael gone, it could become even more of a rudderless ship. Certainly compared to when Frank and Patrick were in sole charge, anyway. Brazil has too much racing history, and too much potential for there not to be another top liner sooner or later…

  6. David H, 3 December 2011 23:25

    Fans and Motorsport, hopefully pardon the off-topic, not belonging here but this is the latest thread, have a look at Peter Windsor’s site, some good interviews, the last with Damon Hill.

  7. Ray T, 5 December 2011 21:52

    Sorry, but Barrichello’s driving this year was indicative of a person who has lost interest in F1. Regardless of how good the car is, it is unacceptable to give less than 100% in an F1 seat. He disappointed Williams as much as they disappointed him in 2011.

  8. Steve W, 6 December 2011 00:43

    Barrichello has competed in roughly 37% of all the Grands Prix ever held since 1950… Yes, an absolutely incredible run but maybe it’s time for him to move on?

  9. Paul Fearnley, 6 December 2011 17:36

    As an ex-schoolboy who fantasised about owning yards and yards and yards of Scalextric track and having it swirl crazily across my bedroom floor, the old Interlagos epitomised all that was good about the sport.
    But as a circuit with too many bumps and corners for its owners to cope with – both logistically and financially – it had to change.
    Yes, its new lap is short. The clever bit is that many of its GPs will live long in the memory.

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