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.

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!”

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.

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.

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.

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