The Brazilian Grand Prix has been a staple of the F1 World Championship diet since all the way back in 1973, and is one of the most popular stops on the sport's annual calendar – but the events of last weekend's 2010 edition have raised some serious doubts about its ongoing inclusion.
Aside from 1978 and a nine-year stint in the 1980s when the race moved to Jacarepaguá in Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian Grand Prix has predominantly been held at Interlagos, with F1 cars tearing around the much-loved Autódromo José Carlos Pace in São Paulo on 28 separate occasions over the last four decades.
What's more, the South American country has a long and successful heritage in the top flight, with multiple world champions Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet and the late, great Ayrton Senna making Brazil the second-most successful nation in terms of title triumphs, behind Britain. The aforementioned trio can lay claim to no fewer than 78 grand prix victories between them and account for 13 per cent of the world championship trophies handed out since 1950.
Other Brazilians to have won races include current contenders Rubens Barrichello and Felipe Massa – on eleven apiece – and Carlos Pace, after whom the Interlagos circuit is named, and there has been a Brazilian driver on the grand prix grid every season now since 1970.
That kind of commitment and success record – allied to Interlagos' natural predilection for drama and the undeniable passion, fervour and warm welcome of the country's enthusiastic F1 fans – is why the Brazilian Grand Prix's continued presence on the schedule has never been in question, but despite Bernie Ecclestone's somewhat glib protestation that São Paulo is 'as safe as anywhere in the world' [see separate story – click here
], that security may just have come to an end.
For one thing, the sprawling metropolis is palpably not
safe, as last weekend's various events go to show. Jenson Button's lucky escape from six armed ambushers as he left the circuit to return to his hotel on Saturday evening might have been the most well-reported episode, but it was not the only one. Three Sauber engineers found themselves robbed at gunpoint, and a blown tyre for a group of Formula One Management (FOM) officials – from Ecclestone's own company – transpired to be very bad news for them indeed...
Barrichello – himself a proud Paulista – has described the violent incidents as an 'embarrassment' for Brazil, and a local motorsport journalist reflected that Button had been left to take home with him 'an horrendous postcard' from the country. So where does Interlagos go from here?
Its location is the chief problem. Situated in one of the less affluent parts of São Paulo and surrounded by favelas
– shanty towns or slums where deprivation is rife – access to and from hotels is bedevilled by danger, and rarely a year goes by without some members of the media finding themselves threatened or mugged. The fact that the victim this time around was the reigning F1 World Champion only served to bring the matter right to the forefront of international awareness.
Aside from that unsavoury element – one that assuredly will require some serious action being taken before the showpiece Football World Cup descends on Brazil in 2014 and the Olympic Games arrive two years later – there are other issues that need to be addressed, too. For somebody who bleated on for years about what he perceived to be the lamentable state of Silverstone's facilities – even so far as to take the British Grand Prix away from the Northants circuit – Ecclestone has invariably said nary a word about those at Interlagos, despite teams having been complaining for some time. Brazil might not be a Third World country, but there are those who would contend that the Autódromo's outmoded and dilapidated facilities remain very much third-rate.
Interlagos' greatest saving grace is the fact that – like Spa-Francorchamps, which has been threatened with the axe before but has always been welcomed back – it is a track beloved by drivers, a natural amphitheatre that lends itself perfectly to tense title showdowns and never disappoints. The trouble is, for all of the on-track drama that the circuit creates, the city is every bit as capable of producing drama of its own – and of an altogether less desirable nature.
He might be putting a brave face on the situation for now, but with questions being asked about whether one of the world's leading international sports should continue to visit a place where its stars are put in danger, Ecclestone will have some tough decisions to make once the Brazilian Grand Prix's current contract expires in five years' time...