To the uninitiated, the Autódromo José Carlos Pace (to give Interlagos its full name) might look like a scruffy, elderly relative of F1’s gleaming newcomer circuits like Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. But it’s one of the sport’s most beloved venues, and the Brazilian Grand Prix an eagerly anticipated weekend in the year’s racing calendar, thanks to the country’s fame as a party kind of place.
The atmosphere at Interlagos on race day is proof enough that Brazilians do indeed know how to party. Things get started early, with people passing the time between bagging a good seat and the start of the race by downing gallons of beer. It continues, famously, away from the track when, so it’s said, São Paulo’s sex industry is stretched to the limits to keep up with demand, despite reinforcements arriving from beyond the city limits.
Beyond the less salubrious details of the annual event’s charms, the secret to the spell Interlagos casts over the racing community is something increasingly rare in F1: it’s a venue steeped in history. Many of the sport’s most famous drivers have raced and won on this track, which is renowned for producing memorable contests and – thanks to its position towards the end of the F1 calendar – for crowning new champions. This is also the same circuit on which local boy and racing legend Ayrton Senna won in 1991 and 1993, after honing his skills as a kid on the kart track behind the main course.
Safety concerns have led to many of the sport’s traditional circuits being modernised beyond all recognition, while F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone’s plans to conquer new markets in the Middle East and Asia have seen his favourite architect, Hermann Tilke, build a string of new tracks there that are dismissed by race fans and commentators alike as sterile products designed for the demands of television. In contrast, at Interlagos, hemmed in on all sides by São Paulo’s sprawl, there has been no redesign, helping to preserve the track’s mystique.
Its old-school days are now numbered, though: in October 2013, SP’s Mayor Haddad signed a contract with Ecclestone that guarantees F1’s continuation in SP up to 2020, as long as the circuit is brought up to standards. As part of the deal, Haddad has committed to reforms in time for 2015’s Grand Prix.
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For now, the garages are still crammed close together in what is one of F1’s most claustrophobic pit lanes – and with the competing teams of mechanics and engineers at such close quarters, Interlagos is famous among the crews for the banter missing from the new and spaciously-redesigned courses.
The crowd, too, is packed in close to the track, and enjoys some of the best views in F1. The first corner – now named after Senna – is one of the most exciting in the year’s racing calendar; while the final uphill bend, swinging into the home straight with the stands towering above, is one of the most glorious sights and awesome sounds in racing.
The crowds on race days are, along with the tifosi in Italy, the sport’s most fanatical, raised on the stories of local champions such as Emerson Fittipaldi, who won the inaugural Brazilian Grand Prix back in 1973 – and of course Senna, who no Brazilian can think of as anything other than the all-time greatest.
‘The Brazilians are more passionate than most other fans. They live and breathe the sport, like they do with football. Walk into any lanchonete around the circuit, and there are pictures of Senna on the walls,’ says Stuart Turvey, an English driver with Dragão Motorsport.
Dragão is one of the many teams that makes up the racing community based in Interlagos. Many fans only visit the neighbourhood once a year for the Formula One jamboree, but for teams like Turvey’s Dragão, racing in the sport’s lower divisions such as Formula 3, the neighbourhood is the hub of a year-round industry.
Those with tickets for Saturday, 23 November 2013, are invited to visit the Dragão Motorsport garage at the Senna kart track behind the main course, where Dragão will be competing in the F3 race after the F1 time trials.