Brazil a nation that has produced more F1 world champions than any other non-Europe country and a nation that has hosted a race for 49 consecutive years, with the exception being 2020 when the race was cancelled because of Covid-19.
Thirty years ago, three Brazilians took the start of their home race, and for the following years, at least one or two Brazilians gave the local crowd someone to cheer for.
Fast forward 30 years, and there are no Brazilians on the F1 grid, and even if Brazilian interest in Formula 1 is still high, along with several juniors hoping to break that drought, their is still no sign of the next great Brazilian Formula 1 driver.
So how did Brazil go from three Grand Prix drivers to zero in over 30 years?
Senna’s death leaves a massive hole
The start of the downturn for Brazilian drivers entering Formula 1 was at 2:17 pm on May 1, 1994. At the time, Ayrton Senna, the pride of his homeland, was leading the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola from a hard-charging Michael Schumacher.
Suddenly as the pair approached the ultra-fast Tamburello corner, Senna’s steering column broke at over 190mph, sending him straight into a concrete wall with the violence of the impact causing a skull fracture, killing him instantly.
Senna’s death not only left a gaping hole in Brazilian motorsport but to Brazil itself, with three days of national mourning being declared and a state funeral attended by the great and the good of motorsport, with three million of his compatriots lining the streets to say one last goodbye.
It left Rubens Barrichello also injured at that dreadful weekend to carry the torch left behind by his mentor, and although he won races for Ferrari and had a cinderella 2009 season that nearly saw him take his maiden title, Barrichello came up just short.
Felipe Massa went closer than that in 2008, becoming world champion for 38 seconds after taking victory at Interlagos, only for his championship celebrations to turn into a mirage as Lewis Hamilton managed to get past Timo Glock for fifth place at the last corner, thus clinching the title on the last lap.
Brazilian representation on F1 grid ends
Massa’s 38 second reign at the top of the motorsport world was the high point of his Formula 1 career as one year later at the Hungaroring, an errant suspension spring came off Barrichello’s car, puncturing his compatriot’s helmet and hitting him in the eye, ruling him out for the rest of the season.
Although Massa managed to race again, he was never able to reach the heights of his time at Ferrari and in 2016, he called time on his Formula 1 career only to be called out of his retirement following Valtteri Bottas’ sudden transfer to Mercedes.
Massa announced his retirement for a second time in 2017, getting an emotional send-off from the partisan crowd who now faced the prospect of not seeing one of their own on a Formula 1 grid for the first time since 1969.
That drought briefly ended when Pietro Fittipaldi made a two-race cameo for Haas in 2020, but he wasn’t given a full-time seat for 2021, continuing the wait.
Even with backing from Brazilian companies, including Banco Do Brasil and, for a time, the state oil company Petrobras, Brazil’s hopes dwindled as a string of highly talented youngsters showcased flashes of brilliance but were unable to clinch a series title.
The future looks bright
The 2020 season saw a new star emerge as Maringa’s Felipe Drugovich, who had an underwhelming Formula 3 campaign in 2019, burst onto the scene, qualifying on the front row for his Formula 2 race before going on to win the first Sprint race of the season.
Drugovich would take two more wins later that season, and although he struggled in his second year with UNI-Virtuosi, it was third time lucky in 2022, wrapping up the title at last in Italy despite retiring on the opening lap of the feature race.
Also impressing was Enzo Fittipaldi scoring six podiums in his rookie season, placing him sixth in the drivers’ standings level on points with Jack Doohan and Jehan Daruvala heading into the final round of the championship.
But despite Drugovich being picked up by Aston Martin to become their third driver for 2023, neither will make the graduation to Formula 1 next year as a lack of seats means that both will have to sit and hope.
What has gone wrong?
The long drought of Brazilian talent in Formula 1 could be attributed to many reasons, but two things stand out amongst the rest.
Money has always been a problem for junior drivers, but for Brazilians who don’t enjoy backing from Banco Do Brasil, financial backing has proven problematic, as was demonstrated by FRECA champion Gianluca Petecof’s return to Brazil following the end of his two race stint in Formula 2.
Pedro Piquet’s lack of funds ended his motorsport career after his only season of Formula 2 in 2020, with Drugovich’s own progression to Formula 1 hampered by not having the deep pockets that have seen drivers of less talent enter the sport.
The latter point brings us to the second problem, and that is the lack of seats in Formula, with their only 20 available seats on the grid, one of which is already taken indefinitely; a backlog has formed of junior drivers getting younger and older drivers staying longer.
It’s no wonder that some Brazilians return home to carve out a career in the stock car pro series rather than putting themselves in further debt in trying to chase a Grand Prix drive or even an IndyCar seat.
In some ways, it makes the stock car pro series a victim of its own success, but when cash is becoming an ever-increasing problem in the cutthroat world of European motorsport, it seems that Stock Cars’ gain is Formula 1’s loss.