SAO PAULO – Felipe Massa’s impending retirement from Formula One is likely to prompt a stirring farewell from local fans at this weekend’s Brazilian Grand Prix, but it will also end 47 years of Brazilian representation on the grid.
His departure brings down the curtain on a memorable career and, at the same time, ends an unbroken line of talented drivers from the South American country in the sport since 1970.
It may also signal the demise of Brazil as a host country and key player in the future as an economic slump grips the nation and F1’s new American owners Liberty Media strive to reshape the global business.
“Yes, it’s true we are suffering,” Massa said on Thursday. “It’s not an easy moment in Brazil, financially, but I really hope Brazil stays for a long time in Formula One.”
The cramped hillside cockpit arena of the Interlagos circuit, which hosts the Brazilian race in the sprawling suburbs of Sao Paulo, faces an uncertain future and may also, this weekend, see a return to the F1 paddock by Bernie Ecclestone, the sport’s former ringmaster.
As ever, the Briton is expected to create controversy with his mischievous observations on both Brazil, where he owns a farm, and Formula One, in which he was an omnipotent force through most of the five decades that embraced Brazil’s often-central role.
Massa, 36, may not have taken a world championship, but he won 11 Grands Prix with Ferrari and grew up watching his compatriots and heroes racing at the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace, which is up for sale, but has a contract to host the race until 2020.
Since 1970, when Emerson Fittipaldi began his F1 career, Brazil has won eight drivers’ championships – Fittipaldi two, Nelson Piquet three and Ayrton Senna three more long before Massa debuted in 2002, maintaining a run of 30 drivers on the grid.
These included Carlos Pace, after whom the circuit is named, and Rubens Barrichello, who took part in a record 323 Grands Prix.
Barrichello’s victory for the Brawn team at the 2009 Italian Grand Prix remains the last by a Brazilian driver.
For many years, there was an abundance of Brazilians, just as once there was a rich vein of French and Italian drivers, but local financial conditions in a high-cost sport reduced that supply — rendering it near-impossible for drivers to raise any sponsorship.
As a result, Massa has been the only Brazilian racing in F1 this year after being offered a chance to reverse his original retirement in January when Valtteri Bottas departed Williams to partner Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes after 2016 champion Nico Rosberg surprisingly quit the sport.
As an ambassador, Massa has done his country proud and understands his role and Brazil’s history and tradition in F1, as encouraged by Ecclestone, who guided Piquet to the title in 1981 and 1983, as owner and boss of Brabham, and remained a staunch supporter of Interlagos.
“Brazil is a very important country for Formula One,” Massa added. “So many titles, so many drivers… So many Brazilian drivers.
“I really hope Interlagos stays for a very long time in F1 and anything I can give to help, not racing any more, I can do. It is a very important race.”
Not everyone shares his or Ecclestone’s enthusiasm and, as Liberty struggles to persuade the leading teams to adopt their technical vision for the future, Brazil’s future in F1 remains uncertain.