Brazil used to be a force in Formula 1. The country has produced three world champions, its drivers have won 101 races — third on the nations list — and only five countries have had more drivers than Brazil’s 32.
Among them were Emerson Fittipaldi, who won titles in 1972 and ’74, and Nelson Piquet, who won in 1981, ’83 and ’87. And, of course, there was the legendary Ayrton Senna, who won three championships with McLaren in 1988, 1990 and ’91 before he was killed at age 34 during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix in Italy.
Other drivers have won more titles, but many experts still consider Senna the most talented driver to have raced in the sport.
Not only has a Brazilian not won the title since Senna did it in 1991, but the 2017 retirement of Felipe Massa, who came within a point of ending the country’s title drought in 2008, left Brazil without a full-time driver.
Haas has a Brazilian reserve driver, Emerson’s grandson Pietro Fittipaldi, who raced in two Grands Prix in 2020 when he filled in for the injured Romain Grosjean, but 2022 marks a fifth straight season without a permanent Brazilian racer. As recently as 2010, four were Brazilian.
Yet it is not a case of dwindling interest in Brazil. It is one of Formula 1’s five largest television markets, with viewership of over 70 million and growing, and is on free-to-air Band, which took over the rights in 2021. Last year’s São Paulo Grand Prix, which has a contract through 2025, was Brazil’s best-attended Formula 1 event, attracting 181,000 spectators. In the cockpit, however, it simply lacks one of its own.
“I think since a long time Brazil didn’t have a proper junior category, after karting, to prepare the drivers in the right way,” Massa said. “For example, when I finished my career in karting I raced for almost two years in Brazil, in Formula Chevrolet, which was very strong. When I arrived in Europe I was very ready and was competitive straight away.”
Leaving Brazil to race in the Europe-centric single-seat racecar series is also a serious venture that many drivers cannot do, especially at a young age. That is not a problem unique to Brazil, with Europe providing 14 of this year’s 20 full-time drivers, and every world champion since 1998, but Brazil’s economic downturn has accentuated matters.
A decade ago a Brazilian real was worth 0.39 euros, or 39 cents, but is now at €0.19, making it harder for youngsters to find the money, and sponsors, to compete. It can cost about a million dollars to race in Formula 3 and twice that for Formula 2. Karting is expensive, too. Reaching Formula 1 consequently appears a pipe dream for many, particularly those from families that are not wealthy.
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“I think the lack of Brazilian drivers since 2018 is a result of the high cost of youth categories in Europe and the economic difficulties that Brazil has faced in recent years,” said Alan Adler, head of the São Paulo Grand Prix.
Massa said it was difficult to find the money and the sponsors. “It was always expensive, but the championships were much cheaper, now it’s harder.”
This suggests a bleak picture, but a Brazilian Formula 4 series, certified by the F.I.A., the governing body of Formula 1, began this year, giving young drivers an entry-level F.I.A.-recognized championship at home.
“There is an important gap in Brazilian motorsport in terms of career continuity, which we will now be filling,” said Fernando Julianelli, chief executive of Vicar, a racing promoter, said in 2021 when the Formula 4 series was announced.
Even before the new series began, there were Brazilian drivers working their way up the racing series in Europe.
Felipe Drugovich left Brazil to race in Italy when he was 13 and won this year’s Formula 2 title. He has been signed to Aston Martin’s Formula 1 team and will become its reserve driver in 2023. He will take part in practice and the young driver test in Abu Dhabi this month.
“My goal has always been to be F1, to be there one day, but we have to take it step by step,” he said. “I have to first finish the year on a high and learn as much as I can next year and see if there’s an opportunity in the future.”
There are also Enzo Fittipaldi, younger brother of Pietro, who has finished on the podium six times in Formula 2 this year, and Caio Collet, who has finished on the podium five times, including two wins, in Formula 3 in 2022. He is now part of the Alpine Academy for young drivers. Rafael Câmara has two wins in Italian Formula 4 this year and is in the Ferrari Driver Academy.
Whoever ends Brazil’s drought will likely be rapturously embraced back home.
Pietro Fittipaldi was a candidate to replace the driver Nikita Mazepin this year before Haas brought back the veteran Kevin Magnussen. But Fittipaldi was lifted by the scenes back home.
“There was a massive movement in Brazil to have me in the race seat, and we haven’t seen that in a long, long time, and on social media the engagement was insane,” he said. “As soon as one [Brazilian] gets into F1, there’ll be a huge explosion in engagement and audience. Whoever brings that guy there, it’s going to be huge, it’ll be massive.”
Drugovich is hopeful that he can be the one to return Brazil’s flag to Formula 1 full-time, potentially as early as 2024.
“The people there are crazy,” he said, “there’s a lot of followers; you can see people are longing for a Brazilian F1 driver,” he said. “They really want it. I’m here to do the best I can, and maybe one day I’ll be there to represent the country.”