Another airport, another flight, another FIA GT1 World Championship race… But this time the destination was something even more special than normal, somewhere I never imagined I'd get to visit. A riot of colour, the noise of the engines matched by the roar of the crowd, the challenge of a legendary venue with a history that stretches back through the classic eras of racing: it could only be Interlagos: the home of Brazil's Formula One race. All the great drivers (and cars for that matter) have raced at Interlagos, and now I would be getting the opportunity to walk the hallowed Tarmac and sample its famous atmosphere. As I left London to grey skies and the threat of snow, Brazil seemed like a pretty good place to be in November. The Brazilian national colours of green and yellow are dominant at Interlagos, except for one hugh swathe of azure blue at the run-off outside Mergulho corner. I was hoping the skies would match that colour.
Of course, Brazil's deified son, Ayrton Senna, is the man most associated with Interlagos – the opening left-right-left combination was named the Senna S and resembles his famous S-shaped logo, plus the local kart track is also named after him – but the track is actually now officially called the Autodromo José Carlos Pace. Brazilian driver Pace competed in Formula 1 (winning once on the original Interlagos circuit in 1975) and sportscars, but was tragically killed in a flying accident in 1977 – Interlagos was renamed in his honour after the major reprofiling work undertaken at the track in 1990.
Interlagos was originally located in the countryside outside the suburbs of Sao Paulo, but the town has sprawled and oozed across the surrounding area and now completely encloses the track. A city like no other? No question.
Sao Paulo is Brazil's largest city. In fact, it's the largest city in the southern hemisphere – and the seventh largest metropolitan area in the world. The population is around eight million people. It's an astounding figure, as is the skyline: skyscrapers push up above the urban sprawl which itself stretches out in every direction. It's particularly impressive at night.
Of course, there was a certain amount of apprehension around the GT1 teams after the problems experienced during the F1 race at Interlagos a few weeks back. Everyone seemed to have (hopefully) apocryphal stories of murder, shootings, kidnapping, dismemberment… You name it. However, Interlagos is actually situated in a reasonably good neighbourhood, and drivers who had driven at the track before commented that even the favela areas were looking better. Irony was in the air of the Interlagos media centre on the first day of the GT1 event as news filtered through of Bernie Ecclestone's mugging outside his high class offices in a posh neighbourhood of London…
On arrival, what hit me was the sheer quantity of traffic. There are supposed to be over six million cars in the Sao Paulo area, and from what I saw most of them are on the road at the same time, all the time, day and night. The traffic is utterly insane. It took about three hours to get the 15 miles to our hotel from the airport (along the SP-070 highway – the Rodovia Ayrton Senna da Silva). Cars drive a foot away from the one in front and dart around each other in the traffic, but it's all done in good grace: the only horns you hear are from the multitude of scooters who wind their own suicidal way through the lines of cars. Paranoia says that the majority of cars have blacked-out windows for protection; practicality says it's common sense in a hot country.
The Sumo Power Nissan GT-R drivers were getting their collective eye in on Jamie Campbell-Walter's PSP – competitive instincts soon took over as the other drivers battled to beat his times. JCW was unable to keep his glee in check when his times proved hard to beat.. Drivers. They never change, in or out of the car.
Games have been the closest the GT1 drivers have got to driving in the last month: the entire GT1 paddock was packed up into containers after the last round in Spain, and shipped by sea to Brazil. The last sight the teams got of their precious cars and kit was as the two dozen trucks disappeared over the horizon, heading for the port of Bilbao…
But everything had apparently arrived safe and sound the other side of the Atlantic, almost a month later. Stripped down cars were reassembled; body panels were laid out like a giant model kit.
Up and down the pit-lane, mechanics got to work on their cars. With no support trucks it was making life more difficult for them to operate, especially in the Interlagos pit lane: it might host F1 races, but the tight confines at the back of the garages wouldn't have allowed trucks to get anywhere near even if they had been here! But to be honest, the garages looked as professional as ever: business as usual. The only things missing were the little luxuries: the wooden flooring in the Maserati garages or the disco lighting at Hexis.
Everything seemed to be going well in the Sumo Power area: as with everyone else, no overt sign that they had just got every single piece of kit in the garage out of two sea containers.
Interlagos has two distinct characteristics: the flat-out stretches in the sectors one and two interrupted by the sinuous turns of the middle sector. It means there's a real compromise between speed and downforce: weighing up the overtaking opportunities on the long straights with the ability to make it round the tight turns. For a minute I thought Sumo Power were trying out some pretty outrageous outboard wheel configuration to aid stability, Mario Brothers style…
It wasn't only the teams' equipment that had to be shipped out: as a high-level series the FIA GT1 World Championship takes all its own personnel and kit out as well: everything from track-side banners and podium backdrops to the Nissan course cars.
Once the cars were bolted back together the pushing began for the teams: the day before any racing starts is always full of technical inspections, meaning a constant stream of cars being manhandled up to the scrutineering bay. Thankfully, sometimes this gives opportunistic angles to shoot the cars!
Supporting the GT1s were two domestic series: the Itaipava GT Brasil championship and, strangely for a car meeting, Brazilian Superbikes! I don't think I've ever seen a joint car/bikes event before. The GT series is no low-rent grid: the 30-plus cars are a mix of GT3 and GT4s, featuring a good half dozen Lamborghini Gallardos and Ferrari 430s backed up by Ford GTs, Vipers, Porsches, Maseratis and Ginettas.
The track action started the next day: two and a half hours of practice were scheduled for the drivers to get up to speed. Most would need as much track time as possible, as few of the drivers had visited the track before. However, there were a good number of Brazilian interlopers joining the grid, looking to put their local knowledge to good use. There would be three all-Brazilian line-ups!
Maybe some new stripes of burned rubber would be added to the blue of the Mergulho run-off? With the reputation of GT1, it seemed a dead cert. More tomorrow! Internet connection allowing…