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Holders of the Golden Cross


Beautiful but dangerous, Rio is a city where you can be mugged in broad daylight. Wise citizens enrol in Golden Cross, a scheme for medical assistance. All over town this past week there have been huge posters featuring the handsome face of Brazil’s darling, ex-world champion Nelson Piquet, looking more than ever like a combination of Jesus Christ and Dudley Moore.

‘For me everything goes well,’ says the face in Portuguese, ‘I hold Golden Cross.’ It is a hefty endorsement. Nelson Piquet does something almost as dangerous as walking along the esplanade of Copacabana Beach with an exposed Rolex.

Thursday having consisted entirely of rain, the first effective practice for today’s race — the first Grand Prix of the new Formula One season — happened on Friday. The previous evening, quondam racing driver Innes Ireland, still a familiar face around the Formula One circus, had gone walking along the esplanade of Copacabana Beach and been duly mugged. The familiar face was in bad shape. There were a lot of nervous puns about the muggy weather.

This year the cars are basically the same as last year. The petrol ration is down a bit, which imposes stricter fuel management and theoretically should lower the speed, but mechanical refinements have upped the power to compensate, so it all evens out.

Some of the star drivers, however, have switched teams, in the understandable desire not to waste even one precious year of their youthful reflexes in an uncompetitive car. Star drivers are less like star actors than like star actresses, choosing their roles under the constant threat of fading looks.

At Williams, Nigel Mansell, who rose to complete stardom at the end of last season by winning some races, now finds his limelight crowded by the aforesaid Nelson Piquet, who has won many more races and might well be joining the team just in time to get himself a car that will put him back on the winner’s dais where he belongs. Brabham, the team he left behind, couldn’t do that for him consistently enough to give him back his championship.

Last year’s Brabham kept falling apart. If this year’s Brabham falls apart, the pieces will have less distance to go before they hit the ground. The only radically new car of the season, it is Gordon Murray’s masterpiece, an elegant projectile which looks, in its blue livery, like a Lilo for the Royal Navy.

But new means untried, and Riccardo Patrese and Elio de Angelis will be testing as much as racing. ‘We haven’t done enough running,’ Gordon Murray told me in the pit lane as the whistle blew for the first period of untimed practice. All the engines yelled for dear life. ‘The shit starts again,’ mouthed Murray philosophically. It would have further to fall before it hit the Brabham.

Off went the cars and Ayrton Senna of Brazil in his Lotus immediately started lapping quickly. Anything under 1 min 30 sec is a fastish lap — about 125 mph average speed — and Senna was down around that time straight away.

Simply because of Senna’s presence, Lotus is the third big story of the season. Part of the price of Senna’s presence was Derek Warwick’s absence. Senna insisted that Lotus did not have the wherewithal to look after two proper drivers, so if Lotus wanted him they would have to keep the spare car for his exclusive use and give the second car to a slave. There have been loud chortles about Brazilian high-handedness, but really Senna has a point. If Lotus want him to win the war they must give him the tools.

Meanwhile the choice of slave has brought forth the most romantic story to hit Formula One since a Siamese prince raced under the name B. Bira. Yes, Johnny Dumfries is actually the Earl of Dumfries. Or is it the Earl of Greystoke?

You can’t imagine what this is doing to the foreign press. If Fergie were driving the car they could not be going crazier. Mobbed in the Lotus pit by photographers and TV crews, the hapless Dumfries has to find his car by feeling around for it, and can’t tread on the gas until he is half-way down the pit lane, or else he will cripple half a dozen shutterbugs from Wochenende and Ici Paris who are running backwards in front of him. It is a tough scene for Dumfries, on top of the already burdensome assumption that he is only along for the ride.

After only seven minutes of practice a Lotus was off the track and on fire. It was Dumfries. His one consolation was that Thierry Boutsen’s Arrows caught fire at the same moment. Golden Cross personnel raced towards the scene but nobody was hurt. The fire in the Lotus was a nice clean one which wouldn’t have done much damage if the Brazilian marshals hadn’t added enough foam to destroy the car completely. When Dumfries got back to the pits he was not allowed to use the spare car. It had been set up for Senna and would stay that way.

When practice resumed after all the foam-drenched wreckage had been cleared away, Senna justified his star treatment by getting his lap time down even lower. But the Williams cars soon showed their form. Mansell, enjoying his new-found authority, was quickly up to speed, and Piquet worked his old trick of going out late to put in one magisterial, mind-bending lap that would blast everyone else’s morale. With Piquet going straight down to under 1 min 29 sec the whistle blew for a thoughtful lunch.

In the timed practice session on Friday afternoon it was the same pattern, although this time it counted for positions on the starting grid. Piquet, Senna and Mansell, in that order, employed their thin qualifying tyres to appropriately sensational effect. The first two got down under last year’s pole position time and Senna in particular was a sight to behold on the long straight, the undertray of the Lotus bottoming so often that the car left a continuous trail of sparks, like Halley’s Comet. Short on PR skills but long on talent, Senna is a Mercury with only one message to deliver: his own brilliance.


The day before the Brazilian Grand Prix it was hot in Rio. Down from the cliffs towards the beach at Ipanema, hang-gliders circled like vultures. Above the valley of the Autodromo, vultures circled like journalists. Beside the highway from town, huge billboards paid for by JPS, the cigarette company sponsoring the Lotus team, said VAI FUNDO, AYRTON, as if Ayrton Senna needed any more encouragement.

He had the whole of Brazil behind him. The only question was whether the whole of Brazil would include his senior compatriot, Nelson Piquet, or whether Piquet, who also had the whole of Brazil behind him, would contrive matters so that the whole of Brazil included Ayrton Senna. The Brazilian fans were in the ecstatic position of having two heroes, either of whom, in their view, could be defeated only by the other. Delirium was therefore compulsory.

A morning of untimed practice gave way to an afternoon of qualifying. The race was still an endless day away but the stands were full of fans madly cheering Senna’s every appearance. On his first set of qualifying tyres he was soon down close to Piquet’s fastest time of the previous day. Piquet thought close was too close and with ten minutes of the session left he took his Williams-Honda out on its second and last permitted set of quallies to put in a fast one. Fast was too fast and he spun off. This left Senna with an easy chance for a dramatic last-minute flying lap to grab pole position, which he duly did, arriving back in the pits to be mobbed so thoroughly by the media that he was invisible for ten minutes.

None of these histrionics meant much because Mansell (Williams) had also done well and neither Prost nor Rosberg had pushed his McLaren to the limit. Their studied cool recalled Lauda’s old habit of qualifying the car in race trim and winning the event from half-way down the grid. Between Piquet’s faux pas and Senna’s flying lap, Prost’s MP4 squatted patiently in the pit, while one of the Marlboro hospitality girls — a Brazilian beauty pageant winner and university student reading economics and the history of flamenco — sat on it posing for pictures. Nobody was in a hurry. The McLaren team had great drivers, a proven car, the most efficient fuel management system, and Miss Flamenco Economics. That the whole of Brazil minus Miss Flamenco Economics was behind Nelson and Ayrton could only be a side issue.

Piquet’s Williams was an acknowledged threat to the McLarens, but Senna’s Lotus, even if it held together, had dodgy fuel management and would have to run the race with the boost turned down. So pole position scarcely counted. Nevertheless the fans, who either couldn’t tell a fuel management system from a management training course or else didn’t care, went back to town happy, swarming back up the coast road by every form of transport including bare feet, some towards the garbage tips they call home, others to the beach for a last swim under a darkening late afternoon sky split by the rancid flash of Dayglo helicopters.

But the main means of transport was the small car. There is no other size of car in Rio. The Ford Escort is regarded as a luxury vehicle and Brazil must be the only country left in the world where the classic Volkswagen Beetle is still manufactured. On the highway, all these tiny cars travel flat out. Their drivers change lanes constantly without looking in the mirror, so the only way not to get swatted sideways is to floor the accelerator and keep up with a stream of traffic going as fast as anything can while all its components are continually changing position, as in a particle beam. It is very good training for late braking and probably the chief reason for the abundant supply of Brazilian Formula One drivers.

Nelson Piquet’s phrase for the despised activity of putting on the brakes is ‘open ze legs’. Both he and Senna operate on the principle that when disputing the right of way into a corner the other guy should be persuaded to open ze legs first. Whether the two Brazilians could do this to each other, however, remained to be seen.

Sunday was race day and hotter still, as if the temperature had been only practising. The race wasn’t until one o’clock but at eight in the morning the stands were already jammed and shouting. Though not surprised that the people who produced Carmen Miranda should go bananas, I was startled to see such heat being generated in an atmosphere which was so humid already that all it needed to resemble a hot bath was the addition of plastic ducks. In previous years, I was informed, the crowd had to be hosed down by a fire-truck before the race, but this year was comparatively cool — scarcely 100° Fahrenheit — so a douche would not be necessary.

At that moment a fire-truck went speeding down the straight past the stands, the crowd cheering it to the echo. I thought that this was because they were hoping it would hose them, but then a sanitary cart full of cleaners with brooms held high went speeding down the same straight and the crowd cheered that too. The driver braked late for the notorious South Corner, just like Ayrton or Nelson, except that he opened ze legs at a rate somewhat less than the full 200 mph. But he was a Brazilian driver so they cheered him anyway.

Grid positions already decided, there was a last session of untimed practice with the cars in race trim. McLaren, Williams and Lotus, the three teams in contention, all circulated religiously in search of problems that might need fixing. The Brabham team knew its problem and could do nothing about it. Gordon Murray’s beautiful new car, knee-high to a carpet snake and theoretically faster in top gear than a streak of lightning, just won’t accelerate. Murray told me that the team would stay on after the race to test the car and find out why it had no poke. The BMW engineers were on their way down from Stuttgart with a full set of tools.

For now, there was nothing Patrese and de Angelis could do except lower their heads in shame. This was easy to accomplish, because except for its rear wing the Brabham is lower than the Armco barrier. You’d swear it was flying along through a slit trench.

At the scorching crack of noon the cars were out on the grid. Senna’s Lotus, Piquet and Mansell in the two Williams, Arnoux and Lafitte in the two Ligiers sat there in that order, buried by media. The Ligiers weren’t really supposed to be so far up front but this could partly be ascribed to the fact that the McLarens were so far back, all according, no doubt, to their secret plan. Some of the cars had mini-computers plugged into them right up to the last minute, feeding the onboard electronics a program to fit the heat.

Several girls from the Oba Oba Club — Rio’s version of the Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris, with sliced pineapple as an optional extra — looked on with broad smiles held in place by the pressure of tiny costumes and fishnet tights. Their high heels would come in very useful if they needed to go to the toilet. All the toilets had been blocked for days.

A warm-up lap was scarcely necessary in such heat, but it gave the marshals time to chase the media off the Armco, and the grandstands a chance to rehearse going berserk at the mere sight of Senna and Piquet. At the green light, Piquet was slow on the clutch as usual. Mansell skated past to go neck and neck with Senna all the way round the loopy north part of the circuit and back down the long straight, where they both generated a spectacular display of sparks as they headed for the South Corner at 190 mph plus, with no detectable opening of ze legs by either party. This is where Mansell usually likes to come off and he did it again, removing half the interest from the race at one blow. Mansell is on the verge of being a great driver but the first requirement for the aspiring Hamlet is that he shall not fall into the orchestra pit during Act One.

Piquet, with a bigger margin of fuel due to smarter electronics, cranked up the boost, went past Senna and pulled out a lead. Alboreto’s Ferrari was well up and the Ligiers were not yet fading in accordance with the script, but everyone knew that it was only a matter of time before the McLarens would take over as per plan. On lap five, however, Rosberg was in the pits and out of the car. If that was part of the plan it was pretty risky, because it left Prost holding the bag.

Prost chased Alboreto down the long straight but had to open ze legs. Several laps later he kept ze legs closed a bit longer, put Alboreto behind him and set about catching Senna. This was more like it. Piquet came in for tyres and Prost trimmed Senna’s 3-second lead to about three feet. This was a lot more like it.

Prost went ahead of Senna, but Piquet was only 17 seconds behind both of them and had new wheels. Senna came in for a quick change. This should have left Prost unchallenged, but Piquet was shrinking the discrepancy at two seconds a lap. For the grandstands it was too much to bear. When Piquet went past Prost the screams of the crowd could be heard above the bedlam of the engines. It was a stirring sight even if you weren’t Brazilian, but on a sober view it could only mean that Prost’s tyres were going sour.

Prost came in for a very quick stop, letting the prudently soft-pedalling Senna past him into second place, but surely not for long. With half the race to go, though, Prost came back in for keeps. As with Rosberg’s car, the famously reliable fuel management system had fouled up, burning the pistons and slightly denting the mystique. It is traditional that McLarens run like Swiss trains, but in Formula One it is a long tradition that lasts a season. The McLaren team would have work to do.

Piquet, his handsome head held on one side to compensate for the wearing left-hand turns of the anti-clockwise circuit, lapped steadily away under a sky filling with smog. There was nothing Senna could do about it but the crowd forgave him. Just as long as a Brazilian won. Dumfries in the other Lotus would have finished a promising fifth if his car had not gone sick. Lafitte was a worthy third, and Arnoux fourth. If the Ligiers can keep that up, and BMW can breathe on the Brabham, there will be at least four teams in the picture for the most interesting season in years.

The locals, however, didn’t care about the future. Rio, where the fruit rots on the vine, is a city of the present. ‘Bra-ZIL!’ they screamed. The two fastest drivers in the world belonged to them.

Observer, 23–30 March, 1986