SAO PAULO — Once a year, racing fans across South America flock to the region’s only Formula One Grand Prix in the Brazilian metropolis of Sao Paulo.
But the drizzly hometown of legendary driver Ayrton Senna risks losing that opportunity to shine.
This week’s Brazilian GP at Interlagos will be the last before F1 owner Liberty Media decides whether the race stays at the traditional track beyond 2020 or moves to a yet-to-be-built venue in sunny rival Rio de Janeiro.
Negotiations are officially open until May, but sports executives suggest they could end sooner.
Just five hours’ drive from each other, Sao Paulo and Rio can seem a world apart.
Sao Paulo claims glitzy clubs and restaurants whose daring chefs delight gourmands, and boasts a relatively low crime rate.
Rio can’t boast those attributes, but has the exuberance of samba and Carnival, plus dramatic postcard views of beaches and verdant mountains. Now, to Sao Paulo’s chagrin, Rio is pushing for an F1 racetrack, too.
Instead of ignoring one another, as usual, the cities are acting like back-biting siblings over the F1 challenge.
Politicians and racing executives on both ends of the Via Dutra road connecting Brazil’s most important cities have exchanged accusations, criticism and sarcastic comments in recent months after an unexpected Rio bid from a little-known group supported by President Jair Bolsonaro.
Both Rio and Sao Paulo hope to get contracts until at least 2030 with racing’s top series.
Paulistanos, as Sao Paulo residents are known, consider F1 week the city’s main event, even if they don’t all watch the sport. Since 1972, with a 10-year gap of F1 in Rio, the Brazilian GP has put the city on the map for high-spending tourists.
Many bars on busy streets like Avenida Paulista are open 24 hours a day during the race, and hotels prepare feasts at early hours so fans don’t need to refuel at the track. Sao Paulo’s adult entertainment industry profits more than in any other weekend.
The challenge from Rio has ever-competitive paulistanos worrying, even if their rival remains troubled by high crime and weak economic activity. Other cities have bid to host the F1 race, but so far only Rio’s offer had both touristic appeal and political heft.
The Rio Motorpark company says it will pay up to $170 million to construct a track in the seaside city’s impoverished Deodoro region. It did not provide specifics on financing nor environmental licensing it needs to build in an area holding 200,000 trees. Still, MotoGP has scheduled a race there in 2022, which company CEO Jr. Pereira hopes will lure F1.
“It isn’t as complex as it looks,” Pereira told The Associated Press. “We won’t do it all in just a year and a half. We will build the track and its structures for the event. Then we move to the next phase. That would also give us time to negotiate with sponsors.”
Sao Paulo politicians and racing executives are committed to stopping the move.
The metropolis’ tourism agency says the F1 GP brought revenues of $80 million last year, almost 20% more than the previous season. Rio bidders say they could double that figure with a plan that includes about 130,000 spectators at once. Interlagos can host 60,000 fans per day.
Marcos Resenti, the owner of a bakery near the Interlagos track, was shocked when he heard Bolsonaro announce in June there was a 99% chance F1 would move to Rio.
Rio Motorpark says there will be no public funds to build in the Deodoro area granted by Brazil’s military. CEO Pereira confirmed the company will receive 41.9% of the land for another real estate development if the track is concluded, but declined to name potential investors.
Rio politicians have wanted F1 back since 1990, when its Jacarepaguá track was replaced by Interlagos. Rio Mayor Marcello Crivella and Gov. Wilson Witzel support the bid, though neither agreed to repeated interview requests from the AP.
Pereira also said Spanish builder Acciona will be involved in the project. A spokeswoman for the company in Brazil said only Rio Motorpark will discuss the project.
A potential headache for the Rio developer is the group of environmentalists who pledged to go to court to block the project. A local judge has already stopped the construction until the company obtains all environmental licenses.
“We are not against a track in Rio. We offered an alternative, an area nearby that is five times bigger and has only grass on it,” said activist Felipe Cândido. “We just don’t see why they insist in bringing down this biome.”
Another hurdle for a move is Interlagos’ deep connection to F1. It was at the old track that six-time champion Lewis Hamilton won his maiden title in 2008 in the last turns of the race. The Sao Paulo circuit also hosted Senna’s first out of three home victories in 1991. He famously ended that race with only his sixth gear functioning for the final laps.
The track promised for Rio was projected by renowned German engineer Hermann Tilke, but is similar to those he projected for Austin in the U.S. or Spielberg in Austria.
Tamas Rohonyi, the Brazilian GP promoter for 38 years, including the decade in Rio, believes Sao Paulo is “unbeatable” in the dispute. He admits any city has the right to bid to host the F1 race, but says there havn’t been any decisive movements to build a viable track in Rio.
Sao Paulo Gov. João Doria was less diplomatic.
“I don’t want to be rude, but I very gently recommend: Visit Deodoro. Fly over it. You can’t get there. There are no roads, just go by horse. Make a visit, rent a helicopter, a drone. There is no access, no energy, no basic sanitation,” he said in June.
Rio’s deputy governor Cláudio Castro hit back.
“Doria doesn’t come to Rio often. It seems he never used our Transolympic road (built for the 2016 Olympics). He needs to get better informed, see Brazil outside Sao Paulo,” Castro said.
As the two cities squabble, one factor that may help determine Brazilian F1’s future may have nothing to do with each city’s unique allures: a racing tax. Only the Brazilian and Monaco GPs do not pay Liberty Media between $20 million and $70 million per season.
The new F1 CEO, Chase Carey, reportedly wants to change that.
Carey’s last public comments on Rio’s challenge were in June during a visit to Brazil. He said he was “talking to Rio and Sao Paulo to find the best solution for the continuation of the Brazilian Grand Prix.”
Anxious local politicians and F1 fans expect to hear from him again after Friday.