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Brazil throbs with passion for F1

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F1 Mole | 22:42 UK time, Saturday, 17 October 2009

The monsoon rain in Sao Paulo may have stalled Saturday's qualifying session but the deluge couldn't dampen the Brazilian passion for Formula 1.

Interlagos, home to the Brazilian Grand Prix for the last 19 years, is a place of pilgrimage - and more often than not a good spot for a party too.

But to better understand the roots of the nation's passion for motor racing the Mole first paid a visit to the Morumbi cemetery in Sao Paulo's suburbs.

There, at the peak of the hill and under the shade of a single tree, lies the final resting place of Ayrton Senna, Brazil's best-loved racing superstar.

sennagrave595.jpgBrazilian F1 icon Ayrton Senna's final resting place in Sao Paulo

For someone who is idolised by his nation, Senna's memorial is surprisingly modest. A few pots of chrysanthemums and sunflowers nestled in one corner of the grave and two Brazilian 'auriverde' flags fluttered in the fading early evening light.

Despite its modesty, the tranquil haven, which keeps the city's looming skyscrapers at bay with a ring of trees, is a fitting place to reflect on Brazil's sublime but fated last world champion.

Senna captured three world titles for McLaren in a dazzling F1 career that was cut short in a fatal accident at Imola in 1994.

And his legacy has fanned the flames of Brazil's passion for motorsport and heaped expectation on those who dare to follow in his tracks.

"There were champions Emerson Fittipaldi (1972 and 1974) and Nelson Piquet (1981, 1983 and 1987) but since Senna motor racing has been like a religion," explained Ferrari driver Felipe Massa's brother Eduardo, 'Dudu' for short.

"Every Sunday, every Brazilian is waiting to see the race. Football is still in first position but after that the passion is for cars."

Senna's nephew Bruno, who is close to making his F1 debut in 2010, added: "Everyone expects the next Piquet, Fittipaldi and Senna to come and give Brazil some titles. That is the mission for all the new drivers coming in."

But Brazilian fans have had a lot less to cheer about this season.

Massa struggled to follow-up his runners-up performance in 2008 in an uncompetitive Ferrari before narrowly escaping a career-ending head injury at the Hungarian GP.

Then Nelson Piquet Jr lost his Renault race seat before revelations he purposely crashed at the 2008 Singapore race shocked F1 and left his reputation in tatters.

F1 veterans remarked that Friday's thin crowds were unusual for Interlagos, but with the cheapest tickets around £50 the empty stands were probably down to cash-flow rather than a lack of enthusiasm.

It has been left to the oldest man on the grid, Rubens Barrichello, to carry Brazilian hopes, and the man nicknamed 'flip-flop foot' by fans because of his mixed results could fulfil them at long last at the age of 37.

"Brazil can be quite tough and supportive at the same time," says Barrichello, who is in the hunt for a maiden world title, 14 points behind his Brawn team-mate Jenson Button.

"They wish that they had a new world champion and say: 'We haven't won for so many years, this is your chance, give us that feeling.'

"But I have that feeling - I want to win the world championship too."

Brazil may not have been swept away by Barrichello fever when he was relegated to as Michael Schumacher's support act during his six years at Ferrari but it has been hard to put a lid on their excited expectations at Interlagos this weekend.

Each glimpse of Barrichello was met by clapping, shouting and chants of 'Rubinho' from fans poised on the verge of positive heckling.

The Mole emerged unscathed from an early morning foray into the cheap seats - a plastic beer cup hurled when stood too close to some Argentina fans notwithstanding.

Fans decked out in Brawn hats, hoisting the occasional anti-Button banner, seemed to mention 'Rubinho' in every second breath.

When Barrichello wrestled the wet weather to grab pole position in his home town of Sao Paulo, the ecstatic chants seeped through the walls of the television compound.

In the aftermath of Senna's death, Barrichello, who was also involved in a big crash during practice for the 1994 San Marino race, said: "It is impossible to be like Senna. He was different.

"Everyone wants to do something for him. The guys in the World Cup team want to win for Senna."

This time Brazil will be behind Barrichello as 'Rubinho' attempts to drive to his place in the history books - and if he doesn't succeed he'll probably still be smiling.

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