Brazil, the country that produced great Formula 1 champions Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet and Emerson Fittipaldi, could be without a driver on the grid next season.
Brazilian Felipe Massa is leaving F1 at the end of the season after 15 years on the circuit, which peaked in 2008 when he missed out on the drivers’ championship by a point. His last race is Sunday in Brazil, where he recalls watching Senna and Piquet in his younger years and dreaming of emulating them.
Massa is leaving and Felipe Nasr of Sauber is at risk of not getting a contract next season. Nasr is depending on his main sponsor, Banco do Brasil, to find him a ride. Last season he scored 27 points, but in the 2016 season he hasn’t earned a point.
There are no other Brazilian drivers in Europe being considered for a place on the grid next year.
Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg, the favorite to claim the season title on Sunday, says Brazil needs to be in the mix.
“Your country deserves to have a good driver in a competitive car,” Rosberg said this week.
Since 1972, Fittipaldi, Piquet and Senna have marked their names as F1 season champions eight times.
But in the last decade Brazilian drivers have struggled to even to win a race. The last home triumph was in 2008 at Interlagos, but it was bittersweet.
Massa took first place in his Ferrari, but lost the season title to British driver Lewis Hamilton in a McLaren.
“It will be very upsetting to see no Brazilian drivers in Formula One,” said Massa, whose best results this season are two fifth places. “We Brazilians have a lot of history in this sport. It is a tough moment. We don’t have a driver that is about to break through.”
The last Brazilian to win an F1 race was Rubens Barrichello, who won at the Italian Grand Prix in September 2009.
Since then, Brazilians haven’t had much to celebrate. And even local executives of the sport believe the current trend won’t end quickly.
“We do have Brazilian talent that could be in Formula One, but these days you need a ton of money that they don’t have now,” Waldner Bernardo, an official at Brazil’s motorsport confederation, told The Associated Press. “We have at least six drivers in Europe that could be on the Formula One grid now, but they are not wealthy enough to be.”
One of the drivers Bernardo has faith in is 18-year-old Formula 3 driver Pedro Piquet, son of the three-time world champion Nelson.
His talent and youth, Bernardo says, are signs that “the Brazilian void in Formula 1 could be short-lived.”
But Gerson Campos, who hosts a popular motorsport TV program, disagrees.
“None of these Brazilians abroad showed they have enough talent. If they were football strikers, they would be good to play here, but they’re far from the Barcelona level,” he said. “If one of those drivers goes to Formula 1, he will stay for one or two years. We have a serious problem in fostering talents that can attract big money now. And that combination is essential today.”
The absence of a competitive Brazilian driver has hurt the ratings for TV Globo, the country’s main broadcaster. Last year Globo shifted the United States and Mexico races to its cable channel. This year it did the same, reflecting F1’s sinking popularity in the country.