Interlagos is something of a throwback circuit, built in the 1940s and updated just enough over the years to satisfy the demands of Formula One without destroying its essential character.
Drivers and spectators love it, though with its historically primitive paddock facilities, teams have been more lukewarm. Quite how Interlagos retained its F1 spot is something of a mystery when you consider the pillorying Silverstone took from Bernie Ecclestone to update its facilities, but with various alternatives failing to happen, it clings on for now, happily with much improved facilities.
Today the track boasts a full calendar of events at national level, as well as F1. Stock Car Brasil and Copa Truck are seasonal highlights on four wheels, with SuperBike Brasil providing the best of the two-wheel action.
The circuit's history began in 1926, when a real state company led by British entrepreneur Louis Romero Sanson began designing a new suburban area as part of the expansion of São Paulo. Known as 'Balneário Satélite da Capital', the project envisaged the creation of housing, large roads, and a multi-sport complex located in between the two enormous reservoirs which supply the city with drinking water.
After hiring Alfred Agache, a French urban planner who had been responsible for a redevelopment scheme in Rio de Janeiro, the proposals acquired their new name; Agache thought that the site reminded him of Interlaken in Switzerland, and thus Interlagos (meaning 'between lakes' in Portuguese) was adopted.
The stock market crash of 1929, combined with years of political turmoil within Brazil, ultimately put paid to most of these plans, including those of the motor racing circuit within the sports complex. Nevertheless, Brazilian racing continued, with street races arranged in both Rio and São Paulo. It was at the latter of these events that disaster struck: French pilot Hellé-Nice lost control of her Alfa Romeo at the end of the race and hit nearby spectators. The accident resulted in 4 people dead and another 37 injured.
A permanent circuit is needed
Racing clearly needed a safer environment to continue in and the president of the Automobile Club of Brazil, Eusébio de Queiroz Mattozo, urged Sanson to complete the Interlagos circuit. Sanson began researching circuit design, taking inspiration from Roosevelt Raceway in the U.S.A.; Brooklands in Great Britain; and Montlhéry in France.
Construction began in 1938 and the track was paved the following year. A lack of funds meant that facilities were very basic at the planned original opening; the grandstands and pit facilities would have to wait for many years before being complete, but the track itself was ready for racing. Unfortunately, the weather gods were not so welcoming and the original inauguration in November 1939 had to be postponed to the following year.
So it was that a grid of cars lined up on 12 May 1940 for the the 3rd Grand Prix of the City of São Paulo. Motorcycle races helped make up the undercard. The drivers and riders found a fast but technical circuit which wound its way back and forth between the lakes and across the contours of the land. Despite the basic facilities, around 15,000 people came out to watch those races in Brazil's first circuit. The Grand Prix was won by Brazilian driver Nascimento Junior in an Alfa Romeo, followed by fellow Brazilians Chico Landi (Maserati) and Geraldo Avellar (Alfa Romeo).
Racing continued at a national level throughout the 1940s and, by 1947, Interlagos was ready to host its first international race, an event for Grand Prix cars. Sanson's company managed the circuit until 1954, when it was sold to the City of São Paulo for a symbolic price.
In 1957, a link road was built to connect the Turn 4 and Junção corners to form an outer speed ring; essentially an oddly-shaped oval course. The original circuit remained unchanged by these alterations.
Formula One comes calling
At the end of 1967, the circuit was closed for extensive renovations to bring it up to contemporary safety standards, reopening on 1 March 1970. The pit area was moved further down the course, allowing for a much enlarged paddock area and better garage facilities. Elsewhere, the circuit had been widened and resurfaced, with safety barriers around its perimeter. Advice was sought from the managements of tracks such as the modern Buenos Aires Autodrome, Monza and the Nürburgring during the renovations, while Wilson Fittipaldi was also involved.
Further improvements came in 1971, with the ambition of securing a Formula One race to help showcase Brazil's new racing talent. The dream came true a year later, albeit in non-championship form, with Argentine driver Carlos Reutemann wining the race, followed home by Swede Ronnie Peterson and Brazilian Wilson Fittipaldi.
The event's success contributed to the inclusion of the race in the FIA Formula One World Championship. The first official race took place on 11 February 1973 and the enormous home crowds cheered home Emerson Fittipaldi to the win, followed by Scot Jackie Stewart and New Zealander Dennis Hulme.
Interlagos continued to host F1 throughout the 1970s, usually as one of the season opening races. But by 1980, drivers had begun to question the general safety at the venue, particularly becoming concerned with the bumpiness of the track in several places (no doubt exacerbated by the rock-solid suspensions employed on ground-effect era cars). The City Council was reluctant to provide the necessary investment to solve these issues and Rio thus snatched the race away for its new Jacarepaguá circuit.
During this phase, Interlagos went through a series of small-scale renovations and staged a series of national championship races, gradually fading from the international scene. In 1985, the circuit was renamed the Autódromo José Carlos Pace in memory of the 1976 GP winner, who had been killed in a plane crash just over a year later.
Major changes see Interlagos snatch F1 back
Changing requirements for F1 venues provided Interlagos with a second chance at F1, when Rio could no longer afford to keep the event. The Mayor of São Paulo, Luiza Erundina, joined forces with the President of the Brazilian Confederation of Motor Sports (CBA), Piero Gancia, to bring the F1 Grand Prix back to São Paulo from 1990.
In preparation, Interlagos underwent a series of renovations, with the construction of new garages and a race control tower, and the track itself was reduced considerably, complying with the new trend for shorter circuits. A new first turn bypassed the old banked corner, plunging downhill and connecting with the old circuit at Curva do Sol and heading in the opposite direction to previously. From there it reached a revised and tightened corner between the lakes, before heading back up the hill and rejoining the original infield and the climb back to the pits.
Alain Prost won the inaugural race back at Interlagos, but local hero Ayrton Senna took the wins in 1991 and 1993.
A variety of improvements occurred over the years, including the construction of a chicane on the run up to the pit straight in anticipation of the arrival of the Motorcycle Grand Prix in 1992. Riders were not taken with the circuit, finding it far too bumpy, and the race never returned.
The pit entry and exit was modified in 1996 and again in 1999, while a total resurfacing was undertaken in 2007. To facilitate the work, the circuit was closed and no events were held in the five months immediately preceding the Grand Prix.
Stock Cars endure some chicanery
Following two fatal crashes which took the lives of Stock Car Brasil drivers Rafael Sperafico in 2007 and Gustavo Sondermann in 2011, the chicane was revived for the Stock Cars, to slow speeds ahead of the Curva do Café corner (an unofficial name which had come into general use, said to be due to having enough time to get yourself a cup of coffee between seeing cars pass by each lap on the original, lengthy course). The 1992 layout was slightly revised but contractors actually built the modifications the wrong way round, leading to a tighter exit than entry, meaning it sat unused for a Brasileiro de Marcas round in July before being reconfigured correctly for the August visit of the Stock Cars.
The slightly clunky, tyre-lined chicane was further altered for the 2013 season, with the exit curve slightly eased to make it faster, while 2016 saw it narrowed with the addition of 'sausage' kerbs to prevent corner clipping. Inevitably these tore up the cars and were extremely unpopular, so ahead of the Grand Final race of the 2017 a completely new design was installed, featuring a much larger and slower chicane design. It was used in combination with specially-designed SAFER barriers, identical to those now widely used on North American ovals, which had replaced the concrete wall at the Café corner.
The new chine saw use for one year before further evaluation by the Brazilian Automobile Confederation (CBA) concluded safety levels on the Stock Cars had advanced to a point that it was not necessary.
"Now, after a careful evaluation by the Racetrack Commission, understanding the speed, escape area and distance from the walls there, we decided to return the original layout," Stock Car director of engineering Mirnei Antônio Piroca told Motorsport.com. "But it was mainly due to the increased safety of Stock Car cars that this was released. We used the chicane until the end of last year, everyone remembers. And for this year this layout was approved."
The chicane remains in use for the junior Stock Light category, due to the older machinery and lower safety systems employed on these cars.
Major refurbishment leads to new pit complex
Plans for a new Formula One only pit lane on the Reta Oposta straight were unveiled in 2012, though were finally discounted after circuit bosses feared it might spoil some of the essential character of the track. Instead, a $60 million refurbishment programme was launched, which saw major civil engineering works begin in August 2014 to create a new pit lane entry and exit. The hillside at the back of the Laranjinha was built up with a concrete wall, allowing more space above for a revised pit lane entry.
Additional run-off was also created at the Senna-S by moving the pit lane exit further back, while further earthworks created more room to the outside of Curva do Sol. The final track change came with the addition of an alternate route at Bico de Pato, possibly for use during motorcycle events, though this does not seem to have ever been used. The works, including a full track resurfacing, were completed ahead of the Grand Prix in November, with a second phase due to start following the race. This saw the existing pit buildings demolished and new ones built, with increased garage and paddock space. A reduced calendar of events was run in 2015 with a temporary pit lane employed while the construction work took place.
The most recent improvements came in 2018, when the circuit received night lighting throughout its length. Twenty-one towers were installed, one approximately every 200 meters. Each tower is nine meters high and the lamps used are 140,000 lumens, twice the average, which means an actual lighting power of 150 linear meters. They are flexible and pivot to allow light to be directed to points of interest as needed.
Formula 1 race safeguarded from Rio threat
The future of the circuit as the host of Formula One beyond 2020 seemed in doubt, with a new F1-standard circuit in Rio de Janeiro announced in 2019 with the backing of the country's president, Jair Bolsonaro. While this could have been a terminal blow, the news had the unexpected bonus of galvanising the support for Interlagos from the city's officials. In May 2019, plans to sell off the circuit as part of a drive to privatise city real estate were shelved, with city councillors voting to renew the circuit's concession instead.
Following the cancellation of the 2020 Brazilian Grand Prix due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, along with other planned events such as the FIA World Endurance Series, the uncertainty about the future of Interlagos as a host of world-level events continued. However, in November 2020, with the Rio circuit plans seemingly in tatters, the governor of the State of São Paulo confirmed a new contract had been agreed with Formula 1, keeping the Grand Prix at Interlagos until at least 2025.