São Paulo Street Circuit
A street race organised near to the Santana district, birthplace of legendary Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna and Brazilian auto racing pioneer Chico Landi, it was home to the Indycar Series from 2010-13. The race has been revived with a modified course for Formula E from 2023 onwards.
Both courses make use of the grandstands and concrete runway of the Cultural and Sports Polo Grande Othello, better known as Anhembi Sambadrome. One of the largest outdoor sporting areas in São Paulo, the venue is usually the host to the colourful samba carnival parades.
The reconfigured course hosted the first ever Brazilian round of the Formula E championships in March 2023, when the track witnessed a thrilling dice for victory which featured a record 11 lead changes.
The first iteration of the street course was home to the São Paulo Indy 300, contested in the 2010 through 2013 IndyCar Series seasons. First announced in November 2009, the event was the first in the recently unified IndyCar series to be held outside of North America and Japan and followed the footsteps of the Rio 200 CART race at Jacarepaguá. Indeed, Rio de Janeiro had been tipped to host the US single seaters until the São Paulo promoters sweetened the deal with offering to cover travel costs alongside a six-figure sum for each of the teams.
The course was the first to be designed by Tony Cotman, who a the time was vice president of competition for IndyCar before going on to found NZR Consulting. Its featured a number of unusual qualities; the transition from the concrete of the Sambadrome to the asphalt of the city streets; a pit lane separate from the start/finish area and the longest flat out blast of any, thanks to the back straight of almost IndyCar circuit, at just under a mile in length.
The local facilities which were usually used for the colourful samba parades were put to good use; the grandstands along the main straight could seat 30,000, while the Anhembi Convention Center was used for support facilities and spectator attractions.
At 11 turns and stretching over 2.536 miles (4.081km) it was relatively long by street circuit standards, with the long straights and hard breaking zones meaning it was good for overtaking, if a little bumpy in places. To minimise disruption to local traffic, the race was set to be a Saturday and Sunday affair only, with the public roads that made up areas of the track closed off just before midnight on Friday evening.
In constructing the circuit, 27,456 feet of fencing, 41 miles of fence cabling, 5,450 fence poles, 11,000 tyres, and about 100 miles of reinforcing steel rod (for building the 5.2 miles of cement barriers) were used.
Dust clouds and low grip dog the first year
The trickiness of the course became readily apparent during initial practice for the inaugural race in 2010. The concrete of the Sambadrome proved exceptionally low in grip, while clouds of cement dust filled the air whenever the cars passed by. Grip was so low that Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe even lost control accelerating in a straight line, causing him to spin and brush the wall.
Qualifying was postponed to race day as a result, as IndyCar race director Brian Barnhart elected to bring in heavy equipment overnight to grind down the track surface and give more grip to the drivers. It definitely helped, although dust still remained a problem.
Rain began to fall ahead of the race start, causing a 10 minute delay, however, the course was dry enough for the cars to use slick tyres. As the field came to the green flag, dust clouds engulfed the field, blinding many of the midfield runners. While the top five made the first chicane unscathed, a major pile up engulfed those immediately, with six drivers involved.
Rain would eventually prove a bigger factor, bringing out the red flag on lap 37 and causing a 36 minute delay. When the race resumed, it was to a shorter distance in order to meet a two-hour curfew. Team Penske’s Will Power drafted past Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay late in the race to take a hard-earned victory.
Rain delays 2011 race to Monday
There were no actual layout changes when the racers arrived for the 2011 event, but much effort had been expended to try and improve the circuit conditions. An extensive repave of all of the asphalt areas had taken place, aimed at providing a grippier surface and smoothing some of the larger bumps. A more evident visual change came at the first chicane, with the surrounding areas decorated in the bright colour’s of sponsor Nestlé’s Kit Kat brand. This would prove problematic for anyone heading off course, with the paintwork proving considerably lower in grip than envisaged.
Rain proved a nemesis once more, falling heavily partway through the race and causing a red flag as conditions became undriveable after 14 laps. After a delay of almost two and a half hours, organisers conceded defeat and postponed the remainder of the race to Monday. Due to an agreement with the Brazilian TV broadcaster, the race length was capped at two hours, so the time from the Sunday running was deducted from the length of Monday’s race, was was run to just 55 laps. As with the year before, Team Penske’s Will Power ran out the winner.
For 2012, the painted run off at the Turn 1 chicane was was addressed with high-grip paint used, while the bump on transition from the Sambodrome concrete to the asphalt was addressed. Otherwise, the course layout was unchanged, though drainage improvements were made in several locations. A new grandstand was added at the final turn, as a structure that prevented its placement the previous two years had been razed. For the third year straight, Will Power drove to victory for Team Penske.
Small modification greets IndyCar’s final year
For 2013 an adjustment was made to the troublesome first chicane, in a bid to make overtaking a little easier and prevent some of the trouble which tended to occur on double file restarts and in wet conditions. The kerbs at both Turn 1 and Turn 2 were moved, leaving Turn 2 some 10 feet wider than previously. Tyre stacks remained in place, but were painted in contrasting colours to help give the drivers a better reference point.
Elsewhere, further work to reduce bumps was carried out at Turn 10 as well as some additional drainage works. “We’ve addressed the key bumps, but just because a bump has been addressed in a certain corner, doesn’t mean more bumps won’t be found,” Tony Cotman said, ahead of the race. “It’s a street circuit, so there always will be bumps, but our goal is to improve them.”
The race turned out to be final run out for IndyCars at the circuit, with series bosses deciding to concentrate on North American events only for 2014. The race served up a different winner, however, when James Hinchcliffe pulled off a last lap, last corner overtake in his Andretti Autosport car to snatch victory from A.J. Foyt Racing’s Takuma Sato.
Formula E picks up the baton
After IndyCar departed, the streets fell silent to racing engines, however plans began to emerge after a few years for motors of a different kind to grace the Anhembi area. In 2017 it was proposed that the electric racers of Formula E would be the next single seaters to race at the course. The São Paulo ePrix was duly added to the provisional calendar for the 2017/18 series. The event, to take place on 17 March 2018, was set to draw a lot of excited fans thanks to home hero Lucas di Grassi.
However, organisational issues meant that as soon as November 2017, a postponement was announced, with the race set to take place a year later than planned. Punte del Este in Uruguay was hastily added as a replacement. However, when the Season Five schedule was released, there was no mention of São Paulo. Subsequent years came and went without further announcement.
Then in April 2022 came news that a deal had finally been signed for Formula E to come to Brazil, with the São Paulo street race being added to the calendar from the start of the Gen 3 era. Organisers signed a five year contract to host the race on a much-modified and shortened version of the IndyCar course.
Indeed, there is very little similarity between the two, save for the use of the Sambadrome and part of the Reta de Marte, albeit running in the opposite direction to the IndyCars. Nevertheless the track features three long straights (including the longest in Formula E), allowing the new more powerful Gen 3 cars the chance to stretch their legs.
Original proposals saw the track feature a slow chicane at the start of the lap, just before the Sambadrome spectator stands. However, this was eliminated in the final version of the track layout, with the change having been requested by Lucas Di Grassi. The aim was to allow the cars to achieve top speed and draft into the first turn, which was now a 90 degree right hander, allowing greater overtaking.
The change certainly worked, with the 2023 race turning into to a classic-style slip-streamer, something akin to the Monza of old. The need to save energy by staying behind the leader meant many were reluctant to head the pack for long, resulting in a race-long shuffling of the pack. Jaguar's Mitch Evans judged it to perfection, overtaking Envision's Nick Cassidy on the last lap to take a memorable win.
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