Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The 2016 Summer Olympic Roots Are in Motorsports Soil

Today is the first day of competitions for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, as the opening group stage matches of the women's soccer tournament take place. Other than men's soccer on Thursday, all other sports do not get underway until Saturday after the Opening Ceremony on Friday night. If you think the background shots of the Barra Olympic Park look familiar and you were a motorsports fan from the mid-1970s to the early-2000s, you aren't mistaken. You have seen that marshland before.

The playground for Alain Prost, Nelson Piquet, Jr. and Carlos Reutemann is now a multi-sport complex where Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic are #1 seeds in the tennis draws, Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky are two of the most notable faces in swimming and the United States, Russia and China do battle on balance beams, trampolines and uneven bars. The 3.126-mile road course previously known as Jacarepaguá is now the home for many events at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

"It's a twisty circuit," described James Hunt during the formation lap for the 1982 Brazilian Grand Prix. "It's very hard work this circuit. It's bumpy. There is no real peace" Hunt concludes. Today, the Olympic Tennis Center sits where the Formula One paddock was once located.  Located in turn one, "Molykote," is a racetrack but a different racetrack, the velodrome. Carioca Arena 1 and 2, the venues for basketball and judo and wrestling respectively, are located in turn three of the trapezoid speedway that CART zoomed around in the late-1990s. Rio Olympic Center, home of gymnastics is at "Nonato." The international broadcast center was once a braking zone at the end of the long back straightaway (later front straightaway for CART) into the Sul curve. It is fitting the aquatic center is located where the left-hander "Lagoa" (lagoon) brought drivers back toward the start/finish line. More tennis courts are scattered in what was the final corner, "Vitória" (victory).

Jacarepaguá hosted the Brazilian Grand Prix from 1978 and 1981-1989 and the track was the scene of many dramatic moments for Formula One in the 1970s and 1980s. Emerson Fittipaldi finished second in the 1978 race, scoring the first podium for Fittipaldi Automotive. Jacarepaguà was the site of the catalyst for the FISA-FOCA War in 1982 after Nelson Piquet, Jr. and Keke Rosberg finished first and second but were disqualified for illegal water tanks that released water. In response to the disqualifications, FOCA teams Brabham, Williams, McLaren, Lotus, Ligier and Arrows boycotted the following round at Imola, leaving 14 cars to compete the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix. Ayrton Senna made his Formula One debut in Rio de Janeiro driving for Toleman in 1984. He retired after eight laps because of a turbo failure. Nigel Mansell won the 1989 Brazilian Grand Prix, the final to be held at Jacarepaguá. It was the first victory for a car with a semi-automatic gearbox in Formula One. Maurício Gugelmin finished third in his home race, his only Formula One podium and the final podium for March Grand Prix.

Six years after Formula One left for Interlagos, MotoGP made its first appearance at a slight modified Jacarepaguá circuit. Luca Cadalora won the inaugural Rio de Janeiro Grand Prix ahead of Mick Doohan. Doohan would win the next two races in Rio. Norick Abe won the 1999 race, his first victory in over three years as he led a Yamaha 1-2 with Max Biaggi in second and Kenny Roberts, Jr. rounding out the podium. The following year Valentino Rossi would score his second 500cc victory and the Italian would win four consecutive. Rossi ended with six victories at Jacarepaguá with victories in the 125cc and 250cc classes prior to 500cc/MotoGP dominance. The final time MotoGP visited Rio was July 4, 2004. Makoto Tamada won his first MotoGP race ahead of Max Biaggi, Biaggi's fourth runner-up finish at Jacarepaguá, and Nicky Hayden finished third to round out a 1-2-3 finish for Honda.

While MotoGP raced in Northern Hemisphere's autumn, IndyCar made spring trips to Rio de Janeiro in March and May. André Ribeiro won the inaugural Rio 400 for Tasman Motorsports ahead of Al Unser, Jr. and Scott Pruett but CART's first trip to Rio is remembered for Mark Blundell's accident that forced him to miss the next three races with a broken foot and ankle. Paul Tracy won the 1997 race after Bobby Rahal ran out of fuel coming to start the final lap. Greg Moore finished second in the first two Rio races and in 1998 he broke through and took the victory with an audacious pass Alex Zanardi that involved Arnd Meier as pick and slamming the door from the outside on the Italian in turn one with five laps to go. Juan Pablo Montoya and rain dominated the 1999, as the start was delayed and Mother Nature caused one caution but Montoya ended up victorious completing all 108 laps. Adrián Fernández won the 2000 race, the final time CART went to Rio. Alex Tagliani started on pole position in his third career start and led 76 of 108 laps only to have an accident end his race with five laps remaining.

One thing I realized when I went through all these races held at Jacarepaguá is no American won at the track, not even when CART race on the speedway. Now, the expectation is for Americans to flourish and win gold medals on ground where the likes of Mario Andretti, Bobby Rahal and Nicky Hayden couldn't achieve glory.