If you like big cities, you’ll love Sao Paulo. It’s big, it’s exciting and it’s becoming increasingly multi-cultural, thanks to its large number of émigrés. The famous shanty towns, or favellas, still dominate the suburbs, but the city’s reputation is very much on the up - as people who live there will tell you.
“There are some very beautiful parts of Sao Paulo, in which I’m happy to leave my kids in the car - that’s how safe it is,” says local superstar and former F1 driver Rubens Barrichello. “Yes there are favellas, but it is wrong that people should think of Sao Paulo as being horrid and dirty; every big city has its problems.”
The beautiful parts Barrichello refers to include the open spaces of central Sao Paulo: the Jardins, the parks, the area around the palace (now a museum) in the centre of town, and even the central business district. And helping to solve the problems is the Senna Foundation, which has been subsidising under-privileged children in the city since it was founded after the death of Ayrton Senna - a native of Sao Paolo and close friend of Barrichello - in 1994.
The Interlagos track is 16 kilometres south of Sao Paulo’s city centre and provides the drivers and engineers with many challenges, not least because the track runs in an anti-clockwise direction and is at high altitude, which makes it tough for the engines. The atmosphere on race day is fantastic, with the fans almost tribal in their appreciation of local heroes.
Did you know?
Soccer idol Pele was Brazil’s first black government minister.
Sao Paulo has two airports, with Guarulhos, 30 kilometres east of the city, handling international traffic. The best way to get into the city is by hire car or taxi. Bus is the cheapest option, though they can be rather crowded and slow.
If you like city driving, you’ll love the challenge of Sao Paulo. As you’d expect is such a huge metropolis, traffic is normally heavy and driving standards somewhat erratic - watch out for people lane crossing and braking sharply.
Sao Paulo’s Metro system is clean and efficient and is the best way of getting around the city centre. However, it doesn't extend to the suburbs, so if you're not hiring a car, a taxi is the easiest way to get to the track at Interlagos.
Compared to some circuits, Interlagos has a relatively small crowd capacity of about 80,000. The grandstands are virtually all situated on the outside of the track at the start of the lap and are split into two price categories. Due to the swampy nature of the infield - Interlagos literally means ‘between the lakes’ - the race organisers do not offer general admission tickets.
To inject some true latin spirit into your visit, make sure you sample caipirinha, Brazil’s notorious cachaca-based cocktail. It’s good - and very alcoholic.
Where to go?
Over to local resident Barrichello: “The football stadium is huge and worth a visit; I think there are matches every Wednesday and Sunday. My favourite restaurant is called Jam, where I go to eat once a week. The atmosphere’s great and they certainly know how to cook beef.”
Brazil is famous for its churrascarias restaurants, where you eat as much beef as you can. They’re very common and a favourite F1 haunt is Fogo de Chao.
Where to stay?
There are more than 60,000 hotel rooms in Sao Paulo, so finding one - whatever your budget - should not be a problem.
The countryside surrounding Sao Paulo is simply stunning - even rainforests are within driving distance of the city. Among the nearby tourist attractions is the Nossa Senhora Aparecida Cathedral. A one-hour drive to the north of the city, it attracts followers of the Catholic faith from all over the world.
“Most of the places I go outside the city are to the north,” says Barrichello. “But if you’re talking about a proper extended stay, then I’d catch a plane to Rio and spend a few days on an island called Fernando de Noronha. It’s only had electricity for 10 years and it is one of the most beautiful places in the world.”
Alternatively, if it’s more city life rather than solitude you’re craving, a short flight east of Sao Paolo will take you to Brazil’s other huge metropolis, Rio de Janeiro. Known as the cidade maravilhosa, or marvellous city, it is famous for its party spirit, as epitomised in the annual four-day carnival.
For those who wish to pay their respects to the late, great Ayrton Senna, the grave of the three-time champion is in Sao Paulo’s Morumbi cemetery.
The Interlagos kart track (adjacent to the Grand Prix circuit) is also worth a visit, purely for the reason that so many successful careers started there. Nelson Piquet, Emerson Fittipaldi, Senna and Barrichello all raced there.
“As a boy,” says Barrichello, “I remember staring through the fence at the Grand Prix track and dreaming of racing on it one day!”
Autodromo Carlos Pace
Av. Teotônio Vilela
267 - Interlagos
São Paulo (SP)