The altercation between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton at Interlagos two weeks ago is the latest in a long line of dramatic and controversial moments in Formula One’s history in São Paulo. However, the most consequential Grand Prix to ever take place in the city might be the first race. The race served as the impetus for the construction of Interlagos, the current venue for Formula One’s race in Brazil.
In 1936, the inaugural São Paulo Grand Prix was held. The race happened a month after the established Grand Prix in Rio de Janeiro, first run in 1933. The 2.6-mile circuit for the race was laid out on the streets of São Paulo in the Jardim América neighborhood. Like most pre-World War II international races in South America, the field in São Paulo could be split into three categories.
The first category consists of the “B” line-ups sent by factory teams from Europe. Scuderia Ferrari, Alfa Romeo’s then-factory team, sent Carlo Pintacuda and Attilio Marinoni to race in Rio and São Paulo. Meanwhile, Scuderia Ferrari’s primary concern was preparing a four-car entry for the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring led by their ace Tazio Nuvolari.
The second category was the European privateers who didn’t have a significant enough race schedule to keep them in Europe. The high opportunity cost of spending two weeks at sea each way during the height of the European season was enough to keep most drivers from traveling to South America. Hellé Nice was the only European privateer to enter the race. The Frenchwoman was a skillful driver but somehow never garnered a reputation great enough to appear in Europe’s most prestigious races.
The third category was the local South American drivers. These drivers made up the majority of the field and vastly differed in driving skill and equipment quality. While not yet successful in international competition, Brazil produced a few local stars that would pave the way for the likes of Fittipaldi, Piquet and Senna. The brightest stars of this era were Francisco “Chico” Landi and Manuel de Teffé, both entrants in the 1936 São Paulo Grand Prix.
Chico Landi was a folk hero. An elementary school dropout turned mechanic who participated in illegal night races on the streets of his hometown, São Paulo. In 1951, Landi would become the first Brazilian driver to race in Formula One. Later, he became the first Brazilian to score points in the world championship in 1956. However, Landi wouldn’t be a factor in the outcome of this particular race as he failed to finish.
Manuel de Teffé was the true societal opposite of Landi. Manuel de Teffé von Hoonholtz (to use his full legal name) was descended from Prussian nobility. De Teffé’s great-grandfather Friedrich Wilhelm von Hoonholtz was a Napoleonic War veteran who fought at the Battle of Waterloo. He later was recruited to fight for Emperor Pedro I of Brazil and serve in the Brazilian Army. He emigrated to Rio de Janeiro, where he was referred to as Frederico Guilherme von Hoonholtz.
De Teffé’s grandfather was a Brazilian Navy admiral ennobled by Emperor Pedro II as “O Barão de Teffé” (the Baron of Teffé). Manuel de Teffé was born in Paris as his father was a diplomat for the Brazilian government. He was raised in Europe as his father moved from post to post around the continent, and De Teffé never lived in Brazil long-term until his mid-20s. While back in Brazil, De Teffé became a supporter of the Integralist Party, the contemporary Brazilian equivalent of the 1930s European fascist parties.
As a result of his background and political views, Manuel de Teffé was a relatively divisive figure. Either he was seen as a wealthy out-of-touch aristocrat or as a national icon for Brazil’s future on the world stage.
On race day, the city seemed feverish to see the inaugural contest. São Paulo had a population of around 1.3 million in 1936. There were reportedly massive traffic jams as an estimated crowd of 600,000 people made their way to the circuit. Although, the race itself wasn’t as competitive as the public would have hoped.
Scuderia Ferrari thoroughly dominated the race with a 1-2 finish to end their day. Carlo Pintacuda won the São Paulo Grand Prix with such a significant advantage that he was able to stop to push start the car of his stalled teammate Attilio Marinoni. Marinoni finished an entire lap clear of 3rd place, and Pintacuda finished a lap ahead of Marinoni.
The actual race was for the last step on the podium. Hellé Nice was third for the majority of the Grand Prix until she had to make a pitstop with eight laps to go. She rejoined the race in fourth place behind Manuel de Teffé. Nice was closing in on De Teffé at an incredible rate of five seconds per lap. Hellé Nice caught De Teffé on the final lap of the race. She pulled alongside the Brazilian driver on the main straight as they raced to the finish line.
This is the point where the story of what occurred becomes vague.
On the run to the finish line, Hellé Nice struck an object on the track at almost 100 mph. Her Alfa Romeo violently veered to the left into the crowd. With only two wheels on the pavement, her car spun down the straight. The car came back down on its wheels and began to somersault down the track’s edge. Nice was thrown clear of the vehicle and hit one of the soldiers providing crowd control for the race. Nice’s car came to a stop in front of the main grandstand.
Hellé Nice fractured her skull but survived the impact. Unfortunately, the soldier who broke her fall lost his life. Three other soldiers also died, along with two civilians. The six fatalities and over 30 people injured make this incident still the deadliest in the history of Brazilian motorsport.
Every account of the incident mentions that Nice hit something to lose control. Though, there is no agreement on what (or who) was struck by Nice’s left-front wheel. A photographer took a series of photos of the incident’s initial moments. Though, the object in question is out of the camera’s line of sight. Blocked by the spectators crowding the track.
Speculation ranges from an unaware soldier blindly stepping into the speeding car’s path to a zealous Manuel de Teffé fan pushing either a straw bale or another spectator into Nice’s path. The latter theory does have a substantive motive. Integralist green-shirts were eagerly prepared to present a specially made trophy to Manuel de Teffé after the race finished. While the incident secured De Teffé’s podium finish, the disastrous crash abruptly canceled the Integralist presentation.
The most prominent part of the incident’s aftermath was the construction of Autódromo de Interlagos. A racing circuit was intended to be built on the site during the late 1920s. Though, the Great Depression caused the project to grind to a halt. The incident at the São Paulo Grand Prix was used by the President of the Brazilian Automobile Club to display the vital need for a permanent circuit in São Paulo, allowing the developer to revive the project. Interlagos would host its first race in 1940.
Of the incident’s many aspects, my mind constantly returns to how Hellé Nice never raced in another Grand Prix. Nice spent two months in a coma before regaining consciousness. After her recovery, Nice could not get another chance in Grand Prix racing. The podium-securing photo finish could have elevated Hellé Nice’s status as a driver and earned her entry into the first major Grand Prix of her career. It would have dramatically changed the trajectory of not only her career but the careers of every woman in Grand Prix racing after her.