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With no homegrown champion like Ayrton Senna or Nelson Piquet to root for, Brazilians are tuning out on Formula One auto racing.

November 12, 2015

SAO PAULO (AP) — When Lewis Hamilton won the United States Grand Prix last month to secure his third Formula One title, most Brazilians heard about it for only 15 seconds during a soccer match on Brazil’s leading broadcaster.

Globo shunned the race on its cable channel, reflecting F1’s sinking popularity in a country that was once a hotbed for the series.

The Brazilian GP on Sunday puts the decline into focus.

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Brazil no longer has an F1 star to match the likes of three-time champions Ayrton Senna or Nelson Piquet. Senna was Brazil’s last champion, 24 years ago.

Its best active driver is Felipe Massa, who hasn’t won a race in seven years. And no potential champions appear to be in the pipeline.

F1 commercial chief Bernie Ecclestone recognizes the problem. He has pointed out that Mexico, which held its grand prix two weeks ago—its first in 23 years—could become a more lucrative market than Brazil in Latin America. And he has pressed Globo to step up its coverage.

Speaking to Brazilian reporters, Massa took aim at Globo for the fading interest.

“What Globo covers is what Brazilians see the most,” he said. “It is the No. 1 broadcaster here, and the more help we have from them, the better. With less coverage on TV it will be difficult for us to make their ratings go up again.”

He compared the situation in Brazil with the interest being shown in Mexico, where the sport is on the rise.

“We have to see what Mexico is doing,” he said. “They welcomed Formula One regardless of the little chance of their home driver winning the race. Formula One has to be treated as one of the most important sports.”

Only diehard fans are expected to go to Interlagos this weekend, after the championship was settled two races ago in Texas.

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“The title race is decided, Brazil’s economy is in crisis, Brazilian drivers don’t stand a chance of winning—and Formula One is less and less on TV,” Erich Beting, owner of sports marketing firm Maquina do Esporte, told The Associated Press.

Another measure of Brazil's falling interest, and a key one for sponsors, comes from private ratings company Ibope, which is used by local TV networks.

In 2008, when Hamilton and Massa were fighting for the season title, Globo scored 33 points on Ibope's scale for the Brazilian GP. This year’s race is expected to be half that—or less.

Most local football matches draw higher ratings, and a match between big teams like Rio’s Flamengo and Sao Paulo’s Corinthians rarely drops below 20.

Globo’s best F1 score this season was 10.2 on Ibope’s scale for the Canadian GP. Ratings for the Malaysian race, hours before dawn in Brazil, were among the worst for a Globo F1 broadcast: 3 points counted by Ibope.

Globo’s resident F1 commentator, Galvao Bueno, sides with Ecclestone.

During the Mexican GP, he published a picture of himself watching the race on SporTV, Globo’s cable alternative.

“It is very odd that after 40 years I am at home watching Formula One. But TV Globo is not broadcasting,” he said on Instagram, a disappointed look on his face.

Beting, a sports marketing expert, noted that the Williams team’s sponsorship deal with state-run oil company Petrobras may not sit well with many Brazilians.

Brazil’s economy is in recession, the value of the local currency has plummeted in relation to the U.S. dollar, and Petrobras is embroiled in a multi-billion-dollar bribery scandal that has prompted calls for impeaching Brazil President Dilma Rousseff.

“This is a company involved in a big corruption scandal,” Beting said, “and Brazilians might start asking why they are spending with a racing team.”

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