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The Olympian who saved Brazil's F1 race

Just three years ago there was a risk that Brazil's Formula 1 race would slip off the calendar, or at the very least move from its historic home at Interlagos.

Alan Adler, Sao Paulo GP promoter

Alan Adler, Sao Paulo GP promoter

Beto Issa/GP São Paulo

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Not only was the race saved at its traditional venue, albeit with the new name of the Sao Paulo Grand Prix, it has now had its future secured until at least 2030.

The man responsible is promoter Alan Adler, who was unknown in racing circles until 2020. He brought with him vast experience of running major sporting and entertainment events in Brazil, as well as – through unusual circumstances – solid investment from the government of Abu Dhabi.

In a previous life, Adler was a sportsman in his own right, representing his country in yachting in the two-man Flying Dutchman class at the 1984, 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games, while building up the competitive spirit that had made him a successful businessman.

"I did many years not at professional level, but amateur level," he says. "I did three Olympic Games, a few World Championships. I became Star Class World Champion, I got a silver medal in the PanAmerican Games. I had a great career. 

"And then I worked another 14 years in the automotive industry. My family owned forging plants. We were involved with engine components, suspension, supplying Volkswagen, Fiat, General Motors, Ford and Mercedes. I became the CEO of this company.

"So I have this background in mechanics, but I'm an economist. And then we decided to professionalise the management of the company."

Adler's career changed direction when an opportunity arose to get involved in sport in a management capacity.

"I was approached by a friend, Torben Grael, an Olympic champion in sailing," he says. "He used to race in America's Cup for Prada. He was always being approached by teams asking why doesn't Brazil have an America's Cup team.

"So he came to me, and I said 'I'm in the forging business. This is something else, to manage a team.' But I got involved somehow, and I liked the challenge.

Adler was a key figure in securing the future of the Brazilian race

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Adler was a key figure in securing the future of the Brazilian race

"We thought that for the America's Cup, the bar was too high to raise money for that in Brazil. We decided instead to do the Volvo Ocean Race, which used to be the Whitbread. The investment level was less. For America's Cup, it was $100million. And for the Volvo, it was $30million.

"I had to talk to every businessman in the country to raise what we raised at the time. And we did the Brazilian sailing team for the Volvo series in 2005-6. And it was a very successful project, we finished third, on the podium.

"I started to understand how I could bring value to this business in terms of event management. And then I started to promote music – and I did the Police tour in 2007, the first big one after the sailing."

Before long, Adler's Brazil 1 organisation was involved in football, golf, tennis, swimming, UFC and NBA pre-season games, alongside non-sporting events such as Cirque du Soleil and fashion shows. He then sold the business.

"I sold my company to IMG and Eike Batista, a very rich guy at the time who was on the rich lists of the world," he says. "And it became IMX. Then in 2014 Eike capsized, and went Chapter 11."

One of the entities affected by the collapse was Mubadala, Abu Dhabi's sovereign investor entity, which has interests worldwide, and at one point was a shareholder in the Mercedes F1 team.

"Mubadala was a creditor to Eike – they had invested $2billion in his holding company," says Adler. 

"So when he went Chapter 11, Mubadala took over a few assets. One of the assets was IMX, and I got presented to Mubadala back in 2014."

Adler thus found himself back in charge of the company he founded, renaming it IMM, for Mubadala. Then, in 2020, the opportunity to become involved in F1 presented itself.

Liberty Media had discovered that the Interlagos race had some unexpected issues associated with it.

Bernie Ecclestone always had a soft spot for the event, and had given it an unusual deal whereby TV Globo subsidised the hosting fee. When that arrangement expired, it emerged that there was a contract for a race in Brazil, but no fee at all.

Alan Adler, Sao Paulo GP promoter

Photo by: Beto Issa/GP São Paulo

Alan Adler, Sao Paulo GP promoter

Meanwhile, F1 CEO Chase Carey pursued a brand-new project in Rio, and it looked like Interlagos would be consigned to the history books.

"What happened was Liberty found a great opportunity to do F1 in Rio," says Adler. "They had some commitments at the time, and they stopped talking to Sao Paulo. I think Sao Paulo perceived that something was strange with the renewal.

"And then the promoter here [Tamas Rohonyi] was no longer in communication with Liberty. So Sao Paulo asked me to try to find out what was happening.

"I had some connections with the mayor's office, and I approached Tamas, and said, 'Look, can we be together and see if we can help Sao Paulo to keep F1?'

"We visited F1 in London, and we met Chase. And then Tamas said, 'I have no more interest to continue, but I think I can support Alan with my experience'.

"We had to wait until the Rio project fell apart naturally, because of the area they wanted to use – there was a green issue.

"Then Chase left, and Stefano Domenicali came. And his decision was that we have to go to Sao Paulo. I think he values a lot what the drivers say, and they love the circuit.

"So we engaged at the end of 2020, with Mubadala as investor, together with other friends. It's a different company than IMM, completely different, so I'm CEO of both IMM and Brazil Motorsport."

The final piece in the jigsaw was the full support of the mayor of the city of Sao Paulo, which owns the circuit and leases it to the promoter.

Alan Adler, Sao Paulo GP promoter

Photo by: Beto Issa/GP São Paulo

Alan Adler, Sao Paulo GP promoter

Although Adler won't be drawn in how much the city puts in, paperwork that emerged during a legal challenge suggested that it was 20 million reals a year, or around £3.3m.

"It's a lot of investment," says Adler. "Sao Paulo said, 'We need to bring some more value. We want to have the name of the race.'

"I think it's the business model of F1. And Sao Paulo is one of many cities that has the same business model. Because, if you see the benefits this race brings to the region, it's amazing."

Signed in December 2020, the initial deal kept the race in Sao Paulo until 2025. November's contract extension added a further five years, the new mayor having continued the support kickstarted by his predecessor.

Interlagos is following in the footsteps of the majority of other races, with a series of long-term extensions having been agreed in the last couple of years.

"In my opinion, as a promoter in event management, two years is nothing," says Adler. "With an event that size, how can you make a decision on investment?

"You need some stability, and predictability. So I think F1 is doing the right thing to bring that visibility, and to plan better their logistics. You need to know what you're going to have, otherwise how do you plan?"

While as GP promoter Adler is responsible for specific track modifications related to the F1 event, the wider use of Interlagos – for music and other events – has ensured that the city pays for general infrastructure upgrades.

"There are other things that are not for F1," says Adler. "They invest because they want to have Interlagos as a hub for larger events. So we are here, and we benefit. The pros and the cons of what they do, we are impacted. But so far, the mayor's support has been outstanding.

"This year, they did a lot of landscape work. They did a whole new sewage system - so a lot of money there. For next year, we hope to have a new tunnel to help a lot with the flow of fans into the circuit. It will go directly to the train station.

"And then the other great thing is that we will renew the Grandstand A, the one that's there for 80, along with a few other improvements of infrastructure and grandstands. So we are really very excited looking at what we're going to have next November."

The one thing missing is a local hero. Brazil has been spoiled over the decades by world champions Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet and of course Ayrton Senna, while in recent decades Rubens Barrichello and Felipe Massa have been focal points.

That said, the race still attracts a full house, so would it really make a difference?

"I don't know," Adler admits. "Because I wasn't here before. It's like asking me does the sprint help you? I don't know, I started with the sprint!

"I'm cheering for Felipe Drugovich to be lucky. He's good, he has the resources behind him. But in F1, it's not enough. He has also to be lucky."

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