Brazil’s own Formula One team was founded by Wilson Fittipaldi – brother of 1972 and 74 world champion Emerson – and was originally named for the principal sponsor, Copersucar. The car was launched in 1974 and driven in 74 and 75 by Wilson Fittipaldi without much success, but at the end of 1975, Emerson Fittipaldi shocked the F1 paddock by announcing that he was leaving McLaren to join his brother’s team. The 1976 car was better, and Emerson was able to score points for three sixth places, and with the same car in 1977 managed two fourth and one fifth places. With a new designer, the 1978 car was even better and Emerson came second in the team’s home race, but in 1979 the Copersucar sponsorship dried up and the team merged with the also-struggling Wolf outfit, running Wolf’s driver Keke Rosberg alongside Emerson in 1980 with replacement sponsorship from Skol. By now, Emerson was past his best and after being regularly shown up by Rosberg, retired at the end of 1980, leaving Keke to lead the team with the thankless task of replacing the great Emerson Fittipaldi was given to Brazilian debutante Chico Serra.
Keijo “Keke” Rosberg was born in Stockholm but grew up in Finland, and got his start racing Formula Vee, Formula Atlantic (and its Australian equivalent, Formula Pacific) and Formula Two before making his F1 debut at the relatively advanced age of 29 with Teddy Yip’s Theodore team. He turned heads with a great drive to win the non-championship BRDC International Trophy, but spent the rest of the season failing to qualify either with Theodore or ATS. In mid-1979, he joined Wolf to replace James Hunt who had abruptly retired, but the Canadian team were on their last legs and merged with the equally-struggling Fittipaldi team at the end of the season, putting Keke alongside former champion Emerson Fittipaldi. Rosberg took third on his debut with the team and, despite three DNQs outscored his illustrious teammate by one point. With Fittipaldi’s retirement, Rosberg took on the team leader role.
Emerson Fittipaldi’s emergence as Brazil’s first superstar of Formula One had encouraged many young Brazilians to want to emulate their hero and, with domestic racing in South America being seen as inferior, many followed in Emerson’s footsteps by heading to Britain to make their name. Francisco “Chico” Serra was well-funded and found himself a good mentor in Ron Dennis at the Project Four team in Formula Three. Serra won several races in 1978 but a big accident saw him miss out on the title to fellow-countryman Nelson Piquet and decided to stay in F3 for 1979, taking the title with five wins. Moving up to Formula 2, still with Project Four, he found himself a slightly smaller fish in a slightly bigger pond and could only manage a clutch of fourth places, but things still looked promising for 1981. Then Formula One came calling; Serra’s hero Emerson Fittipaldi had retired, and the Fittipaldi team wanted a Brazilian driver to replace him. Ready or not, he didn’t feel able to pass up the opportunity and joined the team to make his debut in Long Beach.