Motor Racing / Grand Prix Countdown: Bearing the burden of Brazilian brilliance: Fittipaldi and Barrichello fly their flag at Silverstone on Sunday. Derick Allsop reports

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THEY are in their early twenties and have only 53 Formula One appearances between them, yet it is to these two young men that perhaps the most passionately committed sporting nation now looks for deliverance.

Brazil's footballers will testify to the pressures exerted by the expectations of their countrymen. They are cast as the guardians of a heritage, protectors of the beautiful game.

Unlike Pele and his contemporaries, however, Ayrton Senna was not able to live out his competitive career. So now Christian Fittipaldi and Rubens Barrichello are required not merely to follow the man many say was the greatest racing driver of them all, but in a sense to complete his unfulfilled mission.

The death of Senna, in the San Marino Grand Prix 10 weeks ago, stunned Fittipaldi and Barrichello as it stunned all Brazilians. 'For days afterwards I told myself this cannot be true,' 23-year-old Fittipaldi said. 'Not Ayrton. He was too good. I had visions of him dying peacefully in his chair, surrounded by his grandchildren. That's how it should have been.'

On Sunday, alas, for the first time in a decade, the British Grand Prix will go ahead without Senna, and more of his devoted fans will have to come to terms with his passing. Fittipaldi and Barrichello know the responsibility on their shoulders will weigh that much heavier.

Barrichello, 22, said: 'When we go to races, fans say 'now you must do it'. All I can say in reply is that we are here to do it but we must not be hurried. We need time.

'Of course we both have more pressures now, but maybe we are putting the pressure on ourselves, because we need to show Brazil the same type of thing that Senna showed. It is impossible at the moment. We want to show them because Brazil is so depressed, so upset, so we really want to do it.

'It will be difficult but we must have time. We just have to take care and do the right things.'

Barrichello and Fittipaldi have long been mindful of doing and saying the right things. The pressures are serving to reinforce the bond they determined to forge. They have been rivals since they were small boys, racing in karts, and some would have that rivalry become hostility. Barrichello and Fittipaldi insist that this will not happen.

Fittipaldi said: 'We have known each other since I was about 10 and he was nine. We were both from Sao Paulo and for six years we were in karts together. Rubens was very, very good and I have to admit he won more championships than I did, but I was often more unlucky.

'We were always at the front together and had lots of dices. Formula One then was just a dream. There were some stages where our relationship was bad, especially after one race, where we shunted and, after the re-start, shunted again. It was something really crazy. We didn't talk for three or four months.

'Now I reckon we have a very good relationship. We go out together and have as much fun as possible, and don't even talk about motor racing. The biggest problem is not the problem between Rubens and me. Sometimes people try to make our relationship worse.'

Both, like Senna, came to England to further their careers after those skirmishes in karts. Fittipaldi, from a famous racing family - his uncle, Emerson, was Brazil's first world champion - and with the looks of a soap idol, was always a candidate for superstardom. He won the 1991 European Formula 3000 Championship, entered Formula One with Minardi the following year, and this season joined Footwork- Ford.

Barrichello, blessed with an ever-present smile and engaging demeanour, was always good. He won the 1991 British Formula Three Championship, was third in Formula 3000 the following season, and was introduced to grand prix racing by Jordan-Hart last year.

But can they meet the ultimate demands? Fittipaldi said: 'It is difficult to say how far Rubens can go. He is undoubtedly very quick and he keeps it on the black stuff almost all the time, and it is important to finish races.

'He has the characteristics of a champion, but the difference between being one and not being one is very big. All I can say is that, in my opinion, he is on the correct road to becoming a champion and maybe one day he will get there.'

Barrichello said: 'I believe Christian has the potential to be a champion. He's very tactical and very quick, as well. If I was a team manager I would like to have him in my team. I think maybe he thinks the same way about me.'

(Photographs omitted)