The Fittipaldi F1 team: no sugar, no beer, no fizz

The Fittipaldi brothers lived the dream with their F1 team. But, they tell Marcus Simmons, when Copersucar and Skol pulled out it all turned flat

Formel 1, Grand Prix Monaco 1976, Monte Carlo, 30.05.1976 Emerson Fittipaldi, Fittipaldi-Ford FD04 , copyright: HOCH ZWEI / Ronco (Photo by Hoch Zwei/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Fittipaldi project was an exciting one for the band of Brazilian brothers, but ultimately went flat

Hoch Zwei/Corbis via Getty Images

A switch in management at Skol beer 25 years ago had the biggest effect on the destiny of the 1982 Formula One World Championship. Eh? Come on, that’s got you! Want an explanation? Okay— read on.

Consider this: in 1980 there was a neat little F1 team. Its new star was a frighteningly committed, talented and brave young Finn called Keke Rosberg; chief designer was the gifted, intuitive Harvey Postlethwaite; also on the books was a studious boy-wonder aerodynamicist fresh out of university named Adrian Newey; and in the background, working on R&D, was Ricardo ‘Richard’ Divila, a man for whom the term ‘maverick genius’ might have been coined. Fronting it all were the Fittipaldi brothers: Wilson, an ex-F1 midfielder, and Emerson, two-time World Champion and on the verge of calling time on his fading driving career to devote his energies to his ownership role. Their team manager was Peter Warr, a man about whom opinions are divided (Emerson calls him “one of the best”; Divila disliked him), but with a good track record at Lotus.

“I started to see a light at the end of the tunnel but then the money problems struck” Wilson Fittipaldi

Starting in 1980, Skol was contracted for a three-year period of sponsorship of the Fittipaldi team. At mid-season the F8 appeared, and on its second outing Rosberg put it on the fourth row for the German Grand Prix. “At that time I started to see a light at the end of the tunnel,” remembers Wilson. “You know, maybe now we take off. But then the money problems struck.

“Skol sold the factory, and the new people came in and didn’t want to be involved in F1. They paid us one part of the money for the next year (1981), but that was nothing compared to what we needed for the two years. At that moment the really big problems started for us.”

Wilson Fittipaldi Brazil 75

Wilson at the wheel during the first ever home grand prix for Fittipaldi

Grand Prix Photo

By 1982, its final season, Fittipaldi was down to a single car, for Chico Serra. In the same year Rosberg, now with a calmness and maturity complementing his speedy flamboyance, took the drivers’ world championship for Williams, while the Postlethwaite-designed Ferraris took the constructors’ title back to Italy. Newey had also left to continue a career that would hit its peak with dominant cars at Williams and McLaren. But what if the Fittipaldi 1980 nucleus had still been together at that point? Who knows what they could have achieved? Could they have been winners?

So the Fittipaldi team bowed out of F1 at the bottom of the heap, just as it had been when it entered in 1975 amid a blaze of national pride as an all-Brazilian effort, backed by the state-owned Copersucar sugar company. “I first started thinking of it in 1971 and ’72,” remembers Wilson. “Myself and Richard Divila modified the bodywork, the suspension and a lot of things on my Formula Two March. So we started to think, ‘Why don’t we start an F1 team? In 1974 I stopped driving (Wilson had driven in F1 for Brabham in ’73) and we started to build the car in Brazil. After eight months’ work we put the car on the track and we had our first race in Argentina in ’75.”

“Brazil was very far away from the motorsport industry and made you very self-reliant” Ricardo Divila

Divila was a former child prodigy the Fittipaldi brothers knew from São Paulo — at the age of 12 he worked on his first car, an ex-works Maserati 250F being raced by local amateur Luis Americo Margarido. Throughout his teens he devoured technical magazines and X-ray drawings of racing cars before studying automotive engineering at university and getting involved in aircraft engineering. He karted against the Fittipaldis, but soon realised his talents lay off the track.

The brothers built their own karts, then began constructing single-seater Formula Vee racing cars. Emerson went to Europe to race in Formula Ford and Formula Three in 1969, but at the end of the year he returned home and competed with Wilson in an endurance race at Rio with a Divila-inspired ‘special’. It was, in fact, a bizarre twin-engined, glass fibre-bodied VW Beetle, and Emerson qualified it second, behind fellow local hero Carlos Pace’s Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 prototype and ahead of a Lola-Chevrolet T70 and Ford GT40! “I got a lot of my experience hands-on rather than at school,” explains Divila. “Brazil was a little bit like Australia and South Africa — very far away from the motorsport industry — and it made you very self-reliant.”

From the archive

As well as working with Wilson, Divila got involved with Emerson’s Lotus 69 F2 in ’71: “We modified Emerson’s car quite a lot, and eventually it was almost all our car and we had quite a successful year with it. That was the first step towards designing our own car.”

With his confidence now sky high, Divila went radical for the first Fittipaldi F1 car, the FD01. Wilson explains: “At that time we had a maximum size for front and rear wings in the regulations, so we had to try to find a way to make the car faster in a straight line. Because of that we had the first F1 car in modern history to enclose the engine and the gearbox completely. Our car was very, very streamlined. And we decided that if I sat lower we could have our airbox lower. But making a decision like that for your first F1 car is a mistake!”

Wilson tested the car at São Paulo’s Interlagos circuit. “That was okay,” says Divila, “because Wilson knew the place backwards. But when we went to Argentina for the first race he couldn’t see the apex at any of the corners!” Wilson went out in a fiery accident, but work was simultaneously being carried out on a second car, which Wilson raced in Brazil and in which the driving position was propped up.

“It was a bit of a cock-up,” admits Divila of the ’75 season. “We were very young (Divila was still only 27), we did not have enough experience and technically we were too brave. There were a lot of good ideas, but even in England it would have been difficult to do them!”

Emerson joined the team from McLaren for ’76 as driver, while Wilson decided to stand down. The move shocked the F1 world. “I was in negotiations to continue with McLaren,” says Emerson. “But I don’t think Teddy (Mayer, the team boss) was very fair with what he offered to me.” (Divila reckons that, to stay at McLaren, his old friend had been offered three-quarters what Niki Lauda was to earn at Ferrari). “Wilson was building a new car for ’76 that was conventional and looked good and Richard was doing very well. I thought ‘Why not? It’s the time to go now and decided to do it. It was a very difficult decision, but I had a lot of idealisme to have this team materialise.”

Emerson Fittipaldi, Fittipaldi-Ford FD04, Grand Prix of Spain, Circuito del Jarama, 02 May 1976. (Photo by Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images)

Pensive ‘Emmo’ – the reigning world champion decided to join Fittipaldi for the ’76 season, shocking the F1 world

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

Fittipaldi set some stunning times in testing at Interlagos prior to the season-opening Brazilian Grand Prix and was third fastest on the first day of qualifying. He then sprained his elbow in a charity tennis match and slipped to fifth on Saturday. “For the race we fooled ourselves by installing one of the first electronic-ignition engines,” says Divila. “We thought, ‘If it’s new it’s better’. A small pickup on the front wasn’t well tightened, it moved forward and touched a little aluminium plate you have at the front of the belt-drive, so we had aluminium chips flying around everywhere and it was cutting out. We changed everything in a pitstop, but it’s a shame — I’m sure we could have had a podium.”

The relationship had started well but soon deteriorated. Emerson had his own ideas on engineering and Divila was not pushy enough to fight his corner. “I could control Wilson quite well because we had a working relationship right back to Formula Vee,” he says, “but Emerson was out of my control. I didn’t have the authority to tell someone who had a very good reputation as a test driver that he’s barking up the wrong tree. He was an extremely good test driver when he had someone like Colin Chapman, but for his old karting mate it was difficult to say no.”

Sure enough, at the Belgian GP in May Fittipaldi failed to qualify. “He was edged out by 13 hundredths of a second by Brett Lunger in the Chesterfield Surtees,” winces Divila. “It’s branded on my heart!”

There were other problems from outside. Goodyear, which was being sued for Mark Donohue’s fatal crash in Austria in 1975, had gone conservative on tyres from April’s Spanish GP. “The new tyres had been tested by McLaren and Ferrari,” says Divila, “but they had long-wheelbase cars with more weight on the front. Our car and the Shadow were biased to put the traction down. All of a sudden we had an undriveable car. At the Swedish GP, Emerson was going through those long corners almost on full lock from the understeer. We retired because we ran out of front tyres.”

It’s been reported that the Fittipaldis had a few fraternal rows, too, although now they chuckle and play it down. “It was very tough because I was world champion two years before and then things were not going so well,” says Emerson. “People started saying, ‘Emerson is losing the edge’. The pressure was really building up on myself and Wilson and that was very difficult.”

For 1977 Divila stepped into his R&D role, while Dave Baldwin was recruited as designer. The result, the F5, was very similar to his impressive Ensign N176. It was modified for ’78 by ex-Ferrari engineer Giacomo Caliri to produce the F5A, the team’s most successful car. “FLY Studio (Caliri’s company) had very good connections in Modena to use all the Ferrari sub-contractors to do our bodywork, nose and cooling system,” says Divila. “I just lucked in with the ground-effect: I looked quite a lot at what Lotus were doing and did quite a good version of it. We kept Dave’s chassis, steering and rollhoop from F5, changed everything else and started out bloody well.”

Fittipaldi 1978 Monaco

Fittipaldi pilots the F5A, the team’s most successful car, at Monaco ’78

Grand Prix Photo

In round two, at the revamped Rio track (and nine years after he had starred in the Beetle at the same venue), Fittipaldi finished the Brazilian GP in second place behind Carlos Reutemann. It would remain the team’s best result.

“That was our most consistent car over a whole year,” Emerson recalls. “It was a little heavy, but it was running extremely good at Rio.” He shrugs off suggestions that, had Reutemann’s Ferrari not been on Michelins, he could have pushed the Argentinian for the win. “The race we had a real chance of winning, more than Brazil, was Canada at the end of that year,” he states. “We were on the third row of the grid and in the race-morning warm-up I was fastest on full tanks. But I ran 150 metres and then Hans Stuck took me out at the first chicane. The car had been handling beautifully and was very consistent. I was looking to have a great race.”

From the archive

Already ex-Lotus man Ralph Bellamy was working on the F6 for ’79, but that was a disaster. “My opinion is we made a mistake changing designers so much,” offers Emerson. “Ralph’s car was a beautiful one but very radical for the time. It was the most expensive grand prix car built at that time — it was a piece of art. It took a year and a half to build and was incredible technically, but the chassis was just too soft and had no rigidity. We lost a lot of time and money on that car.”

Up to this stage most of the cars were built in Brazil, even if the race team was based in England, but when Fittipaldi took over the Wolf team for 1980 it moved entirely into that squad’s Reading premises. Postlethwaite, Warr and Rosberg all stayed on from Wolf, the Finn joining Emerson in the driver lineup as the team expanded to a full-time two-car effort, initially using the ’79 Wolf chassis.

“The first race with Keke was Argentina,” says Wilson. “But Keke destroyed one car on Friday, one on Saturday (although the Autosport report of the time says that one of the cars was actually sidelined by an oil leak). So I organised the team to work all night to fix a car using parts from both cars to assemble a new one for the race. And Keke finished third.” As well as that, Rosberg had outqualified Fittipaldi by 2.45sec… Wilson continues: “At the end of qualifying Emerson asked, ‘Which engine did you give to him?’ and I thought, ‘Maybe now we’ve sparked another problem!’”

More accidents from Rosberg meant that results with the new F8 late in the season were not what they might have been, but his speed was clear. Emerson, meanwhile, retired: “The full ground-effect cars, with the moveable skirts, had so much downforce that you had to have big balls to go deeper and faster into the fast corners. It was unbelievable and there was no feeling — I lost motivation and the desire.”

Unfortunately, he had also lost Copersucar (at the end of 1979) and then Skol. Wilson explains: “The pressure in South America was too much and people didn’t have time to wait. People outside the business don’t understand how difficult it is to make a competitive F1 car. It’s nearly impossible to explain to them how it’s so complicated.”

Emerson stayed on as the team’s figurehead. “We had a great car from Harvey and we were trying to get that breakthrough, like Frank Williams when he got sponsorship from the Saudis,” he says. “We wanted to try and get through that same period.”

Keke Rosberg, Fittipaldi-Ford F8, Grand Prix of the Netherlands, Circuit Park Zandvoort, 31 August 1980. (Photo by Bernard Cahier/Getty Images)

Rosberg demonstrated the potential car and team had in 1980

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

But that breakthrough proved elusive. “We had no money,” says Divila. “In ’82 we wanted a consortium of sponsors for the 16 races. We managed to get 13 sponsor rotations, but we only got paid for six.” Although Wilson says the team was owned by him, with Emmo taking a share when he joined as driver, Divila claims he had a 33 per cent share. “I lost $1,317,282,” he says. “That will be on my tombstone! We were kids coming out of Brazil to go racing. We sold our cars, watches, everything to make it. And we lost it all and were back to zero.”

But those ‘kids’ are all still proud of their efforts, and you can hear the emotion in Wilson’s voice when he talks of the restoration of the FD01. At the end of last year Wilson, his ex-F1 racing son Christian and Ingo Hoffmann (who drove in a handful of races for the team in 1976 and ’77) steered the car around Interlagos. “The car is beautiful. Fantastic,” he bubbles. “I told Christian and Ingo, ‘If you crash this car I kill you!’ We had a big media presentation. Everyone was very excited and after 30 years I never imagined I would see my son driving the car I built. It was a very special day in my life.”

Back in its Copersucar livery, you can imagine this particular sugar additive was a sweet moment.