Gordon Kirby

Christian soldiers onward

America’s Tudor United SportsCar series made its debut with this year’s Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona in January. The race was the first of 12 rounds in the inaugural TUSC championship, a merger of the formerly competing ALMS and Grand-Am series, and the clearest message from Daytona was that the Action Express Corvette DP team and regular drivers Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi are favourites to win this year’s title.

Barbosa and Fittipaldi were joined at Daytona by Sébastien Bourdais, who will also drive at Sebring in March and Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta in October. The Action Express team led most of the way at Daytona, and Fittipaldi believes Barbosa and he have a great chance to win this year’s championship.

“We have a serious shot,” he says. “I did last year, but we fell back over the last two races. All in all, though, we ran a very strong championship considering Joao and I didn’t drive together until the fourth race. So this year is exciting. Joao and I are together from the get-go.”

Christian is Emerson’s nephew, of course, and the son of Wilson who also raced F1 cars and with his brother founded the ill-fated Fittipaldi F1 team. Christian drove for Minardi and Footwork in F1 between 1992 and ’94 after winning the FIA F3000 title in ’91. He moved to Indycars in 1995, finishing second to Jacques Villeneuve at Indianapolis in his first and only start in the Indy 500. The following year Fittipaldi joined Newman/Haas and raced in CART until 2002, winning at Elkhart Lake in 1999 and the California 500 in 2000.

With CART in decline Fittipaldi decided to give NASCAR a try in 2003. He also did some Grand-Am racing and won the Daytona 24 Hours in 2004. Over the next few years he ran a handful of Grand-Am races and also raced GT cars at Le Mans in 2006, ’07 and ’08. Throughout this time he lived in Miami, but then returned to Brazil for a few years and married his second wife Cristiana. In 2011 and ’12 Fittipaldi joined Action Express for the Daytona 24 Hours, finishing third and fifth, and last year he returned to Miami and ran the full season.

Action Express is owned by Bob Johnson, who runs a large accounting business in Daytona Beach. The team is based in North Carolina and run by veteran NASCAR crew chief Gary Nelson. “Gary has so much mechanical experience because he’s built race cars over so many years that he’s definitely a great asset to us,” Fittipaldi says. “His background and experience makes a huge difference. He’s extremely calm all the time. When a driver gets excited, he tells you to calm down, reset yourself and just make sense of everything.”

At 43, Fittipaldi has emerged as a mature, veteran sports car racer who believes he and team-mate Barbosa can win. “These cars fit me like a glove right now. When I get in, within two laps I know exactly what’s happening. Joao and I don’t need laps. We need to understand the car to make it faster. We have so much experience with this type of racing that we can immediately work on making the car go quicker and I think that’s an advantage.

“I couldn’t ask for better team-mates than Joao and Sébastien. Everyone gets along very well and there are no ego problems. I have a lot of general experience with racing and things I’ve learned in my past can be applied to this type of racing, although the cars are different. Believe it or not, there’s stuff I learned in NASCAR that I can apply to sports cars and stuff I learned in Indycars too – and even going back to Formula 1. That’s a big plus for me and it’s why I think we have a shot at the championship.”