Two World Championships, two racing careers – and Emerson Fittipaldi plans to break more new ground for 1996
There has always been a storied even fanciful quality to Emerson Fittipaldi’s career, almost as if it’s been infused with the same other-worldly spirits that are so much a part of the fabric of everyday life in his native Brazil.
For example, Fittipaldi’s meteoric rise from Formula Ford to Formula One in 18 months is the stuff of fairy tales. By comparison, the pace of Michael Schumacher’s ascent to prominence seems positively glacial, all the more so because Fittipaldi scored his first Formula One victory in only his fourth start.
But it wasn’t just that he was averaging a 25 per cent strike rate after four races that made his inaugural Formula One win at Watkins Glen 25 years ago so special. In winning the 1970 US Grand Prix, the 23-year-old Fittipaldi secured the World Championship for his fallen Lotus team leader Jochen Rindt, who had perished at Monza a month earlier.
In his first three races, Fittipaldi had qualified 21st, 14th and 15th. Tragically elevated to team leadership, he responded by qualifying fourth at Watkins Glen, behind Jacky Ickx, Jackie Stewart and Pedro Rodriguez. But it wasn’t just his status as lead driver that spurred Fittipaldi to the sharp end of the grid at the Glen.
“This was my first race driving a Lotus 72,” he recalls. “I had practised in one at Monza but Colin Chapman withdrew the team after Jochen’s accident. I started in a 49B in England, Germany and in Austria where I was the last driver to start a Grand Prix in a Lotus 49B. Now I am proud to have driven the same car that Jimmy Clark, Graham Hill and Mario Andretti drove, but it wasn’t as competitive as the 72. But I was put in a competitive situation and I had to perform.
“After Jochen passed away, Colin Chapman decided not to race in Canada and we came to Watkins Glen and suddenly there was a lot of pressure on me, not only because I was the Number One driver for Team Lotus, but because Jochen had been a very good friend of mine. We’d raced together in Formula 2 and he wanted me to replace him on the team, which was owned by Bernie Ecclestone.
“But once the race started, I focused on who was ahead of me and forgot about the pressure and about what had happened to Jochen. Jackie Stewart and Jacky Ickx had a big lead but in the middle of the race I began catching Pedro Rodriguez and I thought maybe I could finish on the podium. Later, I realised there was no way I could catch him, but Jackie broke down, Ickx had a problem and then with 10 laps to go Pedro ran out of fuel.
“I remember crossing the finish line and seeing Colin Chapman doing his classic move of throwing his hat in the air. It was a dream come true but I never expected still to be racing 25 years later! Also it was very gratifying for me to be able to help clinch the World Championship for Jochen and the constructors’ championship for Lotus.”
The United States and Watkins Glen in particular would play a pivotal role in Fittipaldi’s career. Four years later he beat Clay Regazzoni at Watkins Glen to secure the second of his two World Driving Championships, and the first of many World Championships for a Marlboro-backed McLaren team. Some 10 years later, Fittipaldi came out of retirement to drive a sports car in the Miami Grand Prix and, a couple of months later, came home fifth at Long Beach – former home of the US Grand Prix West – on his Indycar debut.
“I came to Miami for four days,” he says, “and 11 years and two children later I’m still here!”
His IndyCar career has also had a magical quality to it, beginning with that first drive at Long Beach in Pepe Romero’s hot pink March-Cosworth. By mid-season he had progressed to Patrick Racing where he soon convinced Philip Morris to enter the PPG Indy Car World Series. And just as he brought Marlboro its first Formula One world championship, so he would bring them their first IndyCar win and, in 1989, their first win at Indianapolis after a last lap wheel-banging pass of Al Unser Jnr in what surely ranks as history’s most dramatic Indy 500.
Fittipaldi later took Marlboro with him to Penske Racing, bringing three of the most formidable forces in IndyCar racing together. This combination produced another Indy 500 win in 1992 with Rick Mears, a third in 1993 for Fittipaldi and climaxed with an incredible 1994 season, which saw Marlboro Penske win another Indy 500 as well as 12 of 16 races on the way to another PPG title.
But 1995 was not such a good year for Fittipaldi. He just missed out on a win at Phoenix, made up for it at Nazareth and then endured the unthinkable as he and team-mate Al Unser Jnr failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. Although Unser rebounded with a late bid for the PPG title, Fittipaldi finished 11th in the points, his first time outside the top 10 since his rookie season.
But just as some were about to write the final chapter in his career came the announcement that Fittipaldi will be driving for the newly-formed Hogan Penske team in 1996. In a sense, he will have the best of both worlds: shared access to the information of three Penskes his own as well as those of Unser and Paul Tracy yet individual attention from the new team and the freedom to chart their own course when needed.
“We can get all the information from three cars, assimilate it and tailor it to Emerson’s style,” says Carl Hogan, who joined forces with Roger Penske after a four-year association with Bobby Rahal. “Emerson will get individual attention: what he wants is what he’ll get. And I think that’s going to be Important from an attitude standpoint, I think it’s going to be important from a performance standpoint.”
Fittipaldi welcomes the change.
“Last year at most tracks we started on Friday with Al Unser Jnr’s set-up,” he says. Al has a different style, a different way of setting up his car than I prefer. By Saturday I had the car set-up to my style, but by then I was a day behind. When a situation like that happens it is easy to lose confidence in your own set-up and in your own performance.
“With the Hogan Penske team we’ll have more options to set the car up for my own way, my own style of driving. We have a very extensive test programme planned. We are all very motivated, and have again a new energy.”
Then too, the season will open with a race at the Homestead Motor Sports Complex just south of Fittipaldi’s adopted home in Miami. Next comes Brazil’s first IndyCar race at the Nelson Piquet International Raceway inside the old Jacarepagua road circuit near Rio de Janeiro in his native Brazil. Ever since his early success in IndyCar racing, Fittipaldi has lobbied long and hard to bring IndyCar racing to Brazil, and now it is about to happen.
“I’m very excited about the first IndyCar race in Brazil,” he says. “We announced the launch of our new team in Sao Paulo and it was very successful. We flew the car down, and had about 500 press people from all over the world. I think the impact of the IndyCar race on racing in Brazil will be very great.”
What’s more, the financial backing for Hogan Penske comes from Marlboro Latin America, as part of a programme designed to boost the careers of young Latin American drivers. In addition to Fittipaldi’s IndyCar program, Marlboro Latin American will back a two-car Indy Lights team expected to be fielded by Tasman Racing, which dominated the Firestone Indy Lights Championship in 1993/94.
The first IndyCar race in Brazil; sponsorship from Marlboro to support Latin American drivers and a new team focused exclusively on him; it all adds up to an exciting future for Fittipaldi who, for all he’s accomplished, refuses to live in the past.
“It’s very nice to walk in the trophy room and see the trophies, but I’m always looking ahead,” he says. “I try not to mind about the past but see the past as experience, and use that to help me for the next year and the next race.
“I still have the motivation to succeed and be competitive. People ask me, ‘Emerson, why do you still carry on with your driving?’ And I tell them, ‘As long as I have the love and motivation to carry on and win races 1 will continue.’ A lot of these things give me motivation.
“I tell you, when I first saw the car in Sao Paulo it was very impressive, typical Hogan Penske style. Very professional. Very beautiful. I just hope it goes as quick as it looks.”
The signs are that it will. The last time Fittipaldi drove a customer Penske was in 1989 when he won PPG Championship; then there’s the fact that over the winter Emerson and his family travelled to Rome for an audience with Pope Paul II. Throw in a little luck of the Irish, courtesy of Hogan, and 1996 has all the makings of another glorious chapter in Emerson Fittipaldi’s diverse career.