The F5A was the most successful of all Fittipaldi’s Grand Prix designs. Andrew Frankel takes to the track in Emerson’s finest.
Introductions to Formula One cars come no better. The team is relaxed, the owner smiling, both unreasonably generous reactions to the sight of me clambering aboard their Grand Prix car at Donington. Macdonald Race Engineering is turning Fittipaldi F5A/02 from museum piece back to full-time race car and this is its first run in anger for years.
Ben Liebert bought it not simply for the purity and power of such cars but also for its name. No Fittipaldi starred against Ferrari and Lotus rivals of the time and even the F5A, most successful of all, only saw one championship podium, a second at the 1978 Brazilian GP. This is not that car. F5A/02 raced once all season at the non-championship International Trophy race at Silverstone. Even so, it was the debut of the Lotus 79 and Emerson came home second. Its only championship GPs were during the opening South American Grands Prix the following season. In Argentina, it grabbed the sole point of its Grand Prix career.
Now none of it matters. This is not just another F1 car and you only have to lower yourself past the black ‘Emerson’ painted on the side to know it.
The surprise, given Fittipaldi’s dimensions, is the room inside. Being six foot four often militates against driving such machinery at all but in fact I’m peculiarly close to comfort.
Paul Vincent, who works at MRE now and for Fittipaldi then describes the F5A as “a common sense car.” It was designed with ground effect but before composites became de rigueur. So while you’ll find full underbody aerodynamics, trick materials are restricted to composite plates on the rear wing and titanium bulkheads; the tub itself is aluminium.
Upon being reunited with the car, Vincent was amazed to find the car to be almost entirely original. “The tub’s almost unchanged apart and even the old fuel tanks have ‘1977’ stamped on them.”
Unlike many of the other F1 cars competing for track space at this Thoroughbred Grand Prix test day, the F5A is not yet in super-competitive trim. It’s a little heavy and the DFV is in standard tune. It gives about 460bhp at 10,500rpm in exchange for around 1000 miles of service, perhaps twice the life expectancy of the 530bhp units of the fastest cars.
Ben leans in and adds a few words of comfort. “Don’t worry about it. It’s dead easy to drive, nice and soft, doesn’t bite at all. The engine’s brand new so if you could keep it to 10,000rpm… you’ll find it’s quite flexible really, pulls cleanly from 6000rpm and goes like hell above 7500rpm. Enjoy yourself:”
If you insist. Before this it is worth bearing in mind the F5A still has around 900bhp per tonne of car, or 50 per cent more than that required to win Le Mans these days. I feel it is unlikely to dawdle.
To start up, you flick a switch, wait for the man at the back to plug in the remote starter and, as the engine spins over, catch it on the throttle. It settles into a deafeningly happy idle at 4000rpm.
The Hewland gearbox places the first of its five ratios closest to you, the clutch is sharp but not merciless and, if you’re confident, pulling away without making an idiot of yourself is easy enough.
Grand Prix cars are not to be driven hard at once. Tyres, engine, gearbox and driver need careful warming. The first impression is of smoothness; there’s no hopping about, no eyeball-jolting vibration. The gearbox takes acclimatisation (as those who heard both missed shifts will know) as the gate is wider than you’d think but, other than that, there are few problems between you and the peerless experience of a slicks and wings Formula One car.
And I can confirm Ben’s view of what happens above 7500rpm. The sensation is not alien, even at 10,000rpm in fifth; your brain still recognises what is, after all, merely acceleration. But searching for an analogy to enable you to understand the feeling is pointless. The best I can offer is a promise that the difference between the fastest Ferrari and slowest Skoda sold today is as nothing compared to the void between that Ferrari and this Fittipaldi.
It is as Ben describes: it reacts immediately without being nervous, the steering light while giving microscopic detail of conditions under the Avon slicks. In slow corners understeer can be provoked but when the wings work, grip is, for someone keen not to risk someone else’s F1 car, limitless.
It’s over too soon. Without prolonged exposure there is always too much to take in with such cars: Too much noise to savour, too much power and grip to revel in, too much occasion to come and go in a few minutes. What remains is more snapshot than picture and it makes you desperate for more.
Yet I doubt I’d feel differently if I’d driven all day. You can understand, if not exploit, the abilities of most cars, even Le Mans racers, given a quiet track and your own time; the Fittipaldi was not like that. Its impression is of adventure without end and the ultimate prize of knowing that, in the process, you’d find out as much about yourself as the car.
That, then, is the promise of such cars and the defining factor that makes Formula One cars unique. The fact this particular one was child and keep of one of Grand Prix’s brightest stars makes it no more competitive now than it did then. Instead it serves simply to break the experience free from the shackles of the merely spectacular and catapult it into realm of the truly, almost surreally special.,/p>
Many thanks to Ben Liebert for the loan ofthe car and Thoroughbred Grand Prix for providing the track time