New Mexican Wave

He returns to Mexico this month as an ambassador for the revived Grand Prix, but memories of the old one still haunt Emerson Fittipaldi. Brazilians playing to the crowd took on a whole new meaning in 1970

Mexico in 1970 was a good place for Brazilians. But while Pele, Jairzinho, Tostao and Carlos Alberto were orchestrating arguably the most beautiful football ever played, at arguably the best World Cup in history, a young Paulista called Emerson Fittipaldi was having a tougher time as he began his Formula 1 career.

Having gone through one of the most tumultuous initiations in F1 history, Fittipaldi had already tasted tragedy and triumph even before he landed in Mexico City in October 1970 for just his fifth Grand Prix.

“I think by the time I got to Mexico, I felt somehow like I had been in F1 for many years, even though my adventure was just beginning,” says the 1972 and 1974 F1 champion. “It was a strange time for me, but educational. I think it gave me a lot of steel and made me grow quickly. You can say it formed me, I suppose. Experiencing those levels of emotion when you are very young – how does that shape you? It probably helped me to develop but maybe for others it would have worked in a different, less positive way. Who knows?”

Fittipaldi, just 23 years of age, found himself in a sink or swim situation. It was around the time of the Mexican Grand Prix that he realised Colin Chapman was not looking for a more experienced driver to take over from Jochen Rindt, killed at Monza and newly confirmed as F1’s only posthumous world champion. The title had been sealed at Watkins Glen as Jacky Ickx failed to score enough points to keep himself within range of Rindt’s total. Fittingly, the race was won by upstart Fittipaldi.

“All of a sudden I was number one at Lotus and it was a big responsibility,” he says. “I believed that Colin would call me and say, ‘Emerson, we have an experienced guy coming in.’ But he didn’t. Remember that in the summer, when I started, I was only a third driver, behind Jochen and John Miles. Then John effectively retired after Monza. So I was number one and there was tremendous pressure.”

The US victory, inherited after Jackie Stewart’s dominant Tyrrell 001 suffered a late oil leak and Pedro Rodriguez’s BRM ran low on fuel, cemented Chapman’s belief in the Brazilian wonderkid. Fittipaldi had seemingly come from nowhere, but appeared to have the strength to carry Lotus into 1971 and beyond.

“Colin was the guiding light in my career, I have no doubt about that at all,” says Fittipaldi. “I think 1970 brought us closer. Remember that Colin had taken a long time to get over Jimmy [Clark], two years earlier. Now it was happening again and he needed to lead Lotus on and off the track. Colin had enormous strength and, from how I could see it, nothing could really break his spirit for long. He had a devotion to what he had built, and I have not seen that anywhere else in racing. 

“Colin taught me so many things; even when he invited me to his farm near Norwich, we would relax a little but there would still be a lot of ideas going on in his mind. I think by just being around Colin you could get high on the energy he created. He was – how do you say? – a force of nature.”

After Watkins Glen came Mexico City, where the delirious populace was still bloated on a cocktail of residual national pride from Mexico 70 and another appearance of the country’s beloved racing son – Pedro Rodriguez.

“There was a lot of excitement from the Mexican people. A few minutes before the race started, Pedro came up to me and asked, ‘Do you speak Spanish?’ I helped Pedro and the organisers to try to calm the fans down a little as they were at the side of the track and there was no way we could start. I just remember a lot of excitement and the great noise the crowd made. It was really an intense atmosphere. We did our best to try to communicate with them and we made some difference, but not so much, as you can probably see from photographs of that race. They say there were 200,000 there, but I think probably more. It was crazy, but a kind of wonderful crazy. Still, it was very dangerous and retiring after one lap, on this occasion, might have been OK.”

The pre-race requirements for peace and understanding were barely heeded but somehow the race went ahead. Perhaps it was good that it did, for fears of a large-scale riot were very real should the engines not be fired up.

Stewart’s Tyrrell reduced Mexico’s stray canine population by a factor of one during the race, ending the champion’s day but thankfully not his or anyone else’s life. That was little short of a miracle. Even in the ‘wild west’ days of 1970, a human guardrail was not something the powers that be, or any decent person, could tolerate. Mexico had to wait 16 years until it returned to the F1 calendar, co-incidentally when the country would again welcome the World Cup for Mexico 86.

Fittipaldi lasted but a lap in the 1970 event before an oil leak stopped his red, white and gold Lotus 72. It would be the only time he raced an F1 car, or indeed any other car, at the Hermanos Rodriguez circuit. Yet still, the name Fittipaldi is celebrated in that part of the world.

“I think the Mexican people had an affinity with some South American drivers because, after Pedro, there were not many top Mexican drivers coming through in the 1970s and ’80s,” says Fittipaldi. “Now of course, they have ‘Checo’ Pérez. He is the new hero and will become even bigger after the Mexican Grand Prix, for sure.”

Pérez, Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell, through their roles as honorary ambassadors, have all been instrumental in creating the buzz for November’s return of the Mexican Grand Prix, which will take place on a heavily revised version of the Hermanos Rodriguez circuit.

The shape of the track has changed significantly since the last race, won dominantly by Mansell in 1992. Fittipaldi believes that the character of the circuit has substantially been preserved and that the facilities and infrastructure now ensure a bright future for a Grand Prix which first appeared on the calendar in 1963. 

“Things change quickly in racing and I think on the whole the authorities have made some nice changes, because they have kept a lot of the original circuit character,” he says, “but they have also made it a safer challenge. The track is a lot smoother, for sure. The old Mexican bumps were famous all by themselves. I can remember Ayrton [Senna], Alain [Prost] and Nigel talking about the bumps 25 years ago and how they made things very difficult. Now, the track surface will be much better and a different challenge for the drivers.”

In deference to Mansell’s remarkable pass around the outside of Gerhard Berger’s McLaren-Honda, what was once Peraltada is now known as the Nigel Mansell Turn. Safety at the old corner (its literal translation being ‘camber’) used to be minimal, to say the least. A banked, super-quick and bumpy constant-radius right-hander, the curve caught out many (including Senna, who rolled his McLaren-Honda there in practice for the 1991 Grand Prix). Plenty of others felt the bite of the fearsome sweep, but it has now been consigned to history.

“Safety as a whole has come on over the last 45-50 years and has changed the landscape, mainly for the better,” says Fittipaldi. “The work that Jackie, Jo Bonnier and some of us did then has laid foundations for today’s heroes. It is still a dangerous sport, but much less so than before. With the cornering speeds now there has to be this level of protecting the drivers.

“I have been to most of the new generation tracks like Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, and in terms of the track and facilities Mexico is a great example of a modern circuit. Charlie [Whiting, the FIA’s technical delegate] has been here and every detail has been looked at – the asphalt, kerbs, pit, paddock, so I expect it to present a nice race and something to excite the Mexican public.”

Fittipaldi believes the infamous Mexican altitude will be a key talking point at the Grand Prix. “Well, the key really is how the altitude will benefit the technology on the F1 cars now, the energy recovery systems, etc. This will be, I think, the first time the turbo cars have raced at that height. It could be fun to see if it makes any difference – it sure did in the 1980s, so we will have to wait and see.

“The Mexican public loves racing. They are great people, they share the Brazilian enthusiasm for racing. They celebrate it. I think we can all look forward to the return of the Mexican Grand Prix. It deserves its place in Formula 1.”