Motor racing’s next generation includes a couple of famous monikers
While Sebastian Vettel, Michael Schumacher and Jenson Button were busy hammering around Düsseldorf’s ESPRIT arena for the Race of Champions on December 3/4, various other Formula 1 drivers were competing against each other in Felipe Massa’s annual kart race.
Rubens Barrichello, Jaime Alguersuari, Adrian Sutil and Pastor Maldonado were all in Brazil for the event, but as your eyes travelled down the entry list you had to do a double take. Fittipaldi? Surely not? No, this was Pietro Fittipaldi, the grandson of double Formula 1 World Champion Emerson.
The 15-year-old has just won the 2011 NASCAR Limited Late Model series and has his heart set on making his way up the ranks to the top-level Nationwide and Sprint Cup series. Pietro is so young that in order to compete in last season’s championship he had to race under a special licence.
Fittipaldi Jr started karting at the age of five, and even though his grandfather spent his entire career in single seaters – with 11 years in F1 and 13 in CART – Pietro isn’t interested in a similar career.
“You know, I’ve been watching Formula 1 and going to Grands Prix my whole life,” he tells me. “I know Bernie [Ecclestone] and I’ve even had dinner with him! I’ve always loved F1, but I watched NASCAR as well. I was in the United States, and to me it seems more competitive. There are more drivers and teams racing against each other and there can be 20 or 30 lead changes in a race. In F1 there are really only two or three teams that can win, but in NASCAR there are six or seven. I just like the competitiveness. In the next four or five years I hope I’ll be in the Nationwide series or the Sprint Cup. That’s the aim, anyway.”
Bet against it at your peril. This is a family that has motor sport running through its veins. Emerson clinched two F1 titles, a CART championship and a brace of Indy 500 wins, while his brother Wilson set up Copersucar and raced in F1 from 1972-3 and in 1975. Add to that Emerson’s nephew Christian, who has also spent a life in the sport, competing in CART, F1 and NASCAR. And if that wasn’t enough, Emerson’s daughter married ex-F1, IndyCar, CART and NASCAR driver Max Papis. Not many families can claim such success in the world of motor sport.
Of course, the Fittipaldi name has helped Pietro with sponsors and he freely admits that, but it’s also added a huge amount of pressure. “When I used to race go-karts – especially at the higher competitive levels – a lot of drivers would say ‘if I can’t win the race then I want to be in front of Fittipaldi,’” he says. “It brings some pressure, but I’ve got used to it because it’s always been there. I had to start dealing with it when I was very young.”
Although you can tell you’re speaking to a youngster, Pietro is remarkably mature for his age. He’s well aware of what the Fittipaldi name means to fans around the world, but he’s adamant that it never pushed him into racing. “My family didn’t really pressure me into motor sport. I was the one who asked them whether I could get a go-kart and start racing. I practiced every week – alongside school – and I just picked up the love for it.”
Pietro may have Emerson to guide him through the pressures of modern motor sport, but it was the late Dan Wheldon who helped to hone his driving skills. In 2010, when the 2005 IndyCar champion was without a full-time race seat, he stepped back to compete in karting with up-and-coming driving talent. “I remember what it meant to have people believe in me and my talent at that age,” he said at the time, “and I can’t wait to see what these kids are able to do.” One of those kids was Pietro and over the course of the season Dan taught the young Brazilian everything from chassis set-up to the perfect racing lines.
“My grandfather’s also helped a huge amount,” adds Pietro. “He doesn’t actually get into the driving part because he knows I’m with a good team [Lee Faulk Racing] and that they know what they’re doing. Sometimes there’s a lot of pressure before the race and he’s very good at helping me to calm down.”
Another chapter in Fittipaldi motor sport history begins. Did I mention that Emerson had another son in 2007 and called him Emerson? Maybe that’s a story for another day…
Another racing driver competing with a surname you’ll recognise is Carlos Sainz. No, this isn’t the two-time World Rally Champion, it’s his son, who has just won the Formula Renault 2.0 Northern European Cup.
“It’s been a good season,” says Sainz Jr. “We had the opportunity to win both championships [he was also competing in the Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 series], but we had a few mechanical problems and at Silverstone we suffered an engine issue on the grid when I was on pole.” He still racked up two wins in the series and finished second in the championship.
“I’ve watched F1 on television since I was three and even then I said ‘yeah, that’s my dream’. I started doing indoor karting with my Dad, and then when I was 11 I said to him ‘let’s make this a little more serious’. We did some national and even international races and it’s all gone from there.”
I can’t help asking whether Carlos ever considered a career in rallying, following in his father’s footsteps. “You know,” he says, “I have always liked the rallying side of motor sport as well… but not so much.
“My father supports me 100 per cent [with his single-seater career]. He’s been a great aid, but he never tells me how to take a corner, how to brake or how to drive. He just tells me what the right attitude is to become a World Champion. He knows what he’s talking about, he’s got the experience.”
Ex-Toyota WRC driver Sainz may not be giving his son one-to-one tuition, but it’s clear that Carlos Jr has inherited his speed. With a prime seat at Carlin in the 2012 British Formula 3 Championship and backing from Red Bull, he’s well on his way to a bright future.