De Angelis: an unfinished symphony

Elio de Angelis could not only out-qualify Senna in an identical car, he was also a virtuoso pianist. Mark Hughes remembers this complex man and asks why he never realised his potential

Elio de Angelis

Grand Prix Photo

Browse pages
Current page

1

Current page

2

Current page

3

Current page

4

Current page

5

Current page

6

Current page

7

Current page

8

Current page

9

Current page

10

Current page

11

Current page

12

Current page

13

Current page

14

Current page

15

Current page

16

Current page

17

Current page

18

Current page

19

Current page

20

Current page

21

Current page

22

Current page

23

Current page

24

Current page

25

Current page

26

Current page

27

Current page

28

Current page

29

Current page

30

Current page

31

Current page

32

Current page

33

Current page

34

Current page

35

Current page

36

Current page

37

Current page

38

Current page

39

Current page

40

Current page

41

Current page

42

Current page

43

Current page

44

Current page

45

Current page

46

Current page

47

Current page

48

Current page

49

Current page

50

Current page

51

Current page

52

Current page

53

Current page

54

Current page

55

Current page

56

Current page

57

Current page

58

Current page

59

Current page

60

Current page

61

Current page

62

Current page

63

Current page

64

Current page

65

Current page

66

Current page

67

Current page

68

Current page

69

Current page

70

Current page

71

Current page

72

Current page

73

Current page

74

Current page

75

Current page

76

Current page

77

Current page

78

Current page

79

Current page

80

Current page

81

Current page

82

Current page

83

Current page

84

Current page

85

Current page

86

Current page

87

Current page

88

Current page

89

Current page

90

Current page

91

Current page

92

Current page

93

Current page

94

Current page

95

Current page

96

Current page

97

Current page

98

Current page

99

Current page

100

Current page

101

Current page

102

Current page

103

Current page

104

Current page

105

Current page

106

Current page

107

Current page

108

Current page

109

Current page

110

Current page

111

Current page

112

Current page

113

Current page

114

Current page

115

Current page

116

Current page

117

Current page

118

Current page

119

Current page

120

Current page

121

Current page

122

Current page

123

Current page

124

Current page

125

Current page

126

Current page

127

Current page

128

Current page

129

Current page

130

Current page

131

Current page

132

Current page

133

Current page

134

Current page

135

Current page

136

Current page

137

Current page

138

Current page

139

Current page

140

Current page

141

Current page

142

Current page

143

Current page

144

Current page

145

Current page

146

Current page

147

Current page

148

When considering the pre-requisites to make the grade in motor racing, few have been dealt a stronger hand than Elio de Angelis, Grand Prix driver from 1979 to his needless death in a testing accident in 1986.

Consider: born on 26 March 1958 into the huge wealth of an old, patrician Roman family, the eldest son in a male-dominated culture where macho pursuits are considered the measure of the man. Father Giulio had once had rather similar ambitions himself – rallying a Lancia Aurelia in the 1950s and going on to considerable power boat success in later years – and was almost certainly the key influence in Elio’s early leanings.

Then there was that God-given talent; you don’t cooly out-qualify Ayrton Senna in an identical car without an awful lot of that. All that seemed required to light the fuse was ambition, and this too de Angelis had in abundance; though remembered by all as a great gentleman, this was the same man who became so fixated on an F1 drive that in order to win the prestigious Monaco F3 race in 1978, he punted off erstwhile leader Patrick Gaillard in a move as ruthless and unfair as any ever pulled by Senna or Schumacher.

“He could show up having forgotten his helmet, have a last draw of a cigarette, go out and be half a second quicker than Mansell.”

So why, then, is he not remembered as a great? Why did he win only one Grand Prix (though the official statistics say two) in an F1 career spanning over seven years? The answers are as complex as the person. This was an ostensibly serene man who could nevertheless explode into a thundering Latin rage; a man who, once out of the cockpit of his screaming Grand Prix car, would soothe away his time playing concert-standard classical piano music or collecting antiques watches.

At 16, and around the time he was crewing in his father’s power-boats, Elio won the 1974 Italian karting championship. Just three years later, his passage never compromised by lack of either wherewithal or talent, he’d graduated to F3 and won the Italian title, finishing second to Didier Pironi in front of the F1 fraternity at Monaco. Stepping down from an ill-judged F2 seat, he went one better in 1978, winning the Monaco F3 event. Using this as his credibility deposit, he’d bought his way into F1 by the start of ’79 with the struggling Shadow team. There he impressed enough to be taken on by Colin Chapman for the following year at Lotus, the team for which he won the 1982 Austrian Grand Prix and, officially, the 1985 San Marino GP but only after across-the-line winner Alain Prost was disqualified for having an underweight McLaren.

Elio de Angelis on his way to victory at the Osterreichring in the 1982 Austrian Grand Prix

de Angelis on his way to victory at the Osterreichring in 1982

DPPI

For a time it looked as if his career might become intertwined with Ferrari, not Lotus. Giancarlo Minardi had briefly run him as a 19-year-old in F2, with a Ferrari-powered Ralt, and introduced him to the Old Man. “For Elio, Mr Ferrari was the ultimate, “remembers his friend and former F3 sponsor Andrea Gallignani. “They really hit it off and Elio even tested an F1 Ferrari at Fiorano in ’77. Enzo offered Elio a drive in the NART Boxer at Le Mans and Elio asked for money. Ferrari said: ‘You are crazy, I give you the opportunity.’ They fell out over this and it really bothered Elio.”

Never again was de Angelis observed to be anything close to naive or ham-fisted in his effortless rise up the ladder to F1.

“Against Elio’s flair you had Mansell asking for ‘another cup of tea and a sandwich, mate’”

“His upbringing showed through in everything he did,” remembers Peter Warr, the former Lotus team-manager. “He had an incredible amount of style. He used to like to smoke, he loved J&B whisky. He could be a total shambles in that he could show up and say, ‘oh, I’m sorry I’ve forgotten my helmet’ and we would all have to go rushing around borrowing something for him. He’d then have a last draw of the cigarette, get in the car, go out and be half a second quicker than Mansell. Everything he did came very naturally to him and he was very polite, very generous, a superb host.”

“In spite of all the wealth he was a very down-to-earth young man,” recalls his friend and former Shadow team manager Ramirez. “He liked the simple things in life.”

“He certainly knew how to enjoy himself,” asserts colleague and friend Keke Rosberg, “but always in a cultured, educated way. He lived life like a true Roman.” Was he not a typical Grand Prix driver, then? “Oh I think he was,” argues Rosberg. “He played the piano well, which, to be fair, is not typical, but the only other things he played with were the things that we all played with!”

Yet for all the ease his aristocratic background brought him, it brought with it too, a burden, as his team-mate at Shadow, Jan Lammers now points out: “Being a rich kid sometimes puts a stamp on a person that is just as difficult to get rid of as when you come from the suburbs. He was always a relaxed personality and this combined with the wealth was sometimes translated in the wrong way; people thought he didn’t care so much. That’s how it looked at the beginning.”

He enjoyed a friction-free formative year at Lotus with hardened old pro Mario Andretti showing him the ropes. But the two team-mates who followed Mario to Norfolk, Mansell and Senna, could not have provided stronger contrast in the up and down sides of de Angelis’ easy charm and culture.

Elio de Angelis with Nigel Mansell during testing at Paul Ricard in 1981

Lotus put its focus on de Angelis over Mansell

Grand Prix Photo

Against Mansell – with his working-class Midlands background, naive, perhaps, in the workings of the world, believing all he had to do was his best and having been taken on as Chapman’s protégé despite limited experience – Elio became the focus of the team without even trying.

“Well, against Elio’s flair you had Mansell asking, for ‘another cup of tea and a sandwich, mate’,” recalls Warr, in a comment that betrays truly the scale of advantage de Angelis’ background gave him within the team at the time. But there was much more to it than mere social standing.

“Lotus at that time was a small team with a big name,” recalls Lotus mechanic Chris Dinnage. “We didn’t really have the resources to run two drivers absolutely equally the way they did at McLaren or Williams. So someone, inevitably, got preferential treatment, even though it was totally unfair. With Elio, he would get a group of people around him, and really include them in everything, come and talk with us. Mansell, on the other hand, although he drove the car flat out everywhere, whenever anything went wrong it wasn’t his fault. Which sort of rubbed people up the wrong way.”

Lotus chief mechanic Bob Dance remembers: “There was always a nice atmosphere around Elio. His girlfriend, Ute, fitted in well with the group, his family was very nice. He was a good sport and would always joke with the lads. He would take us for a run around the circuit in a hire car whenever he could. He was a good team player.”

As far as Mansell himself is concerned, today he remembers no animosity towards Elio personally, only towards the regime that clearly favoured him within the team. Sheridan Thynne, Mansell’s aide, comments, “Nigel remembers Elio as a super human being. He valued his company. He never felt bitter about Elio’s background because Elio wasn’t that sort of bloke. There are those from that sort of background who conduct themselves in such a way that they make it clear that they trade on it and value the superiority, which is so far from Elio’s character that that didn’t arise between them.”

From the archive

Then, after four seasons in which Elio held an undisputed upper hand over Mansell, Ayrton Senna joined the team. Here was someone who was at least as cosmopolitan and sophisticated in his understanding of the world as Elio. He could even be utterly charming. But allied to that was a steely ruthlessness, previously unseen level of application and dedication. And a stunning talent.

Kenny Szymanski, one of Lotus’ tyre men who became a close friend of de Angelis’, remembers the omens for the partnership were ominous: “It was in Portugal, at the last race of ’84, after it had been announced that Ayrton was joining the team. Elio went over to talk with him and I remember he came back to the garages looking really disgusted. I said, ‘what’s up with you?’ and he said ‘it’s going to be a hard year next year.’ I don’t know what Ayrton had said to him, but maybe he had laid down the rules, like Ayrton could do.”

Against this man and his unique mission, Elio as came off second best in this team where there could be only one number one: “I think he saw quite early that to stay with Senna was going to be pretty bloody difficult,” remembers War. Now Elio’s easy charm and talent were no longer enough, the game had been moved on, albeit by Prost as well as Senna. “I think Formula One at that point was just becoming too sophisticated for someone like Elio,” says Warr. “He wasn’t the sort of guy who spent a lot of time in the caravan afterwards nibbling through the data.”

“Maybe he wasn’t the most hard-working of all the drivers, but he was up there with the rest of us,” considers Rosberg. “But Senna came along and changed the standards.”

Ayrton Senna, Elio De Angelis, Grand Prix Of Belgium

Senna’s arrival saw de Angelis come off second-best

Getty Images

Indeed it says much for his talent that de Angelis wasn’t completely obliterated by the awesome Brazilian, unlike some other team-mates who would try to keep up with his prodigious talent. “Elio was fantastically gifted as a driver,” opines Collins. “He’s one of the few people to have taken Senna on in his own team. That qualifies him.” In 1985, Elio’s Lotus 971 sat ahead of Senna’s on the grids of both the Brazilian and Canadian Grands Prix. But it wasn’t enough. For ’86 Ayrton, only too aware of the limitations of the team, would demand a subservient number two, while Elio move on to his tragically short stint at Brabham.

A rear-wing endplate detached itself from the BT55 as Elio was taking a flat-out kink while testing at Paul Ricard. The car became airborne and rolled, Elio was trapped inside with injuries no more serious than a broken collarbone. Then the engine caught fire and the tragedy unfolded as ill-equipped marshals, some in short-sleeved T-shirts, directed their extinguishers as best as their limited training allowed them. Some were spraying the fire from the wrong direction, sending the flame towards Elio rather than away. He died in hospital the following day as a result of asphyxiation, robbed of oxygen in a burning car in an accident from which he should have climbed out and walked away.

That his career was cut so short only partly explains his lack of success. “Sometimes he had to be fired up to get the best out of him,” remembers Szymanski, “like at Canada when he out-qualified Ayrton. Peter Warr had said something to him which wound him off the clock.” But generally, that raw ambition, so evident in that ’78 Monaco F3 race, was rarely seen once he arrived in F1, just the speed and the style.

From the archive

What of Latin temperament? “You only saw it very occasionally,” remembers Bob Dance, “but if he did get annoyed he really lost it.” At Silverstone in ’81 he was hauled in for a 10 sec penalty for a driving infringement. Rather than taking it, he erupted out of the car, screamed at the RAC’s Robert Langford and stalked off, leaving his perfectly healthy car in the pit lane. Once he shoved Motor Sport’s Denis Jenkinson to the ground in an altercation over something that had been written. And there was a little-known scuffle, too, in the Lotus garages at Kyalami in ’85 when de Angelis had to be pulled off Senna for some perceived slight on the circuit.

But this rarely manifested itself in the car. In fact Dance remembers de Angelis as being “extremely mechanically sympathetic,” and Collins avows he was “one of the safest drivers of all, not at all ragged.”

Which is just one more contradiction in this man whose combative fire, so apparent in his rise to prominence, seemed to disappear once he got there. “I wonder if he was just too much of a gentleman,” muses Warr, “just too nice. Perhaps because of his background he didn’t have that ruthless streak. He just wasn’t that bothered. Such a lovely guy.”

Maybe that is his epitaph.