Emerson Fittipaldi: Young gun, old master

In 1972, he became the youngest F1 champion. He became the third-oldest Indy 500 winner 21 years later. In between he had four years out of the cockpit. Emerson Fittipaldi, first of the great Brazilian racers, talks to Nigel Roebuck

Emerson Fittipaldi's language dates him, reminding you of a time in motor-racing more violent and dangerous, yet also gentler, less hard-nosed. 'Dice', for example, is a favourite word of his, yet it has fallen into disuse in contemporary Formula One. These days the drivers tend to refer to 'a fight' or 'a battle', which is ironic, really, when one considers that the potential consequences are so much less than in the days of the simple 'dice'.

"People ask me about my career," says Fittipaldi, "but, really, I had two completely separate careers. When I retired from F1, at the end of 1980,I thought I was retiring from driving for good. By 1984, though, there I was, on the grid at Indy."

His rise in motor-racing was swift. Born in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1946, he made a name for himself in local karting and touring car events, and by 1969 had moved to England, where he so impressed in Formula Ford, and then F3, that by mid-1970 he had been invited by Colin Chapman to join the Lotus F1 team. In the German Grand Prix, only his second race, he finished a remarkable fourth in a Lotus 49.

This car was obsolete by now, and for the Italian GP, at Monza, Emerson was entered in a 72, Chapman's latest masterpiece, and the car with which team leader Jochen Rindt was on course for the world championship.

"On the first day of qualifying, I crashed – and it was a huge accident. I just looked in the mirrors, because Jack Brabham was coming up behind me, and I missed my braking point – when I looked back, there was Ignazio Giunti's Ferrari in front of me. I went over the back of it, landed on the sand, went over the bank, and into the trees. The toughest thing, though, was to walk back to the pits and tell Colin what had happened.

"That car was going to be Jochen's for the following day, the Saturday. It was brand-new, and Colin had wanted me just to bed everything in, but now it was destroyed. He asked me what had happened, and I told him: I was 100 yards deeper into the comer than I should have been. We were running without wings, looking for better straight-line speed, and... I just locked up, and hit Giunti. I had to be honest, and say that I just screwed up. Then, in the afternoon Jochen had his accident."

In the final qualifying session, approaching Parabolica, the corner at which Fittipaldi had crashed the day before, Rindt's Lotus suffered a mechanical failure (almost certainly a broken front brake shaft), plunged off the road, and hit a guard-rail post at more than 150mph.

En route to hospital, he died.

For Emerson, not yet 24, and on the cusp of his F1 career, this was a massive blow. Rindt, as well as being his team-mate, was a man he had idolised.

"Emotionally, it was devastating," he says. "Very tough. I had breakfast with Jochen that morning in the Hotel de la Ville in Monza, and he invited me to drive for his F2 team the following year – he and Bernie Ecclestone were going to have this team between them. I said, 'Sure, I'd love to drive for you', and he said, 'OK, well, we'll do the contracts later' – and a few hours after that he was dead. It was my first year in F1, and I quickly began to realise how fragile life was – the odds on getting killed were so high back then. I'm so happy to have survived."

Naturally, the remaining Lotus cars were withdrawn from the race at Monza, and Chapman did not take his team to the next grand prix, in Canada, either. On the horizon loomed Watkins Glen.

"After Monza, there was a month with a lot of pressure," says Fittipaldi. "First, Colin didn't know if we were going to the States or not. Finally he called me, and said, 'Emerson, I'd like you to go to Watkins Glen as number one driver', and for me that was a big surprise."

What happened when they got to the Glen, he was expecting even less. First, he qualified a superb third, behind only Jackie Stewart's Tyrrell and Jacky Ickx's Ferrari. And then he won the race, only the fourth grand prix start of his career.

Actually, it wasn't quite as simple as that. After making a bad start, he was only eighth at the end of the opening lap, but gradually he began to pick up places, and by half-distance was up to fourth place, behind Stewart, Ickx and the BRM of Pedro Rodriguez. Later, Stewart blew up, Ickx was delayed with a broken fuel pipe, and Rodriguez had to make an unscheduled stop for fuel; all of that put Emerson into the lead, and there he stayed, with new teammate Reine Wisell finishing third.

Fittipaldi is the first to admit that there was luck involved in this first F1 win, but, for all his lack of experience, he had driven faultlessly, and the effect of his victory on Team Lotus, whose morale had been shattered by the death of Rindt, can hardly be overemphasised.

Now Emerson was a Lotus fixture, and in 1972 he became the youngest driver ever to take the world title, winning five of the 12 GPs on the way.

"I always say that the best cars I ever drove were the Lotus 72 and the '89 Penske, the PC18, when I was working with Morris Nunn for Patrick Racing. In both cases, we had a basic set-up that would be fast at any track – I could talk to the car, and the car could talk to me.

"When you are completely at one with the car, you know what it's going to do before it does it. You almost never get that situation, but when you do, it's fantastic. Those were the two outstanding cars I drove, I would say, and I had them for what may have been my two best drives – certainly the two best dices of my career, anyway.

"Although I won the championship in 1972, in fact the Lotus 72 was at its best the following year, when Ronnie [Peterson] had joined me in the team. And I think my best drive in F1 was in Argentina in '73. In the last part of the race I had the two Tyrrells ahead of me, Cevert leading Stewart. Jackie was protecting François, and he was keeping me back, but he was completely fair, as he always was. We had a really incredible dice, but eventually he got a slow puncture, which let me through into second place, and in the end I just got by François, with a few laps to go. I was completely on the limit all the race."

At this time, Fittipaldi and Stewart were undoubtedly the leading protagonists in F1, and that year it was Jackie's turn to take the title, his third, with Emerson runner-up.

For 1974, Fittipaldi shook everyone by opting to leave Lotus for McLaren, but it proved a good decision, for he won his second world title that year, and finished second to Ferrari's Niki Lauda in '75.

"McLaren was extremely well organised," says Emerson, "and I enjoyed my two seasons there, but then I made a bad decision. My brother Wilson and I had decided to build our own F1 car: he drove it in 1975,I took over in '76. But we completely underestimated what it would take to build our own team, technically and financially. There were high points – I finished second in Brazil in '78, for example – but mainly it was a struggle, and during my last two years in F1, 1979 and '80,I was going to the races only because it was an obligation. Not good."

For two more years the team continued, with Emerson's role now strictly a management one, but by the end of 1982, Fittipaldi Automotive was gone from F1, and the proprietor had returned to Brazil.

For a while, he didn't miss racing at all, but then his enthusiasm was fired again when he began to drive superkarts, just for fun. When invited to drive a March IMSA GTP car at Miami in the spring of 1984, he accepted – and while he was there, a man called Pepe Romero said he was buying a March Indycar, and would Emerson like to drive it? Thus began the second career of E. Fittipaldi, soon to become known as `Emmo' throughout the US racing community.

"I'd really enjoyed most of my time in F1," he says, "but I found Indycar racing – CART – more relaxed. There was more of a family environment, and not so much pressure. It was exactly what I needed at that point in my life."

Later in 1984, he joined Patrick Racing, replacing a young driver named Chip Ganassi, who was seriously injured at Michigan. At the same track, a year later, Emerson won his first Indycar race, and in 1989 came his first CART championship. But what meant even more to him was that one of his five victories that year came in the Indy 500.

"If Argentina '73 was my best race in F1, the other one I will always remember is Indianapolis '89, when I had the big dice with Al Unser Jnr. That day I was doing everything right, but towards the end, when I was leading, there was a yellow, and we came in. There were about 15 laps to go, that's all – and they completely filled up the car with fuel! Mo had done all the calculations, and he went crazy: 'You only need half-tanks – no!' Big argument! Pat [Patrick] said, 'I'm the boss – I'm the team owner!' You could say they were different personalities!

"I don't know how many gallons went in but, at the restart, it was like a nightmare – I looked in the minor, and saw Junior coming, and I couldn't pull away. At the time I didn't know I was on full tanks, and he was on half-tanks.

"I was right on the limit, but he passed me quite easily, with four laps to go. It was terrible for me, because I wanted to win this race more than any other – this was the Indianapolis 500! I didn't give up; I told myself there would be a chance to get him again, and there was – on lap 199, with one to go.

"Into Turn One, Al and I came up on three slower cars, and he got held up more than I did. I came off Turn Two much quicker, towed him down the backstretch, then pulled out, so we were side by side into Three, me on the inside. I just told myself I wasn't going to back off, ! was going to take it flat. But there was another backmarker ahead, and in the turbulence from his car, I lost downforce and began to slide up the track. Al and I touched, but although I got very sideways,! caught it. I was very lucky, because he crashed – and I didn't."

Four years later, Fittipaldi found himself in virtually the same situation. Now driving for Penske, he was leading the 500 in the closing stages, when suddenly there was a yellow. On lap 193, Nigel Mansell, a rookie at the Speedway that year, and running third, had brushed the wall at the exit of Turn Two.

Rather more than brushed it, actually. The Lola gave the wall a solid clout, and Mansell was mighty lucky to get away with it, his car being undamaged in the impact.

"Earlier in the race," says Fittipaldi, "I ran for about 150 miles behind Nigel. It was the first time he'd been at Indianapolis, and he was doing unbelievable things, but I wasn't surprised when he eventually hit the wall. I kept getting on the radio and saying to my guys, 'He's going to crash, he's going to crash!' He seemed to be on opposite lock half the time – Ayrton (Senna), who had raced against him so much in F1, had warned me what to expect, actually!

"Mansell was a great driver, but he operated 'on emergency' the whole time! He'd go into a corner over the limit, and I don't know how he managed it, but he always got out of the corner!

"Anyway, at Indy I got by him, and then, in the last few laps, he hit the wall at Turn Two, and caused a yellow – and he actually benefited from it, because he didn't damage the car, and it closed the gap! Fortunately, when we came to the restart, I had more experience of that situation than he did, and I was able to get away."

Fittipaldi's two worlds, and he loved them both, finally retiring as a racing driver in 1996, as his 50th birthday beckoned.

"I was so lucky," he says. "I raced against so many great champions – people like Stewart, Lauda and Carlos Reutemann in F1, and then guys like Michael [Andretti], Al Jnr, Rick Mears, in Indycar racing. And then there was Mario, of course – in both categories, he was incredible."

He regrets, he says, that he never raced against Senna, for whom he was very much a mentor.

"Ayrton was the best of his time, wasn't he? In my opinion, we had him, now we have Michael Schumacher, and next we're going to have Montoya. I would put Juan Pablo on that same level, no question. He's unbelievably talented, and he has the brains. This is only his second season of F1, too – it's easy to forget that. And he won a grand prix in his first year. A complete natural."

Emerson might have been talking about himself.