Emerson Fittipaldi – Born-again racer

Having retired twice, his faith helped him decide to start a third racing career
Words: Alan Henry

He looked leaner, fitter and more youthful than ever. Forget the fact that 31 years had passed since he won the British Grand Prix at Silverstone at the wheel of a McLaren M23, the final win in his tally of 14 career Formula 1 championship victories.

Forget the fact that most of his spine is now braced with titanium, the legacy of both a microlight aeroplane crash in 1997 and a 220mph smash into an unyielding concrete wall at Michigan at the wheel of a Penske Champcar the previous year, after which he became a born-again Christian.

Emerson Fittipaldi was back at Silverstone in August contesting the Grand Prix Masters with the relish, focus and wolfish grin which was such an indelible part of his persona back in 1972 as he beat a path to becoming the sport’s then-youngest world champion, at the age of 25. And, by the way, you can also put aside the fact that Brazil’s first F1 hero will reach his 60th birthday on December 12. But remarkably little changes in this business. To put it all into perspective, Emerson’s 10-year-old grandson Pietro was at Silverstone watching Grandad strutting his stuff.

Both your mother Juzy and your father Wilson Snr – who are both happily still alive, I’m delighted to hear – raced cars themselves in Brazil when you were just a kid. What can you remember about their racing exploits, and how much did they inspire you to want to compete yourself?

My first memory is of my mother racing a Mercedes 180 diesel in the 24-hour touring car race at Interlagos in 1956, I think it must have been. My parents also raced a front-wheel-drive Citroën Light 15, but my most vivid recollection is arriving at the track in the evening and seeing my mother in the pits getting out of this Mercedes, which she was sharing with another lady. I stayed at the race all night and remember absolutely thinking at the time that this was really a lot of fun. But the real event which sparked my imagination was a sportscar race, also at Interlagos, where I saw a 2-litre Ferrari Monza, a Maserati and a Frazer Nash. They really sparked my interest.

Of course you raced karts a lot in Brazil long before you made your first trip to England in 1969. What are your most vivid memories of your karting career?

Before I was really old enough to race I was already driving my brother Wilson’s kart. He was three years older than me and already competing. But I can remember that the first time I drove was on a makeshift road circuit at a place called Marajoara Gardens, a new development on the way out of Sao Paolo towards Interlagos where the houses had not yet been built but the roadways put into place. It had brand-new asphalt and was specially closed off by the police. In Brazil you weren’t really allowed to start kart racing until you were 18, but I managed to squeeze in a year younger than was strictly allowed. For my first race I borrowed a kart from my friend Carlos Pace after a couple of years working as a mechanic for both ‘Moco’ and my brother Wilson. Before that I raced motorcycles and hydroplanes, finally moving on to racing and Formule Vee single-seaters built by the company set up with my brother. In my second season in single-seaters I won the Brazilian Formula Vee title when I was just 21 years old. [Carlos Pace – nicknamed ‘Moco’ – was a hugely talented young contemporary of Emerson who followed him to Europe in 1970 to contest the British F3 championship. Driving Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham BT44B he beat Emerson’s McLaren M23 to win the 1975 Brazilian GP at Interlagos. Tragically he died in a light aircraft accident in early 1977. The Interlagos track is now officially named the ‘Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace’ and this fine driver’s memory is perpetuated by a bust of him at the entrance to the circuit. AH]

I remember that when we first met at Chimay in the summer of 1969 you had just been racing in Europe for a couple months in your Formula Ford Merlyn. Just how big was that decision to leave Brazil and come over to Europe to pursue a racing career? And what was your parents’ reaction? Were they supportive of your ambitions?

They were very supportive indeed, I must say, but at the time I have to say I was more pursuing a dream than a career. My sole goal at the time was to one day to start a single grand prix race. At the time I thought that if I could start just one grand prix and if I was killed afterwards, then at least I could die happy. But I’m happy to say that things turned out rather differently!

Once you were in Europe it didn’t take you long to progress beyond that Merlyn, did it?

That’s right. I was invited to drive a Lotus 59 Formula 3 car under the Jim Russell banner, but with support from the [Lotus] factory. Everything seemed to be rushing past in a blur, it seemed impossible that I’d moved up into F3 almost within weeks of arriving in the country. The 1-litre F3 was a terrific schooling, very close and extremely competitive. Amazingly, I got my first offer to race in F1 from Frank Williams at the end of 1969. He hired a small Cessna and flew up to Norwich to buy me lunch. It was hugely flattering, but I didn’t think I could accept. By then I was also signed up to drive in F2 for Lotus for the following year and Colin Chapman was keen that I should race in F1. He tried to persuade me that I should drive in the 1970 Dutch GP, but I didn’t think I was ready, so eventually I raced F1 for the first time in the British race at Brands Hatch in the Lotus 49C, where I finished seventh.

Of course, through 1970 and all the way to the end of your first World Championship season with Lotus in 1972 you were dovetailing F1 and F2 races pretty well on alternate weekends. Today’s generation of F1 stars might be tempted to think that such a schedule was simply too intense and that it might be difficult to sustain your focus. How do you remember it?

Really, it was the best thing to do. I was getting more experience all the time, and it’s also important to remember that some of the top F1 drivers were also competing in F2 – remember Jochen Rindt, for example – and this was an opportunity for a new driver to measure himself against them in pretty much equal equipment. I have a photograph taken by Colin Bennett – who worked on my 1970 Lotus 69 – at the Crystal Palace F2 international with Bernie Ecclestone hanging out my pit signals. Obviously Bernie was there with Jochen [Rindt and Ecclestone were great friends and the works F2 Lotuses were later run by Bernie under the Jochen Rindt Racing banner. AH] and I think once Jochen had retired from the lead Bernie came and gave us a helping hand. Doing both categories wasn’t pressure, it was really helpful. F2 experience helped you with F1 and, equally, F1 experience helped you with F2. But I quite realise that things were different in those days. With the intensity involved in racing today I don’t really think it would be possible to race like that every weekend.

In both 1971 and 1972 you also competed in the F2 Torneio series back in Brazil at the end of each season. As this was something of a triumphant homecoming after you had won the 1972 world championship, how much special pressure did you feel returning to your homeland on those occasions?

It seemed as though there was always huge pressure from the fans, which was a little bit difficult as it came at the end of a long season and you always wanted to perform competitively in front of them. Tiring, but enormously satisfying to experience their enthusiasm and support, of course.

You were just 25 years and 10 months old when you sped to victory in the 1972 Italian Grand Prix, to become the youngest competitor to take the title crown. It was a distinction you would hold for 33 years until Fernando Alonso won in 2005. You had very much a building year in 1971 and then you were able to return home to Brazil as world champion the following year. What do you most remember about your time with Lotus?

As I said, everything went by so quickly. Suddenly here was that kid whose dream had been to start in a single grand prix going home to Brazil as the reigning World Champion. But of course winning with Colin Chapman and Lotus was very special. Following on from the traditions of Jim Clark and Graham Hill was a great privilege, but then I would have to say, looking at my career as a whole, I was always fortunate enough to be in the right places with the right people. Of course, Colin was also the best guy I could have had as a teacher. I had wonderful years driving for Lotus because Colin was a genius and I learned so much from him.

Eventually, though, you decided that you would leave Lotus at the end of 1973 after that confusion over team orders in the 1973 Italian GP where your team-mate Ronnie Peterson took the chequered flag just ahead of you. How difficult was that?

The team orders which we were both expecting, but which never came, you mean! Ronnie and I were expecting a sign to change positions with 15 laps to go, which would have kept my chances open of retaining the World Championship. So the signal didn’t come and for the last 10 laps we were both driving faster and faster, both right on the limit, but with Ronnie unable to get away and me unable to pass him. And that’s how we finished. After the race I told Colin I was very disappointed, but he just said nothing to me. I think that’s when I decided that I would go to McLaren.

Did that have any effect on your relationship with Ronnie?

No, not at all, we were always very close and remained so. If I had been Ronnie I would have done exactly the same.

Then you traded the Lotus 72 for the McLaren M23. What was that transition like?

McLaren under Teddy Mayer and Alistair Caldwell was a terrific, well integrated team. I loved my time at Lotus with Peter Warr as team manager, but I think McLaren operated a better team structure. Having said all that, the M23 wasn’t as good a car as the Lotus 72 which was easily the best car I drove in my career. It was sensitive and versatile on every circuit, but the M23 wasn’t as responsive. And of course Lotus benefited especially from Colin as its driving force. He had brilliant intuition when it came to car set-up.

Leaping forward a few years, what do you think about the complex technology involved in F1 today? Has it taken too much away from the drivers?

The talent that is present today may be slightly masked by the level of technology involved – it may be more difficult to determine who is at what talent level – but the genius of Alonso and Schumacher stands comparison with people like Ayrton Senna, of course.

How did you become involved in the Grand Prix Masters Series?

About 18 months ago Scott Poulter, the GP Masters organiser, got in touch with me and asked if we could have lunch together the following day. Trouble was, he was in London and I was in Sao Paolo, but Scott flew to Brazil overnight to see me. So I thought to myself ‘this guy is serious’ but I insisted ‘look, Scott, I’ll help you with promotional work, but I’m not going to drive’. So I did some PR in Durban, then exactly a year ago Scott said ‘why don’t you drive in the Silverstone test?’ So I rang my doctor, Steve Olvey – who’s now the doctor for the GP Masters series – and he said that was OK, but it was my decision.

When you got into the GPM car for the first time, what did you think?

Well, the car was very nice, but I still had very mixed feelings. I was scheduled to test for two days, but then I told Scott I was stopping after the one. So then he suggested that I came down to Kyalami for the first race last autumn and tested on the Thursday prior to the race. But each time I saw a barrier I was reminded about my Michigan accident. But I think my religious faith helped me a lot in determining what I should do. I thought it all through, and even telephoned my mother once I’d made the final decision that I race. She agreed that it had been so much part of my life and that life was too short to have any regrets anyway. So I did it.

Fittipaldi CVs

Emerson Fittipaldi
Born 12-12-46. Contested 144 grands prix, six pole positions, 14 wins, 16 front-row starts, six race fastest laps. World Champion 1972 (Lotus), 1974 (McLaren). Twice winner Indianapolis 500. Children: Juliana, Jayson, Tatiana, Joana and Luca.

Wilson Fittipaldi [brother].
Born 25-12-43. Contested 36 grands prix. Best placing: fifth, Germany, 1973 (Brabham).

Christian Fittipaldi [nephew].
Born 18-1-71. Contested 40 grands prix. Best placings: fourth, South Africa, 1993 (Minardi) and Pacific and German GPs, 1994 (Arrows)

Emerson’s clan

Emerson’s father Wilson Fittipaldi senior was one of Brazil’s foremost motorsporting journalists and broadcasters, stretching back to Fangio’s years racing in Europe in the early 1950s. He and his wife Juzy encouraged the racing interests of both their sons, Emerson contesting no fewer than 144 grands prix and winning 14 races on his way to two world championships in 1972 (Lotus) and 1974 (McLaren) and later twice winning the Indy 500. Emerson has homes in Sao Paolo and Key Biscayne, Florida. His grandson Pietro, son of his daughter Juliane, is now 10 and racing karts, while another daughter, Tatiana, is married to one-time Arrows F1 driver Max Papis. Their son Mario Fittipaldi Papis was born in July 2006.


Emerson Fittipaldi stateside

Four years after he’d retired from F1 Emerson started afresh in the USA
Words: Gordon Kirby

It began in a rather embarrassing way with a shabbily-presented pink car and Emerson wearing an equally pink driving suit. “What do you think?” he inquired, grinning broadly. “Pink car, pink suit! What a way to start!”

After the wear and tear of running a failing Formula 1 team pushed Fittipaldi into early retirement at 33 in 1980, he soon began to feel the itch to race again. For a few years he entertained himself in karts, then in February of 1984 Miami GP promoter Ralph Sanchez convinced Emerson to race a March IMSA GTP car in the Miami street race. The experience whetted his appetite and he made his Indy car debut in CART’s Long Beach season-opener that year aboard Pepe Romero’s shocking pink March, finishing a dogged fifth.

Romero’s team ran aground after a few months, but Fittipaldi plugged on, intent on re-starting his career. Later in the year, after Chip Ganassi was injured in an accident with Al Unser Jr during the Michigan 500, Emerson filled in for Ganassi in a few races with Pat Patrick’s team. He earned himself a full-time ride with Patrick for 1985 and soon scored his first CART win – in that year’s Michigan 500.

In 1986 Marlboro moved into Indy car racing, and who better to sponsor than Fittipaldi? Emerson had won the world championship with Marlboro and McLaren in 1975, and he scored Marlboro’s first Indy car win at Elkhart Lake in 1986. In 1989, he won both the Indy 500 and the CART title for Patrick.

Fittipaldi and his sponsor made a big move to Roger Penske’s team in 1990 where Emerson was part of a three-car superteam with Rick Mears and Danny Sullivan. Emerson would drive for Penske for eight years to the end of his career in 1996. He was a close second to Nigel Mansell in the ’93 CART championship and was second again to team-mate Unser Jr in ’94. He scored a superb second Indy 500 victory in ’93, beating Arie Luyendyk and Mansell in the race’s final shoot-out, and should have won again in ’94. Powered by Penske’s rule-baiting, single-cam 209 cubic-inch Ilmor/Mercedes engine, Fittipaldi lapped the field, only to crash in the closing stages while trying to keep Al Jr from unlapping himself. Emerson’s mistake handed victory to Unser.

Famously, Fittipaldi and Unser failed to qualify at Indianapolis in 1995, with Penske waving off a run by Emerson that would have put him in the field. He never raced again at Indy, thanks to the CART/IRL split in ’96 and his career-ending crash in July that year.

“Those were great days,” Emerson reflects. “That was a great time for racing with guys like Mario and Michael, Rick Mears, Al Unser Sr and Al Jr, Bobby Rahal and Danny Sullivan. And of course, Nigel came in and pushed the worldwide interest to a new level. For many years, CART was a fantastic racing series.”

When Fittipaldi arrived in CART in 1984 it was an almost all-American enclave. Today, Champ Car and IRL have been taken over by drivers from outside the USA, including a long list of Brazilians, most of them inspired no doubt by Emerson.