A chat with 'Emmo'by Rob Widdows on 28th July 2008
Talking to Emerson Fittipaldi is never less than interesting.
Alistair Caldwell, Emerson Fittipaldi and Teddy Mayer.
We didn’t see much of him immediately after he retired, Emerson preferring to spend time in Brazil. He would appear at events like the Goodwood Festival of Speed, but otherwise the chance to have a proper chat with the man was rare.
Then along came the Grand Prix Masters and, while it lasted, he was back in the headlines. His return to the cockpit was a surprise, his doctors having urged him not to race again after he hurt himself badly in a flying accident. But back he came, and on the pace too, giving Nigel Mansell a run for his money. The really good guys never lose it.
Now, Emerson is the “seat holder” (horrible phrase) for Team Brazil in the A1GP series and he takes an active interest in his investment. Like Alan Jones, who holds the Australia seat, he has a huge amount of good advice for the youngsters who come for some big single-seater experience. These former champions add much credibility to the series.
Talking to Emerson at Mugello last week, where A1GP launched its new Ferrari-powered car, he told me about the ring he never removes from his finger. This is the gold ring with the chequered square that every Indianapolis 500 winner is given. He won the 500 twice, both times for Penske, in 1989 and ’93. I was there in ’93 when Emerson beat Mansell, jumping him at the last green flag, using all the tricks he’d learnt on the ovals. Mansell learnt a bit about re-starts that afternoon.
"Yeah, it was a good race,” says Emerson. “Indy is one of the great circuits, like Interlagos, or Spa, or Monaco, or the Osterreichring – and even here at Mugello it goes up and down, has great fast corners, nice circuit. I’d like to drive the new car here.”
Indy 500, 1993 Emerson Fittipaldi (4) gets the jump on Nigel Mansell (5) at restart.
But what about that ring?
“I never allowed myself to have superstitions and I remember Fangio always said that a driver should not let himself be too superstitious. My father was a good friend of Fangio. Through my career I didn’t have special shoes, or gloves, or that kind of thing. But I always wear this ring, and I guess that is my superstition.”
Emerson was just 25 when he won his first World Championship with McLaren in 1972. I told him I thought Lewis Hamilton would take his first title this year, and he’s a year younger. “I know, it’s amazing,” he laughs, “all these kids coming up now, and Hamilton is incredible. I have this Brazilian teenager – he’s 17 and I want to put him in the A1GP car at the first race in September. He’s been very quick in karts and I want to see how he goes with 600bhp.”
There will almost certainly be an A1GP race at Interlagos next March. Emerson is very involved in both the commerce and politics of motor racing in Brazil and he is keen to see the cars at this spectacular circuit in São Paulo. “It’s time Brazil had more drivers at the top of the sport,” he says. This presumably includes the young Fittipaldis. “They are coming,” he smiles, “you’ll see.”
For now, the flag is with Felipe Massa and, on a rainy day, Rubens Barrichello. We cannot dismiss the son of Piquet, while Bruno Senna is making an impression in GP2, so Emerson has time to nurture his young drivers. Massa must make the best of this – quite how Kimi Räikkönen has failed to crush his team-mate is beyond me. It is one of the mysteries of this F1 season, as is Kovalainen’s apparently rapid demotion to rear gunner at McLaren. But we like a mystery, and there’s a long way to go yet.