Elio de Angelis, last of the gentleman racers

Dear Nigel,

It’s now 27 years since Elio de Angelis lost his life at Paul Ricard and it’s often been said he was the last of gentleman Grand Prix racers. Why do you think that is the case and do you think we’ll get to see gentlemen racers again?

Avinash

Dear Avinash,

I confess that, like many others who knew him, I indeed think of Elio de Angelis as the last of the gentlemen racers, and I somewhat doubt we’ll see his like again.

He was a wealthy young man, as not a few racing drivers are, but also highly cultured, which is rather more unusual. Natural ability in a car was but one of Elio’s gifts, and when I think of him now, my thoughts go immediately to Kyalami in 1982, to the weekend the Grand Prix drivers went on strike.

Prior to that season the F1 drivers, as usual, each received an application form for the ‘Superlicence’ required to take part in the World Championship, and most signed it without troubling to read the small print. Niki Lauda, though, noted a clause he didn’t like, and drew it to the attention of Didier Pironi, then president of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association.

What worried Lauda was a proposal that in future superlicences be issued to a driver and team; at its foot, the form read, ‘I am committed to the above team to drive exclusively for them in the FIA World Championship until the...’ Niki envisaged trading between teams, with the drivers being passed around like a tray of cakes, and he wanted the clause removed.

When the drivers got to the Kyalami paddock on the first morning of practice, they found at the entrance a coach, which Lauda and Pironi invited them to board.

Once loaded up, the bus trudged off to Johannesburg, to the Sunnyside Park Hotel, where the drivers installed themselves, while Pironi, at the circuit, negotiated with Jean-Marie Balestre, President of the FISA and Bernie Ecclestone.

Back at the hotel the drivers pondered their next move. Clearly they would now have to spend the night there, and Lauda decided that some sort of dormitory was the only answer; if they took single rooms, he reasoned, unity would be lost, and with it the fight. Therefore he organised a small banquet suite, in which a number of mattresses was installed.

Through the day, a gung-ho schoolboy atmosphere had prevailed, although the more junior drivers were mighty nervous as they contemplated the possible repercussions of going AWOL. Lauda and others stressed to them the importance of sticking together, and then Gilles Villeneuve found there was a piano in the room, and began playing Scott Joplin rags with some expertise.

Periodically, Pironi would arrive with news from the front, and Villeneuve would preface Didier’s every announcement with the dramatic opening chords of Beethoven’s Fifth! Gilles’ sense of irrepressible fun was never more appreciated than that night.

Then, after a lecture on the finer points of Italian terrorism from Bruno Giacomelli, de Angelis moved to the piano, quietly sat down, and began to play some Mozart. “Elio was a close friend of mine,” Keke Rosberg said, “so I knew he could play the piano. But no one knew he could play like that...”

Ultimately the licence row was resolved, because there was too much at stake for it not to be, and the race duly took place, but the weekend left an unpleasant aftertaste, and Keke would say that his only good memory of it was Elio at the piano.

How good was he as a Grand Prix driver? Not as good as he could have been, in my opinion, in the sense that, while I think he had natural talent to throw away, his ambition never matched his ability. Coming from a very rich family, de Angelis raced primarily for the pleasure of it. When in 1985 Senna arrived at Lotus as his team mate, Elio found Ayrton’s obsessive approach a little… strange, you could say!

Those of us who knew him remember a delightful man, with a lovely sense of humour, and manners from another age. Jo Ramirez, who worked with him in his early days at Shadow, remained a close friend to the end of Elio’s life, in a testing accident at Paul Ricard 1986.

“In many ways he was like Cevert, wasn’t he? Charming, completely genuine – and, like François, a classically-trained pianist. For all his wealth, Elio was a very down-to-earth person. The day he signed the contract for his first F1 drive we went to celebrate, to a coffee shop in Northampton called Cagney’s, where we had hamburgers and chips!

“I remember going testing with him at Paul Ricard once. The track was wet, and no one wanted to go out, even though it had stopped raining – and then someone suggested that we all took our hire cars out, and dried the track! I went with Elio, and it was fantastic to watch him – he just floored it all the way round, slowing the car with the steering wheel. Superb! Of course nowadays no one would do anything like that, would they? It was so much more fun back then.

“Elio was a wealthy man, but he wouldn’t buy what he wanted just because he could. There was a particular Rolex watch he wanted, but it took him weeks of deliberating before he decided to buy it. Then he took off the watch he had on, and gave it to me. It was a gold Baume-Mercier, and although I wear it very rarely, I happened to be wearing it the day he died at Ricard. Lovely, lovely guy… we all remember him well, don’t we?”

Indeed we do, for he was the last of a type. With Elio, you never felt that F1 was the centre of the universe; it came easily to him, and was one of many good things in life, there – like playing Mozart – to be enjoyed.

For more from Nigel Roebuck, click here.

For more on Formula 1, click here.

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