THE CHAMPIONS / Emerson Fittipaldi
Making it big on both sides of the Atlantic
- Mattijs Diepraam, Rainer Nyberg
- July 12, 2004
- 1973 Italian GP - After you, sir?, by Mattijs Diepraam
- Luis Pereira Bueno - If only F1 had come to Brazil sooner, by Mattijs Diepraam/Carlos de Paula
- Fittipaldi - Samba that never got into tune, by Mattijs Diepraam
- Ronnie Peterson - Super Swede, by Rainer Nyberg/Mattijs Diepraam
- Chico Serra - Better luck in stock, by Rainer Nyberg
- Jackie Stewart - The organiser, by Mattijs Diepraam
XII Festival of Speed (26 July 2004)
The prettiest early-seventies driver/car combination by far being re-united once more at Goodwood. It's not the first time that Fittipaldi was rejoined with 72-R5 but each time it's a sight straight from the time machine. Emmo even went throught the trouble of wearing a matching period helmet. The dark Saturday weather at the 2004 Festival of Speed created an eerie resemblance to the early-Spring Race of Champions and International Trophy outings for Emerson and 72D...
From history's youngest F1 World Champion to veteran Indy 500 winner and Indycar champion - Emerson Fittipaldi has seen it all. Rarely has a career seen two such drastic moves from zero to hero as those that the Brazilian managed to achieve between the late sixties and the mid-nineties. His first came between 1969 and 1970 and saw him grow from total South American obscurity to Grand Prix-winning driver in less than two years. The second happened between 1983 and 1985 and led him from a celebrity IMSA appearance at Miami to being a Indycar race winner at Michigan in the space of just over a year. This could only have happened because of a rock-solid foundation of pure natural ability. Yet he is perceived as a driver who relied more on his cunning than his speed.
Picture the spring of 1969. That hippiest of summers was still to come, Jackie Stewart had set his first steps towards his first world title and no-one in the world except for a few Paulistas had heard of the man that would go on to dethrone that same F1 superstar a mere three years later. In those days it was an exception skipping steps of a clear-cut ladder to F1. Emerson Fittipaldi didn't either, F2 following F3 and F Ford on his arrival to Britain, but it was the speed of progress that would astonish many.
The first meteor career
Before Emerson crossed the Atlantic at 22 years of age, he already had a five-year karting career under his belt. However, not very many people know that he started his competition life as a biker, sharing the same teenage passion with the likes of Ricardo Rodríguez and Damon Hill. His father had been racing motor cycles himself, so Fittipaldi Senior was keen for his son Emerson to follow in his footsteps, especially as elder brother Wilson had started dabbling with karts. But he was apprehensive about it as well, and for good reason - the old Fittipaldi's career had ended in 1952 when he suffered a bad crash on a 500cc BMW bike. So while he encouraged his son to start a motor-cycle career, the boy making his competitive debut at the age of 15, he kept Emerson from riding anything faster than 50ccs. As the teenager was already helping Wilson out as a mechanic, it was no surprise that his interest switched from riding to driving - two years later Emerson was racing his own kart, becoming the São Paulo champion in 1965.
The brothers graduated to car racing with Renaults - Wilson taking the wheel of an Alpine GT, with Emerson entering the junior championship with a Dauphine. An initial European foray ended in disappointment for Wilson, but it did inspire him to open a racing memorabilia shop which he ran together with Emerson. The two also teamed up building their own karts, that in 1966 consequently swept the boards. The same happened to the Fitti-Vee with which they conquered the inaugural Brazilian Formula Vee Championship in 1967. Cleaning up in karts, F Vee and GT racing Emerson had quickly grown into a local racing crack and he was only 22.
With nothing to prove in his homeland Emerson arrived on the shores of Britain in May 1969. He may have been the name of the game in Brazil but in Europe he was a virtually unknown rookie with hardly any grasp of the English language en desperately seeking for a lucky breakthrough. Instead of sinking into obscurity he quickly put the Fittipaldi name on the board, though. With his Brazilian prize money he bought himself a Merlyn Formula Ford and a Rowland-prepared engine. Debuting at Zandvoort he immediately led in his heat before the engine seized. He was noticed, got another engine and won next time out at Snetterton, followed by three more wins and the offer of an F3 seat in Jim Russell's Lotus squad. F3 saw similar astonishing progress: fifth in his first race, second in his second, victorious in his third. His results were enough to clinch the Lombank Championship even though he had started mid-way through the season. Despite his young age he already showed the collected, intelligent driving style that was to do him so well in F1.
Signing up for the Lotus F2 works team he sat in an F1 car a mere year after setting foot on British soil, testing for Lotus ahead of his third-car Grand Prix debut at Brands Hatch, lining up in the old 49C. He had literally zapped through the ranks.
He had a plucky drive to 8th in his ancient car, and followed that up with an amazing drive to 4th in Grand Prix racing's debut at the Hockenheimring, still in the 49C, having already qualified well ahead of more modern cars. That could still have been explained away by the race of attrition in Germany, with just seven cars making it to the flag, which may be the reason for the utter astonishment caused by the Brazilian youngster winning his fourth Grand Prix, and his first as the new Lotus team leader, being thrown violently into that position by Jochen Rindt's fatal accident at Monza. The win at Watkins Glen sealed the championship for Jochen too, making it a very significant and bittersweet victory for Colin Chapman and the Lotus team.
More progress was expected in 1971, as the 72 had shown itself as the car to beat in 1970. However, car niggles and the distraction of the turbine-powered 56B kept his results sheet clean before a nasty road accident near Dijon further weakened his challenge. Emerson recuperated in the new house he and brother Wilson had bought in Lausanne but missed the Dutch GP, only to see Jackie Stewart stroll away into an unassaillable title lead. With 72D, the ultimate 72 spec, he jumped back to form to score several late-season podiums to take fifth in the championship. He got more practice by two-timing in F2, winning three races. Significantly, Chapman kept supporting his young charge during his difficult times, a patience that he wouldn't allow Dave Walker in the following season.
Walker's lack of experience in high-power single-seaters was laid bare for all to see because of Emmo's storming approach to the 1972 season. Having given fair warning by winning the Race of Champions and International Trophy he rolled off a magnificent mid-season streak, taking five wins and five podiums between Kyalami and Monza. There was no stopping the smooth-styled Paulista, as he blitzed his opposition, destroyed his team mate and exuded the on-track invincibility that made backmarkers move out of the way as soon as he arrived. So yes, he was Grand Prix racing's youngest World Champion but what a mature head on such young shoulders.
It was a giant achievement for Brazil as well. Until Emerson arrived on the scene, South America's main representation in Grand Prix racing consisted of a full range of Argentinian high flyers, with a mere handful of Brazilians performing their act as bit players. Now, Brazil got its own Grand Prix, having had a non-championship prelude in 1972, with a race at Interlagos ironically won by what would be the last of the great Argentinians, Carlos Reutemann. For 1973, the race took its rightful place on the World Championship calendar and the crowd would receive Emerson not only as their champion but as the champion as well, Fittipaldi having reached the heights of popularity that could only be matched by Pele. Today, Brazil is one of the world's largest suppliers of motor racing talent. It might be argued that Fittipaldi was the one who paved the way for all of them, including Piquet and Senna.
In the year of his title defense Emerson was paired with Ronnie Peterson. There could not have been a greater contrast of approaches - the slick Brazilian versus Super Swede, the man who could make anything go fast but not help it go even faster. The first few races it was clearly Advantage Fitti, as the new World Champion raced to victory in three of first four races. After Kyalami Emmo was comfortably leading the championship, with Ronnie on zero points, which stayed at zero after Montjuich, which saw another Fittipaldi win, but only after Peterson retired from the lead. In Belgium Stewart's title challenge started to gather pace, however, as he clawed back his deficit to seven points and reducing further to just four at Monaco. Finally, Peterson scored his first points of the season at the Principality, but Fittipaldi beat him again, finishing second to Stewart.
Then, mid-way through the season, Emerson's momentum faltered. Badly. After a non-finish in Sweden due to failing brakes he made a silly error in France when trying to pass young Jody Scheckter for the lead. The South African had been bravely leading the race from the line, using his McLaren's straight-line speed to stay ahead of a train of cars consisting of Peterson, Stewart and Hulme. With the latter two falling away due to tyre stops, Emerson moved up into third as Peterson tried every trick in the book to pass the impressive rookie. Seeing that Fittipaldi was faster Ronnie let his team mate through, hoping that he would be able to make an impression on the number-two McLaren driver but the order stayed the same for many laps, with the lapped Hulme staying with the lead group and even repassing Peterson in an attempt to help his team mate draw clear. At the end of lap 42 Scheckter got stuck behind the BRM of Beltoise, allowing Fittipaldi to move right up to his tail. Into the right-hander before the start/finish straight he saw a gap and lunged down the inside. In reality, if it had been there it was closed now, as Scheckter stuck to his line. The two collided acrimoniously - Fittipaldi was out on the spot, Jody's accident damage caused him to retire the following lap. This let Peterson through into an unassailable lead, as the Swede moved up into fourth place in the championship, while Stewart's comeback drive allowed the Scot to take the title lead.
Emerson's mid-season slump continued at Silverstone, Zandvoort and the two Germanic Rings as Tyrrell's domination of the Dutch and German GPs took Stewart well out of reach. At Monza Fittipaldi had a mere mathematical chance of retaining his title while Ronnie had moved to within eight points of Fittipaldi, having won in Austria. The two Lotus drivers dominated the race, but Jackie Stewart was making the headlines with his monumental charge up the field into 4th. As the 72D were racing towards the finish the leading No.2 car gave no sign of giving up its lead to the No.1 car whose driver was still in with a shout for the championship, and they finished in line astern, Peterson leading Fittipaldi. Emerson was furious with Chapman for not ordering Ronnie aside, making an uncharacteristic scene out of it. In reality his objections were futile as Stewart's fourth place had been enough anyway, even with a Fittipaldi win.
And so a disgruntled Fittipaldi signed a big-money Texaco-Marlboro McLaren contract for 1974. It wasn't entirely out of displeasure with the sitation at Lotus, however - probably not even in the least. The Brazilian had experienced the speed of Gordon Coppuck's M23 at first hand as he struggled and failed to get past Jody Scheckter at Paul Ricard. In the hands of the talented South African McLaren's new car flew, and although old hand Hulme and nice guy Peter Revson took a few useful wins in it they gave the impression of not extracting the full 100 per cent from the car. Leave that to Emerson Fittipaldi. Teaming up with Hulme, with Mike Hailwood in the third Yardley-backed car, Emerson used all his cunning to take the 1974 title in one of the most fiercely competitive championships ever, and helping McLaren to their first constructors title as well. He won hard-fought races in Brazil, Belgium and Canada but the key to his title challenge was reliability and consistent points-scoring. Yes, Niki Lauda had been generally faster and won four races, but in the end the consistency of Regazzoni, Scheckter and Fittipaldi beat him into fourth place in the championship.
As in 1973 Emerson started off his title defense in good form, winning in Argentina and taking second in Brazil. Then came the first of two safety-inspired controversies that may have caused him to take the eye off the ball for the remainder of the season - or was that caused by secretly mulling over brother Wilson's offer to join him in the national Copersucar Fittipaldi effort? Anyway, his Race of Champions was a sorry affair due his protesting the admission of "dangerous" F5000 cars against which he had raced in previous RoC editions. In the end, he qualified a dismal 17th which didn't do any wonders to his British popularity. This was followed by the Armco incident at Montjuich. On Friday, while posing for a photographer, Emmo and the crash barrier he was sitting on fell to the ground under his weight due to improper installation. This fuelled an outrage which had the Brazilian organize a boycott of the Spanish GP which, in the end, no-one adhered to. He did walk out of the race himself, though, and saw his vision vindicated by Rolf Stommelen's infamous crash into the crowd - although it was never proved that the German's Lola flipped over the barriers because of their failing. The remainder of the season saw him take a clever but lucky win in the red-flagged British GP before finally scoring some more fine results at the end of the season, having long given up any hope of retaining his crown in a season in which Niki Lauda and Ferrari were consummately quicker.
But then, during the 1975-'76 off-season, followed an announcement that would astonish anyone involved or interested in Grand Prix racing. The double World Champion would spearhead a grand Brazilian F1 effort by siding with his brother Wilson's one-year old Copersucar Fittipaldi outfit. It was a shock.
The interim period
Emerson had always been seen as the most intellectually gifted and mentally stable of the entire crop of early-seventies racing drivers. Here was a calculating man, sound of body and spirit, letting his soul speak in a mind-numbing move that would classify Jacques Villeneuve's decision to go with BAR as entirely sane and ultimately logical. At least BAR had the wealth of BAT's tobacco money and Honda's engineering clout. Wilson's tiny outfit had been languishing at the back of the field for one proven year now, with no significant technical changes due for 1976.
Or, as was often suggested in Villeneuve's case too, was it simply greed? It is a fact that sugar company Copersucar forked out a monumental salary to lure the champion to their stable, money that would have been wiser to invest in a better car. The only occasion that allowed Emerson to laugh was after Brazilian qualifying in which he had just put Richard Divila's new FD04 5th on the grid. After that the team was no more than a solid midfielder, having deserted their second car for the best part of the season and Fittipaldi not scoring any better than 6th on three occasions. So was the Interlagos performance a fluke that was totally due to Emerson’s track knowledge and the other teams not being quite ready?
At first, with Wilson driving FD01/02/03 in its first year, there was still something distinctively Brazilian about the Copersucar team. Apart from applying a national sugar-funded livery to their cars, the team worked closely with Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer to at least try to make it into the national effort which Emerson would point to in defense of his controversial transfer. But soon the team moved to Reading and Divila’s turned the FD04 into even more of a Cosworth/Hewland kit-car. Although there were sparks of hope – especially when Giacomo Caliri’s Fly Studio turned the M23-lookalike F5 car into the regular points-scoring wing car F5A for 1978 – a brilliant second place for Emerson at his 1978 home race was to be the team’s best-ever result. But they were sparks that fizzled out pretty quickly. The last three years of the team’s existence – with Emerson having retired to take on management duties – were getting more embarrassing by the season, and by 1982 its cars were uninspiring tail-enders before it decided to fold at the end of the season. The Fittipaldi F1 team had danced a samba that never got into a rhythm and went out of tune long before reaching its coda.
The second meteor career
When two-time World Drivers Champion Emerson Fittipaldi returned to racing in 1984, his glory days were a distant and fading memory. Many never expected much from his Indy comeback attempt at the age of 37, after he had been retired for three years and several wasted Formula 1 years in his own lacklustre GP car. Would he still have what it takes? How would this form of racing suit him? The doubters did not even have time to reconsider. Emerson quickly proved his critics wrong and took on Indy-style racing like a duck to water.
After a three-year hiatus Emerson was tempted back to motor racing early in 1984. The year began in Rio where Emerson tested a Disney-sponsored Spirit-Hart Formula 1 car. The man who had brokered the Disney deal – the little known Fulvio Maria Ballabio – never got the superlicence necessary to race at this level, so out went Ballabio and with him the Disney money. The Formula 1 comeback was over before it started.
Shrewd Miami promoter Ralph Sanchez entered the frame and he lured him into a March-Chevy GTP car for his Miami GP, which was an IMSA-sanctioned sports car race. Emerson responded well to this challenge and his first competitive race for years – he put the car on pole before eventually retiring from the race.
The impressive showing in Miami paved the way for a single-seater return, not in F1 but in CART instead. Emerson had actually tested a McLaren Indycar ten years earlier when he was driving for McLaren in Formula 1, putting a McLaren M16 – Johnny Rutherford’s Indy 500 winner – through its paces at Indianapolis in September 1974.
For the 1984 CART season Emerson dressed up in lurid pink overalls and the car was sprayed in similar fashion. He explanation his comeback by stating there was still something missing in his career and said he would return “strictly as a driver” as he considered his F1 years as a constructor/driver “the biggest mistake of my whole life”.
”It was a very tough period, but thanks to that I was able to do my Indycar career. Otherwise I would have retired from Formula 1 forever and that would have been it. I’d have never gone to race in the United States. The four years when I had my own team were very tough. It was a much bigger challenge than I anticipated.”
He finished a creditable fifth in his first CART race at Long Beach. He used a year-old Cosworth-powered March 83C for that race and also for his rookie test at Indianapolis. He received a new 84C from March a week into Indy practice. The entry was surrounded by some controversy, as his team WIT Promotions, run by Pepe Romero, actually failed to enter the event before closing time. However, they managed to purchase the entry of Al Loquasto and Emerson qualified his March 84C for the middle spot on the eighth row. The race finished early for Emerson as he had to park the car after 39 laps due to loss of oil pressure. “I enjoyed it!” was his comment after his brief race.
During the Month of May at Indianapolis, everybody witnessed Emerson’s driving talent and after Patrick Racing driver Chip Ganassi crashed out of the Michigan 500, which left Ganassi sidelined for the rest of the season, Pat Patrick quickly picked up Emmo for his car. Emerson would remain with Pat Patrick for the next five seasons.
Already by 1985 he was a winner in this category of race cars too. He won (albeit a lucky victory) the ultra fast Michigan 500 in a 7-Eleven sponsored March 85C-Cosworth. He was rewarded with a 13th place in his second Indy 500. For 1986 Emmo was in familiar Marlboro colours, still of course driving for Pat Patrick. Again racing a March, a ’86 model now, he won at the exciting Elkhart Lake circuit. The 1987 season saw Emmo’s team switch to the emerging Ilmor-built Chevrolet engine. The team did not have the consistency to be a contender for the championship but Emerson notched up a couple of wins at the Cleveland airfield track and Toronto street track.
A March 88C was bought for the 1988 campaign, but this car never got up to speed and by mid-season it was dropped, forcing Emerson into a year-old Lola. At this point Mo Nunn joined the team as its chief engineer. Nunn developed the Lola to the degree that Emerson could win at Mid-Ohio and Road America. The Pat Patrick, Mo Nunn and Emerson Fittipaldi combo reaped their rewards in 1989, when Emerson won the IndyCar World Series. He was the second driver following Mario Andretti to win both the Indy Car World Series and the Formula One World Championship, with Emerson running his Chevy-powered Penske PC18 to five pole positions and five wins including the big one at Indianapolis.
His Indy win came after much drama. Emerson had a great car all month, “The car ran beautifully the whole time from day one.” The final pit stop however saw Emerson’s car being refuelled with too much fuel for the remaining laps and Emmo nearly stalled his car on his way out! In his heavily fuel-laden Penske Emerson saw Al Unser Jr quickly close in on him. Emmo said to himself, “There’s no way I can stop him, there is no justice!” With just five laps remaining Emerson could not stop Unser from overtaking him. The drama continued as Unser had to back off for traffic into Turn 2, making him slow out of the turn. Emerson saw an opportunity and was able to get a tow from Unser’s slipstream and pull out side-by-side with Unser. With Turn 3 coming Emerson decided, “I’m gonna stay on this line and take Turn 3 flat out!” The cars went into Turn 3 with Emerson on the inside and Unser on the outside, but turbulence from a car in front of Emerson saw him lose downforce. As he slid up on the track he touched wheels with Unser! Emerson was able to regain control of his car using a lot of opposite lock while poor Unser ended up hitting the wall. Unser showed his sportsmanship when he gave his thumbs up to Emerson when he came around the next time, but Emerson conceded, “I was lucky to come out of it!“
He crashed out at Milwaukee but scored a hattrick in the next three races at Detroit, Portland and Cleveland before wrapping up the championship with a win at Nazareth. Aged 42, fifteen years after his last Formula One Championship win, Emerson was on top again, driving better than he ever did.
Into the 1990s Emerson joined Roger Penske’s slick operation and would remain with Penske for the next seven seasons with the final one being run by a Carl Hogan/Roger Penske partnership. Driving for Penske he would remain competitive during the rest of his career. 1990 brought him a lone win at Nazareth and 1991 also saw him win once at Detroit. Now aged 45 Emerson once again had a great year in 1992 with five wins at Surfers Paradise, Cleveland, Elkhart Lake, Mid Ohio and in the Marlboro Challenge.
The 1993 season saw Emerson battle with fellow Formula 1 World Champion Nigel Mansell. Emerson lost the battle to Nigel for the IndyCar World Series but beat him in the Indianapolis classic. After a period of yellow flags Nigel Mansell led the Indy 500 into restart on lap 184, ahead of Fittipaldi and Arie Luyendijk. Indy rookie Mansell, lacking experience in this situation, got caught napping when the green flags waved for the restart, as Emerson jumped Nigel for the lead before starting to extend it. He had a four-second advantage when the yellow flags came out once again on lap 193: Mansell had brushed the wall in Turn 2. Emerson showed his experience on the restart on lap 195 when he slowed down on the backstretch and then out-accelerated Luyendijk for the restart. Determined to bag his second Indy 500 win Emerson set the fastest lap of the race on lap 197 and lap 198 was even faster! He won by 2.862 seconds in his Penske ahead of Luyendijk’s Lola. Later in the year Emerson also won at Portland and Mid Ohio on his way to second place in the championship.
A consistent 1994 season once again brought Emerson second place in the championship, recording a lone win at Phoenix. Roger Penske took advantage of a loophole in the regulations and together with Ilmor and Mercedes he built a single-cam pushrod engine just for Indianapolis. The ’94 Indy 500 wasn't to be Emerson’s year, however, as he crashed into the wall on lap 184 while team mate Al Unser Jr got his well-deserved Indy 500 win. Aged 48, Emerson notched up his last win in 1995 when he brought his Penske to victory at Nazareth.
The following year – 1996 – would be his final year and unfortunately it was not a good one. Emerson being demoted to Penske’s second-string operation in a partnership with Carl Hogan, he struggled all year. But je showed some spirit on the Nazareth and Milwaukee ovals where he was second on the grid and finished fourth in both races. The second Michigan race of the year ended in tears for Emerson as he tangled with rookie driver Greg Moore as they touched wheels into Turn 1 on the first lap. Fittipaldi spun his car and it went backwards, crashing hard into the wall. The telemetry recorded a 100G impact. Emerson suffered crushed vertebrae and a partially collapsed lung and was airlifted to hospital. Surgery revealed that Emerson was extremely fortunate as he was only one millimetre away from damaging his spine and the risk of paralysis.
One week later Emerson was recorded saying that, “I will not race again because I think I had a good message last weekend that I should stop … and I believe things happen in life for a reason. I think the crash was a sign to stop.”
He praised the safety of the modern cars: “There is no way I would have survived the big crash I had at Michigan even five or six years earlier. And it continues to get better and better.” Emerson Fittipaldi, ever the sensible guy.