Twenty-seven years ago today, the F1 world inexplicably lost one of its greatest artisans: Elio de Angelis.
Killed in a freak testing accident at Paul Ricard on a warm day in 1986, de Angelis’ death rocked the F1 world and he remained the last F1 driver to die behind the wheel until that fateful 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Read on as we remember Elio…
Born in France but a racer under the Italian banner, Elio had a reputation as something of a rich kid when he jumped straight from karting into Formula 3 in 1977. But perceptions would quickly begin to change as he proved he had more than enough talent, winning third time out and incredibly snatching the championship crown from Piercarlo Ghinzani at the last race of the Italian season.
He won the following year’s Monaco GP F3 support race in a rather controversial manner while also driving for the Minardi Formula 2 outfit.
Despite a poor season in Formula 2, de Angelis took the bold leap into F1 in 1979, joining the Shadow team that was in the early stages of a pretty rapid fall from grace. Despite it being a poor car with little funding, de Angelis’ enthusiasm for the task was boundless, and his performances caught the eye of Colin Chapman, who signed him to his Team Lotus operation for 1980.
And he didn’t disprove Chapman’s faith, kicking off things with an excellent second place at the Brazilian Grand Prix, which helped him forge the path of being a consistent points’ collector in the coming years.
In 1982, he finally took his maiden F1 win with a brilliant drive to beat Keke Rosberg by just 0.050 seconds at the Österreichring (below).
The following year was a bridging year for Lotus as it acclimatised to Renault turbo power, but it came good in 1984, when yet more consistent performances saw him lead the championship by mid-season, only to be predictably overhauled by the McLarens of Lauda and Prost.
Having battled for number-one supremacy in the team with Nigel Mansell for the last five years, de Angelis was very much cast into the subordinate role when Ayrton Senna joined the team in 1985, a lucky win at Imola notwithstanding.
Realising that he could not live as a number-two to the Brazilian, Elio joined the Brabham team for 1986, figuring that its hugely powerful BMW turbo and Gordon Murray-designed chassis would see him at the front in no time.
Sadly, the radically low-line BT55 was a pig of a car, and it was a during a routine test session at Paul Ricard that Elio apparently suffered a rear wing failure while travelling through the high-speed esses. He vaulted the barriers and close to 300km/h and the car landed upside-down, on fire. With no trackside marshals to provide emergency assistance, de Angelis had to extricate himself from his burning car, suffering a broken collar bone and smoke inhalation.
It was half an hour before he was evacuated by helicopter to hospital and he succumbed to the effects of smoke inhalation just over 24 hours later.
The world was left to mourn the passing of the Roman, who earned the reputation of being a smooth and spectacular driver behind the wheel, and a dashingly handsome and exquisitely gifted piano player when out of the cockpit.
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