Few people have ever achieved as much – or as quickly – as Emerson Fittipaldi.
Starting out on 50cc motorbikes, he followed his older brother Wilson into karts. Both progressed into car racing, with Emerson winning the 1965 Brazilian Formula Vee Championship in convincing fashion.
With little more to prove at home, he headed to Europe in 1969. He bought a Formula Ford car and proved unbeatable. Racing school owner Jim Russell took notice and signed this talented youngster to race his Formula 3 Lotus; he won the 1969 Lombank title and was snapped up by Team Lotus to drive in Formula 2.
Midway through 1970, Lotus boss Colin Chapman promoted Emerson to the Formula 1 team – largely to block rival teams from poaching him – and he won in just his fifth Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, straight after the team was left reeling from the death of lead driver Jochen Rindt at Monza.
He was immediately thrust into the role of team leader in 1971, and while no wins followed that year, he was back to winning in 1972 once the team had sorted is 72D chassis and was crowned Formula 1’s youngest ever World Champion.
He finished runner-up to Jackie Stewart in 1973 before jumping ship to McLaren where he won the 1974 World Championship crown to become the sport’s youngest-ever two-time title-winner – a record he would hold for 32 years. He was runner-up to Ferrari’s Niki Lauda in 1975.
Then came the career move that all but killed Emerson’s Formula 1 career: he left McLaren to join his brother Wilson’s Copersucar-Fittipaldi team. Only his supreme talent managed to haul the team’s recalcitrant cars to just two podium finishes in five frustrating seasons wasted in poor machinery.
He left Formula 1 in 1980 and after a few years’ break, returned to racing in the American Indy Car scene, claiming the 1989 title and twice winning the Indianapolis 500 against many drivers who were half his age. He opted to retire in 1996, but broke his back in a frightening accident before he could see the season out.
|Emerson Fittipaldi||Brazilian||12 December 1946, São Paulo (BRZ)|
|BEFORE FORMULA 1|
|1965||Brazilian Formula Vee Championship, Series Champion|
|1969||British F3 Championship, Jim Russell Lotus 59, MCD Lombard Champion|
|1970||Formula 2, Team Bardahl Lotus 59B, 8 races, 4 podiums, 3rd overall|
|FORMULA 1 CAREER|
|First Grand Prix||Last Grand Prix|
|1970 British Grand Prix||1980 United States Grand Prix|
|1970||Team Lotus Ford V8 49C / 72C, 5 races, 1 win, 12 points, 10th overall|
|1971||Team Lotus Ford V8 72C / 72D, 10 races, 3 podiums, 16 points, 6th overall|
|1972||Team Lotus Ford V8 72D, 12 races, 5 wins, 8 podiums, 61 points, World Champion|
|1973||Team Lotus Ford V8 72D / 72E, 15 races, 3 wins, 8 podiums, 55 points, 2nd overall|
|1974||McLaren Ford V8 M23, 15 races, 3 wins, 7 podiums, 55 points, World Champion|
|1975||McLaren Ford V8 M23, 13aces, 2 wins, 6 podiums, 45 points, 2nd overall|
|1976||Copersucar-Fittipaldi Ford V8 FD04, 15 races, 1 DNQ, 3 points, 17th overall|
|1977||Copersucar-Fittipaldi Ford V8 FD04 / F5, 14 races, 2 DNQ, 11 points, 12th overall|
|1978||Fittipaldi Automotive Ford V8 F5A, 16 races, 1 podium, 17 points, 10th overall|
|1979||Fittipaldi Automotive Ford V8 F5A / F6 / F6A, 15 races, 1 point, 21st overall|
|1980||Fittipaldi Ford V8 F7 / F8, 14 races, 1 podium, 5 points, 15th overall|
|CART / INDYCAR CAREER|
|1984||WIT Racing / H&R Racing / Patrick Racing March 83C / 84C, 9 races, 30 points, 15th overall|
|1985||Patrick Racing Cosworth March 85C, 15 races, 1 win, 4 podiums, 104 points, 6th overall|
|1986||Patrick Racing Cosworth March 86C, 17 races, 1 win, 5 podiums, 103 points, 7th overall|
|1987||Patrick Racing Chevrolet March 87C, 15 races, 2 wins, 3 podiums, 78 points, 10th overall|
|1988||Patrick Racing Chevrolet March 88C / Lotus T87/88, 15 races, 2 wins, 5 podiums, 105 points, 7th overall|
|1989||Patrick Racing Chevrolet Penske PC-17 / PC-18, 15 races, 5 wins, 8 podiums, 196 points, Champion|
|1990||Team Penske Chevrolet PC-19, 16 races, 1 win, 6 podiums, 144 points, 5th overall|
|1991||Team Penske Chevrolet PC-20, 17 races, 1 win, 6 podiums, 140 points, 5th overall|
|1992||Team Penske Chevrolet PC-21, 16 races, 4 wins, 7 podiums, 151 points, 4th overall|
|1993||Team Penske Chevrolet PC-22, 16 races, 3 wins, 9 podiums, 183 points, 2nd overall|
|1994||Team Penske Ilmor / Mercedes-Benz PC-23, 16 races, 1 win, 10 podiums, 178 points, 2nd overall|
|1995||Team Penske Mercedes-Benz PC-24, 16 races, 1 win, 2 podiums, 67 points, 11th overall|
|1996||Hogan Penske Mercedes-Benz PC-25, 12 races, 29 points, 19th overall|
|INDIANAPOLIS 500 RESULTS|
|1984||WIT Racing March 83C, Qualified 23rd-fastest, DNF|
|1985||Patrick Racing Cosworth March 85C, Qualified 5th-fastest, DNF|
|1986||Patrick Racing Cosworth March 86C, Qualified 11th-fastest, Finished 7th|
|1987||Patrick Racing Chevrolet March 87C, Qualified 33rd-fastest, DNF|
|1988||Patrick Racing Chevrolet March 88C, Qualified 8th-fastest, Finished 2nd|
|1989||Patrick Racing Chevrolet Penske PC-17, Qualified 3rd-fastest, Winner|
|1990||Team Penske Chevrolet PC-19, Qualified on Pole, Finished 3rd|
|1991||Team Penske Chevrolet PC-20, Qualified 15th-fastest, DNF|
|1992||Team Penske Chevrolet PC-21, Qualified 11th-fastest, DNF|
|1993||Team Penske Chevrolet PC-22, Qualified 9th-fastest, Winner|
|1994||Team Penske Mercedes-Benz PC-23, Qualified 3rd-fastest, DNF|
|1995||Team Penske Mercedes-Benz PC-24, Did Not Qualify|
|2001||Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, Inductee|
|2003||Champ Car World Series, Team Principal of Fittipaldi-Dingman Racing|
|2005-6||Grand Prix Masters, Team LG / Team Altech, 2 races, 1 podium|
|2005-9||A1 Grand Prix, Team Principal for Team Brazil|
Your parents’ involvement in motorsport was obviously a factor in you and your brother Wilson’s early racing endeavours in Brazil. How influential was the support of your family when you started out in your racing career?
I think it’s a major factor and the most important thing in why I got involved in racing; my brother, my mother and my father. I was around five years old when I saw a race car go by and there was a lot of influence from my family in a sport like motor racing. It was a big factor and I always had big support. My father never gave Wilson or I financial support but at the same time, he was always giving the right advice and direction.
Who were your motorsport idols when you first became interested in racing? What was is about their character or achievements that you admired?
There was Juan Manuel Fangio; I was a very young boy when he was winning and then there was a Brazilian driver called Chico Landi, the first Brazilian Grand Prix driver. Both were friends of my father so they were both my idols.
Your dark blue and orange helmet design was easily-recognisable and iconic in motorsport. What was your inspiration for this design?
I always liked blue and orange; there was no real reason apart from my personal taste and preference. I just got back from the go-kart track and my grandson who is now racing Brazilian go karts is using the same helmet colours!
You enjoyed almost immediate success in moving to Europe in the late 1960s. How did you find the adjustment to a different culture and racing environment?
When you leave your country to go to a different continent with a different language, culture and food, you are more determined to succeed than someone who lives in Italy and goes to race in France. That includes Australians and New Zealanders; when you move all the way to Europe or the States, you are more committed than someone is in the area.
It was a challenge but at the same time, it was more of an incentive to succeed and gave me more motivation to win. If you’re going a long way from your family, your friends and your culture, in the back of your mind you have to succeed and give 110%.
MAKING IT TO F1
Colin Chapman spotted your results and helped move you from Formula 2 to Formula 1. Your World Championship debut came in 1970 in the older 49C before you switched to the newer 72 at the ill-fated round at Monza where your teammate Jochen Rindt was killed. His death created shockwaves and brought into question the safety of the car’s design. How did you handle your own emotions in dealing with Jochen’s death against the expectations of having to get back behind the wheel?
It was very difficult. Already I had a very good friendship and relationship with Jochen. It was a big shock to myself and my family but it was a part of motorsport at the time. I had to accept it, even if I didn’t like those parts. It was tough for me, the team and Colin. It was something you just had to accept then continue which was difficult.
Perhaps the perfect response was victory at Watkins Glen next time out. What did the victory mean to you personally and to the Lotus team?
I think it was a key result because it gives back the motivation and confidence in the team as well as myself. It was only my fourth Grand Prix and being the number-one driver for Team Lotus under Colin Chapman was fantastic. I learned so much with Colin and he was incredible for my career. We left Watkins Glen with a new motivation to go for the next few years.
You were thrust into the spotlight as team leader, and the next two seasons saw the Lotus 72 refined into a championship challenger, peaking with the 1972 title. You were Brazil’s first F1 champion; what was the reaction like back home?
Brazil, for the large part, was new to Formula 1 but we had an amazing response from the public and the media. Football in Brazil was big and Formula 1 was small but then it was a big issue.
It was fantastic because after myself, with Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna, they continued the motivation to be involved in motor racing and to watch. The whole country followed me then again with my second championship and then Nelson as well as Senna, it was great for Brazil.
Back-to-back titles might have been on the cards, but you suffered an ankle injury mid-season and had a very competitive teammate in Ronnie Peterson to contend with as well. What prompted your decision to move to McLaren at the end of the year?
It was a very weird season. Ronnie was one of my best friends in Formula 1 and he was a fantastic driver. We worked together at the beginning of the season to get three wins and one second and then when the 72E arrived, nothing was right.
It started to go wrong but at Monza I still had a chance to win the championship. We made an agreement with Ronnie where if he was leading the last ten laps, Colin would give us a sign to change place. In the last laps, I kept waiting for the sign and started to attack Ronnie, finishing right behind his gearbox. For me it was very frustrating because I could have won the championship if I had won in Canada the next week. That’s when I wanted to leave because it’s not what we agreed to.
Your first year with McLaren was outstanding, as you took the team to its first Drivers’ and Constructors’ championship titles and become the sport’s youngest ever two-time World Champion. How did you adapt to the new environment and what were the major factors behind your success that year?
I think firstly I had to choose the team and there were many options with Brabham or Tyrell [Jackie Stewart had retired at the end of 1973 after the death of team-mate François Cevert] and then there was a lot of pressure for me to pick which team.
At the end of the day, we decided to go to McLaren because, coming from New Zealand, they had a lot of desire to win and a lot of energy. I was happy to sign with them and we had a fantastic relationship.
After one more year with the team, you shocked the paddock by joining your brother Wilson’s Copersucar-Fittipaldi team. It was a bombshell decision that killed your prospects of winning another race. What were your motivations for moving at the time and how do you look back on the decision today?
I was motivated to join Wilson because since I started racing in Brazil, I raced with Wilson in go-karts and Formula Vee. We had a long history with building race cars in Brazil and had the dream of having our Formula 1 team.
At that time, I was a two-time World Champion and wanted to go to a team with a new challenge. It was tough but we were always looking at getting the best people in the sport on our team.
In 1980 we had Harvey Postlethwaite design the car with Adrian Newey, his first job in Formula 1. I had Peter Warr as a manager but the sponsors decided not to continue. We didn’t have a lot of budget to test but Keke [Rosberg] was fourth and I was fifth on the grid with a brand new car out of the box. Then the sponsor called and said we couldn’t continue and so we had to give up.
Were the opportunities to keep racing in Formula 1?
In 1980 we had the full ground-effect car and I hated it. They were not sensitive, you just had to be very brave to go into a corner fast which I didn’t like. I wasn’t enjoying driving the Formula 1 cars.
I decided to retire then three years later I was invited to go to the United States to drive a CART car around Miami and I was back in the cockpit. I started enjoying driving again.
What was the inspiration to rejoin racing in the IndyCar Series in 1984, and after more than a decade in F1, two world championships and three full seasons removed, how quickly did you rediscover the ‘fire in the belly’?
When I was younger, I watched a lot of documentary films about Indianapolis and I kept asking Colin Chapman what it was like to win the 500 with Jim Clark and to be there. I asked Jochen and he hated it, saying “Oh, it’s a shit place, I don’t want to go back.”
Colin liked it because of the challenge, Peter Warr and a lot of the mechanics I had worked with liked Indianapolis. It was a challenge to go there.
What was your first impression of the skill and discipline required to race on ovals?
You have to be very precise and smooth because the speeds are very different to Formula 1. I tested Johnny Rutherford’s McLaren in 1974 because Texaco wanted me to drive it in 1975. I liked it but I decided not to; the car wasn’t carbon fibre and just disintegrated.
I ran at Indianapolis at the end of 1974, doing laps around 212mph and the car was so fragile at that speed. When there was a bit more carbon fibre I decided to go. I had to learn to set up the car, drive it differently, use the slipstream. It is unique and was a big challenge in my life but I was enjoying every second.
Given your success in Formula One, were the big CART teams courting you from the start or did you have to try and earn your stripes all over again given your age?
For me, it was new and different, I first went there with a small team, not intending to do well but just to get experience. I was expecting to finish in the top twelve, top 10 maybe in the first year. When I had the invitation from Pat Patrick to move to a stronger team, I started thinking that I could achieve better results. I was always learning and had good people around me all of the time.
One of last memories of your time in IndyCars were your amazing on-track battles with Al Unser Jr and Nigel Mansell. Who was your favourite rival to duel against on the track, in either Formula 1 or IndyCars?
I was lucky that I raced against three generations of drivers, there was always top drivers. When I arrived in Formula 1, there was so much talent.
Jack Brabham, Jochen Rindt, Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, Pedro Rodríguez, Jackiy Ickx. Particularly when I was at Lotus, Stewart was my biggest rival, battling for the championship two years in a row.
After that it was McLaren against Ferrari, battling Clay Regazzoni and Niki Lauda the year after. There was also guys like Mario Andretti and Gilles Villeneuve.
When I moved to CART, I was racing the sons of these guys: Michael Andretti and Jacques Villeneuve as well as Al Unser Jr. When Nigel came from Formula 1, we had great battles. At Indianapolis, the battle with Unser Jr was great in the last three laps of the race.
With that race in Cleveland, Nigel and I swapped the lead seven times in two laps. It was fantastic.
If you could have your time again, would you have drunk the milk after the Indy 500 instead of your orange juice? What are your thoughts on the incident and the negative reaction it generated because you bucked tradition?
I actually drank the milk but the press never showed that, only me drinking the orange juice! They didn’t want to show that but I had it because at that time, Brazilian orange juice was big and it still is globally.
When I first won at Surfers Paradise, I had the orange juice and I was promoting our national product.
Was Penske’s failure to qualify for the Indy 500 in 1995 a low point for you or just an indication of the state of the car at the time which influenced you to join the Penske/Hogan merger in 1996?
The Penske cars of myself and Unser Jr didn’t qualify so Hogan lent one of his Penske cars. I qualified for three laps and on the last lap, Roger waved me off and thought I’d run again but that didn’t happen.
For myself and Unser Jr, the car was difficult and I would’ve qualified had it not been for Roger waving me off. I was very upset with him but that’s part of motor racing, it can happen to anybody.
HANGING UP THE HELMET
After your crash at Michigan in 1996, did you know it was going to be career ending or did you want to come back given you were 50 years old?
When I qualified Saturday afternoon, I called Roger and said that Laguna Seca [at the end of the season] would be my last race and that I’d retire after that. He was happy for me and congratulated me. Then the next day, I crashed with only three races to go until retirement. I’m happy that I’m here.
What motivated you towards team ownership in CART a few years after you retired even when the series was in a lot of difficulty? Who persuaded you and had you considered going to IRL despite CART being your home?
With CART, I wanted to continue. It was the same group I was involved with before. It was a loss for motorsport when they split (in 1996). At that point, IndyCar lost to NASCAR; beforehand it had better coverage and sponsorship then that reversed. That’s when NASCAR started to become bigger in America.
You moved onto the pit wall at the end of 1980, and have subsequently (briefly) led your own Indy Car team and acted as Team Principal for the Brazilian A1GP outfit. It’s said that racing drivers don’t necessarily make the best team bosses; how did you transfer your skills from the track to behind the scenes?
Motorsport is my passion for life, I love to be involved with racing. A1GP was a well-designed championship made by good people but it didn’t work or succeed internationally. It was good to be involved and let me love the sport.
How does it feel to be one of only four men to win the Formula One and IndyCar titles, up there with Mario, Nigel and Jacques?
It’s a great honour to be among so many great champions and to be able to win the Formula 1 championship twice as well as the Indy 500 two times and the title. I was the first foreigner to win the CART championship in history and it was great to be a part of that history.
I was always surrounded by good people; in motor racing it’s not just about the driver, it’s about the team who is behind them. I’m a man of faith and I always thanked God that I’m here. I lost 38 friends to racing since I started until I finished in IndyCar. I’m very lucky to be here.
Few families would be considered as dynasties in motorsport but the Fittipaldi name continues to feature through the younger generations with your nephew Christian and grandson Pietro. What advice have you given them and does Pietro have the skills to become a third generation Formula 1 driver?
First of all, the love and passion for the sport as well as the talent and dedication. You have to be fully dedicated to focus on how to improve the next lap. It’s a challenge for any sport but especially in motor racing, having to understand the car as well as adapting to it. You have to have full dedication to love the sport. Pietro is doing this very well and I’m very happy. My father and my mother would be very happy to see that.
EMERSON’S THOUGHTS ON F1 TODAY
What are your thoughts on the proposed Formula 1 changes as the sport seeks to contain costs and improve the show?
Anything that has to be done to improve the show on TV to make it more exciting for fans through creating a more dynamic race with more overtaking is the direction it needs to go.
The younger generation is faster than the old generation and anything to make the racing more exciting is going to generate more fans globally. I’ve seen Formula 1 improve a lot over the past two years with overtaking and becoming more dynamic but if it can increase, it will be better.
Should Formula One look at going down the path of opening its engine regulations up? You were in an era where there were many different configurations; should they allow everything like V12’s, V10’s, V8’s, V6 and inline 4 turbos with hybrid technology which could allow more manufacturers as opposed to the current setup? Should they maybe look at hydrogen combustion as an alternative power source rather than the hybrid and electric power that Formula E is using?
Formula 1 needs to look at the global energy problem and find a rule that would allow research into new ways of developing energy efficiently. That would be a great help for the future of technology but at the same time, they need to be careful about not getting to expensive because there is already the problem around how much Formula 1 costs.
If they make a rule where you have so much fuel available and leave the engine rules open to design something efficient, the engine is going to go faster and the technology could be in a battery car one day. It needs to be more open for research of efficient energy for two reasons: what’s the most efficient way of making energy and what’s the powerplant which will make that energy to be faster and more efficient.
Images via Laureus, McLaren, Motorsport.com, Pinterest, The Cahier Archive