Brazil, if there is one sport that defines the country is soccer, after all, they won the World Cup 5 times, but there is another sport that the country won even more titles: Formula One. Brazilian drivers won nothing less than 8 F-One World Championships. Sir Jack Stewart once tried to explain the phenomena: “Must be something in the water they drink”.
The more contemporary Formula One fans will certainly remember the name of Airton Senna before anybody else but the Brazilian tradition in the sport began way before Senna, with the guy who paved the road for all other Brazilian race drivers, his name is Emerson Fittipaldi.
Fittipaldi was born in São Paulo, in 1946, son of a prominent Italian-Brazilian motorsports journalist and radio commentator Wilson Fittipaldi, also known as the ” Baron Fittipaldi”. His father was deeply involved with racing, Mr. Wilson was one of the founders of the “Mil Milhas Brasileiras”, in 1956, and the race became the most traditional motorsport competition in South America.
Emerson’s passion for speed started at a very young age, when he was 11 his father took him to watch a race in Interlagos and at the end, he convinced his father to ask one of his race driver friends to take him for a lap around the track. The little boy was exhilarated with the sound, the wind coming through the window, and with the thrill of the speed. Emerson was hooked for life.
At the age of 15, he was already racing motorcycles and at 16, he and his brother Wilson Jr. were racing hydroplanes. During one of those races, Wilson Jr. narrowly escaped death when he crash-landed his airplane and the duo agreed to give up air races and dedicate their time entirely to automobiles.
At the age of 17 Emerson won the Brazilian Go-Kart Championship, racing with a kart he had borrowed from a friend, and for the next year, the factory Renault/Willys race team hired him to be one of the official drivers.
In the early 1960s, the recently created Brazilian auto industry was heavily investing in competitions, race tracks were popping up all over the country, racing quickly became the second most popular sport in Brazil, in that scenario the young Fittipaldi blossomed.
In 1965 Emerson started to drive professionally for the Renault/Willys Racing Team, at the wheel of the race-specs Renault R8 (picture above), imported from France.
The Fittipaldi brothers abandoned the touring car races in 1967 in favour to the single-seater Formula Super Vee, with a car built by themselves. In his second season Emerson won the Brazilian Championship.
Not only a driver.
Emerson was not only passionate about speed but also about the machines. The Go-Kart he used to win the championship in 1964 was tuned by himself and he did such a good job that other competitors hired him to take care of their Karts.
In the same year, Wilson Jr. visited Europe and brought something that he couldn’t find in Brazil: a custom steering wheel for his mother’s car. The brothers quickly saw it as a business opportunity and soon they decided to produce something similar. The name of this new steering wheel was Formula 1.
In 1966 Wilson Jr. Bought a Porsche 550 1500 RS chassis that was abandoned in the back of a repair shop. To fix the powertrain and get the chassis ready for action was a no brainer, the real problem was to find a body in a good condition. Emerson, who at that time was studying automotive design, draw a new GT body and in a matter of 3 months the two brothers, with the help of the metal artisan Francisco Picciutto, hand-built a new aluminum GT body for the chassis.
The brothers called it “Fitti-Porsche”; the car was not only gorgeous, but it was pretty fast: at its first race, the 1967 edition of the “Mil Milhas Brasileira”, Wilson Jr. broke the 7 years standing track record, during qualifying.
The car was fast but, unfortunately, not reliable. The Fitti-Porsche led without difficulty every single race it entered until something broke down. Emerson won just one race with it, but the car was a good “hands-on” experience nevertheless.
Next stop: Europe.
Around 1968, Emerson and Wilson Jr. came to know the European Formula Ford, an affordable single-seater category that was the first step towards Formula One.
Emerson sold his Formula Vee, some other race-related junk, and with some extra help from his father, he gathered enough money to buy a second-hand Formula Ford and to support himself for 3 months in the UK.
Emerson finished the 1968 British Formula Ford Championship with 3 wins, 2 seconds, and 2 third positions out of 9 races; not good enough to win the title but good enough to catch the attention of the Jim Russell Racing Driver School; later on he was enrolled as a student but he also became one of the school’s official drivers.
In 1969 the young Fittipaldi was already at the wheel of a Formula 3, driving for the Jim Russell Team and he destroyed the competition that year, with 8 victories out of 11 races, easily winning the championship.
His impressive first season at Formula 3, immediately opened the door for a position at the Lotus/Bardhall Formula 2 Race Team for the 1970 season.
After a few races in F2, Emerson was spotted by Dick Scammell who convinced his boss, Collin Chapman, to offer the Brazilian a position as the third driver at the Lotus F-One Team.
At the pinnacle of motorsports.
The Team Lotus arranged a test for Emerson, in Silverstone, Chapman was there to see the test up close and so was the number one Lotus driver, Jochen Rindt. According to some people who were there that day, Rindt was not so happy to spend his day off at the track, teaching a rookie that could barely speak English. The Austrian drove the Lotus 49C for a couple of laps, to warm up the tires and then he “tossed the keys” to Emerson. After a couple of awkward laps, the Brazilian stopped at the pits complaining about the cockpit, which was still fit for Rindt, and also about the overall dynamic of the car. Rindt came to Emerson and said: “The faster you go, the better she will respond to you”.
Emerson followed the simple instruction to the letter and quickly he started to clock amazing lap times. Rindt who was distant in the beginning now was enthusiastically helping with the timing. At the end of the test, Collin Chapman said: “You start on the next race”.
The next race would be in Brands Hatch, the 7th of the 1970 season. The car Emerson received was the same Lotus 49C he drove that day, a “hand me down” from Rindt, who was already driving the modern (and yet to be legendary) Lotus 72.
Two years ago, Emerson Fittipaldi was racing Formula Vee in Brazil and now, he was already part of the most prestigious Formula One team in the early 1970s; if that can’t be considered a meteoric career, nothing else will.
The 49C was already obsolete at this point but was, nevertheless, a Lotus powered by the Cosworth Ford V8; perhaps the most glorious combination in the history of the Formula One.
The year of 1970 proved to be full of surprises, Emerson managed to compete in both categories, in Formula Two he finished third, only behind the more experienced Clay Ragazzoni and Derek Bell but his debut in Formula One was a bit more complicated, in September Jochen Rindt tragically lost his life in a brutal accident during the Monza Grand Prix, he became the only driver to win the championship posthumously. John Miles also left the team shortly after the accident, he was under a lot of pressure from Collin Chapman because of his poor performances and to bear the responsibilities of the number one driver was too much for him.
All of a sudden Fittipaldi was promoted to be the Lotus No. 1 driver on his fifth F1 race at the United States GP.
The young Brazilian proved up to the task and won the race, his very first Formula-One victory. The road for the Championship was wide open.
The year 1971 was spent with adaptations, the whole team had to face the new reality of having a rookie as the number one driver and Emerson had to deal with the revolutionary Lotus 72, the car at that point was still a rough diamond that needs a lot of polishing. He finished the season in sixth place, with 16 points.
The winner of the season was Jackie Stewart, driving a Tyrrell-Ford. (picture above).
For the next season, the engineers delivered the new Lotus 72D, this updated model had all the reliability problems that plagued the early version fixed. For the first time, the cars were wearing the iconic black and gold John Player Special livery, a partnership that would last for decades to come. Emerson Fittipaldi was still a rookie but a more seasoned one, in other words, Lotus had all the ingredients for a terrific season.
All expectations proved to be true, Emerson won in Spain, Belgium, England, Austria, and Italy, he became the World Champion even before the season was finished (there were 2 races left).
His dominance that year helped to propel the mystique around the Lotus 72D being the most perfect Formula One car ever built.
At 25 years old, he was the youngest World Champion in the history of the competition, an honour he held for 7 years.
The 1973 season wasn’t so good, Emerson struggled with the development of the new 72E and with the rivalry with his new teammate, Ronnie Peterson. The Brazilian finished the season in second place.
In 1974, he decided to leave Lotus and go to a new and promising team: McLaren.
At the wheel of the fabulous McLaren M23, Emerson was once again the favourite to win in 1974 but that was a hard-fought season: his second World Championship only came at the very last race when he finished with only 3 points ahead of Clay Regazzoni. That was the beginning of the McLaren vs Ferrari feud that would last a few more seasons.
The next chapter of the war, in 1975, was won by Ferrari, with the unstoppable Niki Lauda at the wheel. Emerson finished the season in second.
Fittipaldi was at the pinnacle of his career, a national hero, his face was everywhere. He was respected around the world and worshiped in his home country, Formula One became something like a fever in Brazil. At this point in his career, Emerson made the most controversial decision of his life.
The dream of a Brazilian Formula One race team.
While Emerson was in the spotlight, his older brother Wilson Jr. was competing for Brabham and at the same time, he was putting together the first (and only to date ) Brazilian Formula One team: the Copersucar.
Wilson, who was the number one driver and the team manager, drove the car on its inaugural season, in 1975, with mediocre results. The Coperçucar race car wasn’t that bad, Danilo Divila, a famous Brazilian designer came up with a sleek, ultra-aerodynamic body, and the power came from the trustworthy Ford Cosworth V8.
The name of the team came from its main sponsor, Copesucar, a giant sugar and alcohol exporter; the flow of money wasn’t unlimited but was steady, in Wilson’s mind, there was only one thing missing for the team to succeed: the talent and the prestige of a two-times World Champion.
The official invitation was made and Emerson accepted to be the number one driver for the Brazilian team for the 1976 season. For him, it was a gamble, he was leaving a very successful team that would likely give him his third World Championship, on the other hand, that was an opportunity to revive the old partnership with his brother and do what they know better: building and racing cars. It was also a matter of national pride, I don’t think his fans would have ever forgiven him if he had refused to help the team.
James Hunt was hired to replace Emerson for the 1976 season, which was, perhaps, the most exciting chapter of the war between Ferrari and McLaren. Niki Lauda was involved in a horrific accident during the German Grand Prix that year and had to quit the competition for six weeks to recover from his injuries. Hunt won the Championship just one point ahead of Lauda. Emerson finished the season at 17th position. (If you want to see more about the 1976 F-One season, please watch the 2013 movie Rush.)
The Copersucar team was a very enthusiastic bunch but with very limited know-how, the Fittipaldi brothers were expecting the team to grow as time passed and they gathered more experience but instead, they struggled with technical problems throughout 8 seasons and never achieved good results.
Emerson’s best result was a second place in 1978, at the Brazilian Grand Prix, in Rio de Janeiro (picture above). In 1980 he quit driving and became team manager. His last two years in charge of the team were very unhappy: “I was too involved in the problems of trying to make the it work, and I neglected my marriage and my personal life“. In 1982, deeply frustrated and bankrupted, the Fittipaldi brothers shut down the team.
The CART years.
A talented race driver like Emerson wouldn’t spend much time away from the race tracks. In 1983 he received an invitation from WIT Racing, a small CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) team, for a test and for the next year he was again at the wheel of a race car. He spend the next two seasons adapting himself to a different kind of open-wheel car and mostly, how to drive on ultra-fast oval race tracks.
In 1985 Emerson won his first CART race, the Michigan 500, driving for Patrick Racing (picture above). He stayed with the team for five years, a partnership that would eventually give the Brazilian a championship.
Fast-forwarding to 1989, Emerson was at the wheel of a superb combination, the coveted Penske PC-18, powered by the Ilmor/Chevrolet 2.7 litre, turbocharged V8, cranking up 800 hp. Just like in 1974, he was once again driving a car with the red and white Marlboro livery.
Emerson dominated the season, winning the championship with five victories and finishing among the top five in every race he completed. I took 15 years but “Emmo” (that is how the Americans nicknamed him) was once again a champion.
Among his wins, that year, was the Indianapolis 500. Emerson led 158 of 200 laps but close to the end, he got involved in a fierce battle with Al Unser Jr, making that race one of the most exciting Indy 500 ever. Check it out on the video above.
Emerson moved to the Roger Penske Racing Team in 1990 and continued to be among the top drivers in CART. Some unfortunate events prevented him to become some sort of the King of Indy 500: in 1990 he was comfortably leading the race went he got a blown tire and in 1991, the same situation happened, but at this time the gearbox box gave up.
In 1993 Emerson won his second Indy 500 when he passed Nigel Mansell, on lap 185 and managed to keep the lead until the end of the race. Mansell was another Formula One champion that migrated to CART.
The 1993 Indy 500 victory came with some unexpected drama: there is a decades-old tradition that the winner of the race must celebrate it by drinking milk instead of champagne, but that year Emerson decided to break the protocols and he drank orange juice instead. The reason for that is simple, Emerson owns orange groves in both Brazil and the USA but what was supposed to be a harmless advertising stunt, backfired enormously, the fans, the media, and the race organization never fully forgave him. Fans booed Emerson on several occasions even after he came publicly to apologize.
The end of his career.
The year was 1996 and Emerson was still driving for Penske and enjoying being among the CART top drivers. At this time, his car was powered by a turbocharged Mercedes-Benz V8, developing 1000 hp. Penske cars were dominating the season but during the first lap of the Michigan 500, Emerson was involved in a horrible accident, his car touched wheels with Greg Moore and he crashed against the wall at 320km/h. With internal bleeding and two broken vertebras he narrowly escaped death that day.
He fully recovered from his injuries but, at 49 years old, he decided it was time to retire. The accident was responsible for the end of his career as a professional racing driver but it also marks the beginning of a new life for him, Emerson saw his survival as an act of God and he became a newborn Christian.
Emerson Fittipaldi might be retired but he never left the race track, either managing teams or driving at special events.
Perhaps his biggest project right now is mentoring his grandsons through the beginning of their careers as race drivers. A whole new generation of the family has already started the long way to Formula One.