Teams Emerson Fittipaldi
281Emerson Fittipaldi: A Champion of Many NationsBy Jeremy McMullen
Emerson Fittipaldi's star would rise ever higher when, on the 30th of May in 1993, he would sneak by the then World Champion Nigel Mansell to come through and take what would be his second victory in the Indianapolis 500. The Brazilian's victory would be greeted with a chorus of cheers. His choice of drinking orange juice over the tradition milk would be the only negative that would draw some ire from the fans. Nevertheless, the victory and the reception only highlighted what a truly international champion Fittipaldi had truly become.
Fittipaldi's rise to international fame would start in Formula One. Fittipaldi would be thrust onto the public as much as he would be thrust into his role as the number one driver with Team Lotus. In fact, when Fittipaldi came through to win the United States Grand Prix in 1970, just his fifth race with the team, the victory would have many remarking 'Emerson who?!'
In reality, there would be much more to the story of Fittipaldi's first Formula One victory than what appeared on the surface. In many respects the moment would come to define Emerson's racing career—being in the right place at the right time.
Emerson Fittipaldi would be born in Sao Paulo, Brazil in December of 1946. His life's work was almost already laid before him when he was born to Jozefa 'Juzy' Wojciechowska and Wilson Fittipaldi Sr. Both of his parents would have careers racing production cars in the years immediately following the Second World War. But Wilson Fittipaldi Sr. would be a man of much depth as he would also become a motorsports commentator and race promoter. In fact, it would be Wilson's father that would be one of the instrumental figures in the creation of the Mil Milhas Brasileiras, an event inspired by the Mille Miglia. Being surrounded by such an incredible motorsports influence Emerson, who would be named for Ralph Waldo Emerson, would come to either love or hate the sport.
Not only would motorsports have an early influence on Emerson, but his ability to be adopted as an international champion was nearly as much a foregone conclusion. He may have been born in Sao Paulo, and his heart definitely resonates with the Brazilian people, but the blood coursing through his veins comes from about as varied a background as one could get.
Fittipaldi's father was from an Italian family. His mother was of Russian descent. The two would immigrate to Brazil from Poland soon after being married. This interesting mixture could be cited as the source of his abilities behind the wheel of a racing car, but it could also be used to argue as to the reason why he would become so popular around the world.
But the world was not quite on Emerson's radar when he decided to become his brother's mechanic in karts in the local go-kart championship. At this time Emerson was just 14 years of age. The age of Formula One seemed far off into the distance. However, his talents behind the wheel, and other circumstances, would see to it that he would be racing in the pinnacle of motorsports just a handful of years later.
Fittipaldi's rise through the ranks could not be describe in any better term than meteoric, especially after he took the Formula Vee championship in Brazil in 1967. But while he would enjoy success in Formula Vee, there would be very little in the way of success in his father's race, the Mil Hilhaus. Both he and his brother would take part in the race with very little success. Still, the success in Formula Vee would encourage Emerson to make the jump across the Atlantic to England in 1969 even though he didn't have a drive and couldn't speak the language.
Emerson would find work as a mechanic and would sacrifice so that he could buy his own Formula Ford. Funding his own racing career, Fittipaldi would rely on his talents to make up the difference. And the difference he would make up as he would go on to win three races before the end of the season. This led to a drive in Formula Three. And, even though he would not come into the series until halfway through, he would still manage to win the championship.
Such performances would certainly attract the attention of team owners. Colin Chapman would be one of those that took notice of Emerson, and, because Lotus was one of the best cars up and down the paddock, Fittipaldi would sign a contract with the famous Chapman. Initially, the contract was for a Formula One test. Emerson would impress in the test and the contract would quickly turn into a drive with the Formula One team in 1970. So in just a little more than a year Emerson had gone from freshly arriving in England to landing a seat with arguably one of the best Formula One teams of that period.
Fittipaldi would get to drive the third car, but he would not see this as anything but an opportunity to impress, and he would do just that. His first Formula One race would come at the British Grand Prix. He would finish a solid 8th place. This would seem like a rather unassuming result considering he was driving a Lotus 49C at the time. However, the result, and his abilities, would be put into perspective when the fact he started the race 21st becomes apparent.
This already impressive debut would be followed up by a far more impressive performance. Emerson would start the German Grand Prix from 13th on the grid. However, by the time the race would come to an end Fittipaldi would be in 4th place earning his first-ever World Championship points.
After a subdued 15th place in the Austrian Grand Prix, Emerson's place as the third driver within Team Lotus seemed secure. However, the next race of the season would be the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Fittipaldi was just settling into the notion of being a Formula One driver as he took to the circuit for practice for the Italian Grand Prix. Jochen Rindt and John Miles had taken to the circuit in the fast but unstable-feeling Lotus 72. Neither Rindt nor Miles felt comfortable behind the wheel of the car but Chapman would not hear any of it. But then, just prior to the Parabolica, Rindt's Lotus would go spinning off the end of the circuit. Rindt would be practically strangled to death; Chapman's team would die right along with the Austrian.
Rindt's death would strike Lotus hard. Miles would be hit hard by the death and the frustration concerning the car believed to have taken the life of Jochen. As a result, Miles would leave the team. Suddenly, the already-gutted team was without a clear number one driver. But then there was Emerson.
Emerson had competed in just three Formula One races when he would be approached by Chapman to help lead the team out of the abyss it was currently experiencing. This was a difficult and monumental task for the inexperienced driver, but he would shoulder it like a steely-eyed veteran.
Team Lotus' first race after Rindt's death would come in the United States at Watkins Glen. It would be difficult for any team to come back after a death of such a driver as what Rindt had been in the sport, but Fittipaldi would revel in this challenge. Suddenly, the new number one driver would start from the second row of the grid.
After a poor start, he would recover and would hang around the top five nearly all afternoon as Jackie Stewart dominated the proceedings. However, an oil leak would drop Stewart out of the race and would promote Pedro Rodriguez to the lead. By this point in time Fittipaldi was lurking in 2nd place. It was just his fourth race in Formula One, no one expected the Brazilian to come through and take the lead. But with just under 10 laps remaining in the race that is exactly what he would do. Many had left the circuit when Stewart was still in the lead believing the Scot would take an easy victory. Others would leave when Rodriguez took over the lead because there was no way the inexperienced man from Sao Paulo would come through and snatch victory. Yet, much to the surprise of many, that is exactly what would happen. Many that would tune in on the radio to catch up on the final results would pause and exclaim 'Emerson who?!' However, there would be plenty more opportunities for the world to become acquainted with the Lotus driver.
After a mildly successful 1971 campaign, Fittipaldi would seem to be finally set to launch his assault on the World Championship. Armed with the Lotus 72D, Emerson would storm through the 1972 season. Driving the black and gold John Player Lotus, he would go on to score a total of five victories and would earn his first World Championship at the age of 25. This would make him the youngest-ever World Champion, a record that would stand for over thirty years.
The beginning of the 1973 season seemed to suggest Fittipaldi could secure back-to-back championships. However, the introduction of the 72E partway through the season and an ever-improving Ronnier Peterson would push Fittipaldi into making uncharacteristic errors. And, after a strong start to the season, Fittipaldi would end up finishing in 2nd place behind Jackie Stewart by the end.
Sensing a shift of favoritism toward Peterson, Fittipaldi would leave Lotus for McLaren in 1974. The move would prove to be the correct one as he would be coming into the team right when they were on the rise. Three victories and four other podium finishes would result in Emerson collecting his second World Championship. Unfortunately, it would be his last.
Emerson would finish 2nd in the 1975 Formula One World Championship but would end up making a big decision for the following year that left many scratching their heads. Emerson's brother Wilson would encourage the two-time World Champion to throw himself behind his own team. The two had been successful preparing their own cars in the lower formulas, they believed they could do it in Formula One. Furthermore, a Brazilian race team would go a long way for national pride and the development of other young drivers. Emerson would agree and the two brothers would work hard to secure sponsorship money and the necessary car design to compete with the big factory teams.
Securing the funds, Copersucar-Fittipaldi would be born. Unfortunately, the birth would prove premature as the team would struggle over the course of two seasons. The best results would end up being a trio of 4th place results earned by Emerson over the course of the '77 season.
The following year, the team would become simply known as Fittipaldi Automotive and the team would slip ever-lower in the results. The brightest spots would come in 1978 when Emerson managed to finish 2nd in he Brazilian Grand Prix. Then, in 1980, Emerson and Keke Rosberg would each come away with 3rd place finishes. They would be about the only bright spots in a season littered with early retirements.
But it would get even worse in 1981and 1982 when the team cars often failed to qualify for races. By this time, Keke Rosberg and Chico Serra were the team drivers, Emerson had already retired from Formula One at the end of the 1980 season.
Emerson would remain out of racing for a period of a few years but could not stay away forever. His own Formula One team would fold in 1982. In 1984, Emerson would be lured to the United States and CART. Nearly identical to his earning a ride in Formula One, Emerson would gain time behind the wheel of an Indycar as a result of an injury to another driver. His best result over the course of that first season would be a 4th place earned for Patrick Racing at Mid-Ohio.
Over the course of the next two seasons, Fittipaldi would come away with a victory in each season, as well as, a handful of podium finishes. Emerson hung right around the top ten in the championship standings from 1985 through 1987. Then, in 1988, he would show that he was finally ready to make his mark in Indycars. Still driving for Patrick racing, he would go on to win four races over the course of the season and would finish in 7th place in the standings at the end of the year. He had finished 6th back in 1985, but he had only earned one victory over the course of that season.
The 1989 season was to be his year. It would start out with a solid run at Phoenix and then would be followed by a podium result at Long Beach. However, over the course of the next seven races Emerson would go on a tear where he would win four races, including the Indianapolis 500 for the first time, and then would finish 2nd twice. A victory at Nazareth toward the end of the season would lockup the CART Championship for Fittipaldi in what would be a remarkably dominant performance.
Over the next few seasons, Emerson would hang around the top five in the championship standings and would, time and again, show his prowess nursing cars through races until it was time to launch an all-out assault at the end. This would never be more evident when he would take his second Indianapolis 500 victory in 1993.
Coming into the race, much of the attention surrounded the then Formula One World Champion, Nigel Mansell, who had come to Indycars after leaving Williams and Formula One with the title in hand. All throughout that month Fittipaldi had been a bit off the radar qualifying on the outside of the third row, right beside Nigel Mansell.
Fittipaldi would remain up near the front throughout most of the race but would not make a lot of noise. As usual, he was nurse his car along until it was time to launch his bid for the lead and the win. That time would come with a late caution and the inexperienced Mansell in the lead.
Many were beginning to think back to Graham Hill, the last rookie to have won the Indy 500. Fittipaldi would be thinking of Mansell's weaknesses, and restarts behind a pace car was certainly one of them. Taking full advantage of the inexperience, Fittipaldi would power around the outside of Mansell heading into turn one and would just pull away from then on. Early on in the race the Brazilian had been lifting going into the corners. Now, when there were only about 10 laps remaining, he was flat, pushing as hard as he could.
Cruising out of turn four for the final time, Fittipaldi would power his way down the straight and across the yard of bricks to earn his second Indy 500 victory. The crowd would erupt in appreciation; he had warmed the hearts of the audience and they were jubilant to see 'their' man come through to victory.
The jubilation would be muted, however, shortly after. This man, that had shocked and warmed the hearts of people throughout the world over the course of his career would have the nerve to reach, not for the traditional bottle of milk, but for a bottle of orange juice in an attempt to promote the citrus industry. The crowd would react to this and it would hurt Emerson's image, but only slightly.
Pushing 50 years of age, top results in motor racing were becoming harder and harder to come by. Then, following a horrifying accident at Michigan in 1996, where Emerson would be left with a broken spine and other injuries. This terrible injury would catch his attention and would lead to him to retire immediately from CART and motorsports.
Even though he would retire from motorsports, he would never be far away. In 2005, he would make a brief comeback in the Grand Prix Masters series where he would finish 2nd. This time, Nigel Mansell would get the better of him.
Besides making a brief appearance in the Brazilian GT3 Championship in 2008, Emerson remained ever-present in motorsports with a regular column on the official McLaren website. And while he would lend his writing talents to McLaren for their website, he would lend his voice to Disney Pixar's Cars 2. He would do a voice-over for one of the characters in the movie that was to be released to Brazil and other Latin American countries. In 2010, Emerson would be reunited with his championship winning John Player Special Lotus in an emotional moment that saw him drive the car through the downtown streets of his native Sao Paulo.
Even though his heart certainly pumps with Brazilian pride, Emerson Fittipaldi's career would stretch all over the globe. Every place where he raced he would become adopted by the natives as one of their own. He would end up becoming one of the few champions whose identity and popularity will forever be an amalgamation of nations and cultures. As with his family background, Emerson Fittipaldi is certainly a champion of many nations.Sources:
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