1970 United States Grand Prix
: 1970 United States Grand Prix: Hopes Renewed by 'Emerson Who?' By Jeremy McMullen
It would be a chaotic and ghastly sight. The twirling Lotus mass carried with it another of a brotherhood of drivers that were both very successful and wildly popular. It was another loss for Team Lotus. It was terrible when Jim Clark was lost, but Jochen Rindt's passing would be more than the team could bear. It seemed all hope had gone. But then there would be a young Brazilian, of whom most of the world was ignorant. However, all of that would change one day in the fall of 1970.
Emerson Fittipaldi had worked really hard as a driver. However, his rise to Formula One would be swift and startling. Everything seemed to suggest the young Brazilian was a champion in the making but it would be remarkable to see him earn the third seat with one of the best in Formula One—Team Lotus.
It would seem amazing that a driver, who had only just arrived in Europe the year before, could be sitting behind the wheel with one of the top teams within the Formula One paddock, but Fittipaldi would prove himself in the lower formulas. He would also quickly prove himself in the pinnacle series earning an 8th place in his first Formula One World Championship race. A top ten finish would be welcome for just about any rookie, but the fact he had managed to earn the result after starting the race all the way down in 21st would be a very big statement by the man from Sao Paulo.
Emerson would make an even bigger statement in his next race, the German Grand Prix. The German Grand Prix would be held at Hockenheim on the 2nd of August. Fittipaldi would fair better in qualifying starting 13th on the grid. During the race, however, good things would come Emerson's way as a high rate of attrition would see the leaderboard cleared of many other front-runners. Jochen Rindt would come through to take the victory, but Fittipaldi would capture the attention of many as he cruised to a splendid 4th place result. In just his second race in Formula One he had come away with his first points.
Fittipaldi was enjoying a strong debut. However, all attention would be on his teammate. Rindt was leading the World Championship and was heading to his home grand prix next. Lotus' hopes would be high heading into the Austrian Grand Prix but they would quickly collapse as nearly each of the Lotuses suffered some kind of problem over the course of the 60 lap race.
The first of the team to retire would be John Miles. He would have front brake problems after just 5 laps. Then, after 22 laps, came the severe blow as Rindt retired with engine failure. Austrian hopes were dashed. Lotus' hopes rested with Fittipaldi. Unfortunately, there was absolutely nothing Emerson could do over the course of the race and the rookie looked exactly that as he limped home to a 15th place finish more than five laps behind Jacky Ickx and Clay Regazzoni.
Leaving Austria and heading to Monza for the Italian Grand Prix a little less than a month later, Rindt still had a commanding lead in the championship but Chapman was not comfortable in the lead. It was clear the Lotus 72 was good, but it had its weaknesses compared to the competition and that was something Chapman would never allow.
Arriving at Monza, Fittipaldi would be preparing for the incredibly-fast 3.57 mile circuit with a stripped-out Lotus 72. Over the course of practice it would be determined the Lotuses lacked the straight-line speed of the Ferraris. Therefore, Chapman would have his cars stripped of their front and rear wings in an effort to reduce drag and increase top speed. This made the 72C very twitchy at other parts of the circuit. In fact, Fittipaldi would be the first of the team members to suffer as he would crash his car just prior to the Parabolica. The shunt would be bad enough that his car was irreparable and would have to turn to a back-up car. The ability of the wingless car to just want to swap ends seemed to go up dramatically. Rindt and Miles would voice their concern over this. Chapman would retort they needed to race without the wings to give themselves a chance against the other teams, and therefore, they just needed to get on with it.
There was a good deal of tension within the Lotus team as they tried to narrow the performance gap between themselves and their competition. Fittipaldi, like Miles and Rindt, would do his best to get on with his duties. However, right at the end of practice, Rindt's Lotus would begin spinning violently on the entry into the Parabolica. The car had swapped ends at the end of the long, fast straight and had collided with the wall to the outside of the circuit. The collision would send the car spinning around like a top through the sand, breaking up violently as it went along. In essence strangled to death by his harnesses, the life of Lotus would be effectively strangled out of the team as well. The end result would be that Team Lotus would withdraw from the Italian Grand Prix and Emerson Fittipaldi would soon find himself in an unfamiliar place just a few weeks later.
The fallout from Rindt's death would be terrible all throughout Lotus. Of course, there would be some guilt. There would also be some blame. Ultimately, the once strong title contender was breaking apart in a manner eerily-similar to that of Rindt's Lotus.
John Miles would be hard hit by the accident and would decide, almost right then and there, to leave the team. Of course Lotus had lost Rindt, so this meant the team really only had one driver available if it had any plans at all of finishing out the season—Fittipaldi.
Fittipaldi had only joined the team as the third driver halfway through the season at the British Grand Prix. He had only taken part in a total of three races. But now, with hopes and confidence hanging really low at Team Lotus, the Brazilian would be forced to assume the role of team leader. It would prove to be the opportunity for which Emerson was looking.
Team Lotus would withdraw from the Italian Grand Prix. It would then go on to miss the Canadian Grand Prix a couple of weeks later. There were still a couple of rounds left on the season. It seemed likely Lotus would not materialize for either of the remaining races. However, in spite of the mood and the emotions within the team, Lotus would pack everything up and would set off across the Atlantic for the penultimate round of the championship.
Of course, a couple of the drivers, including Rindt, had not been happy with Chapman and his resoluteness about the setup of the Lotus 72, but then again, Colin was in the midst of a battle himself in the Constructors' Championship. Still, in spite of the constructors' fight, Chapman would do the right thing withdrawing from the Italian Grand Prix. The absence of the team from the Canadian Grand Prix would be as much a move to get their bearings as it would be out of respect to Rindt. Jochen was gone, Miles had left and Fittipaldi had only officially taken part in three races. The team needed some time to regain its footing. However, when Ferrari finished first and second in the Canadian Grand Prix it was clear Lotus could not sit out the remainder of the season.
There was still a couple of championships to be won and Team Lotus would turn to Emerson Fittipaldi, the rookie from Sao Paulo, to mature quickly and lead the team to glory. This was not an easy task for Emerson and a rather big gamble on Lotus' part.
The United States Grand Prix would take place on the 4th of October at Watkins Glen. Watkins Glen in early October meant the leaves were turning color and the temperatures were really beginning to hint at winter being just around the bend.
Team Lotus would arrive at Watkins Glen with just two entries. One would be for Emerson Fittipaldi. The second entry would be for Reine Wisell. Facing the giants of Ferrari, Tyrrell and Equipe Matra Elf would be a daunting task for the rookie driver. Nonetheless, he would put his faith in the team and in Chapman and would set about preparing for practice.
Suddenly finding himself the number one driver within the team, Emerson would find practice to be a bit different from what it had been before. Now he had the focus and confidence of Chapman behind him directly, not indirectly as it had been before. And, in practice, it would immediately show.
Prior to arriving in Watkins Glen, the best starting spot on the grid Emerson would earn would be a 13th earned for the German Grand Prix. Now, with the weight of Team Lotus behind him, Emerson would improve dramatically. Around the 2.3 mile circuit, Fittipaldi would look like an entirely different racer.
Practice wouldn't be without its drama as rain would fall on half of the circuit causing the final half of the lap to be conducted in the slippery conditions. This would prove quite difficult for the drivers as they tried to put the power down coming out of the final corner. More than a couple of drivers would struggle, losing the back-end of their cars coming around the corner.
Jacky Ickx would eventually master the conditions and would take pole in the Ferrari 312B with a lap time of 1:03.7. Jackie Stewart would start alongside Ickx in 2nd place having been around a half a second slower. Prior to the United States Grand Prix, a top ten starting spot on the grid would have been an improvement for Emerson. However, he wouldn't just improve to a spot on the grid just inside the top ten, Emerson would end up on the second row! His best lap of 1:03.67 would be just seven-hundredths of a second slower than Stewart. This meant the Brazilian, in just his fourth Formula One race, would start from 3rd on the grid.
The day of the race would see party-sunny skies greet the large number spectators that had assembled around the circuit for the penultimate round of the 1970 season. Lined up on the second row of the grid, Emerson had the potential of a great start, especially if Ickx got away well at the front of the field. However, as the flag would wave to start the 108 lap race neither one would get away particularly well.
Stewart would get the jump at the start and would lead Ickx heading up the hill through the esses at the start of the race. Ickx's poor start would cause Fittipaldi to balk slightly and he would have a couple of cars go by him by the time he got his Lotus finally rolling. The cars would streak up over the top of the hill and down the long backstretch.
At the end of the first lap it was Stewart holding onto the lead over Pedro Rodriguez. Ickx had fallen to 3rd place and Fittipaldi found himself in a fight for 8th place with Graham Hill. This was not the start Emerson certainly would have liked to have, however, it did play to his strengths of waiting for a race to come to him.
John Surtees would struggle after a couple of laps and would end up falling down the leaderboard. At the same time, Fittipaldi would finally get his Lotus rolling and would begin to pull away slightly from Hill. Chris Amon would be right up the road from him. Jackie Oliver would be further up the road but he would end up retiring after just 15 laps due to engine problems. Therefore, by around the quarter distance mark, Fittipaldi would be up to 6th place while it was still Stewart leading over Ickx, Regazzoni and Rodriguez.
Approaching the 40 lap mark, not much would be different up at the front of the field. However, Regazzoni would make a mistake coming around the final corner and would end up losing the backend. Sliding off the side of the circuit, the Ferrari driver would drop well down in the running order. This promoted Fittipaldi up to 5th place, still behind Chris Amon.
Amon wouldn't be able to hold onto his position for long as he too would fall down the order as a result of a tire problem. Emerson was now up to 4th place and looking strong in just his fourth race for Team Lotus. Unfortunately, Stewart was also going strong out front and enjoying a comfortable margin over Rodriguez.
After Ickx pitted to have a fuel leak addressed, Emerson was to be found in 3rd place. This was important for Lotus in the championship. Ferrari was nearly out of the picture while Lotus had both of their drivers in the points with less than half of the race remaining. Should the race carry on as it had been, the team would have been in a strong position heading into the final race of the season in Mexico.
The name out front was familiar to just about everyone. The name in 2nd place was also rather familiar. However, the man in 3rd, carrying the hopes for Lotus, was certainly an unknown throughout much of the world, including the United States. Such a famous emblem carrying onboard such an unknown driver seemed odd, but it would seem clear that he must have been talented. Just how talented everyone would find out in the last half of the race.
Stewart continued to dominate up front. Everything looked to be on course for another runaway Stewart victory. However, with just a little more than 25 laps remaining in the race there were little wisps of smoke appearing out the back of the Tyrrell. Suddenly, those wisps would grow larger and larger until an ample amount of smoke poured out the back of the car signaling Jackie's race had been run. Rodriguez was now in the lead of the race with a handful of seconds in hand over this unknown driver in 2nd place.
Rodriguez was in the lead and looking strong. The whole race had been a demonstration in dominance as it all started with Stewart leading the way for the vast majority of the event. Then, when Stewart fell foul of an engine problem, Rodriguez would take over and look just as dominant.
The laps continued to dwindle away. Many believed the race to be over with an inexperienced driver sitting in 2nd place looking content to bring home his best finish of his rookie season. It seemed that the results were official even before the race was over.
However, as the end drew near, Rodriguez wasn't in as dominant a position as what it seemed. Those not in the know would have believed the race was over. However, with only eight laps remaining in the race, Rodriguez would make a mad dash into the pits. He needed more fuel. He would sit in the pits as 10 gallons of gas was added to his car. The time would be agonizing for the Mexican and it would end up losing him the lead to Fittipaldi. Pedro would get his fuel and would scream out of the pits in the hopes that he could either catch Emerson or that the Brazilian would run into trouble so that he could regain what had been lost.
Emerson was now in the lead of the race. It had come to him. He did not panic after his poor start and he continued to put himself in a position to capitalize when the moment presented itself. That moment came with less than 10 laps remaining in the race. The new number one driver at Lotus was amazing nearly everyone as this unknown driver carried on in the lead.
Though young and inexperienced in Formula One, Emerson would keep his head over the remaining laps. He would make sure he didn't put a wheel wrong and that he was smooth getting on and off the power. He would look absolutely in control, well beyond his years.
Heading up over the hill for the final time, Fittipaldi carried with him the hopes of a once shattered Lotus team. Rounding the ninety degree final turn for the final time, Emerson would see Richard 'Tex' Hopkins leaping into the air and waving the checkered flag as he streaked across the line to take his first-ever victory in Formula One. It was just his fourth official race and he was already a grand prix winner.
Completing his cool down lap, Fittipaldi would pull his car over to the side of the circuit right by the start/finish line. He would emerge from behind the wheel and would offer more than a few what would really be their first glimpse of the Brazilian as few had paid him any mind heading into the race.
The need to stop for gas would be a costly one for Rodriguez. He would end up finishing in 2nd place a little more than 36 seconds behind Fittipaldi. Each gallon of gas he would end up needing to get to the end of the race would end up costing the team $3,000. Lotus would end up enjoying a stellar day as not only would Emerson take the victory but Reine Wisell would come through to finish 3rd about 45 seconds behind his teammate.
Prior to coming to the United States, Team Lotus had been at one of its lowest points since the moment Jim Clark died at Hockenheim. The team was still in a strong position to win both the drivers' and the constructors' championships but they really didn't have any drivers. Rindt was dead and Miles was gone. The team's hopes well and truly rested with this relatively untested Brazilian. Could Emerson deliver? The team really had no time to find anyone else; they would have to try him and find out.
The result would be nothing short of a fairytale. The team's confidence was practically nothing. The momentum they had been carrying throughout the majority of the season had seemingly left. Emerson was an unknown entity really. But he would quickly prove otherwise. The victory would help secure Lotus' title hopes as a constructor. And, because Ickx's race faltered, Rindt's memory with the team would be laid to rest as he would become the first posthumous champion in Formula One history. But that victory would end up being much more than just a victory.
On that day in early October, when Lotus' hopes well and truly hung by a thread, the rookie Emerson stepped up to provide more than just a surprise victory. To the crowd, the victory was certainly earned by an unknown and would lead many to turn to one another and exclaim 'Emerson who?' But, to Team Lotus, Emerson would deliver something far greater than just a victory. He would renew their hopes. He would renew that confidence that is so important for a constructor. In that moment, Lotus had risen from the ashes left by the wake of Rindt's crash and well and truly looked forward to a bright future.