1972 Italian Grand Prix
: 1972 Italian Grand Prix: Youth Beats Experience By Jeremy McMullen
From the moment Fittpaldi responded by earning victory following the tragic loss of Jochen Rindt back in 1970, it was clear the Brazilian was a World Champion in the making. The question would be 'How long would it take?' In just two short years, and in front of the Tifosi, everyone would have their answer.
It had been a remarkable moment. Emerson inherited the lead of the 1970 United States Grand Prix with less than ten laps remaining. He had only just taken his place at Lotus at the British Grand Prix a few months earlier, but here he was within reach of his first Formula One World Championship victory, and driving for a team in desperate need of some confidence and momentum.
The loss of the popular Jochen Rindt would be hard on just about everyone up and down the paddock, but it would be very devastating to Lotus as Rindt had been leading the championship at that point and everything was looking bright for the Austrian and the team. But everything would take a dark turn when Rindt died in the crash at the end of the straight at Monza.
Lotus knew it needed to move on after the loss of Rindt but that task wouldn't be very easy when even John Miles departed the team after the terrible accident. The team had a leader in Chapman, but they also needed a leader behind the wheel of the car. Fittipaldi was a rookie, he seemed like a big gamble. However, the Brazilian would rise to the occasion and would come away with a victory in Lotus' return to racing at the United States Grand Prix.
Emerson had asserted himself as the number one driver at Lotus and a driver fully capable of battling for the championship. The reality though was that he hadn't even completed a full season of racing in Formula One. He may have represented the future for Lotus but nobody really knew how long that would take.
The 1971 season would see reality set in a bit as Emerson would not take a victory over the course of the season and would end up outside of the top five in the drivers' standings by the end of the year. In fact, the best result he would achieve over the course of the season would come at the Austrian Grand Prix where he would earn a 2nd place finish.
Fittipaldi was certainly talented, but he was also still quite young and inexperienced. It seemed that the title for the Brazilian was still a couple of years off. But then again, Emerson was driving for Lotus, which meant his World Championship was really only just a car design away.
The Lotus 72C had been met with a great deal of consternation and its wingless version would be looked at with some ire as it had been the version in which Rindt had met his end at Monza in 1970. The 72C was good but it was unstable without its wings. This meant it was faster, but much more dangerous to drive. Fittipaldi had suffered an accident before Rindt perished and this led to Rindt and Miles to criticize the thinking of participating with the car without its wings.
The accident that killed Rindt, in some respects, would act as evidence to exactly what Rindt and Miles had been saying during practice. Therefore, the 72C was not the car Lotus needed to remain competitive. If the drivers didn't trust the car and didn't feel comfortable behind the wheel of it then there was literally no way it was going to be successful. Therefore, Chapman and his crew knew they needed to create an evolution of the design. They believed in the overall design of the 72C but it needed some extra work to make it a car the drivers would also believe in. The 72D would be that car.
The biggest problem with the 72C was its lack of feel, especially when the car was under braking. The diving caused by the heavy braking caused the car to have a tendency to step-out and the lack of feel made the problem worse as the driver wouldn't necessarily know the car was about to swap ends, or, would make it worse because he could not precisely feel what was happening. Another particular problem that remained a possible issue would be the inboard location of the brake caliper and discs. The shaft running out to the wheels were prone to failure due to poor construction and this was believed to be the actual cause of Rindt's car suddenly turning left. Tony Rudd, who had been at BRM before coming to Lotus, set about correcting the suspension and feel problem on the 72D. The brake issue was further refined and construction methods improved to help rectify the potential for that failure ever again. The rear wing was also developed further and produced even more downforce than before.
Besides the revision to the suspension and other smaller elements, the biggest change to the 72D in 1972 would come in the way of a livery change. Gold Leaf would be gone. The Lotus would now appear in the black and gold colors and would become known immediately as 'John Player Specials'.
The 72D had made its first appearance in Monaco in 1971 and Fittipaldi would power the car to a 5th place result in its very first race. He would then go on to score back-to-back 3rd place results in the French and British Grand Prix. The car was getting better and better and this was only attested to by the 2nd place earned at the Austrian Grand Prix. Though some mediocre results rounded-out the season, it was clear the 72D had a lot of potential and this potential would be immediately exercised in 1972.
The 1972 season would start out slowly for Fittipaldi as he suffered a retirement in the Argentine Grand Prix. However, this would be followed by a 2nd place in the South African grand prix. This 2nd place would be followed by a remarkable run that would see Fittipaldi earn no less than three victories and two podium finishes over the course of the next five rounds of the World Championship. Heading to the Austrian Grand Prix, Fittipaldi's lead over Jackie Stewart was 16 points. Lotus' advantage in the constructors' championship standings was 10 points. The Lotus 72D was proving to be the best car in Formula One in 1972 and its reputation would only grow when Emerson earned another victory in Austria.
Following the victory at the Osterreichring, Fittipaldi's advantage had grown to 25 points. Lotus' advantage had also grown to 17. If Emerson could come away with just two points at Monza, the championship would be his and Lotus would also gain the constructors' crown. It was remarkable. Fittipaldi was just 25 years of age. What many people believed to be years off was within reach, and with a couple of rounds of the championship to spare.
Earning the championship for either Fittipaldi or Lotus would not be easy. It wasn't going to be easy, not just because of the competition. No, the team had to make it to the race first with their cars intact.
The team's transporter would be in an accident and this would lead to some damage being sustained to the team's 72D. Furthermore, the aftermath of Rindt's death still lingered as the Italian authorities still had it in for Team Lotus. Therefore, Fittipaldi would arrive at Monza with just a single car. However, he would not be driving for Team Lotus. Instead, because of the problem with the authorities, the entry would be World Wide Racing. The normal driver for the team was Dave Walker. He would stay home while Emerson was left all by himself.
Though Emerson would be behind the wheel of a 72D, it would be a much earlier evolution of the chassis. Therefore, it was not the dominant car Fittipaldi had had use of over the course of the season.
Emerson's run to the title wouldn't be the biggest news heading into the Italian Grand Prix in 1972. Actually, it would be the circuit itself that generated most of the talking-points. The 1971 edition of the race saw incredible speeds and slipstreaming down the long straights. The race organizers didn't want a repeat of Rindt's death on their hands so it was determined the circuit layout should change for the '72 edition.
The circuit would remain relatively the same with the exception of two chicanes. The first of these would come not long after the pits and was actually positioned just before the point where the circuit broke off onto the banking. The second chicane, had it been installed at the time, could have saved Alberto Ascari's life. Its location was right where the Curva Vialone had once been. These chicanes slowed the cars down, but it was still a fast 3.59 mile circuit.
Being in an older 72D was already a hindrance to Fittipaldi. Going up against the V12 cars around Monza, even with the chicanes, was another problem. As practice drew to a close, it would be Joacky Ickx on pole with Chris Amon in 2nd place. Fittipaldi's pace around the circuit would be solid but only good enough for a place on the third row. He would start 6th right beside Dennie Hulme, one of his main championship competitors. But considering he only needed a couple of points to take the championship title, a third row starting position wasn't as devastating as what it might have been otherwise. Furthermore, at 55 laps, the race would provide ample opportunity for Emerson to move up the order.
Sunny and warm conditions greeted everyone as the Monza circuit filled up in preparation for the race on the 10th of September. Il Tricolore would be shown to the field and the race would be underway with Ickx streaking into the lead and flashing through the chicane for the first time. Fittipaldi would make a strong start and would be already in the top five as he flashed through the chicane for the first time as well. Stewart's race would come to an end even before it began as a transmission failure would lead him to escape down a side road that led back around to the paddock area. His race was over. For others, it was just beginning.
Coming down the back straight for the first time, the Italian fans would be ecstatic as it was a Ferrari one-two. Fittipaldi would also be rather ecstatic as he found himself in 3rd place heading into the Parabolica for the first time.
Crossing the line at the completion of the first lap, it would be Ickx leading the way with Regazzoni flashing close behind in 2nd place. Fittipaldi would be not far behind in 3rd place. As it stood, the championship was already his for the taking. He just needed to make it to the end of the race.
In spite of a brief interlude in which Regazzoni took over the lead, Ickx continued to lead the way throughout the 20 laps of the race. Regazzoni's race would come to an anticlimax when he suffered an accident as a result of clipping the March of Pace who had spun coming out of the chicane at Vialone. Ickx was still in the lead and carrying the hopes of Italians everywhere. Fittipaldi was now in 2nd place and a lock for the championship as long as no surprises befell him.
Emerson wouldn't hang back by much. In spite of only needing a couple of points, he would be right behind Ickx. Behind Emerson ran Chris Amon and Mike Hailwood and they posed a challenge to Fittipaldi if they happened to get by, but Emerson's attentions were clearly up ahead of him.
The threat from behind would soon fall apart as Hailwood would lose his airbox, and then, Amon's brakes would catch fire causing him to retire from the race as well. So Fittipaldi, the 25 year old and only in his second full season of Formula One, was certainly grasping the championship with both hands. The question was whether or not he would do it with style by winning the Italian Grand Prix, or, would he just sit tight and take the points?
Ickx would soon help to answer the question as, with just nine laps remaining, the Ferrari engine began to fail. Ickx would continue to press on but it was quickly becoming apparent the ailing V12 could not hold back the Cosworth-powered Lotus. Then, finally, there was just nothing that could be done. Italian hopes would fade as Fittipaldi would power by into the lead and on his way to his first World Championship.
As he had when he earned his first Formula One victory back in 1970, Emerson would position himself right where he needed to be to take advantage when the race came to him. In both cases, the race didn't come to him until very nearly the end, but it still would swing his way, as it would throughout his racing career.
The hopes of Italians everywhere would be dashed as Fittipaldi dashed into the lead and powered off into the distance. However, as Emerson rounded the Parabolica for the final time and flashed across the line to take the victory and the championship, what the Italians and everyone else would witness would be the youngest ever World Champion taking place among Formula One greats, a place he would come to occupy once more before his Formula One career would draw to a close.
Two years earlier it seemed as though Colin Chapman and Lotus were taking a huge risk in making a young, inexperienced driver their number one. Of course, they were forced into the position in some respects. But that young driver would immediately deliver. Just like that, the move seemed inspired and that Emerson's time would come. However, most believed that time to still be a few years off. Once again, Fittipaldi would deliver. With the help of the powerful Lotus 72D, the Brazilian would exceed expectations and would prove that youth can beat experience.