Brazil–home of the samba, Sugarloaf mountain, Christ The Redeemer and some incredible racing drivers. Third only to Britain and Germany in terms of Drivers World Championships, Brazil has produced drivers of the calibre of Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet and the focus of this spotlight, Emerson Fittipaldi.
Known for his distinctive sideburns, usually teamed with sunglasses, Fittipaldi raced in Formula 1 from 1970 to 1980.
Son of a motor racing Journalist, Emerson and his brother Wilson got into racing from an early age. Winning the Formula Vee title in Brazil, Emerson moved to Europe in 1969. Racing in a Formula Ford, the Brazilian just kept beating the opposition. His immense talents were spotted by racing school owner Jim Russell, and he put him into a Formula Three Lotus. Of course, Fittipaldi went on to win the title, and Team Lotus signed him for Formula Two for 1970. Mid-season, Lotus team owner Colin Chapman rushed Emerson into the Formula One team and cementing his talent, Emerson won in his fifth race start at Watkins Glenn. It was an emotional win for the team, coming in the race following the death of team leader and eventual World Champion, Jochen Rindt.
Mid-season, Lotus team owner Colin Chapman rushed Emerson into the Formula One team, ostensibly to stop other team owners from signing him. Cementing his talent, Emerson won in his fifth race start at Watkins Glenn. It was an emotional win for the team, coming in the race following the death of team leader and eventual World Champion, Jochen Rindt.
With the promise of 1970 still fresh, 1971 was a disaster. The best the young Brazilian could do was a single second place as Sir Jackie Stewart romped to the Championship in his Tyrrell.
1972 was the year for Emerson. Winning five races, he won the Championship by 16 points to become, at the time, the youngest F1 World Champion in the history of the sport. It is also worth bearing in mind that even then, F1 was the domain of older racing drivers.
The 1973 Season started well for Fittipaldi. He won the first two races of the season, including his home race. Unfortunately, only one more race win followed. Teammate Ronnie Peterson actually took one more win that season, causing Emerson to finish second in the Championship to Sir Jackie Stewart.
The following season, Fittipaldi joined McLaren and immediately made his way back to the title. In a very competitive season, the Brazilain took just three wins from fifteen to win the Championship by three points from Ferrari’s Clay Regazzoni. In fact, Carlos Reutemann and Ronnie Peterson also took three wins with Regazzoni only winning one race. It was not unusual at the time to see very competitive seasons.
1975 saw Fittipaldi finish a distant second to Niki Lauda. With just two wins, the Brazilian and McLaren were no match for the Austrian and Ferrari.
Still only 29, Fittipaldi took a decision that would turn him from perennial contender to merely making up the numbers. He left McLaren to join his brother Wilson’s team, Copersucar. He and the car were instantly uncompetitive and to add insult to injury, McLaren, with driver James Hunt, went on to win the 1976 World Championship.
The uncompetitiveness of the Fittipaldi team continued with only two podium finishes over the next four years. In the end, the decision was proved to be the wrong one and by 1980, disillusioned and knowing he would not get another top drive, he retired from Formula One.
Not content with retirement he joined the American Indy car scene in 1984 winning the race at Long Beach. In 1989 he won the Indy 500 and the Championship before winning the Indy 500 again in 1993, beating reigning F1 Champion Nigel Mansell.
Fittipaldi’s racing career ended for good in 1996 at the age of 49 after an accident at Michigan. It marked the end of a successful career.
Emerson Fittipaldi blazed a trail that future Brazilians would follow. Even though he made a poor decision that effectively ended his career at the top early, he still raced in F1 for 10 years, impressive for the era, and raced for over a quarter of a century. A great driver. The first fast Brazilian.