|Emerson Fittipaldi was the driver who held the title of youngest ever champion for more than 30 years – until that record was broken, initially by Fernando Alonso, then Lewis Hamilton. Sebastian Vettel now holds the record.
Fittipaldi took that mantle from the great Jim Clark – he was almost two years younger in 1972 than the Scot had been when he won his first title in 1963, which says a lot about what an achievement it was.
|Emerson Fittipaldi paved the way for future generations of Brazilian drivers to make their country synonymous with Formula 1. Fittipaldi was born in Sao Paulo, also home to fellow countrymen Ayrton Senna and Rubens Barrichello, both of whom looked up to him. Emerson left for Europe in 1969. In those days it was not usual for Brazilian racing drivers to make it to Europe. He was a regular winner in the British junior formulae and less than two years later he joined the Lotus F1 team at the 1970 British Grand Prix, which was on its way to the world title with Jochen Rindt. Initially drafted in as the team’s No 3 driver, he ended up becoming No 1 driver after Rindt was killed at Monza and John Miles left the team. He was confirmed as a major talent when he won his first victory – in only his fifth grand prix, a result that also sealed Rindt’s title – the only time a driver has won the title posthumously in the history of Formula One.
An unfortunate road crash in France which seriously injured both Fittipaldi and his wife Maria Helena, affected his 1971 season, but in 1972 Fittipaldi dominated in the iconic black and gold Lotus 72. Fittipaldi won five of the 11 races, among them a superb victory in the British Grand Prix in which he held off the Tyrrell of Jackie Stewart.
Fittipaldi was the right driver in the right car at the right time – he barely put a foot wrong all year.
His first title in the bag, though, Fittipaldi was never as out-and-out competitive again, preferring to win by craftiness and intelligence. That may have had something to do with his team-mate the year after he won his first title. Fittipaldi was joined at Lotus in 1973 by Ronnie Peterson, and he was not especially happy about it. Peterson had a reputation as the out-and-out fastest man in F1, and he duly proved to be quicker in qualifying than his team leader. But Fittipaldi’s canniness gave him an edge in the races – and arguably made him a greater all-round driver.
In some ways, their relationship was a little like that of Senna and Alain Prost in their early days at McLaren – Fittipaldi, like Prost, was better at setting up the car, and Peterson, like Senna, would generally then go and drive it faster. Like Prost, Fittipaldi preferred to play the percentages – but, like the Frenchman, he was super-quick, too. Nevertheless, one year alongside Peterson was enough for him, and Fittipaldi left at the end of 1973 to join McLaren, where he won his second title in 1974.
It was the archetypal ‘percentage’ world championship, three wins and four podiums enabling him to edge Clay Regazzoni of the resurgent Ferrari team to the title.
Fittipaldi stayed at McLaren for one more year, taking two more wins as Niki Lauda romped to the title with Ferrari. Fittipaldi then quit in 1976 to join the Copersucar Team, formed in 1974 by his brother Wilson with backing from the Brazilian sugar and alcohol cooperative Copersucar. It was essentially a national team – but it was a disaster (although future world champion Keke Rosberg took his first podium finish in Formula One with the team) and it wasted the career of one of the sport’s finest ever drivers. Fittipaldi stayed with his family team for five unproductive years, scoring a best result of second – in the Brazilian Grand Prix appropriately enough, in 1978, their most successful season. By the end of 1980, though, he had had enough, and he retired from racing at the age of 33, to concentrate on a management role with his team, which folded at the end of 1982.
In 1984, he started a new career in IndyCar (to be precise: USAC Champ Car & Cart) racing in the US, going on to win the title in 1989 and the Indy 500 twice, in 1989 and 1993.
|1st GP||1970||British GP (Brands Hatch)||Lotus 49C / Ford Cosworth DFV|
|1st GP Win||1970||US GP (Watkins Glen)||Lotus 72C / Ford Cosworth DFV|
|F1 World Champion:||1972||Lotus 72D / Ford Cosworth DFV|
|1974||McLaren M23 / Ford Cosworth DFV|
|Indy 500 Winner||1989||Penske/Chevrolet|
|F1 Pole Positions||6|