Retro 1970: Emerson Fittipaldi’s meteoric rise and first F1 win at Watkins Glen

Monday 15 November 2021 by René Fagnan

The world of motorsport 1 has seen rapid accessions to Formula 1; drivers who really didn’t waste any time and went incredibly quickly from karting to F1. We only have to think of Jim Clark and Graham Hill (four years between their first car race and their first Grand Prix start), Sebastian Vettel (four seasons between his debut in Formula BMW and his first Grand Prix) and Kimi Raïkkönen who only competed in 23 Formula Renault races before jumping into the seat of a Sauber F1!

Emerson Fittipaldi arrived in Europe from his native Brazil in 1969. Although he raced motorcycles, karting and Formula Vee in South America, he is totally unknown in Europe and especially in the UK.

Armed with his helmet, his wetsuit and a few pennies granted by Brazilian sponsors whose Varga gas stations, Emerson, aged 21, allows himself a few months to shine in the race and thus obtain a free wheel to continue. his career.

At the controls of a Merlyn, he won several times in British Formula Ford and was quickly spotted by Jim Russell, the boss of a driving school and a competition team that bears his name. Russell is really impressed with the Brazilian’s finesse in driving style, and he highly recommends it to Colin Chapman of Lotus.

Fittipaldi only arrived in Europe a few months ago that he already jumped to the next stage, Formula 3. At the wheel of a Lotus 59 of the Jim Russell team, Fittipaldi steals nine victories and wins the MCD Lombank F3 Championship. He has fulfilled his contract perfectly and is aiming higher, of course.

A few months later, the 1970 season started and Fittipaldi, over whom Jim Russell was still watching, was named driver of the semi-official Lotus Bardahl team which was competing in the Formula 2 European Championship with a Lotus 69. He finished on the podium four times and placed third in the championship while missing an event.

Jim Russell and Colin Chapman are amazed by the talent, driving style and maturity of young Fittipaldi. The latter has just signed a third place in Barcelona and a second in Rouen-Les-Essarts in F2 when Chapman announces to him that he will make his Grand Prix debut on July 18 at the wheel of an “old” Lotus 49C alongside Jochen Rindt and John Miles who have the new Lotus 72s.

Fittipaldi thinks he is dreaming! Not only has he succeeded in his bet to race in Europe, but he will make his debut in Formula 1 in one of the best teams in the field! On the Silverstone track, he qualified 21st out of 23, but finished the race in eighth place.

Temporarily abandoning Formula 2, Fittipaldi then competed in the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim where he finished fourth (excuse a little) and that of Austria, still aboard his “old” 49C where he lost a lot of time because of  » a lack of gasoline which forces him to go through the wells to add a few liters of fuel.

Big blunder in Monza …

Fittipaldi is entered for the Italian Grand Prix, but this time at the wheel of a brand new Lotus 72. During the first tests, the Brazilian, very (too?) Impressed, brakes too late in a turn. His beautiful Lotus leaves the track at high speed and finishes its race in the trees. Fittipaldi is not injured, but an angry Chapman gives him a bad quarter of an hour.

A few hours later, Team Lotus is devastated by Jochen Rindt’s fatal accident. The Lotuses were quickly evacuated from the circuit and the team, in mourning, skipped the next Grand Prix, that of Canada at Mosport.

Team Lotus finished the 1970 season at the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. The official pilots are Reine Wisell and Emerson Fittipaldi. The Brazilian takes back the Lotus 72C-Ford he damaged in Italy and qualifies third behind Jacky Ickx (Ferrari 312B) and Jackie Stewart (Tyrrell 001-Ford).

Light rain fell on the American track at the start. Fittipaldi, who suffers from a bad cold, is super careful and ends the first lap in eighth place. But the Brazilian is really happy with the handling of his horse. The rain stops and he picks up the pace. He overtook rivals and took advantage of the pitfall of Jacky Ickx’s Ferrari and the engine trouble of Jackie Stewart’s Tyrrell to climb to second place behind the leader, Pedro Rodriguez on a BRM.

The BRM V12 engine is however greedy on fuel. Rodriguez slows down to save some gas. He who had 15 seconds ahead of Fittipaldi sees this figure drop to 12, then to 10 seconds. The team makes it return to the pits with only seven laps to go to add a few liters of gasoline. The shutdown lasts forever; almost 50 seconds!

Fittipaldi therefore inherits control of the race. He remains focused even though he can’t believe he’s going to win. The checkered flag waved in front of him after 108 laps of the race. Rodriguez comes second with 36 ”2 behind Fittipaldi while Reine Wisell, on the other Lotus 72, finishes third with 44” 9 behind.

Emerson Fittipaldi thus clinches his first F1 victory at 23, only his fourth Grand Prix start (because we do not count Italy, since he only participated in free practice) and barely a year and half after arriving in the UK full of hopes but almost empty pockets.

In just 20 months, Fittipaldi has gone from being a good Formula Ford 1600 driver to a F1 Grand Prix winner! When we talk about meteoric ascent, the case of Fittipaldi is really exceptional!

During his F1 career, Fittipaldi won 14 victories and was crowned World Champion in 1972 with Lotus and then in 1974 with McLaren. He then lost five years fighting at the controls of the uncompetitive Copersucar and Fittipaldi cars; 100% Brazilian racing cars created by Emerson and his brother Wilson.

After putting his career on hiatus, “Emmo” returned to motorsport, in the CART IndyCar series where he won great success, Series Champion in 1989, he won the Indianapolis 500 twice. In 2008, he took part in his last race, at home in Brazil, aboard a Porsche 997 GT3 with his brother.

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