Question: what do Emerson Fittipaldi, The Fifth Driver and Your Humble Correspondent have in common? Answer: all three of us are mclaren.com/formula1 bloggers, and I for one am extremely proud to be keeping such exalted company.
The Fifth Driver is a shadowy Stig-like figure whose true identity is known by only a few senior McLaren insiders, all of whom guard the secret very jealously.
And Emerson? Emerson is a legend in his own lifetime, a legend in his own laptime, and now, as a mclaren.com/formula1 blogger, a legend in his own laptop too!
Oh, and just in case you're wondering, The Fifth Driver isn't really a woman; I was only pulling his leg.
As Emerson made so evocatively clear in his inaugural mclaren.com/formula1 blog, he grafted incredibly hard to work his way from a 50cc motorcycle in Sao Paulo in 1961 to a 2997cc Lotus 49 Formula 1 car at Brands Hatch in 1970, but, once he’d finally arrived in motorsport’s premier league, his rise to its dizzy heights was meteoric.
Ponder with me, for a moment, if you will, the sheer brilliance of his first half-season in Formula 1: in his first Grand Prix he drove through the field from 21st on the grid to eighth at the flag, he finished fourth in his second Grand Prix, and he won his fourth.
In so doing, taking over the coveted position of ‘Team Lotus number-one driver’ from Jochen Rindt, who had himself taken over said mantle from Jim Clark – both Jochen and Jimmy having been relieved of their roles by cruel fate, perishing as they did, trackside, in the mangled remains of Lotus single-seaters – Emerson quickly embedded himself in the bosom of Colin Chapman’s then all-conquering Formula 1 team as indelibly as any driver has ever done in any team, before or since. And the Fittipaldi-Lotus ‘marriage’ was soon to get better still, for, two years after his Formula 1 debut in 1970, in 1972 Emerson was practically unbeatable in his beautiful black-and-gold Lotus 72, becoming the youngest World Champion in Formula 1 history.
The following year, 1973, Chapman decided that Lotus now required two joint number-one drivers rather than a number-one and a number-two, hiring Ronnie ‘SuperSwede’ Peterson to drive alongside Emerson in an identical 72.
At a stroke, though, the team’s oh-so-productive equilibrium had been unbalanced – and Emerson’s winning composure had been irretrievably unsettled by the situation in which he now unexpectedly found himself. Both drivers won Grands Prix that year – three victories for Emerson and four for Ronnie – but the two stars fell out after the Italian Grand Prix, which Fittipaldi felt Chapman should have instructed Peterson to allow him to win, since of the two only he still had a realistic chance of pipping Tyrrell’s Jackie Stewart to the Drivers’ World Championship.
That Chapman failed to do, Fittipaldi finishing second at Monza to the victorious Peterson. As a result, despite Lotus’s taking the Constructors’ World Championship courtesy of seven Grand Prix victories that year, the Drivers’ World Championship went to Tyrrell’s tortoise rather than either of Lotus’s hares: the wily Stewart, who eased his way to five meticulously crafted Grand Prix wins. Seething at the end of 1973, Emerson resolved to seek alternative employment for 1974.
Meanwhile, over at McLaren, there was no shortage of good Grand Prix drivers on the books; Denny Hulme, Peter Revson, Brian Redman and Jody Scheckter were all under contract. But team principal Teddy Mayer knew that, although his four men were all fine chaps, none of them was the 24-carat superstar whom he needed in order to tempt the Philip Morris executives to switch their Marlboro branding from BRM to McLaren as the team’s title sponsor. He not only wanted Emerson, in other words; he needed Emerson.
The deal was duly done – and Emerson immediately began churning out the soundbites that had the Philip Morris execs slipping triplicate copies of freshly minted title sponsorship contracts into their attaché cases and heading for Colnbrook (the location of McLaren’s HQ in those days) in search of Mayer’s fountain pen.
“Now I can say certainly that I’m with the best team in Formula 1,” said Fittipaldi in early 1974, once the contracts had been inked, before he’d even raced a McLaren, which claim Chapman must have found irksome in the extreme since Lotus had at that time already won 11 World Championships (five Drivers’; six Constructors’) whilst McLaren hadn’t yet won a single one.
In 1974, Fittipaldi and McLaren would change all that, however, respectively winning the Drivers’ and Constructors’ World Championships, Emerson’s smooth and sympathetic touch on pedals and steering wheel coaxing from the elegant red-and-white McLaren M23 the race-winning performances that would earn more World Championship points even than Niki Lauda and Clay Regazzoni could score in the excitingly restructured Ferrari team, whose 312B3, equipped as it was with a powerful flat-12 engine, was as rapid as it was pretty.
In that respect Fittipaldi’s driving style was akin to that of Alain Prost, not that we knew that yet since Alain was still karting in France at that time. Emerson somehow took the speed out of himself rather than out of the car, a quality that delighted the McLaren mechanics and engineers. As a result he was both fast and consistent: the ideal skill-set of multiple World Champions.
He drove for McLaren for only two seasons – 1974, in which year he was World Champion as I say, and 1975, in which year he was World Championship runner-up to Ferrari’s Lauda – thereafter spending five winless seasons chasing an unattainable patriotic dream in his elder brother Wilson’s home-grown-in-Brazil Formula 1 team, bankrolled by the Brazilian sugar and ethanol conglomerate Copersucar.
Watching him manhandle those evil-handling Copersucars around Grand Prix circuits on which so recently he’d triumphed for Lotus and McLaren, we journalists were struck by the brutal prodigality of the waste of talent we saw before us, for without doubt Emerson was in the late 1970s still one of the world’s great Grand Prix drivers. Occasionally, he’d be able to coax out of his brother’s car a flash of silky-smooth rapidity – the 1978 Brazilian Grand Prix springs to mind, wherein he finished second in front of his adoring home fans, screaming as they all were for him to catch and pass the leading Ferrari T2 that was being driven to victory by the talented Carlos Reutemann, whom they hated merely for his Argentine nationality – but it was not to be. He finished second, the filling in a Reutemann/Ferrari Lauda/Brabham sandwich.
I’m told by the men and women who run McLaren’s peerless comms/PR operation that Emmo, as he became widely known when he embarked on his post-Formula 1 racing career in the United States, will tell the story of his majestic successes in CART in a later blog of his own, so I shan’t do so here and now.
What I’ll say about Emerson to conclude this blog, though, is this. I’ve rarely met a racing driver who, though quite small of stature, so effortlessly and mesmerisingly dominates any environment, now in his mid-60s every bit as much as he did in his mid-20s. There’s charisma, and then there’s Emmo-charisma.
That, I presume, he was born with. But respect is earned, not innate, and the level of admiration in which Emerson is now held, in all four corners of the racing world, is indubitably immense. And that’s the result of his charm, his courtesy, his dignity, his in-cockpit ability, his long and successful racing career, and the grandeur, lightly worn, that those qualities and achievements have instilled in him.
I entreat you to read his mclaren.com/formula1 blog, every month, without fail. Why? Because they don’t make men like Emerson Fittipaldi any more, that’s why. Enjoy.