As I sit down to write my first mclaren.com/formula1 blog column of 2014, I’m reminded that, astonishingly, it’s now 40 years since I won McLaren’s first ever world championship, in 1974.
In a previous mclaren.com/formula1 blog column I’ve described the dramatic twists and turns of that extraordinary season – my year-long battles with Ronnie Peterson and Carlos Reutemann and Jody Scheckter and Niki Lauda and last but not least Clay Regazzoni, who was my closest challenger at season’s end – which culminated in my clinching the world championship at the final grand prix of the year, at Watkins Glen (USA), in oh-so-dramatic fashion. I can remember it all as if it were yesterday – the sights, the sounds, the smells – but, yes, amazingly, it was indeed 40 years ago.
For a Formula 1 driver – indeed for any successful international sportsman or sportswoman – the long and complex journey we call life is a remarkable and in my view wonderful thing. Let me explain. I believe I was put on Earth to drive race cars – that was the talent God gave me – and, having been given that talent, I felt it was both my duty and my pleasure to work as hard as I could to nurture that talent. And I did that – I worked incredibly hard. And through that incredibly hard work I’ve learned the importance of discipline, of determination, and of dedication – and those are life lessons that will stay with me for ever.
And the result of all that incredibly hard work – combined with the talent God gave me and a little luck along the way – was and is still a wonderful life.
On the one hand I’ve been able to do incredible things in race cars – to win the Brazilian Grand Prix, at my beloved Interlagos, in front of my own people, not once but twice; to win the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, beating mighty Ferraris on their home ground; to win the British Grand Prix, not once but twice, at Brands Hatch and at Silverstone, delighting the British teams I was driving for at the time (Lotus in 1972 and McLaren in 1975); to win the Indianapolis 500 at the legendary ‘Brickyard’, not once but twice – and, equally valuable in a very different way, I’ve also been able to enjoy the associated non-racing experiences that being an international sportsman offers.
Again, let me explain. I’ve seen the world; I’ve travelled everywhere; I’ve immersed myself in a huge variety of different cultures; I’ve met footballers and film stars, presidents and pop stars; I’ve learned something from all of them; I’ve loved every minute of it; and I thank God for it every day.
I raced in one of racing’s most dangerous eras, and I’ve lived to tell the tale. Others were less fortunate – God bless them all. I had one absolutely gigantic shunt – I hit the wall at 230mph (370km/h) in an Indycar race at Michigan International Speedway (USA) in July 1996 – but, although I broke my back and suffered a partially collapsed lung that day, I was able to fight my way back to health.
Emerson: Ayrton Senna, from the heart
Just over a year later, in September 1997, I was flying an ultralight aeroplane near Sao Paulo (Brazil). I had one passenger with me: my son Luca, who was just six years old. At a height of about 300 feet (91 metres) the engine stalled. The plane dropped like a stone. Had it landed on hard ground, we’d have been killed, no question about it. But we didn’t land on hard ground; we landed in a swamp. I broke my back again, but Luca wasn’t even scratched: a miracle.
In hospital afterwards, recovering from my injuries, which were made more complex by the fact that it was the second time I’d broken my back in a relatively short period of time, my doctor told me not to worry about my long-term prognosis but instead to take every day as it came. Then he said something I’ve never forgotten. I now know it’s a reasonably well known motto, but I’d never heard it at that time. He said, “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. But today is a gift, and that’s why we call it the present.”
I thought that was a beautiful thing to say, and so true. In its own small way, it’s a philosophy of life, isn’t it? I say those words to myself often – and I’d almost say I live by them now.
Racing has given me so much. It’s provided me with so many friends – some still with us, some not. When I was a teenager, learning to race at home in Brazil, first on bikes and then in karts and finally in cars, my heroes were Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart. When, in 1969, aged just 22, I flew to the UK, to race in Formula Ford, and then Formula 3, I was struck by a powerful realisation that I was finally racing in my heroes’ homeland.
I never met Jim, whom Jackie rates as the greatest driver of all time, because he’d been killed in a Formula 2 race at Hockenheim (Germany) in 1968, the year before I arrived in the UK, but I got to know Graham and, in particular, Jackie, very well.
In fact I’d describe Jackie as a lifelong friend. He was my closest rival during the first few years of my Formula 1 career – a truly brilliant driver, incredibly fast yet supremely consistent – but he was also a gentlemen, both on track and off track. You could race wheel to wheel with Jackie in the absolutely certain knowledge that he’d play fair.
When he and I meet nowadays, which is usually at grands prix, we don’t tend to talk about the old days - and I think the reason we don’t tend to talk about the old days is that we don’t have to. Why not? Because we’ve shared so many experiences that over the intervening years they’ve somehow shaped who we’ve both become – and I think he and I recognise that without having to talk about it. It’s a rare privilege to be able to say that one of my teenage heroes has become a bosom friend in adulthood, but with Jackie it’s true. I have enormous respect for him, always have, always will.
Ronnie Peterson and I were very close, too. We were team-mates at Lotus for a season – 1973 – and he was unbelievably quick. I won three grands prix that year, but he won four. He was an uncomplicated, open, genuine, unpolitical guy, and we got on fantastically well. In similar circumstances five years later, in 1978, also at Lotus, he and Mario Andretti forged what appeared to be the same kind of friendship – Ronnie was so easy to like. Mario was and is a super guy too, by the way, and I got to know him much better later on, when he and I were racing each other in Indycars.
But I was telling you about 1978, which was a bitter-sweet year for Mario, who that year won the world championship for Lotus at Monza, which glorious racetrack he and his twin brother Aldo had visited often as boys to watch the great Alberto Ascari race and win for Ferrari.
Towards the end of 1978, at the beginning of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, the circuit that meant more to Mario than any other, his Lotus team-mate Ronnie was involved in a multi-car startline shunt.
He was taken to hospital, and at first we were led to believe he’d suffered nothing worse than broken legs. But something went wrong overnight, and the next morning we awoke to the shocking news that he’d succumbed to his injuries in the early hours. I was numb. That day, outside the hospital, Mario said something very simple but very wise: “Unhappily, racing is also this.” He was right. I was badly affected by Ronnie's death for some time, and I miss him still.
Carlos Reutemann made his Formula 1 debut in 1972, and retired from racing in 1982. So he began his Formula 1 career two years after I did, and finished it two years after I did. The Brazilian and Argentine media were always trying to stoke up trouble between us – I was a proud Brazilian and Carlos was a patriotic Argentine – but the truth was that we liked and admired each other greatly.
The story of Fuji 1976
During the Monaco Grand Prix weekend my wife and I used to stay at his house in nearby Cap Ferrat – and during the Brazilian Grand Prix weekend he and his wife used to stay at my house in Sao Paulo. I admired his finesse – he was a true artist in a Formula 1 car – and on his day he was totally unbeatable.
After he walked away from racing, he never looked back. Instead he embraced politics, and became a national senator in his native Argentina, which position he occupies still, aged 71. About 12 years ago it was rumoured that he’d run for president, but in the end he decided not to. He’d have been excellent, in my opinion.
Again, as with Jackie, when Carlos and I meet nowadays we embrace but say comparatively little: Carlos was always a man of few words and, besides, we know each other so well that we can somehow sense what the other is thinking without having to articulate it. But that only happens when you've raced a man hard, fast and fair, over many years.
Carlos finished second in the world championship once (1981) and third three times (1975, 1978, 1980). Along with the legendary Stirling Moss, in my opinion, he’s the greatest Formula 1 driver never to have become world champion.
When I started racing, in Brazil, as a teenager, my closest friends were Wilson [Fittipaldi], naturally, because he’s my brother, Carlos Pace and Luiz Bueno.
Wilson was quick, and I looked up to him because he was my big bro. My first role in racing was to work on his and Carlos's karts – I was too young to race myself. Wilson started 35 grands prix, for Brabham and for our own Copersucar-Fittipaldi team, but sadly he never had the opportunity to drive a race-winning car in Formula 1. I really wish he had.
Carlos also made it to Formula 1, where he drove for more competitive teams than Wilson did – Surtees, Williams and Brabham. He won just one grand prix – but that one grand prix was the 1975 Brazilian Grand Prix, in which he triumphed for Brabham. I finished second that day, driving a McLaren, just five seconds behind him. I’ll never forget the look of pure joy on Carlos’s face as we stepped onto the podium together to wave at the spectators, who were utterly delighted to see two local guys finish first and second and were shouting themselves hoarse.
Two years later, in March 1977, Carlos was killed in a light aircraft accident. Again, I was grief-stricken. In his honour our beloved Interlagos was renamed the Autódromo José Carlos Pace, and I always say a prayer as I pass my old friend’s statue on my way into the circuit, even now, 37 long years after his death.
Luis Bueno was the fourth member of our all-Brazilian gang – Wilson, Carlos and I being the others – but Luiz didn’t get the necessary breaks and he started only one grand prix, the 1973 Brazilian Grand Prix, a race I won, in which he finished 12th in a Surtees. He was quick – much quicker than his results would indicate – but as I say he didn’t get a chance to show his talent in Formula 1. He was a lovely guy, and I was very sad when he died of cancer three years ago.
I could mention so many more people – so many more wonderful friends. So here are just a few more: Jerry Cunningham, the Anglo-Brazilian who believed in me in my early racing days in Brazil and gave me the confidence to leave my home country in order to seek my racing fortune in the UK; he even came with me. Chico Rosa, who did so much to help me when I arrived in that cold foreign land, and who ended up running the Interlagos circuit. Dennis Rowland, who gave me a job in his back-street garage in Wimbledon, south London, tuning Ford Cortina engines – my pay was an engine for my Formula Ford car, a Merlyn, which I raced successfully during the spring and summer of 1969. Ralph Firman, who was my Lotus mechanic for my Formula 3 debut in the 1969 Guards Trophy at Brands Hatch; Ralph and I immediately ‘clicked’; I was unclassified in heat one, but I won heat two and I finished third in heat three, and years later I was able to introduce him to Ayrton Senna, and just look what that led to.
Lifelong friends. Fabulous guys.
Monza: A bitter-sweet circuit
And then there was George Harrison, the Beatle, who had been one of the world’s biggest superstars in the 1960s but was disarmingly unassuming when he attended grands prix later, which he did because he loved racing as much as anyone I’ve ever known.
During the Brazilian Grand Prix he used to stay at my house in Sao Paulo, and during the British Grand Prix I used to visit him at his house in Henley on Thames. George died of cancer in 2001, at 58, far too young.
Reading back over the past few paragraphs, I’m struck by the large number of deaths I’ve recorded. What can I say? Death is an inevitable consequence of life – and, if you were a Formula 1 driver in the 1970s, tragedy was never far away.
I made my Formula 1 debut in 1970, and I retired from Formula 1 in 1980: during that time we lost Jochen Rindt, Jo Siffert, Roger Williamson, Francois Cevert, Peter Revson, Helmuth Koinigg, Mark Donohue, Tom Pryce, Brian Maguire, Ronnie Peterson and Patrick Depailler: I hereby pay tribute to them all.
Now, so many years later, people often ask me why I continued to risk my life every fortnight, with death and destruction all around me. All I can say by way of explanation is that I lived to race.
I still feel that way. I think we all did. I think that’s what bonds me to people like Jackie Stewart and Carlos Reutemann, even now, more than 30 years after we retired from Formula 1: we took the risks because we loved racing so much that we simply had to. We felt we had no choice. The alternative was to watch racing on TV – and, having been given by God a talent to race, that was something we could never do.
Even now, at the age of 67, I miss racing. I miss being in the cockpit; I miss braking late; I miss getting the car turned in; I miss kissing the apex kerb with the inside front tyre; I miss twitching the car ever so slightly to get the back end just a little out of line, so as to get it lined up for a fast exit; I miss feeding in the power; I miss feeling the rear end drift wider; I miss controlling that drift with a dab of opposite lock; I miss keeping the power on, holding the slide; I miss grabbing the next gear under full throttle and looking up to see that, yes, my rival in front of me is a couple of car-lengths closer than he was before the corner; I miss working out how and where to overtake; I miss it all.
A few weeks ago, just before Christmas, I visited a friend who has a farm in Brazil. He’s built a beautiful 0.9-mile (1.4km) kart track on his land. My son, little Emerson, who’s six years old, was with me. A few of us began to do a few laps, just messing about. It was such fun to drive alongside little Emerson, and to see the excitement in his eyes.
Soon a few older boys joined us – teenagers. Some of them were pretty quick. Suddenly, I was 16 again myself, hurling my little kart at each corner, sawing at the wheel as I balanced each slide, trying everything I knew to race these lads just as hard as I knew how.
Even as I was doing it, I was thinking to myself, “Emerson, you’re crazy; you’re 67; these are kids; stop it!” But, even as I was saying those words to myself, so also I was trying to brake that bit later for every corner, trying to get the power down that bit sooner at every apex, just as though I was back in my McLaren, racing Ronnie Peterson in his Lotus and Carlos Reutemann in his Brabham and Jody Scheckter in his Tyrrell and Niki Lauda and Clay Regazzoni in their Ferraris, in 1974, 40 long years ago.
Racing is in my blood.
Racing is what I am.
Racing is what I’ll always be.