You are now reading the 20th and final iteration in a series of monthly mclaren.com/formula1 blogs that I kicked off on 14th March 2013.
I have enjoyed creating them, and I hope you have enjoyed reading them. I will continue to collaborate with my old friends at McLaren on a semi-regular basis, but, as I say, my monthly mclaren.com/formula1 blog comes to an end today.
What, then, should I devote my last blog to? Well, I know the answer to that question, and it is a story that I have been keen to tell you these past 20 months, but which I have only skirted around in all that time.
Having won the World Championship for McLaren in 1974, and having finished second in the World Championship for McLaren in 1975, I felt extremely confident that McLaren would be even more competitive in 1976. We were continuing to develop the McLaren M23, which was still a fantastic race car, and I felt certain that it would be good enough to take the fight to Ferrari in 1976, despite the fact that the Scuderia had won the World Championship in 1975. (History shows us that I was right, because James Hunt took over ‘my’ McLaren M23 and won the World Championship for McLaren in 1976.)
Meanwhile, I went to Copersucar-Fittipaldi, the all-Brazilian Formula 1 team that my elder brother Wilson had founded in 1975.
As I have said before, I did so for reasons of family solidarity and national pride. Wilson had based the team in Sao Paulo, and almost all of our staff were Brazilian (or, if not Brazilian, then Latin American). We were backed by two very big Brazilian corporations – the world’s largest sugar and ethanol producer, Copersucar, and the world’s third-largest aircraft manufacturer (after Airbus and Boeing), Embraer – and we had some very good people working for us.
My brother, Wilson, was a great guy, of course. He still is. He had been a quick driver, and he had raced in Formula 1 in his time, but he had never been fortunate enough to find his way into a race-winning car. In 1972 and 1973 he had raced in Formula 1 for Brabham, but that team’s cars were not fully competitive in those years. In 1975 he had debuted the Copersucar-Fittipaldi FD01, but it was a complex (if handsome) car that had flattered to deceive.
The FD01 had been designed by Richard Divila, a lovely guy whom Wilson and I had known since the 1960s, during which decade he had created race-winning Formula Vee cars for us both (and who went on to enjoy a long and productive career, working for Ligier in Formula 1 among others, and then in Japan, and is still working successfully today). We decided that our cars would be prefixed ‘FD’, in fact, short for Fittipaldi/Divila, following the naming pattern laid down with such great success previously by Jack Brabham and Ron Tauranac, whose all-conquering Brabham race cars were always prefixed ‘BT’.
On paper the FD01 should have been a winner. It was low-slung, with a full-width front wing that was revolutionary for its time, and its aero performance looked good in the wind tunnel. But its rakish profile forced its driver to recline farther back than was comfortable or practicable, and as a result it was very tricky to drive. Apart from a single outing by Arturo Merzario at Monza, resulting in a lacklustre 11th-place finish four laps behind the winner, Wilson was its only driver throughout 1975, and he struggled with it to be honest, albeit through no fault of his own.
The first Copersucar-Fittipaldi I would ever race, the 1976 car, the FD04, was a more conventional and less complex design than the FD01. Richard Divila had taken some design inspiration from the Tony Southgate-designed Shadow DN5, which had been one of the faster (if sadly less reliable) Formula 1 cars of the mid-1970s. Like the FD01, the FD04 had a low monocoque, but it was easier to drive than the FD01 because its driver was seated a little more upright, which made a big difference in terms of both feel and visibility. When we first tested the car, at Interlagos, it was quick, and we felt confident that the design direction we were now heading in was a good one. We had hired that great Mexican, Jo Ramirez, as our chief mechanic, and we felt confident that we were ready to give a decent account of ourselves.
At the 1976 season’s first Grand Prix, also at Interlagos, I qualified our new car fifth – a very auspicious debut – behind only James Hunt in ‘my’ McLaren (on the pole), Niki Lauda in the Ferrari (P2), Jean-Pierre Jarier in the Shadow (P3) and Clay Regazzoni in the second Ferrari (P4). But after just two laps my engine began to misfire badly, and I drifted all the way back through the field, ending up a very disappointing 13th, three laps behind the winner.
It turned out to be a very frustrating season. The highlights were three sixth places – at Long Beach, Monaco and Brands Hatch, three circuits I loved and on which a skilled driver was always able to flatter his car – but I was forced to DNF no fewer than seven times and on one depressing occasion, at Zolder, I DNQ’d.
We knew we had to improve, and, in a bold effort to facilitate and accelerate that improvement, in 1977 we moved our team’s base from Sao Paulo to Reading, in the Thames Valley, just 24 miles west of McLaren’s Colnbrook HQ.
Richard Divila remained with us, but we were joined by Dave Baldwin, ex-Lotus, who took the lead when it came to designing our new car. As a result, we dropped the ‘D’ from our new car’s nomenclature, which meant that it would be called the F5. Dave soon departed, however, and we drafted in Giacomo Caliri, from Ferrari, who oversaw its ongoing development.
It was a better car than either the FD01 or the FD04 – very neat and pretty – but its chassis was not sufficiently stiff and that failing in a race car always leads to hard-to-fix problems. The highlights of our season were three good fourth places, in Argentina, Brazil and the Netherlands; but, again, the circuits on which I was able to achieve those results were challenging racetracks that favoured the skilled and brave: Buenos Aires, Interlagos and Zandvoort.
For 1978 we developed the F5, correcting its inherent design flaws, naming the result the F5A. I think it would be fair to say that the F5A was our first proper race car. It was reliable and forgiving, its handling neutral, and its suspension compliant over bumps, and at last the results began to come. I finished fourth at Hockenheim and Osterreichring, fifth at Zandvoort and Watkins Glen, and sixth at Anderstorp; but it was at home, in Brazil, that we had our day of days.
The 1978 Brazilian Grand Prix was not held at Interlagos, but rather at the fast and bumpy Jacarepagua circuit just outside Rio de Janeiro. I qualified my F5A in P7, behind Ronnie Peterson (Lotus, P1), James Hunt (McLaren, P2), Mario Andretti (Lotus, P3), Carlos Reutemann (Ferrari, P4), Patrick Tambay (McLaren, P5) and Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari, P6).
On race day the heat and humidity were insufferable. I am certain that I have never raced in more oppressive conditions. To compound our unease, in the warm-up we discovered that my intended race car had developed an engine problem, so we had to abandon it and switch to the spare car – never a comfortable choice to have to make. Furthermore, to add injury to insult, as I walked onto the grid, the asphalt was beginning to melt, and it was painful to stand on even in racing boots, so hot was the surface beneath them. As I inspected my car, I was forced to hop from foot to foot. All things considered, I was understandably jumpy – both literally and figuratively.
Carlos, always a hard man to beat in South America, blasted his Ferrari off to a storming start, leading on lap one, and gradually increased his lead with every lap, his Michelin radials far better in the ultra-hot conditions than the Goodyear cross-plies that all the teams bar Ferrari and Renault were running, and he ended up winning by a long, long way.
James held second place in the early stages, but, in his efforts to hang on to Carlos’s flying Ferrari, he cooked his McLaren’s Goodyears and had to make a pit-stop for fresh rubber; he then crashed out just before half-distance. Ronnie, too, crashed his Lotus out at around the same time.
All the while I had been nursing my tyres, while keeping my lap-times competitive. My F5A had felt good at the start of the race, and, as its fuel tanks lightened, it began to feel even better. By three-quarters distance I was in third place, behind Carlos’s Ferrari in the lead and Mario Andretti’s Lotus in second place.
As the race entered its final stages, I realised that Mario was within my reach. I pressed on as hard as I dared, driving right on the ragged edge of my melting tyres’ adhesion, and, to the delight of the local crowd, I was able to pass Mario for second place just before the end.
During the second half of the race, my drinks bottle pipe had detached itself, so I had been unable to take on water. In the furnace-like environment of my car’s cockpit, swathed as I was in multi-layer fire-proof overalls, I had been sweating like a pig. As I crossed the line to finish second, and drove around the slow-down lap with one arm aloft, saluting my fellow countrymen, I suddenly felt profoundly exhausted. Pure adrenaline had been sustaining me during the race, but, now, as I drove into the pit-lane and stopped in parc fermé, I found that I was unable to move.
My jubilant team-mates hoisted me out of the car, and stripped my overalls off my exhausted body. They were heavy with sweat. As I hugged my brother, the exultant Wilson, I inadvertently drenched him. I weighed myself later, and discovered that I had lost 7kg over the past 110 minutes in sheer dehydration.
On the podium, I felt drained (literally) but elated. Alongside me were two of the greatest drivers of my era – Carlos Reutemann and Niki Lauda – and they had achieved their first and third places in cars made by two of the most legendary Formula 1 marques of any era: Ferrari and Brabham. And, between them, I had placed Wilson’s and my Copersucar-Fittipaldi second, in one of the most arduous Grands Prix in the history of the sport. Truly, that scorching Sunday afternoon remains one of the proudest of my life.
And, if my friends at McLaren will allow me to say so on their website, at the end of the 1978 season Copersucar-Fittipaldi had scored one constructors’ championship point more than had mighty McLaren, despite the fact that Copersucar-Fittipaldi was a one-car team, our constructors’ championship points scored by me only, whereas McLaren had had two aces driving for them all season, James Hunt and Patrick Tambay.
In 1979, following the huge success of the ground-effect Lotus 79 in the latter half of 1978, every team was forced to start with carte blanche and design its own ground-effect car. We duly hired Ralph Bellamy, who had worked under Lotus’s design genius Colin Chapman on the all-conquering Lotus 79, and as a result we had high hopes for our next car, the Copersucar-Fittipaldi F6.
The problem was that, despite having invented ground-effect, Lotus then failed to develop the concept as well as many of the other teams – especially Ligier, Williams and Renault – and as a result the Lotus-derived thinking that had influenced Ralph’s F6 design was no longer at the cutting edge of ground-effect theory. In the end, disappointed, we reverted to the F5A, and scored points only once all season.
My final season as a Formula 1 driver was 1980. Copersucar had ended their title sponsorship of Wilson’s and my Fittipaldi team at the end of the 1979 season, but we had replaced them with Skol, the world-famous beer brand, which had just been bought by Brahma, a Brazilian beer manufacturer founded in 1888; even today, Skol is the most popular beer in Brazil, by the way.
We had bought the disbanded Wolf team, the private motorsporting enterprise of Canadian oil magnate Walter Wolf, which had been very successful in 1977 (Jody Scheckter winning three grands prix in the beautiful blue-and-gold Wolf WR1 and finishing second in the World Championship that year), pretty successful in 1978 (Jody achieving four podium finishes in the ugly blue-and-gold Wolf WR5 and finishing seventh in the World Championship that year) and not very successful at all in 1979 (James Hunt retiring mid-season, frustrated as he was by the pretty-but-wayward blue-and-gold Wolf WR7’s uncompetitiveness, to be replaced by a young Finnish lead-foot by the name of Keke Rosberg).
As I say, Walter Wolf owned the Wolf team, but it was run by Peter Warr, whom I had worked with, liked a lot, and greatly respected, during my time at Lotus at the beginning of the decade. Peter had started at Lotus as long ago as 1958, in fact, but, by the time I had joined the team in 1969, racing in Formula 3, he had become Lotus’s Competitions Manager. When, in 1970, I moved up to Formula 1, it was Peter who was the voice of wise commonsense alongside Colin Chapman’s maverick genius, and he contributed hugely to Jochen Rindt’s 1970 World Championship for Lotus and my World Championship for Lotus two years later. In short, Peter was a fantastic guy, and now he was working for Wilson and me.
Wolf’s chief designer was also a top-class bloke: Harvey Postlethwaite. His Wolf WR1 remains one of the most successful and iconic cars of the Cosworth-engined pre-ground-effect era, and, although his Wolf WR5 and WR7 were less successful, by the time Harvey had designed the Skol-Fittipaldi F7/8 of 1980, he had worked out how to make a ground-effect car work well.
It was quick. By now, at last, moreover, we had expanded to being a two-car team, and our driver line-up consisted of Keke Rosberg and myself: a pretty decent combo by anyone’s standards. Oh… and Harvey had hired a young aerodynamicist from Imperial College London. His name was Adrian Newey. He was pretty handy, too.
I finished third at Long Beach that season (1980), my last ever grand prix podium finish, and sixth at Monaco. Keke finished third in Buenos Aires and fifth at Monza. We were getting there, and we had all the ingredients in place. We felt sure we would be competitive in 1981.
Even so, I decided to stop racing myself. I was still quick – I was only 33 – but I had ceased to enjoy the process of driving fast. The reason was that the new breed of Formula 1 car – the skirted, stiffly-sprung, ground-effect cars – responded to brute force rather than subtle finesse. And I had always been a driver who coaxed speed out of my cars with subtle finesse. My old friend Carlos Reutemann, the great Argentine driver whose level of subtle finesse was perhaps greater than that of any man I ever raced against, also called it a day at around the same time. Like me, he just did not enjoy strong-arming the new breed of skirted, stiffly-sprung, ground-effect cars.
So our drivers for 1981 were Keke Rosberg, who was now showing himself to be truly world-class, and Chico Serra, a young Brazilian ace. Again, Wilson and I were optimistic. But, then, suddenly, I received one of the most painful telephone calls of my racing career. On the end of the phone was Skol’s chief marketing/sponsorship guy. “I’m so sorry, Emerson,” he said, “but there’s no easy way to tell you this. I know that you’re making good progress, and I appreciate that the specialist racing press in Brazil are reporting exactly that, but the mainstream media in Brazil are expecting us to beat Ferrari and Williams and Lotus and McLaren straight away. We just can’t justify our involvement, and our expenditure, if we’re getting slammed in the mainstream media like this. So we’ve made the decision to pull out.”
“When?” I asked.
“Now,” he replied.
He was almost crying. So was I.
Without the backing of Skol, we simply could not afford to go on. As I imparted the bad news to Wilson, then to Peter, then to Harvey, then to Keke, and then to Chico, they too were absolutely shattered.
So that was that. At the end of the 1981 season, we closed the doors. End of story.
Now, 33 years later, it still hurts to relate the tale. And yet I regret none of it. I had learned so much – so much about racing, so much about management, and so much about human nature. And, although I did not yet know it, in three years’ time, in 1984, I would embark on another hugely successful chapter of my racing career: Indycar. Never forget: I won 14 grands prix… but I won 22 Indycar races.
What did I do in 1982 and 1983? Well, once a racer, always a racer, so they say, and they are right. So I competed in SuperKart in Brazil. I knew it was beneath me in one sense, but I did not care. I lived to race – I always had and, yes, I always will. Besides, SuperKarts were fast and fun – twin-engined buzz-boxes that handled like a dream – and I won the 1982 Brazilian SuperKart Championship, racing against boys half my age. I absolutely loved it.
So… I hope you have enjoyed my trip down memory lane, and I hope you now know a little more about Copersucar-Fittipaldi and Skol-Fittipaldi than you did before. And, if you want to see me driving one of Wilson’s and my old cars again, then go to the Goodwood Festival of Speed next summer: I am planning to drive a Copersucar-Fittipaldi FD01 up the famous hill in Lord March’s back garden, and I am already very excited about the project.
Why so? Because I want to show the motorsport community what a beautiful little car it was, and to demonstrate that we – Wilson, myself, and all who sailed with us – could have been successful if things had played out just a bit differently.
Come and watch!