As you read these words, the Formula 1 teams will be on their way to Monza, disembarking their flights at one of three Milan airports - Linate, Bergamo or Malpensa - then driving to their hotels in rented Fiats or Lancias. Despite the fact that I last started an Italian Grand Prix in 1980, 33 long years ago, I still remember it all so well.
Those of you who read my most recent mclaren.com/formula1 blog - "My 10 greatest tracks" - will perhaps recall that Monza wasn't one of them. That's because, since the Formula 1 teams were at that time on their way to Spa, I wanted to write about the 10 circuits that I’d found most challenging from a driving point of view during my F1 career, which is why the track I placed at number-one was the Nurburgring Nordschleife, despite the fact that it was plainly dangerous, as I gather you'll see in some detail when you watch the new F1 movie 'Rush' (which I haven't yet seen, by the way).
Having said all that, there's something about the walk from hire-car park to paddock, through the closely bunched trees of the Parco di Monza, on a crisp September morning, with thousands of Ferrari fans shouting your name, that makes it perhaps even more special than any of the 10 circuits I highlighted in my last mclaren.com/formula1 blog. A friend once said to me, "You can almost feel the presence of Alberto Ascari when you walk into Monza", and I know exactly what he meant.
For me, though, Monza will always be bitter-sweet. I first drove there in 1970 - and I can say without hesitation that it was one of the hardest weekends of my life. I was 23, I'd just joined the Lotus team, and I'd started only three grands prix in my F1 career. My team-mate was Jochen Rindt, who'd already won five of the nine grands prix that had taken place so far that season, and was leading the world championship chase comfortably.
On Saturday morning, though, just a couple of hours after he and I had had breakfast together at Monza’s famous Hotel de la Ville, where most of the drivers still stay to this day, he crashed on a qualifying lap under braking for Parabolica, and was killed.
Jochen was a fantastic driver and a wonderful guy. He’d always been so kind and helpful to me, and now he was gone. I was devastated.
The Lotus team withdrew from the race as a mark of respect for Jochen, so I didn’t actually make my Monza race debut until 1971. Having said that, 1971 was a bad year for Lotus, and at Monza that year I raced the experimental Pratt&Whitney-engined Type 56B, which I managed to nurse to eighth place.
Twelve months later, though, things were dramatically different. I arrived at Monza leading the world championship table by 25 points, which meant that only one driver, McLaren’s Denny Hulme, was still mathematically able to beat me to the world championship. But, since you scored only nine points for a win in those days, to do that he’d have to win all three remaining grands prix, with me failing to score more than two points while he did that, which was always going to be a tall order, especially as Lotus had developed the Type 72 into a seriously competitive machine by that time.
Having said that, the weekend couldn’t have started worse for us Lotus boys. On the long drive to Monza, from Hethel in Norfolk, our transporter had an accident, and my intended race car was heavily damaged. A replacement had to be bolted together in record time and transported from Hethel to Monza - a very difficult task in itself in the short time available - and not surprisingly it gave us trouble from the outset.
As is so often the case at Monza, as soon as practice began it became clear that the Ferraris were very quick. Jacky Ickx duly put his 312-B2 on the pole, while his team-mates Clay Regazzoni and Mario Andretti qualified theirs fourth and seventh respectively. Second was Chris Amon for Matra, third Jackie Stewart for Tyrrell, fifth Denny for McLaren, and my Lotus only sixth.
Worse was to come on race day. During the morning warm-up session, during which we always used to do full-tanks running, we discovered that my car’s fuel tank had sprung a leak. Eddie Dennis, my chief mechanic, said, “Emerson, we’re really marginal on time, but we’re going to have to change it.” Avidly I watched the boys doing their work, and it was a fantastic sight to see. They were brilliant. With just a few minutes to spare, they managed to complete the task, and a brand-new fuel tank had been fitted to my car.
And then something strange happened. Having had nothing but trouble and hassle throughout the weekend so far, suddenly everything began to go our way in the race. Jackie’s Tyrrell suffered a transmission failure on the grid, while Chris’s Matra went out with brake failure on lap three.
As the race settled into a rhythm, then, Jacky and Clay were therefore running first and second, delighting the Monza faithful, whose passion for Ferrari is legendary. I was third. Denny was only sixth, which was a bonus for me.
Then, on lap 17, Clay was forced to retire his Ferrari with suspension failure, which meant that I was now second, behind only Jacky’s leading Ferrari.
Finally, with just nine laps to go, Jacky’s engine failed. I was in the lead.
Those last nine laps seemed to go on for ever. As I reeled them off, I was thinking of two men: Colin Chapman, the famous Lotus boss, who I knew was going to jump the pitwall and run onto the track and hurl his cloth cap into the air as I crossed the line, as was his long-established habit every time Lotus won a grand prix; and my father, Wilson, who was at Monza too, commentating on the race for Brazilian TV.
As those nine laps clicked down, and as I finally crossed the line to win the race and the world championship, becoming the youngest world champion in F1 history and the first ever from Brazil, I duly saw Colin hurl his cap into the air, and I thought of my dad, describing the scene for my family, who I could visualise watching it on a small black-and-white TV back in Sao Paulo.
I owe my father everything. He took me to watch races when I was a kid, and he encouraged my racing when it became clear that I was showing real promise. He allowed me to fly to England to race in Formula Ford when I was barely out of my teens, after I’d won Formula Vee championships in Brazil. But, more than all that, he instilled in me a love of racing that I’ll maintain and cherish for the rest of my life.
He died this year, on March 12, aged 92, and I was with him, sitting beside his hospital bed, in Rio de Janeiro, as he did so.
Recently, I listened to an audio recording that my family made of the TV commentary he delivered at Monza in 1972. For most of the race he tried his best to be impartial, and to call the race as he saw it, but in the closing stages, when he realised that his own son was about to make history, his voice cracked and he began to yell with enthusiasm. Listening to it now, so many years later, so soon after he’d passed away, was a very emotional experience for me.
As I said, Monza is a bitter-sweet place for me.
I drove two Italian Grands Prix for McLaren, and I finished second in both of them. In 1974 I was beaten by Ronnie Peterson’s winning Lotus 72, but the six points I scored that day set me up well for my second world championship, which I duly won for McLaren that year.
In 1975 I was the McLaren meat in a Ferrari sandwich, splitting Clay Regazzoni (who won) and Niki Lauda (who finished third).
That was a very memorable race, but for a very unusual reason. Let me explain. In my long racing career, I started 144 grands prix, 195 CART races, 11 USAC races and 22 IROC races. My career ended in 1996, at the age of 49, when I had a massive shunt at the superfast Michigan Speedway. But, despite all of that, the most frightening moment of my racing career came as I walked from my McLaren M23 to the Monza podium in 1975.
Clay had won the race for Ferrari, and Niki had won the world championship for Ferrari, and the local fans went absolutely crazy. As I walked to the podium, escorted by McLaren boss Teddy Mayer, we were trampled by thousands of Ferrari fans who’d jumped the barriers to invade the track so as to get closer to Clay and Niki. It was truly terrifying. Teddy and I were thrown to the left, then to the right, then to the left again, all the while squeezed painfully by the massive weight of the surging crowd. At one point I tripped and nearly fell; had I done so, I’d definitely have been trampled to death, I have no doubt about that.
Type “Emerson Fittipaldi career-ending crash” into YouTube, and you’ll see that my Michigan shunt was a very big one; but believe me when I tell you that I was much more frightened when I was stranded in the middle of a mad Monza crowd 21 years previously.
Having said that, I want to make clear that the Monza crowd was always friendly to me. They meant no harm when they nearly killed me in 1975; that day I was just an obstacle to their stampede.
In fact, as my surname makes clear, I have Italian ancestry, and the Italian press always used to write “Brazilian driver Fittipaldi fails” when I did badly in a race, but “Italian-Brazilian driver Fittipaldi triumphs” when I did well. I used to find that hilarious!
Anyway, as you see, when I start talking about Monza, I can go on for hours. I love the place, despite everything. And I’m so pleased and proud to have won a grand prix there.
This year, McLaren will celebrate its 50th birthday at Monza, that historic milestone having been reached just a few days ago, on September 2nd. McLaren means an enormous amount to me, and not only because I won the team’s first ever world championship in 1974, although that of course is an achievement of which I’m very proud.
No, long before that, when my brother Wilson and I were building and racing Formula Vee cars in Brazil in the mid-1960s, we painted our cars orange.
Why did we paint them orange? In homage to McLaren, whose cars were also orange at the time.
Why did we want to pay homage to McLaren? Because we recognised in Bruce McLaren a kindred spirit: a man who, like us, came from a far-off land, New Zealand in his case and Brazil in ours, and who was beginning to beat the Europeans at their own game in their own back yard, as we hoped we might one day be able to do too.
So Bruce was an inspiration to me then, and, 50 years later, he’s an inspiration to me still.
About five years ago, in fact, I flew to New Zealand, to visit the McLaren family, to say thank you. They held a cocktail party at Taupo, which is New Zealand’s premier racetrack. I remember that Chris Amon was there, the brilliant New Zealander who moved back there after he’d retired from racing. It was a very nice party, and I really enjoyed it.
But it was not only pleasant but also important for me to pay that visit, because the team that Bruce McLaren founded 50 years ago has been an inspiration to me throughout my adult life, ever since I made the decision to paint my Formula Vee cars orange in his honour in fact.
There’s nothing left to say except God bless Bruce McLaren, and may he rest in peace, and Godspeed to everyone who works for his great team now, 50 long years after he founded it.