McLaren's 1974 world champion, Emerson Fittipaldi, writes the first of his exclusive monthly blog columns for McLaren.
Before I say anything else, I want to say how delighted I am to have been invited to write a regular blog for McLaren's official website. I plan to do 12 of them this year, on a more-or-less monthly basis, timing them for the lead-up to key events/races.
I'm a racer, not a writer, but I hope I'll be able to communicate my racer's passion in what I write. Even now, more than half a century after my first race, I love racing as much as I ever did. Wherever I am in the world, racing is always on my mind, and I'm always happy to talk about it with people who love it as I do. Racing is my life. I think I was put on earth to race. So, anyway, whether you're a racing fan or a racing journalist or even a retired racing driver who still loves his sport with as much passion as ever, like me, I hope you'll enjoy my blog.
As I write, of course, the key event/race that every racing fan is thinking and talking about is the 2013 Rolex Australian Grand Prix. Vodafone McLaren Mercedes has won three of the past five Australian Grands Prix - in 2008, 2010 and 2012 - and it would be great to see my old team do well again this year. I won McLaren's very first Formula 1 World Championship, in 1974, and as a result McLaren is a team that will always be special to me.
But I'm going to start my first mclaren.com blog at the very beginning. I was born in December 1946, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, to a father and mother who were both big racing fans. My father had driven a few races in production saloons in Brazil after the Second World War, but he earned his living as a radio and television commentator, covering racing in Brazil. He started out commentating on football, but racing was what he really loved so he soon began to concentrate entirely on that.
My mother was just as keen. If fact, in 1952, when I wasn't yet six years old, I remember that she raced a Mercedes-Benz 180 diesel at Interlagos, the famous circuit that was inaugurated in my home city in 1940. I was so proud. And two years after my mother raced that old Merc, in 1954, my father took me to watch a motorcycle race in a public park in Sao Paulo, a very dangerous place in which to race bikes, and I recall that the winner on that day was John Surtees on a Manx-Norton. John was a fantastic racer, on two wheels then and on four wheels later, and many years after that I was happy to be able to tell him that I'd seen him win in Sao Paulo when I was only seven years old.
So, as I think you can tell, I adore racing, and I always have done. Even as a young kid, I was hooked. And, as I grew older, I wanted more than anything else to be involved in racing - somehow, anyhow. Most of all I wanted to race cars myself, of course, but that was still a very distant dream. So I began to learn about the mechanical side of things, because it fascinated me and I thought it would be useful to me later on.
As I say, cars were my first love, but in those days you had to be 17 before you could race cars in Brazil, whereas you could race bikes from 14. So, as soon as I turned 14, I began to enter a few bike races on a tiny 50cc motorcycle, which I prepared myself. I learned how to be a mechanic that way, on my own, by trial and error, but I also started formally studying mechanical engineering. And I learned fast. Soon, in fact, I was good enough to be able to work on my elder brother Wilson's and his friend Carlos Pace's karts - they were a couple of years older than me so they'd already progressed from two wheels to four - and I was very proud when Wilson became kart champion of Brazil because I'd been his mechanic throughout his winning season.
Racing cost money, and I was only a teenager so I didn't have any. But the fact that I was becoming a good mechanic was something I could use to my advantage. In fact, when I was only 15 I started a car accessory business. I patented an aluminium steering wheel, with leather trim, and sold it as the 'Formula 1 Steering Wheel' to Brazilian motorists who usually bolted them onto the steering columns of their Volkswagen Beetles. I also sold magnesium road wheels, sports exhausts and twin-carb engine conversions, and in the end I was building and selling mini-karts.
When I was 16 I was able to buy a bigger bike, with a larger engine, but when my parents found out about it they confiscated it and stopped me racing it. They thought I was too young to race anything faster than a 50cc machine.
Frustrated, I tried my luck in hydrofoil racing, which Wilson was already doing. Those hydrofoils had outboard engines, and they were very quick and incredibly dangerous. I remember that in a race Wilson once approached a wave a little too fast, at about 70mph I think (113km/h), causing his hydrofoil's bow to rise a little too high, and the result was that his craft suddenly flipped upwards and did a violent mid-air loop. It was a huge shunt. Somehow, though, he was unhurt. We took it as a lesson, though, and both decided to give up hydrofoils and go back to dry-land racing.
In December 1963 I turned 17, which meant that at last I was old enough to race karts in the 1964 season. My first kart event was a race for rookies at a new track in the countryside outside Sao Paulo, and I'm glad to say I won it. I won quite a few kart races that year, but even more the following year, becoming kart champion of Brazil in 1965.
By the time I turned 18 I wanted to race cars. I started with a Renault Gordini, a small rear-engined saloon. My first race in that thing was on a street circuit in Rio de Janeiro, in the University region of the city, in 1965. Suddenly, a few laps into the race, I ran out of brakes at the end of the main straight, turned in to the corner much too fast, realised I wasn't going to make it around, and slammed into the perimeter fence, causing the car to vault into the air and onto its roof, careering through an area where spectators were watching, but miraculously not hitting any of them. That was the only time in my entire career that I ever went upside down in a racing car. Thankfully I wasn't hurt, but the car was totally destroyed.
Soon afterwards Formula Vee was launched in Brazil, and I wanted to race in it. Formula Vee was a single-seater formula, and the cars were based on early-1960s Volkswagen Beetles. Again, I worked on my car myself, clothing it in bodywork made of fibreglass supplied by my friend Jerry Cunningham, an Anglo-Brazilian. Our works was in a small factory near the Interlagos circuit. We worked well together, and in 1967 I became Formula Vee champion of Brazil.
Jerry and I had become close, and in 1968 I remember we had a long talk about what we should do next. I knew I was quick enough to win races in Brazil - I'd proved that - but I had no idea whether I'd be good enough to compete against the best drivers in the world, who were all European, and most of them British. You have to realise that, as a 21-year-old Brazilian who'd never left my home country, I regarded guys like Graham Hill and Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart as heroes from another universe.
But Jerry said I should take the plunge and go to England, and I agreed, so in February 1969 we flew from Sao Paulo to Gatwick. As our British Caledonian Boeing 727 touched down, I had two thoughts: "What a cold grey foggy country!" and "I can't believe I'm now in the land of Hill, Clark and Stewart!". I remember that a shiver of excitement ran up and down my spine.
I also recall allowing myself to frame an ambition at that moment: "If I can start just a single Grand Prix, that'll make me happy, that'll be enough," I remember saying to myself as we taxi'd to the gate.
The obvious route was Formula Ford. But I had no money, so I offered my services as a mechanic to a guy called Dennis Rowland, and he put me to work in his workshop in Wimbledon, south London, tuning Ford Cortina engines. My payment was an engine for my Formula Ford car, which was a Merlyn, and I planned to race it in England during the spring and summer of 1969.
I won my second ever Formula Ford race in that Merlyn, at Snetterton in June 1969, and a few races more after that too. It was a great little car. Eventually, in fact, it earned the nickname of 'Magic Merlyn', because at the end of the 1969 season I sold it to Colin Vandervell, and he won loads of races in it in 1970, and at the end of the 1970 season Colin sold it to Jody Scheckter, and he won races in it in 1971 too. Jody also sold it when he'd finished racing it, but he bought it back many years later, and restored it, and it now sits in his private collection in his mansion in Hampshire, England, alongside famous Formula 1 classics such as his Ferrari T4 (in which he became World Champion in 1979), his Wolf WR1 (in which he came second in the World Championship in 1977), his beautiful McLaren M23, and a few others besides.
Jody drove his McLaren M23 in 1973. I won the World Championship in a McLaren M23 the following year, but that's another story, and I promise to devote an entire blog to that wonderful Gordon Coppuck design at some point over the next 12 months.
Anyway, where were we? Oh yes: 1969. Jim Russell had been keeping an eye on my Formula Ford races, and he invited me to race his Lotus 59 Formula 3 car in the 1969 Guards Trophy at Brands Hatch. My mechanic was Ralph Firman, who went on to found the Van Diemen company in 1973 and eventually became the most successful car builder in Formula Ford history. But that was all in the future, and at that time Ralph was a Formula 3 rookie's mechanic, and his Formula 3 rookie that day was me.
He and I worked well together. I was unclassified in heat one, but I won heat two and I finished third in heat three: not a bad Formula 3 debut. More important still, in winning a heat, I'd shown myself that I could compete with the brightest young drivers from Europe. That day I'd beaten Ronnie Peterson and James Hunt, to name but two, and, although James had been driving a Brabham BT21, Ronnie had been driving a Lotus 59: the same car as I'd been driving.
Colin Chapman, the founder and boss of Lotus, noticed my performance that day, and so did Frank Williams, the founder and boss of Williams. They both telephoned me. After my third Formula 3 win of the year, Colin telephoned me again and offered me a Formula 1 drive there and then. I was amazed. In fact I was so amazed that I refused it, because I didn't think I was yet ready for it. At around that time Frank flew to see me in my little house in Norwich, Norfolk, in a small private plane, and offered me a Formula 1 drive too. I also refused Frank.
But the following year, 1970, I felt ready. So when Colin telephoned me again, and invited me to drive one of his Formula 1 cars in a Grand Prix, I said yes. I tested the car, a Lotus 49, at Silverstone, and everything went well enough, so it was decided that my Formula 1 debut would take place at the British Grand Prix, in mid-July, at Brands Hatch, which was a circuit that I not only knew but also loved.
My team-mates would be Jochen Rindt, in the newer and faster Lotus, the 72, and one of my heroes, already a double World Champion, the great Graham Hill, in a 49 like mine. I felt both nervous and excited. I qualified 21st, which wasn't great, but in qualifying for a Grand Prix I'd reached the target I'd set myself just over a year before, that grey foggy day, when I'd landed at Gatwick. And, even better, Graham was alongside me, having qualified 22nd.
The following day was a day I'll never forget. As I brought my 49 to a stop at the end of the parade lap, I looked across. There, alongside me, also in a 49, was the distinctive profile of the one and only Graham Hill. Over the next 117 minutes we carved our way through the field together. Graham finished sixth; I finished eighth; Jochen won in the 72.
Two weeks later, at the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim, still in a 49, I finished fourth. Jochen and the 72 won again. Jochen was a magnificent driver - and he was also a lovely guy. Ever since my first Formula 1 test, at Silverstone, and at the Grands Prix immediately after that, he'd been incredibly kind to me, very helpful, always eager to see that his young rookie team-mate was preparing for Grands Prix the right way.
The next race was the Austrian Grand Prix, where Jochen's engine failed and I could finish only 15th, but the one after that was the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, and I was massively excited about racing there.
On the Saturday morning, just before qualifying, I had breakfast with Jochen at the Hotel de la Ville in Monza, which is where most of the drivers still stay to this day, and he said, "Emerson, next year I don't want to race in Formula 2 as well as Formula 1, like I've been doing these past few years, so Bernie [Ecclestone, Jochen's manager and business partner] and I would like you to race for us in Formula 2 next year. What do you say?"
I said, "Sure, Jochen, I accept", and we shook hands.
Just a few hours later his 72 got away from him at high speed, under braking for the fast Parabolica right-hander at the end of a quick qualifying lap, and slammed into a crash barrier stanchion. He was killed instantly.
Jochen was as quick and as able as anyone who'd ever sat in a Formula 1 car, and his death was therefore incredibly tough for all of us drivers. He'd been leading the World Championship chase when he'd died, and no-one would overtake his points total for the remainder of the year, making him Formula 1's only posthumous World Champion.
For me, aged just 23, away from my family, the autumn of 1970 was therefore a time I had to dig deep. The next Grand Prix after Monza was at Mont-Tremblant, Canada, which Colin decided that Lotus would skip, but he opted to resume Lotus's participation at the next Grand Prix, which would be the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen.
When I arrived at the Glen, I knew I didn't have enough experience to be Lotus's team leader, and consequently I felt enormous pressure on me. Still, I was in a 72 now, and I qualified third, which was a good morale boost for the team. And just ahead of me, in P2, was one of my childhood heroes: the one and only Jackie Stewart.
However, that evening I began to feel ill, developing a high temperature, and I went to bed early. I couldn't sleep, and I called a doctor. He gave me some medicine, but I still didn't sleep at all that night. The next morning I felt tired and unwell.
Everything seemed to be going wrong for me, and I was nervous and ill at ease. But when when the flag dropped and the race started, everything seemed to start going right for me. I was driving well, behind Jackie's Tyrrell and Pedro Rodriguez's BRM. My 72 felt really good, and I began to grow in confidence. I didn't think I was going to be able to pass Pedro or Jackie, but I was pretty confident that I was going to finish third, and I began to look forward to my first appearance on a Grand Prix podium.
But then Jackie's Tyrrell suffered an oil leak, causing him to retire, and that left me in second place behind Pedro's BRM. "Second is pretty good," I said to myself, but what I didn't know was that ahead of me Pedro was beginning to run low on fuel. With eight laps to go, he darted into the pits for a top-up, and his stop was enough to drop him to second. I was in only my fourth Grand Prix, and I was in the lead.
I reeled off the remaining laps in a bit of a dream, but I still have a very clear mind's-eye vision of driving around the last corner of the last lap, and seeing Colin running on to the track and throwing his cap into the air. As a child I'd seen so many photos of him doing that for Jim Clark and Graham Hill, and now he was doing it for me. It's a wonderful memory still.
Anyway, now you know how an ambitious Brazilian boy made his way from a 50cc motorcycle on a run-down track in Sao Paulo to a Grand Prix victory at Watkins Glen just nine years later. And now you know a bit about the nature of my love for racing, too. I love the cars, I love the drivers, I love the mechanics, I love the atmosphere. I love it all.
I've got many more stories in my memory bank, and I'm really looking forward to sharing them with you, here on mclaren.com/formula1, every month, for the next 12 months.
I really hope you enjoy them.