Publish date:

New Boy in an Old Man's Game


When he first appeared on the Grand Prix circuit two years ago, the In joke among the camshaft cognoscenti was to ask, "Emerson...Who?" Then, when he won the 1970 U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen in only his fourth Formula I outing, a few began saying, "Emerson...Wow!" Now, as he has whipped his black and gold Lotus through this season's races with ever—increasing speed and success, the chorus has risen to full volume—"Emerson...Whoa!"

No way they are going to stop him. Rolling on with the inexorable momentum of his native Amazon, Brazil's Emerson Fittipaldi has swept aside repeated challenges from such Grand Prix grandees as Jackie Stewart, Denny Hulme and Jacky Ickx to win this season's world drivers' championship going away. He locked up the title early in September at Monza with his fifth victory in 10 starts. A Canadian triumph last week (he ran 11th) plus a U.S. win this week would have equaled the late Jim Clark's record of seven F-I victories in a single season.

Not that E. Whoa of S√£o Paulo and Lausanne needs a tie to underscore his significance. At the age of 25—mere babyhood in a sport usually dominated by graybeards—he is the youngest man ever to wear the title of world's best driver. By contrast, Juan Manuel Fangio, the giant of Grand Prix racing and the only other South American ever to win the title, was 38 years old in his first full season of European racing and 46 when he won his last of a record five world championships back in 1957.

Of the active Grand Prix drivers who have won world championships, Fittipaldi is the only one under 30—a triumph for the Now generation. Graham Hill, who won the title in both 1962 and 1968, is now 43; Denny Hulme, the 1967 champion, is 36; Jackie Stewart, winner in 1969 and 1971, turned 33 last June. Emerson is not unaware of these facts, nor unable to crack wise about them. After winning the Austrian GP at Zeltweg by 1.18 seconds over a hard—charging, heavy—breathing Hulme, he remarked: "I drove the last two laps like a lady being followed by a nasty old man."

Other nasty old men—plus a few nasty young ones—made the entire season anything but easy for Fittipaldi. He failed to finish in the opening race of the year, the Grand Prix of Argentina, which was won by defending champion Stewart, then came second to Hulme in the South African GP at Kyalami. But the first two races of any Formula I year are mere warmups, with the new cars either absent or still shaking down. By the time the Spanish Grand Prix rolled around in May, Emerson was ready, and so, finally, was his JPS Lotus 72D. "All through the 1971 season the machine had been balky and troublesome," Fittipaldi recalled recently. "But the basic design, we knew, was sound. It was a question of—how you say?—making of the parts a working whole. At Jarama they came together." Hotter than the Spanish sun, Fittipaldi burned up the 2.115—mile course with a record winning speed of 92.35 mph. His margin of victory over the second—place car of Ickx was 19 seconds—a gap that might have been a half a century by Grand Prix standards.

The Grand Prix of Monaco was next, the last world championship race that is still run on city streets. Monaco, even under the best conditions, provides the optimum test of driver judgment, gearboxes and brakes. It is no wonder that the active driver who has had the most success at Monte Carlo is ancient Graham Hill, a man who has never been known for "natural" speed, but rather for meticulous preparation and canny racing tactics. This year the difficulties of the course were further complicated by rain, thus making Monaco a tire test in addition to everything else. Veteran Jean-Pierre Beltoise and his massive BRM got the bite that the others were lacking and took the lead on the green flag. He was never headed, though Stewart gave him a hot chase before spinning out near the finish. Fittipaldi's inexperience in the wet was painfully evident; he finished well back in third place after a couple of grievous spins that fortunately did nothing to bend either the car or the Brazilian. "Monaco was a bad dream," he says. "I felt like eels in a frying pan."

The Belgian GP was held this year at Nivelles, a grudging concession to the complaints of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association that the fast Spa-Francorchamps course is too dangerous for today's cars. Stewart, who has led the six-year battle to outlaw Spa until more safety features are added, sped into a rainstorm there while leading on the first lap in 1966, left the road at 150 mph in Burneville Corner, knocked down a few stone walls and was trapped up to his armpits in a cockpit full of gasoline for some 35 minutes. "Spa is much peligrous" says Emerson in his unique blending of English and Portuguese—a patois his friends describe as "Porglish." He felt much more at home on the Nivelles course, winning the race by a hefty 26.5-second margin at an average speed of 113.33 mph, another record.

By now Stewart knew that the championship was fast slipping from his grasp. A new Tyrrell—Ford was ready for the Scottish defender when the motorized circus gathered at Clermont—Ferrand four weeks later for the French Grand Prix, but Stewart's teammate, the dashing young Fran√ßois Cevert, dashed the new car to pieces during practice and Stewart was forced to fend off Fittipaldi's challenge in an older machine. It was Jackie's high point of the season. Needing all of his wiles on the ancient, potholed course, he used traffic and savvy to whip Fittipaldi by a convincing 27.7 seconds over the 190.35—mile distance. "Jackie is the toughest," says Fittipaldi simply. The track was tough as well: after the first few laps, rocks that had been kicked out of the shoulders onto the track turned the race into a Stone Age tribal war. Austria's Helmut Marko was hit in the faceplate by a rock slung back from a car ahead of him and may lose his sight in one eye. Just a minor peril on the glamorous Grand Prix circuit.

Despite his second—place finish in France, the sixth race of the season, Fittipaldi was still the point leader at the midway mark—34 to Stewart's 21, with Hulme in third place at 19. The pressure was on, but at Brands Hatch in the British Grand Prix, Fittipaldi demonstrated conclusively that his were not your ordinary Brazilian coffee nerves. Through an hour and three—quarters of unnerving lead changes, he kept his cool and he emerged with a 4.1-second margin over the tightly packed field when the checkered flag fell.

The inevitable bad luck of a racing season caught up with Fittipaldi two weeks later at the German Grand Prix, where he retired from second spot with a flaming gearbox, but remarkably it was only his second DNF in eight races, a convincing demonstration of the Lotus 72's newfound reliability. "The N√ºrburgring is still longest and hardest course of the season," he says. "They have make some safety improvements, but is still dificile. Now you not hit tree if you go off road, you hit guardrail—is much nicer, heh, heh!"

Those who suspected a Fittipaldi foldo in the making as a result of the failure in Germany, saw just the opposite unfold at Zeltweg when Emerson—driving an older backup car—staved off that "nasty old man," Denny Hulme, and won his fourth Grand Prix of the year. Suddenly Fittipaldi was within three points of a lock on the championship. Stewart's chances had faded with a series of mechanical breakdowns in the new Tyrrell, and only Hulme in his orange McLaren and Belgium's Jacky Ickx, driving for Ferrari, stood a mathematical chance of overtaking the Brazilian. Each needed a victory at Monza in the Italian GP, coupled with a seventh—place finish or worse by Emerson, if they were to catch up.

Monza is the fastest course on the 12-race agenda, with a single—lap record speed of 153.49 mph going into this year's meeting, and although two new chicanes have been added to slow things down a bit, it is still a dangerous place to go racing. Ironically, it was Monza's man-killing speed that had elevated Fittipaldi to the No. 1 car in Colin Chapman's Lotus stable. He inherited the top job on the team when Jochen Rindt died at Monza while practicing for the 1970 Italian Grand Prix. Fittipaldi himself had totaled a Lotus in a similar accident before Rindt's crash, but if memories of that tragic weekend still bothered him he did not show it during this year's race.

Ickx won the pole in his Ferrari, much to the vociferous delight of the Italian crowd, but Fittipaldi—sitting back in the third row on the grid—made like a Don Garlits dragster at the start and rode the Belgian's tailpipes as the two emerged from a blue funk of burning rubber. Ickx led for 45 of the 55 laps with Fittipaldi right behind him, and when Jacky retired with ignition trouble, the Brazilian was home free. "It was grand momento," he says now, "but I feared that if Ickx had broken on last lap for me to win, Italian crowd would have make me into Brazil—nut burger."

Actually, Fittipaldi is more likely to be reduced to that condition when he returns home later this month as Brazil's first world drivers' champion. Already the country has elevated him to heroic status right alongside another countryman with a tricky name: Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé. (One of Fittipaldi's prized possessions is a soccer shirt that Pelé wore in a championship game, and which he gave to Emerson as a good—luck charm. "Pelé is my hero," Fittipaldi says with definite awe.)

Fittipaldi's own heroics are covered religiously by Brazilian television, which broadcasts via Telstar every Grand Prix race of the season. Some of the races have been reported by Emerson's father, Wilson Fittipaldi Sr., a racing journalist and broadcaster in S√£o Paulo. Wilson, named for President Woodrow Wilson, covered Fangio's career in Europe during 1950 and later raced motorcycles on his own for two years until a bad shunt retired him from competition. But the drive to drive was still strong on both sides of the family. Emerson's mother raced a Citro√´n in the early 1950s, and managed a sixth—place finish in a Mercedes in one 24-hour production race. His older brother, Wilson Jr., 28, drives a Brabham in Formula I competition but has yet to win any championship points.

Emerson himself—he was named for the benign Ralph Waldo—eschewed nonconformity in this racing family and began running 50-cc. bikes at the age of 15. At the same time, he "wrenched" for brother Wilson's racing go karts. Automobile racing was in a decline in Brazil during the mid—1960s, but karting was all the rage, and as soon as Emerson turned 17—the legal racing age—he was given a kart of his own. With it he immediately won the 1965 S√£o Paulo Kart Championship. That led to a ride the following year in a works Renault 850 Dauphine Gordini and a lightning success in the Brazilian Group 2 Novices Saloon Car Championship.

The Brazilian racing ladder is much straighter and less cluttered than its U.S. equivalent, on the rungs of which talented young drivers often have to wait years before moving up from one class to the next. In 1966 Fittipaldi graduated to open—wheel cars—and won the national Formula V championship in his second year of competition. In 1967, driving a Karmann-Ghia with a two—liter Porsche engine, he finished second in the Grand Touring championship. The Brothers F. then built their own Porsche—powered car, the Fittipaldi GT, and although it ran superquick in qualifying and the early part of many races, the machine suffered from serious transmission problems. By March of 1969, Emerson felt he was ready for Europe—and off he went to England with the price of a Formula Ford in his money belt. "I not speak English so good then," he recalls, "but I knew that I spoke well the driving."

Yes, well enough to win a Formula III ride in a Lotus 59, with which he promptly captured the Lombank F-III Championship and a contract with Lotus Components for a Formula II ride in 1970. When Piers Courage was killed at Zandvoort early that season in the Dutch Grand Prix, Owner Frank Williams offered Emerson a shot at the de Tomaso F-I. But Fittipaldi's first loyalty was to Lotus and, with the pressure on from Williams, Colin Chapman hired Emerson as the third driver on the varsity. By the time of Rindt's death late that season, Fittipaldi already was a top—seeded factory Grand Prix driver, and he went on to justify Lotus' hopes for him by winning the U.S. Grand Prix that October.

"The next year—1971—was maloffic," Fittipaldi recalls sadly. The Lotus 72 was designed by Englishman Maurice Phillipe just before he jumped Lotus to create the highly successful Parnelli-Offenhausers that have come on so strong in this year's Indianapolis—class racing. Both cars took a while to shake out the bugs, and in the Lotus 72's case, a whole racing season was needed. Though Fittipaldi and Lotus won not a single Grand Prix during 1971, most of the team's troubles were over by late fall when Emerson won the nonchampionship British Race of Champions. Fittipaldi suffered the only serious injury of his driving career during this maloffic year. Motoring with his wife down a country road in the South of France in July, he came up behind a car that pulled over onto the right shoulder as if to let him pass. Then—as the Fittipaldis flew by—the car suddenly hung a hard left toward an intersection. In the crash, Emerson broke his breastbone and three ribs on the steering wheel, and his wife Maria—Helena was badly cut up against the windscreen.

"Foolishly, we had not our seat belts on," Emerson says. "Now we wear them all places, even to go shopping."

They do most of their shopping these days in Lausanne, Switzerland, where Emerson lives—or at least bases himself—for seven months of the year. "I spend the other five months in Brazil with my friends and family," he says. And while he has time for only peripheral attention to politics, he adds, "Since 1964 coup d'état, is much better in Brazil." And he smiles brightly.

It is a charming smile, a truly winning smile, illuminating Fittipaldi's acne-scarred face with a naive and boyish brilliance. Looking at that smile, which already adorns thousands of T shirts in Europe and South America over the slogan EMERSON WHO?, one seeks a metaphor to describe it—a Brazilian metaphor that might cover this man's sudden emergence from the Third World into the glamorous ionosphere of international road racing. In repose his face is small, dark, plain, even ugly, what with its acne pits and the prominent beak under a cascade of long, lank black hair. But the smile illuminates it, a smile not just of the teeth but of the eyes as well—a shy smile, perhaps, but also a strong smile, as if Emerson Fittipaldi were sharing a slightly risqué joke with the world, a joke that redounds just a bit to his own discredit but a joke, nonetheless, that he feels the world must be told; perhaps the joke is that if you ever got into a car and tried to race against this slight, seemingly gentle young man in the mauve silk suit and the black tie and the dainty Gucci loafers that might well be ballet slippers for all their size, that if you tried to race this man, anywhere in the world, Third or otherwise, well, he'd simply gobble you up....

And, of course, that is the metaphor! The perfect Brazilian metaphor to describe this new racing star: Emerson Fittipaldi. The Saintly Piranha!

"Yes, the new government is very good, much good for country and much good for racing," Emerson continues. After all, he is a rich man's son, and now a rich man on his own. Brazil's right-wing regime would suit him. Then, too, he is a racing driver, a breed usually as conservative in politics as in life. Perhaps personal courage and a degree of insensitivity are inextricable in racing: it may be difficult to overcome the fear generated by the obvious perils of highspeed racing without an armor—plated ego, too tough to bleed for the weak and the poor.

Jackie Stewart has written of racing, or at least the "racing fever," as a disease—but then again living itself is a disease, or at least it is inevitably fatal, and who would care to be a perfectly healthy corpse? But such thinking is circular, unproductive, and anyway Emerson Fittipaldi certainly looks the picture of health, both physical and mental. He is holding the telephone after the conclusion of an interview in English. "Twelve-thirty, 11:05, 9:50," he says into the phone. "Yes, hello, airport, 9:35, thank you, Brillo, good morning." He flashes that great grin: he is practicing his English for future interviews.

"Yes," says Emerson, resuming a serious demeanor, "the government is very good for Brazil, very good for the automobile racing in Brazil. They build a new track at Brasilia. Next year we have first ever of Brazilian Grand Prix, full—scale championship race, points and everything."

And fittingly enough, a first ever, fullscale Brazilian champion to go with it. Emerson...Who? Emerson...Wow! Emerson the Saintly Piranha.