Previous Columns

The Way It Is/ Emerson Fittipaldi talks about racing in the new GP Masters series and "lifting the burden from my back"

by Gordon Kirby
illustrated by Paul Webb
You're fifty-eight years old, retired from racing for nine years after an outstanding career including two F1 world championships, one CART title and two Indy 500 wins. You're happily enjoying life, co-owning the Brazilian A1GP team with soccer superstar Ronaldo and looking forward to your third marriage, this time to your longtime girlfriend Rossanna.

There's no doubt that life was looking good for Emerson Fittipaldi last summer when a guy named Scott Poulter called to tell Emerson that he was starting the Grand Prix Masters series for former Formula 1 stars and wanted Fittipaldi to be part of the show. Poulter had put together a passel of identical cars based on a 1999 Reynard Champ car chassis and powered by a normally-aspirated 3.5 liter V8 putting out 650 bhp. Poulter was an enthusiastic pitchman and Fittipaldi liked what he was hearing.

The chance to get back into a powerful single-seater to race against some old rivals and friends was very tempting and after struggling with some serious misgivings Emerson took up Poulter's offer. He surprised many people by finishing a seriously competitive second to Nigel Mansell in the GP Masters debut race at Kyalami in South Africa last November and is eagerly looking forward to the second GP Masters race in Qatar this coming weekend.

But back in October of last year there was plenty of deep, lingering doubt in Emerson's mind that he could still do the job at the wheel of a powerful, open-wheel race car. Unlike his prospective competitors in the GP Masters, some of whom like Stefan Johansson and Eddie Cheever still are active racers, Fittipaldi had retired forcibly because of a life-threatening accident in 1996 and since then he hadn't driven a single-seater in anger.

His spectacular career came to an abrupt end ten years ago this summer against the wall of the Michigan Speedway. Fittipaldi crashed heavily on the opening lap of CART's Michigan 500 in July of 1996, smashing a couple of vertebra in his neck and putting his life in jeopardy for a while. Inevitably, Emerson fought back and rehabilitated himself, only to have another accident flying his ultra-light! Always a fitness fanatic, Fittipaldi rehabilitated himself again and was soon up and about, occasionally demonstrating race cars and briefly co-owning a CART team for a season in 2003.

Through all this, racing was out of the question but with business interests in Brazil and the USA as well as his A1GP team there was plenty to occupy Fittipaldi's time. Still, the question continued to gnaw at him. 'Am I still capable of driving and competing in a thoroughbred racing car?'

Scott Poulter's phone call brought the question to the forefront of Emerson's mind and his decision to return to racing took place over a period of weeks. In November he flew to England to take part in a two-day test of the GP Masters cars at Silverstone.

Based on a 1999 Reynard Champ car, the Masters cars were built by a group of veteran English race car builders and mechanics, including Colin Bennett who was Fittipaldi's chief mechanic at Lotus in 1972 when he won the world championship. The cars are powered by a 3.5 liter, normally-aspirated Nicholson/McLaren V8, which is basically a Cosworth XB without the turbo, and the engine makes 650 BHP with a 10,400 rpm rev limit.

"I only ran one day," Emerson said about the test. "I ran a little bit in the morning and a little bit in the afternoon. I was supposed to run a second day but I had to go back to the States.

"That was the first time I drove a single-seater on a track since the crash at Michigan. I was very anxious and very reluctant. Should I drive again, or not? That was the question on my mind. I had this burden, this weight on my back."

But after only a handful of laps he began to get back into the swing of things. "Going into Stowe, the fast corner at the end of the straight, that was the first corner where I started to enjoy driving the car," Emerson said. "I was getting more speed and getting to the limit. It was cold weather and it was very tricky to drive because the tires were not working well. But I was enjoying it and the second run after lunch, I really enjoyed it. I think I was third or fourth fastest that day but I had to go back to the States the next day and everybody else stayed at Silverstone for more testing."

Still, he didn't think he was ready to race and told both his fiance Rossanna and GP Masters organizer Scott Poulter that he didn't expect to race in the first Masters race at Kyalami. "I told Scott that I wanted to come to promote the race and drive the car in practice. That was my idea," Emerson remarked.

He flew to South Africa with old friend Dr Steve Olvey, the medical director for CART for twenty-five years and now medical officer for the GP Masters series. "We checked the track and the cars," Fittipaldi said. "I had a great crew. I couldn't believe that Colin Bennett was there and was the crew chief on my car! That was fantastic, and the environment was too. All my old friends where there--Stuck, Lafitte, Stefan Johansson, Eddie Cheever, Lammers, Nigel (Mansell), Alan Jones and so on. The group was so good together and getting together with them was a different feeling. My memory was going back to so many years ago to the good times we had together in Formula 1."

But he still wasn't ready to race. "I told Scott I was going to test on Thursday and see how I feel. But I said I'm not driving. I tested the car on Thursday and the track was safe and it was a challenge. I had never been to the new Kyalami. It's a very challenging track with a lot of corners, a lot of up and down hill, and I enjoyed it, much more than Silverstone.

"At the end of the day I said, well, I'm here doing the thing I most like to do in my life. I'm feeling comfortable and Steve Olvey said I was clear to drive. He said, 'If you want to drive, go for it.' He agreed that the track was safe and said, 'Go for it.' So I went back to the hotel and I decided I'm going to drive."

On the way to the track the following morning, the full realization hit Emerson of what he was facing. But once again, his misgivings were dispelled by a few laps in the car. "I was very anxious on Friday morning, going back to the track knowing I was going to compete. But after the first session it was like I was back again before the crash at Michigan. I forgot the crash at Michigan and I was driving like I used to drive many years ago.

"I was relaxed and driving fast, a very strange feeling. You ask, how can you be relaxed and fast? But I was relaxed in the cockpit. Leaving the pits I was a hundred percent relaxed and I was able to achieve a good performance. Because I was relaxed, I was able to drive fast. It was fantastic."

Indeed, he qualified second, beaten only by Nigel Mansell who had done the initial testing of the car as well as two full days at Silverstone. Emerson enjoyed trying to outfox Mansell in qualifiyng.

"The lest session of qualifying I was following Nigel out of the pits. We only had two laps on the tires to make a good lap. I said to myself I was going to follow Nigel and as we were going out of the pits he looked in his mirrors and saw me and he backed-off. He slowed-down and wanted me to pass, but I wasn't going to overtake him. We both slowed down and nearly stopped! I put it in first gear and passed Nigel and then I braked again. So he passed me and we qualified right together, first and second."

In the drivers' meeting everyone agreed to control themselves in the race's opening laps. "Everybody was very conservative on the first lap. Driving fast is one thing, but racing against each other is a different story. We spoke and agreed at the drivers meeting to be very careful in the first few laps. But you know, lap two and the race started really hard."

Mansell and Fittipaldi pulled away from the rest of the field with Emerson chasing furiously after Mansell all the way to the checkered flag. "Nigel was trying very hard. Sometimes he had one wheel off the track, or over the curbs, sideways, and it was a long race--forty-five minutes. In the last ten laps I nearly passed him. I had a chance on the last lap, but it would have been a contact. I would have touched him and I said, 'There's no way I'm going to look stupid.'

"It was a fantastic finish. He drove a great race. On the last lap Nigel was one hundred percent on the limit, and I was a hundred percent on my limit, locking wheels. It was a great race. I was very happy with the way I drove. I was very excited to take this pressure off me, to be able to drive like I used to be able to drive before the crash."

Every aspect of the weekend filled Fittipaldi with delight. "The whole weekend was a really enjoyable weekend, in the car and outside the car. It was the real sport of motor racing, what motor racing is all about. Everybody had a big smile on their faces. It was so much fun.

"At the end of the race I felt fine, very tired, but very excited. Those cars are fast! They've got 650 horsepower and weigh 600 kilos, less than a kilo per horsepower. They are not a toy. They're a really fast racing car.

"And very well prepared by a very good crew. They did an outstanding job. The whole promotion and the whole setup was fantastic, and the TV was a great show."

The next GP Masters race takes place in Qatar this Saturday, April 29, and at this point, only three more races are scheduled for this year. "That's enough for us!" Emerson joked.

A longtime fitness fanatic, Fittipaldi is lighter than he's been in his entire adult life. "I'm on a very special macrobiotic diet. I've never been overweight, but I lost ten kilos on this diet. I'm lighter now than I was in 1972! I'm very happy. I met a doctor who made me a very special diet, and I always work out. I'm ready for Qatar," he chuckled.

He may have celebrated his fifty-ninth birthday last December but the racer's spirit still burns brightly in Emerson Fittipaldi's heart. Let's all wish him good luck this weekend as he tries to beat Mansell and the rest.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

Top of Page