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New Boy in an Old Man's Game
Robert F. Jones
October 02, 1972
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!"
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October 02, 1972

New Boy In An Old Man's Game

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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 Pel�. (One of Fittipaldi's prized possessions is a soccer shirt that Pel� wore in a championship game, and which he gave to Emerson as a good—luck charm. "Pel� 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."

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