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Top 20 Greatest F1 Racers: Emerson Fittipaldi

“The racing driver’s mind has to have the ability to have amazing anticipation, coordination, and reflex. Because of the speed the car goes.”Emerson Fittipaldi

Before there was Fernando Alonso, there was Emerson Fittipaldi. For 33 years, he held the record of being the youngest F1 champion in the history of the sport. This was achieved in an age which boasted some of the greatest racers the sport has seen, when the likes of Jackie Stewart were at their prime. He was the inspiration behind some of the great Brazilians like Ayrton Senna and Rubens Barrichello.

Racing came naturally to Fittipaldi, and one might even say that it was in his genes. Both his parents were racers themselves and his father went on to become a renowned journalist for motorsports in Brazil. So, it was inevitable that he would take up racing as a career. He, along with his brother, started out with motorbikes before moving on to karts. In fact, they were so fascinated with racing that they even participated in hydrofoil races. But an accident to the elder Fittipaldi convinced them to stick to karting.

Emerson realised that the only way he could ever race in F1 was if he moved to England. He duly made the move and bought a Formula Ford to participate in races. Since he did not have any financial backing, he worked as a mechanic to fund his career. With a natural talent for racing, he soon made his way into Formula 3, started winning races on a consistent basis and won the championship in the first year, which, incidentally, he only joined halfway.

As his star began to rise, the legendary Colin Chapman gave him a contract and a place in his Formula 2 Lotus team where he continued to impress. Seeing his control and speed in a race car, Colin was convinced about his talent and gave him a long term contract and was given the seat of the recently demised Jochen Rindt. Fittipaldi won the last race of the season and ensured that Rindt kept his lead to be awarded the only posthumous F1 championship.

Still in the legendary Lotus 72, he was left struggling in the 1971 season after a road crash meant he could not find his form. But the 1972 season saw the debut of Lotus 72D and Emerson showed his class in the machine. He was virtually unstoppable as he notched up 5 victories and 8 podiums, winning the championship at a canter, ahead of Jackie Stewart with a huge lead of 16 points. In the process, he became the youngest F1 champion, at the age of 25.

Unfortunately, he could not repeat the same heroics in 1973 as the team came up with the Lotus 72E midway through the season. The latest Lotus design had quite a few design problems and Emerson had to watch Jackie Stewart take the championship that season, ironically with the same 16 point difference. More importantly, he was not happy with his teammate Ronnie Patterson, who regularly outpaced him in qualifying sessions. Fittipaldi, being a more all-round racer rather than just a fast driver, would still win more races, but he recognised the need to change teams and joined McLaren for the 1974 season.

McLaren-Cosworth driver Emerson Fittipaldi (right) of Brazil relaxes with Colin Chapman before the British Grand Prix at the Brands Hatch circuit in Kent, England.

This proved to be a masterstroke as he won his second championship in his first year with McLaren. His exploits also meant that McLaren would win their first ever constructors championship in F1 as well. With such success early in his career and still a lot left to give, it was assumed that Fittipaldi was going to have some more championships under his belt and etch his name as one of the greatest ever F1 racers in history.

But it would turn out to be otherwise, as he left McLaren after the 2nd year to form his own team with his brother. While they were successful in Brazil when they built their own machines in their teens, they could not replicate the same success in F1 and he struggled to even finish the races. Many may wonder why he would throw away such a successful career and make such a move. But at that time, it was about national pride and family loyalty, as he felt he should support his brother in his new team. Also, all the sponsors for the team were Brazilian, so it was more or less a Brazilian team.

The next 5 years were one of mediocrity as the best result he could get was a second place finish. At the end of 1980, he decided he had enough of racing and quit the sport. Irrespective of what may have happened in the past 5 years, he had already gained immense respect from his peers and the adoration of fans as they affectionately referred to him as “emmo”.

Emerson Fittipaldi of Brazil drives the #2 Marlboro Team Penske Penske PC-23-94-Ilmor D during the PPG CART Indy Car World Series Australian FAI Indy Car Grand Prix on 20th March 1994 at the Surfers Paradise Street Circuit in Surfers Paradise, Queensland, Australia

But one could not keep Emerson away from racing for long. He was back in 1984, albeit for a stint in the Indy Car series. He was a success in this form of racing too, winning the IndyCar championship in 1989 as well as the Indianapolis 500 series in the same year. In addition, he won the Indianapolis 500 for a second time in 1993. He had to put an end to his racing career after a crash in 1996, which resulted in a broken neck.

“You had to decompress the pressure before the race. I taught my heart to relax. I lay down before the race. It gave me more energy just before the race.” – Emerson Fittipaldi

I guess we now know why Kimi Raikkonen sleeps before a race!

10 reasons why I think he is one of the top 20 greatest racers in F1 history:

- Fittipaldi had both pace and precision while he was racing in a car.

- He had the ability to run the entire race in his head so that he could nurse the car just the way he wanted so that he could finish at the top.

- He was fearless and did not feel any pressure from his competitors, even though he was up against legends like Jackie Stewart and Nicki Lauda.

- He put national pride and family loyalty before his own personal glory.

- Laid the path for future Brazilian greats like Ayrton Senna and Rubens Barrichello to make their mark in F1.

- He was the youngest world champion and held the record for 33 years.

- He won two championships with 2 different teams, showing his ability to adapt to different machines.

- He was very smooth and clinical while he was on track.

- He showed his racing prowess with championship wins in the IndyCar series.

- He is still part of the racing scene with various roles, doing what he can to promote what he loves the most.

You can read the rest of the top 20 greatest racers here.

Émerson Fittipaldi wins 1973 Brazilian Grand Prix

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