Brazil has a long history in F1, with multiple championship-winning drivers Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet and of course the great Ayrton Senna establishing themselves as legends of the sport. More recently the likes of race winners Rubens Barrichello and Felipe Massa have continued carrying the Brazilian flag at the front of F1, but a Brazilian F1 team? Unimaginable right? Throughout F1 history the majority of teams were and still are based in Europe and so far only European teams have been world constructors champions. But for eight seasons Brazil had a team to call their own.
Emerson Fittipaldi and older brother Wilson Fittipaldi Junior (Wilsinho) were both F1 drivers. Emerson debuted in 1970 with Lotus and in 1972 would become the youngest world champion ever at 25. After finishing second in the following year, Emerson moved to McLaren for the 1974 and 1975 seasons where he managed to win another world title and then finish second once again. Wilsinho started his F1 career in 1972 with Brabham and stayed with the team in 1973 achieving just two points finishes. It was after the 1973 season that the brothers had decided to start their own F1 team.
As Emerson was still driving in 1974, Wilsinho was in charge of setting-up the team with his brother acting as a consultant/advisor. The Fittipaldis already had experience and success at a national level having raced their own team in a couple of different categories. They got funding from Brazilian sugar and ethanol producer Copersucar, hence the name of the team. With Embraer, currently the third biggest commercial airplane manufacturer in the world, providing assistance and Brazilian Ricardo Divila, who they worked with previously, as the car designer the pieces were falling into place. They hired Jo Ramírez as team manager, the Mexican would later become McLaren team coordinator during the Senna-Prost rivalry. Having started in January they had decided to have the car on track on the 30th of November to prepare for the 1975 season, a deadline that they would successfully meet.
Apart from the engine provided by Cosworth, the supplier they would use until the very end, the gearbox and the tyres, the car was completely built in Brazil by Brazilians. Their headquarter was a mere 150 metres from the Interlagos circuit which meant they could easily and quickly test parts.
1975 - NC (0 Points)
Their first car was named FD01, "F" for Fittipaldi and "D" for Divila. With a single entry that year Wilsinho was their sole driver with a single exception being the Italian GP where the Italian Arturo Merzario replaced him due to an injury sustained in the Austrian GP.
The team debuted at the season opener in Argentina qualifying 23rd and last, around a whole six seconds behind the next car. Despite this on Sunday they were able to make up four places in the opening laps that is until the 13th lap when a suspension failure caused Wilsinho to crash which made the car catch fire. Thus began the race against the clock to have a car ready for their home GP just two weeks away. The race was won by reigning world champion, Emerson Fittipaldi.
The FD02 was built on time for the Brazilian GP in Interlagos which resulted in a 13th place finish. It was a great time to be a Brazilian F1 fan, not only did the Copersucar car finish the race, it ended with a Brazilian one-two with Carlos Pace leading Emerson AND the driver's standings was led by Emerson followed by Carlos. This was Carlos' only win, he later died in 1977 in a plane crash, in his honour the Interlagos circuit was named after him.
They were unable to put the car on the grid due to poor qualy performance on two occasions and unfortunately despite the introduction of the improved FD03 mid-season results didn't improve much. Wilsinho didn't start the Austrian GP due to injury even though he had qualified for the race and they ended the season with their best result in the US GP, a 10th place finish, during this era only the top six earned points. It was a tough first season but they had exciting plans for 1976.
1976 - 11th (3 Points)
Emerson in the FD04
In November, a month after the end of the 1975 season, Emerson announced that he would be leaving McLaren to race in the family team something they had already planned to do a while back. It was a shocking announcement as he finished the season 2nd in the standings with competitive car. James Hunt ended up replacing Emerson thus sparking the great championship battle with Niki Lauda in 1976 and intensifying the rivalry. In "Rush" the great movie about this rivalry, the clearly unhappy McLaren team manager Alastair Caldwell refers to Emerson and his team as "Fitti-fucking-paldi" and "Coper-fucking-sucar".
The team would have a second entry to partner Emerson in four GPs with fellow compatriot Ingo Hoffman. The season opener in Brazil started very promisingly. In the new FD04 Emerson qualified 5th, ran as high as 3rd but engine issues forced him to finish 13th, two laps down. Ingo in last season's FD03 qualified 20th but managed to finish 11th one lap down.
The team's first point came in the 3rd race of the season in the US GP in Long Beach when Emerson finished 6th. A result he would match another two times that season. Ingo failed to qualify for the other three GPs he entered with the team.
Three 6th places meant 3 points, while unspectacular it was a definite improvement.
1977 - 9th (11 Points)
Running the same line-up as the previous year, this time with Ingo participating in just the first two GPs, the best results came early in the season with the FD04, which now sported yellow livery rather than silver. Emerson got consecutive 4th places in the season opener in Argentina and the following race in Brazil and 5th in the fourth round in Long Beach. Ingo retired in Argentina but managed 7th in Brazil.
Mid-season Copersucar-Fittipaldi introduced the F5 dropping the "D" in the name as Ricardo Divila was no longer the designer. By now most operations were performed in the UK, in Reading where they took their Brazilian mechanics to their new headquarters in order to be closer to their engine and gearbox suppliers. With the F5 Fittipaldi got another 4th place to finish the season with 11 points. Once again gradually improving.
1978 - 7th (17 Points)
1978 proved to be the best year in the team's history. Their new car the F5A, now designed by Giacomo Caliri was their first car with ground effect taking cues from the successful Lotus 78. Copersucar remained as a sponsor but the team changed its name to Fittipaldi Automotive.
They achieved their best result ever in the second round, a podium in front of their home crowd. Emerson qualified 7th and finished 2nd at the inaugural race at the Jacarepaguá in Rio de Janeiro. Don't think it was due to retirements or rainy conditions, it was on merit.
The team finished in the points another five times that season. Emerson claims he could have won the last race of the season in Canada as the track really suited the car but he got hit by Hans-Joachim Stuck and ended up in the barriers. Emerson finished the year 10th in driver's standing equaling Gilles Villeneuve in the Ferrari. The team's 7th place in the constructor's standings that year meant that they finished ahead of McLaren, Williams and Renault, a massive achievement.
1979 - 12th (1 Point)
Emerson in the F6
Unfortunately they couldn't repeat their success in 1979 despite greater investment. Their best result in the season came with the F5A in the season opener in Argentina, a single point was all.
They brought in Ralph Bellamy to design the F6. Ralph was part of the design team of the Lotus 78 which helped them get 2nd in 1977 and win the constructor's championship in 1978. He was told by the Fittipaldi brothers to make a Lotus but yellow. Unfortunately according to Emerson, Ralph tried to take the car a step beyond the Lotus, the car flexed too much, it lacked rigidity due to the excessive focus on making the car lightweight.
The car was introduced in the third round in South Africa where it finished 13th. Development continued and the car eventually evolved into the F6A but with no success. A second car was entered with Alex Ribeiro for the last two rounds but he was unable to qualify for the two races.
Their disastrous year was ridiculed by general media in Brazil who were an unable to comprehend the difficulty of building a successful team in F1. The end of the 1979 also marked the end of Copersucar's sponsorship, putting the team's existence at risk.
1980 - 8th (11 Points)
Keke Rosberg in the F7
After the 1979 season the team bought the Reading based Canadian team Walter Wolf Racing after owner Walter Wolf decided to sell it. With this acquisition came designer Harvey Postlethwaite and the WR7 he designed, Finnish driver and future world champion Keke Rosberg and a young Adrian Newey.
Wilsinho worked hard to get sponsorship and worked out a deal with beer maker Skol, the team name was now Skol Fittipaldi Team.
With the WR7 based F7 the team now had two cars for the whole season and had a good year. Keke's debut with the team came with his first podium, a 3rd place in Argentina. Emerson got his own podium three rounds later in Long Beach, this was Emerson's and the team's last podium. He managed a 6th place in Monaco with the F7. The car would eventually be updated into the F8 with Keke scoring a 5th place in the Italian GP.
Four points finishes including two podiums resulted in 11 points, level with McLaren and 8th in the constructors championship ahead of Ferrari.
1981 - NC (0 Points)
Keke in the F8C
With Emerson's retirement, Harvey's departure to Ferrari, the loss of the Skol sponsorship and large debts, 1981 was a terrible year for the team. The loss of their main sponsor meant they were renamed Fittipaldi Automotive. While Emerson stopped driving he was part of the team's management.
Brazilian rookie Chico Serra replaced Emerson to partner Keke. The F8, now called F8C received no development so they finished the season point-less, failing to qualify for several races. Chico Serra came closest to a point with 7th place in the first race of the season. They even changed tyre supplier three times during the season going from Michelin to Avon, back to Michelin and then Pirelli.
1982 - 14th (1 Point)
Chico Serra in the F9
Before the 1982 season even began Wilsinho already wanted to give up but Emerson insisted they continued one more year. Wilsinho's motivation had completely diminished as he worried about the team's financial state.
Keke left for Ferrari and would become world champion that very year in what was crazy season. Chico Serra remained to drive the F8D a small evolution of the previous car and scored the team's last points finish with 6th place at Zolder where unfortunately Gilles died. With Ricardo Divila's return they built the F9 which unfortunately didn't improve results.
The team closed at the end of the season unable to raise raise funds for 1983.
Lack of recognition
The team's eight seasons resulted in 103 race starts from 120 entries that's more than, for example, teams like Jaguar and Prost Gran Prix had. 44 points are more than the Prost team achieved and their three podiums is more than Jaguar achieved.
The Fittipaldi brothers achieved their first podium in just their 4th year but had many ups and downs after. Emerson believes their biggest mistake was changing engineers and designers too often and putting too much trust in them as they were perhaps too ambitious.
Fittipaldi's team and the Copersucar name is easily forgotten with many having never even heard of the team. I'm sure many reading this will be surprised by their three podiums, their McLaren and Ferrari beating seasons and the fact that names such as Keke Rosberg and Adrian Newey were involved with the team. Who would have thought the Finn's first podium would come with a Brazilian team?
Many Brazilians look back at the team as a failure but I think it's a team to be celebrated and to be proud of.
If you speak Portuguese it's worth watching the mini documentary from which I got a lot of information.