Emerson Fittipaldi was born on the 12th December 1946 in Sao Paolo, Brazil. The younger son of prominent Italian-Brazilian motorsports journalist Wilson Fittipaldi Sr. he was named after American author and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. His parents raced production cars after World War II and his father, inspired by the 1949 Italian Mille Miglia, was instrumental in organizing and running the first 1,000 Mile race in Sao Paolo in 1956.
Unsurprisingly, Emerson and his brother, Wilson Jr, became motorsports enthusiasts – by the age of fourteen, Emerson was racing motorcycles and by sixteen, both brothers were racing hydrofoils. When Wilson had an accident in a hydrofoil, both brothers decided it was time to return to dry-land and they moved on to Formulas Vees and built up a company alongside their parents. In his second season in the sport, Emerson won the Brazilian Formula Vee title at twenty one years old.
Emerson’s father had covered Juan Manuel Fangio’s races so he knew that if he wanted to progress his career in motorsport, Europe would be where he needed to go.
In 1969, Emerson sold his Formula Vee car in order to finance a three-month trip to Europe. Unknown at the beginning of the season, Emerson acquired a Formula Ford Merlyn Mk11A and it wasn’t long before he started winning races. As a result of this, Emerson met legendary racing school owner Jim Russell who went on to train him. Fittipaldi’s smooth, controlled driving style – a staple of his future career – was rewarded with some podiums and his first victories in Formula Ford. He soon joined the Jim Russell Driving School Formula Three team and went on to win nine Formula Three races driving a Lotus 59 – which, incidentally, was prepared by a young Ralph Firman. He became the 1969 British F3 Champion.
In 1970, Fittipaldi moved up into Formula Two, joining the Bardahl Semi-Works Lotus Team driving the Lotus 59B. Of his six points finishes that year, four were on the podium and he ended the season in third place behind Clay Regazzoni and Derek Bell. But the focus on Emerson that year wasn’t because of his F2 performances, it was because of his sudden rise into Formula 1.
Colin Chapman had noticed Emerson as he moved up through the single seater categories and in May 1970, he invited him to test drive for Lotus. Due to the success Lotus had been experiencing as they became one of the top F2 teams, Chapman could afford to use his third seat on the team to test out young drivers. Emerson made his race debut driving an old Lotus 49 at Brands Hatch in July and finished in eighth place. He quickly replaced Alex Soler-Roig and joined the two main drivers of Jochen Rindt and John Miles. At the German Grand Prix that year, Emerson finished fourth, just three places behind race winner Rindt.
Frank Williams then tried to sign him for Williams following the death of Piers Courage at the Dutch Grand Prix, but Chapman blocked the move. When Jochen Rindt was killed at the 1970 Italian Grand Prix in September, Emerson replaced him. In his fourth race for the team at the U.S Grand Prix, Emerson finished in first place – an awesome achievement. When John Miles also left the team, it meant that after only his fifth race in Formula 1, he was the lead driver of Lotus.
His first full season in F1 in 1971 was interrupted by a road accident in France which left both Emerson and his wife injured. Although the injuries sustained in the accident were not life threatening, it effected his form for the rest of the year. In the end, he finished sixth in the drivers’ championship.
Then, in 1972, armed with arguably one of the greatest Formula One designs of all time in the Lotus 72D, Emerson dominated the season. He won five of the eleven races and became the youngest person to win the World Drivers’ Championship at just twenty five years old. The record would stand until Fernando Alonso won the title in 2005.
Chapman signed Ronnie Peterson to drive alongside Fittipaldi in order to keep Emerson sharp in the car, reasoning that having two star drivers in the same team was worth the risk. They got on well off track but as a result of them splitting the victories between them, they were both beaten to the Drivers’ Title by Jackie Stewart in his Tyrell. Unimpressed, Emerson moved to McLaren for 1974 where he took the Championship title for the second time. 1975 was not as successful as his Cosworth-engined McLaren M23 was beaten by Niki Lauda’s Ferrari. While Lauda took the title, Emerson did at least finish second in the Championship. He then made another surprising move as he joined his brother’s team, Fittipaldi Automotive, for the 1976 season whilst James Hunt replaced him at McLaren.
The move to Fittipaldi automotive – which was backed by Copersucar (Brazil’s state-run sugar marketing cartel) – was not the wisest of moves for the World Champion. The cars were not competitive but despite this, Emerson remained with the team for five seasons. His best achievement in that time was a second place finish at the 1978 Brazilian Grand Prix behind the Ferrari of Carlos Reutemann, However, he was nearly a minute behind. Emerson returned to the podium one final time when he finished third at the 1980 Long Beach Grand Prix.
Emerson retired from Formula One in 1980 and moved into managing the team alongside his brother. The team struggled on for another two years before going into receivership at the end of 1982. Emerson didn’t enjoy his final two years in the sport due to a combination of the deaths of many of his fellow drivers as well as problems in his personal life.
He returned to motor racing in 1984 driving Champ Cars in the CART series. He drove for two teams that year before joining Patrick Racing where he would win six times over his five seasons there. In 1989, Emerson won five races and finished in the top five in all of the other races. His most notable victory that year was at the Indy 500 where he led 158 of the 200 laps and won with a two lap lead over second place. Following a late restart to the race, Fittipaldi used lapped traffic to his advantage to pull back alongside Al Unser Jr, with whom he had battled throughout the race - the two cars touched wheels as they went through turn three and Unser spun off the track hitting the outside wall. Despite this, Unser saluted Fittipaldi from the infield as he went passed on his way to ‘Victory Lane.’
Emerson won the Indy 500 again in 1993, beating Nigel Mansell to victory after overtaking him on lap 185. After the race, Emerson attempted to promote the citrus industry as he owned several orange groves in Brazil and so broke pitlane tradition by drinking a celebratory bottle of Orange Juice instead of the traditional bottle of milk – a move that would surely make Lando Norris unhappy. He received a huge fan backlash as a result, was made to forfeit $5,000 from the winnings and had to publicly apologize to the American dairy association. The backlash lasted as far as 2008 when he was heckled by fans during the parade lap of the Indy 500.
In 1996, approaching fifty years old, Emerson sustained a neck injury at the Michigan International Speedway that ended his career. Following the injury, he retired from the sport with twenty two wins. However, he made a return to Champ Cars in 2003 as a team owner.
Since 1996, Fittipaldi has raced on occasion, making a surprise return to competitive racing in 2005 at the Grand Prix Masters event in South Africa where he came second behind Nigel Mansell. In 2008, he was only one of three people in history to have a Corvette production car named in his honour. In the same year, he and his brother entered the Brazilian GT3 Championship driving a Porsche 997 GT3 for the WB motor sports team. In 2011, he became a Chairman of Motorsport.com and in 2013, began to write a monthly blog for McLaren. In 2014, Emerson drove an AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italia at the Interlagos round of the World Endurance Championship – at the age of 67.
Finally, in 2016, he established Fittipaldi Motors. Along with Pininfarina and HWA AG, he created his first sports car project – the Fittipaldi EF7. His grandson, Enzo, was also announced as a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy in the same year.
Fittipladi's is another career that could have seen many more Driver's Titles added to it during his time in Formula 1. But as we know, it can be an unfair and unforgiving sport, even to World Champions. There is no doubt however, that Emerson was one of the greatest drivers of his time.
Do you agree? Could Emerson have won more titles or at least won more races than he did, if he hadn't moved from McLaren? Let me know in the comments below.