• Alan Henry first met Fittipaldi in 1969

'There was no doubt he was a promising young driver'

Alan Henry February 9, 2010
Alan Henry first met Emerson Fittipaldi in 1969 © Sutton Images

Over Easter weekend in 1969, I piled into my mother's Renault R8 and headed for Dover. Autosport had agreed to pay me a majestic £50 to cover the F3 international at Chimay, that daunting, luridly high speed road circuit in southern Belgium. The grandly titled Grand Prix des Frontieres had been an important race on the international calendar since 1926. The brainchild of local businessman Jules Buisseret, who eventually died in 1977 at the age of 85, it was race which attracted a variety of supporting events, on the occasion of my visit including an event for the relatively new Formula Ford category.

The F3 event was won by the Swiss driver Jean Blanc at the wheel of a Tecno who took the chequered flag comfortably ahead of Brits Cyd Williams in a Brabham and another Tecno handled by Peter Gaydon. Meanwhile, in the cow-pat strewn field behind the pits which fulfilled the function of a makeshift paddock, I introduced myself to a young Brazilian with a broad grin who was racing a Merlyn Mk 11A in the Formula Ford event.

The guy's name turned out to be Emerson Fittipaldi, only a couple of months off the flight from Sao Paulo on his first visit to Europe. In the race he quickly became embroiled in a three-way battle for the lead with local star Claude Bourgoignie's Lotus and the Crossle of Gerry Birrell. Emerson followed this duo across the line in third place. There was no doubt he was a promising young driver and a brave one, too, if the way he handled Chimay's high speed swerves was anything to go by. Only three years later he would be world champion for the first time at the wheel of a Lotus 72.

Lotus was hoping that this would build a momentum to carry Fittipaldi to more victories the following year, but development problems with the Lotus 72 combined with the lingering after-effects of a mid-season road accident, severely blunted his challenge. But in 1972 there was no stopping Emerson and the black and gold livered JPS Lotus as they rattled off victories in Spain, Belgium, France, Britain and Italy, carrying the Brazilian to the distinction of becoming the sport's youngest world champion at the age of 25.

For the 1973 season Emerson found himself paired with his old F2 rival, the dynamic Ronnie Peterson. Fittipaldi won three races, Peterson four, but they both lost out to Jackie Stewart in the battle for the drivers' title by taking points off each other for much of the year. After Chapman failed to abide by an undertaking to ask Peterson to move aside for Fittipaldi at Monza, Emerson judged the Lotus boss had been guilty of a breach of trust and felt he had no option but to accept an invitation to join rivals McLaren for 1974.

Emerson Fittipaldi in the less than successful Copersucar Fittipaldi in 1979 © Sutton Images

Now at the wheel of the with the promising McLaren M23, Emerson won the Brazilian, Belgian and Canadian GPs to clinch his second title crown, following that up with second place to the Ferrari mounted Niki Lauda in the '75 championship in a season which saw him post what would be the final F1 victory of his career in the British GP at Silverstone.

For 1976 Fittipaldi stunned the F1 world with a shock move to the all-Brazilian Copersucar F1 which had been founded by his elder brother Wilson at the start of the previous season. In a sense Emerson had unwittingly written the longest valedictory career obituary in F1 history. Copersucar lacked the technical capability and organisation to get the job done and Fittipaldi's F1 reputation went into free fall.

For Emerson it was a sad postcript to a glittering F1 career, but he reinvented himself brilliantly on the US racing scene where he twice emerged winner of the Indianapolis 500.