Your children and grandchildren continue to run. Are you happy that the name Fittipadli is not disappearing from motorsport?
Sure. My father would be very happy too, because he started running. In addition to me, my brother continued to do so. Now Enzo, for example, is involved in motorsport (Fittipaldi’s grandson)who races in Formula 2 for Antonin Charouz’s team. And Antonin likes him very much, because he is very passionate about motorsport, he has a great passion for racing. Fortunately, he recovered from the accident…
Oh yes. Last year’s Enz carambola in Jeddah must have scared the hell out of you…
I was right there! I was standing on the terrace above the track when they met Pourchair. He was several rows in front of Enzo, remained standing on the grid, and Enzo hit him. The sound came. Luckily, the secure chassis worked. He injured his leg but survived.
And what about your other grandson Pietro? How disappointed was he not getting a racing seat at Haas after Nikita Mazepin was fired?
Yes, he was sad, but that was just the team’s decision. Gene Haas chose Kevin (Magnussena), who is a very experienced rider and knows the whole team well. I love Kevin and his dad too, they are both great drivers.
We have that in common, I really liked Jan Magnussen for his many years at Corvette Racing…
It’s true, in general, I would say that a number of great riders come from Denmark, another such is Tom Kristensen. And that’s actually true for all of Scandinavia.
We are talking about your family, which also brings me to the current situation in Ukraine. Is it true that your mother is from there? She had a last name Wojciechowska, didn’t she?
Is it true. That’s why I’m very sad about what’s happening there right now, what Ukrainians are going through right now. Something similar had already happened to my mother and my grandmother when they left Ukraine after the First World War. Eventually they arrived in Brazil, but they didn’t know the language, they didn’t know the country. That’s why they had to start a whole new life.
Did you know that you still have family in Ukraine?
We have lost all contact. A large part of my family, my grandmother and my grandfather went to Canada. And the grandfather broke up with the other siblings and they never got in touch again. When the Communists came to power in the East after World War I, my grandmother had to flee with everyone in a single two-horse cart. She took her four children there, my mother was the eldest of the siblings, she was seven years old. The three younger brothers were five, four and three years old. In the meantime, my grandfather had to go into hiding because he was in the Tsarist army. If they found him, they would kill him on the spot. They thus traveled to Hamburg for two months. Grandma cooked grass soup for the children on this trip because they had nothing to eat. Today I’m going to broadcast Ukraine news on TV and what I see is just very, very sad.
How would you describe your relationship with the Czech Republic?
It was a long time ago. I knew a Czech who appointed me team manager when I was very young. He was a runner and constantly monitored my career, he helped me a lot at the beginning. We met in Brazil at the turn of the 50s and 60s, his name was Mirek Polák. Even though I then raced in Formula 1, we stayed in touch. He was a great gentleman.
And do you know that here in the Czech Republic they say admirably “you drive like Fittipaldi”?
Yeah, I know, but I hope the recipient of this praise doesn’t break it (Laughs). But it’s still fantastic, it’s definitely an honor for me.
Let’s come to Formula 1. With Colin Chapman’s car, you won one of your two world titles. How do you remember Colin?
In his time he was the best racing car designer. He was an aeronautical engineer and always tried to have an advantage by thinking of others. He was a great mentor to me personally, teaching me for five years. It was fantastic to be able to learn from him and he was very nice to me. It was a difficult period for him, at that time he lost several pilots, the last one was Jochen Rindt. Then I came on the team and at that time Colin was said to be cold and emotionless. However, he had a very warm heart and was a wonderful human being. He came to me once and said he didn’t want us to become too close friends because it would be too hard for him to lose me. The hardest loss for him was the death of Jim Clark. Jim was like his own son to him. Indeed, they had a father-son relationship. And Colin was a very emotional man. I was shocked once when he came up to me and told me what I had already mentioned. That he didn’t want me to become his close friend for fear of further loss.
Were you worried about your life when you competed in the “Queen of Motorsport” of the 70s?
When I got to the paddock, all I was interested in was the racing cars and the fast track. It was kinda silly, but I didn’t even have time to think about the danger. Such thoughts often came after the race. That’s when we talked about how we can improve track safety, how to improve helmets. Even the medical facilities at the circuits were very poor at the time. At that time, I was the first runner to start running with his own doctor. I signed a special document to this effect, thanks to which I would be completely in his power in the event of an accident. Only he had to decide that in case of brain damage, they had to have me transported to England. With burns for a change in Germany. With fractures in Switzerland. This mutual agreement was at the origin of the effort to improve the circuit safety fund. Riders were dying at that time also because only nurses were needed on the circuits, not doctors.
Speaking of these sad subjects, how would you describe Ayrton Senna?
I have known him since he started driving karts. He had high demands on himself. He drove the race car to the limit in a way that no one else has shown. I was a friend of the Senn family. I remember going kart racing at Interlagos when he was fourteen. Then he came into the pits and I called him, Ayrton, come here, come closer. But it took time because he was shy. But in the end, he felt Formula 1 for the first time. I also like to remember his father, he was a very nice man.
And what about Niki Lauda? How do you remember him?
He was a fantastic driver, a great talent and I had a very good relationship with him. Outside the cockpit, we respected each other. Niki was a prankster, he liked to poke fun at almost everything with me. When he had a serious accident and suffered burns, he remembered that the best plastic surgeon at the time was from Brazil. I called him, told him that Niki wanted him to look at his burns because he specialized in facial reconstructions. So they made an appointment together, and after that I asked Niki how it was going. And he replied that he was too dear to him (Laughs). It was the typical Niki joke.
The current Formula 1 star is Lewis Hamilton. What makes it special?
First, his talent, second, a great passion for racing. I have seen his gradual progression since the start of his Formula 1 career. At first he was too aggressive, he made mistakes, like when he entered the pits in Shanghai in 2007. But then he is improved and improved, even with the help of his team, because Mercedes is unquestionably one of the best teams.
In fact, it was partly Niki Lauda who convinced him to transfer…
Yes. The runners must be compared, among other things, with their teammates. When you look at Lewis, he almost always leads at the end of the race. Last season was one of the best Grand Prix races for me at Imola. There he found himself in a situation in which most athletes would give up. But he doesn’t. He fought, biting the order, showing how determined he was. And how fast it is. He’s just a real runner.
You also have a lot of experience in IndyCar. Do you see a chance today that the current IndyCar driver will become an F1 star? Names like Colton Herta or Patricio O’Ward are very inflected…
It happened several times that the pilot came from Europe in IndyCar and succeeded. An example for all is Jacques Villeneuve. Or Juan Pablo Montoya. He could have become world champion, but instead decided to return to the United States and compete there in NASCAR. Nigel Mansell, Jim Clark, who won the Indy 500, Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart, in addition to me, went from F1 to IndyCar. Today there are a lot of great talents in IndyCar, for example, I see Colton Hert as a very fast driver.
He even signed a contract with McLaren and became its development driver…
Yes, it is extremely fast. It’s very difficult to follow the current IndyCar single seat, it’s a really strong formula and the driver will live with it. It’s actually good Formula 1 driver training, because I think it’s easier to drive an F1 single seater today than an IndyCar. In IndyCar they have less downforce, high performance, the races are very tight because they all have the same Dallary chassis. Only two engines can be used, Honda and Chevrolet. Formula 1 will always remain Formula 1. But growing up first in the United States and then coming to Europe is a good way.
And one last question. Many great movies have been made from the racing environment. Rivals, Le Mans, Le Mans 66. Do you have a favourite?
Yes, but I’m going to get into a deeper story. The best movie for me is Grand Prix by John Frankenheimer. I went to the cinema in Brazil about seven times. My dad once told me I was crazy, but I always told him I wanted to go back, so let him give me a ticket. (Laughs).