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Emerson Fittipaldi

On this day: Emerson Fittipaldi scores first F1 win

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Emerson Fittipaldi, the youngest World Champion at the time when he claimed his first title in 1972, was also the first-ever Brazilian F1 World Champion. On this day in 1970, in his first F1 season, he took his first win at the USA Grand Prix at Watkins Glen.

Born in December 1946 in São Paulo, Brazil, Fittipaldi had it in his genes to be somewhat involved in racing. His father, Wilson Fittipaldi, was a motorsport journalist and radio commentator.

In 1969, alone and unable to speak anything other than his native Portuguese, he arrived in England, bought a Formula Ford and was a winner instantly. He won the F3 championship, and was awarded with a F2 drive in 1970. After impressing  Colin Chapman during a F1 test in ’70, Fittipaldi was signed by Lotus as their third driver for the same year, after Jochen Rindt and John miles. He made his F1 debut at the 1970 British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, and scored his first points in Germany. What followed was his first F1 Grand Prix win – under tragic circumstances.

It came the ill-fated Italian Grand Prix at Monza, where Jochen Rindt was killed in a practice accident. Teammate Miles retired immediately and Lotus did not participate in the Italian and Canadian Grands Prix. A shaken team Lotus returned to the track at the 1970 USA Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, now with Reine Wisell as Fittipaldi’s teammate. The young Brazilian rookie qualified third for the race.

On Sunday, dark clouds and rain just before the start of the race promised an exciting outing in front of the 100,000 fans. By the time lights went out, however, all but Clay Regazzoni and Derek Bell had reverted to slicks. At the start, Fittipaldi dropped back to 8th. By lap 17, the Ferraris of Ickx and Regazzoni had passed Rodríguez for 2nd and 3rd, but Stewart’s lead was nearly twenty seconds out in front.

Halfway through the race, Fittipaldi was about to be lapped, running in 4th position. An unexpected pitstop from Jacky Ickx in lap 57, bumped Fittipaldi’s Lotus up to 3rd place. On lap 76, 1 minute ahead of 2nd place runner Rodríguez, Stewart’s Tyrrell began trailing smoke and causing the leading car to slowly before retiring in lap 82. Rodríguez now lead the race ahead of the two Lotus drivers, Fittipaldi and Wisell, however with just 8 laps to go, the Ferrari driver had to pit for extra fuel and Fittipaldi took the lead.

Fittipaldi’s win at Watkins Glen, and Jacky Ickx 4th place finish ensured that the 1970 driving title would go posthumously to Rindt, the first and only posthumous Formula One World Champion.

Emerson Fittipaldi would continue his racing career to become 1972 World Champion with Lotus, and 1974 World Champion with McLaren. But those are stories for another day.

Headline Image Credit: McLaren Racing

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