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How Fittipaldi helped guide Senna on his path to F1 glory

Twice a Formula 1 world champion and Indianapolis 500 winner, Emerson Fittipaldi was a guiding light for a young Ayrton Senna and later became one of his closest friends in racing. Senna tested his IndyCar, and even shared a set-up tip that helped Emmo win at Detroit

Emerson Fittipaldi, Ayrton Senna

Photo by: Andre Vor / Sutton Images

Fittipaldi says he “loved and admired Ayrton in equal measure” – which was in stark contrast with Senna’s relationship with the other Brazilian F1 great Nelson Piquet, as he and Ayrton shared a mutual loathing.

Emerson first met Senna as a teenaged karter, and invited him into the Copersucar-Fittipaldi garage at a test at Interlagos in the mid-1970s: “The kart track at Interlagos was right next to the race track,” he recalls. “His father brought him next to the garage, and then I called him, ‘Ayrton, come inside here!’

“He was extremely shy, very polite but very quiet.”

Before following Fittipaldi’s trailblazing path from Sao Paulo to the United Kingdom for his junior career, it was Emerson who first called Van Diemen’s Ralph Firman: “I said ‘Ralph, I have a guy who’s going to win the championship for you’ and he laughed and said, ‘Oh aye, Emerson!’”

Senna’s father Milton, whom Fittipaldi already knew from his business interests around the city of Sao Paulo, then agreed a contract with Firman, and Ayrton announced himself to the wider racing world from 1981.

A year later, as Formula Ford 2000 supported the Austrian Grand Prix, a then-retired Fittipaldi – who was still onboard at the family’s F1 team in an advisory role – decided it was time to take up-and-comer Senna for a trip along the F1 pitlane in Zeltweg to meet as many team bosses as possible.

“He really didn’t want to, but I said he had to come with me,” says Fittipaldi. “He had won the race, so after the Saturday qualifying for F1, I wanted him to meet teams who might have seats available.

Fittipaldi in conversation with Charles Bardley about his Senna memories

Fittipaldi in conversation with Charles Bardley about his Senna memories

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

“Using my best English expression, I introduced him as the Formula Ford champion and told them all that he was ‘world championship material’. They all laughed at that, but sometimes people don’t see what is there right in front of them.”

Because their F1 racing careers never overlapped, with Fittipaldi retiring in 1980 and Senna joining the grid with Toleman in 1984, they never shared a race track together as true rivals. Apart, that is, from one pre-season F1 test, at Rio de Janeiro’s Jacarepagua track, when Emerson made an abortive comeback in ’84 with Spirit, which had recently been dumped by Honda and was using Hart engines.

The test went terribly, with Fittipaldi finding the car to be horrendously uncompetitive as well as woefully unreliable. But he still managed to enjoy himself in the evenings with Senna for company.

"Ayrton said, ‘Nigel’s crazy and has incredible car control’ – so this was in the back of my mind" Emerson Fittipaldi

“Back then, we were staying at the same hotel and went out to dinner every day,” said Fittipaldi. “Those were moments filled with friendship and laughter.”

As Senna rose to F1 stardom, Fittipaldi instead switched to America for his second career, winning his first Indy 500 in 1989. “Ayrton called immediately to congratulate me,” Fittipaldi says. “He had just won the Mexican Grand Prix for McLaren. Same day!”

It was Fittipaldi’s Penske IndyCar that Senna tested at Firebird Raceway in December 1992, when his F1 plans were in limbo. Fittipaldi sounded out Roger Penske about putting Ayrton in an extra car for 1993, but Senna stayed in F1 with McLaren (and Ron Dennis kyboshed any idea of him moonlighting in the Indy 500 too).

“Every year, in December, we both went back to Brazil,” says Fittipaldi. “We always had what I called an ‘end of the season dinner’ with Ayrton at a very good restaurant in Sao Paulo.

Senna tests Fittipaldi's Penske Chevrolet PC22 at Phoenix

Senna tests Fittipaldi's Penske Chevrolet PC22 at Phoenix

Photo by: Andre Vor / Sutton Images

“By coincidence, one of the directors of TV Globo was there, who broadcast F1 in Brazil. In front of him I said, ‘Ayrton, why don’t you come and race at the Indy 500 next year?’ and he said ‘Well, let me see what I can do’. So, then I invited him to try my car, because I had this test in Phoenix with my new car.

“I called Roger, and he liked the idea. I asked if he could test the road circuit and the short oval, but then Roger decided, for precautionary reasons, he shouldn’t test on the oval. I said, ‘Roger, if everything goes positively, can you put another car out for Ayrton next year?’ And he replied, ‘Yes’.

“Ayrton came to me in Miami and then we flew in my plane to Phoenix and he did the test with no problems. Remember that Nigel Mansell was coming to IndyCar, and he made a big impact. Can you imagine if Ayrton was there too? It would’ve been fantastic.”

Fittipaldi also sounded out Senna for his thoughts on Mansell, ahead of him becoming one of Emmo’s main rivals in the next two seasons of IndyCar competition: “When Nigel joined IndyCar in 1993, the years before he was dicing with Ayrton. I called him and asked, ‘How is Nigel?’ Because we never raced against each other.

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“Ayrton said, ‘Nigel’s crazy and has incredible car control’ – so this was in the back of my mind. We got to Indianapolis, we started side by side, and I was running right behind him for 200 miles, nearly half of the race. Every corner, even Turn 3, Nigel made the back end of the car move. At that speed!

“I could see Nigel’s gloves in the cockpit, correcting the front wheels. I said on the radio ‘He’s going to crash, he’s going to crash!’ But he never crashed. Typical Nigel.”

As the tragic news of Senna’s demise at Imola in 1994 came through, Fittipaldi was on a race simulation in his Penske-Mercedes at Michigan International Speedway, preparing for the Indy 500. As he turned laps at 230mph, Emerson got a “security code” call from the team that was reserved for emergencies with the car or on the track.

Fittipaldi asked Senna for advice racing against

Fittipaldi asked Senna for advice racing against "crazy" Mansell

Photo by: LAT Photographic

“I think it was lap 16 or 17 of a 27-lap run,” he recalls. “I got the call, backed off immediately and went slowly into the pits. I asked why and they said, ‘Your wife is on the phone.’ Can you imagine stopping a test with Penske for Indy like this? I feared one of our kids had a bad accident. My mind was racing. I couldn’t believe what she told me.

“For me, Ayrton was one of those drivers who’d never die driving a race car. It was impossible to hear what happened. We’d enjoyed a long relationship… Many, many, many good and long calls.”

One such call resulted in a race win for Fittipaldi that he lays squarely at Senna’s door for a tip that helped him win a race – as the apprentice had truly become the master!

It was the 1989 Detroit Indy Grand Prix, held on a street track where Senna had won for the past three seasons consecutively (twice for Lotus, once with McLaren) when it was an F1 event.

"In addition to being an exceptional driver, he was a wonderful human being and had a great heart" Emerson Fittipaldi

“I called Ayrton because I knew the downtown track was extremely bumpy, with 90-degree corners, and asked can you give me some tips?” he recalls. “He said, ‘Well Emerson, the best tip I have is to ignore the accepted theories of street racing and use a very stiff rear bar, it will give you a lot of traction, despite the bumps, and will also help in the 90-degree corners, you can accelerate straight out instead of sliding’.

PLUS: The Dallas F1 crash that demonstrated Senna's total self-belief

“I was working with Morris Nunn, and I wasn’t very fast in qualifying, somewhere between P5 and P7, and then I remembered what Ayrton had told me. I said, ‘Morris, can we try a very stiff rear bar?’ And he replied, ‘Oh Emerson, I don’t think you’d like that, you’ll lose all the grip at the rear over the bumps’. But I said, ‘Let’s try it!’ So, we did.

“Exactly like Ayrton said, I was suddenly very fast! And I won the race for Pat Patrick in his Penske. That’s the kind of relationship I had with Ayrton.

“In addition to being an exceptional driver, he was a wonderful human being and had a great heart.”

Despite never racing against each other, Fittipaldi and Senna generated a strong friendship

Despite never racing against each other, Fittipaldi and Senna generated a strong friendship

Photo by: Andre Vor / Sutton Images

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