Friday favourite: The underrated Portuguese ace who became IMSA's king

Sportscar stalwart Joao Barbosa formed a well-matched partnership with Christian Fittipaldi during the final years of the ex-Formula 1 racer’s long and varied career. Earning back-to-back titles IMSA titles and two landmark endurance victories at Daytona together, the Portuguese is Fittipaldi’s pick as his favourite team-mate in Autosport’s ongoing series

Friday favourite: The underrated Portuguese ace who became IMSA's king

Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa held clearly-defined roles during their enormously successful period as team-mates at Action Express Racing between 2011 and 2019.

Fittipaldi, a race-winner in CART Indycar whose diverse career took him to Formula 1 and later to NASCAR, was the qualifier who took the cut-and-thrust race starts. Barbosa, a late bloomer whose sportscar reputation was growing by the year, was the man entrusted with the decisive final stints when results were on the line.

Their approach was devastatingly effective. Together, the pair won the Daytona 24 Hours twice, claimed back-to-back IMSA SportsCar Championship titles in 2014 and 2015, and were unbeaten in the Endurance Cup miniseries consisting of IMSA’s four long distance races from 2014 to 2017 – Fittipaldi’s final full-season as a driver.

When it comes to choosing a favourite team-mate, Barbosa just gets the nod over Antonio Garcia, with whom Fittipaldi raced a Team Modena Aston Martin GT1 in the 2007 Le Mans Series and made select outings for Cheever Racing’s Grand-Am operation in 2007-08.

“I like Antonio very much, he’s a down-to-earth guy, very easy to work with,” says Fittipaldi, who revealed his endurance racing credentials early by winning the 1993 Spa 24 Hours in a Porsche during his second season of F1 with Minardi. “My favourite team-mate was Joao, but I have strong highlights with Antonio.

“I ended up not driving a lot with him, but my experience with Antonio was great. Actually, that’s how his whole career in the US started, because I took him to the Cheever car and then it sort of migrated from that point.”

Barbosa and Fittipaldi formed a lucrative partnership between 2011 and 2019

Barbosa and Fittipaldi formed a lucrative partnership between 2011 and 2019

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

Barbosa’s single-seater career never hit the same heights as 1991 Formula 3000 champion Fittipaldi, nor even Garcia – who briefly reached F3000 with the Red Bull junior team in 2001. But what the underrated Portuguese had in spades was experience.

Barbosa first raced Stateside in Toyota Atlantic in 1997, began racing prototypes in 2004 with Martin Short’s plucky Rollcentre outfit – finishing fourth outright at Le Mans in 2007 - and became a Grand-Am winner with Brumos in 2009. A first Daytona win followed in 2010 with new AXR team, making him a key part of Gary Nelson’s operation as it matured.

“At that point Joao and I, both of us were older and we had a lot of experience in different classes in different series,” says Fittipaldi, the elder of the pair by four years. “We accepted the fact that when the car wasn’t great or when we just got beat on the track, we had a strong finish and we scored the points, which we knew was going to make a difference at the end of the year. And not making any mistakes on the track, that definitely helped us a lot.”

"Everything was more geared towards me as far as qualifying and then everything maybe was geared a little bit more towards him as far as race set-up. That was part of our success, we understood each other very well" Christian Fittipaldi

Fittipaldi’s partnership with Barbosa came as part of an unexpected career renaissance following his disappointing departure from Andretti-Green’s American Le Mans Series effort in 2008 and a largely fruitless 2010 Brazilian Stock Cars campaign.

Newly-appointed AXR technical director Iain Watt had worked with Fittipaldi at Cheever and called him up to on a one-off basis for the 2011 Daytona 24 Hours - an event Fittipaldi had previously won in 2004.

How to be an ace engineer: Iain Watt 

A podium from his first outing with the team, racing alongside Barbosa, was the prelude to a Daytona return in 2012 before they became full-time partners from the mid-point of the 2013 Grand-Am season. They finished second in their second outing together at Belle Isle, then won the next two races at Mid-Ohio – where Barbosa secured victory with a late move on Richard Westbrook – and Watkins Glen.

Their partnership benefitted from a change in mindset for Fittipaldi, who recognising his career was closer to the end than the start sought to “enjoy every single lap of racing, practicing, qualifying and testing, no matter what”. But getting on with Barbosa wasn’t exactly a chore. They “understood each other very well” and even used the same seat, with no insert required.

Barbosa and Fittipaldi, together with Bourdais, opened the new era of IMSA competition in 2014 with victory in the Daytona 24 Hours

Barbosa and Fittipaldi, together with Bourdais, opened the new era of IMSA competition in 2014 with victory in the Daytona 24 Hours

Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images

“What was good with Joao is that basically after we understood our differences in the car, exactly what he liked and what I liked, there was a lot of give and take between us too,” he says. “Whenever it couldn’t be his way and it went a little bit more my way, he could still drive it. And whenever it wasn’t 100% my way, I never came back into the pits saying ‘I can’t drive this, it’s impossible’.

“Usually 95% of the time I qualified and started the race, and then he did the second half of the race. He always finished, so we arrived at the track knowing that the whole weekend was going to be that way. Everything was more geared towards me as far as qualifying and then everything maybe was geared a little bit more towards him as far as race set-up. That was part of our success, we understood each other very well.”

Fittipaldi stresses that this was unrelated to their shared native tongue, which “didn’t change anything”.

“It was very well distinguished between how much Portuguese we spoke, with who we spoke Portuguese,” he says.

When Grand-Am and the ALMS merged for 2014, they won the first race of the new IMSA era at Daytona alongside Sebastien Bourdais as Barbosa held off Max Angelelli in an eight-minute sprint to the flag – despite a dodgy gearbox. In such circumstances, Fittipaldi was always confident Barbosa was the man for the job because “we never had a problem”, and they secured the first modern-era IMSA title with back-to-back wins at Indianapolis, where they eked out a two-stop strategy as the rest required three, and Road America after Fittipaldi was turned around by Ricky Taylor.

They defended the title successfully in 2015, despite winning only one race in a campaign built on consistency. But the solo win at Sebring was remarkable for its dominance. Fittipaldi, Barbosa and Bourdais won by over a lap – considered unthinkable in IMSA – as their unrivalled pace on long runs got better still when temperatures went down into the night.

The pair missed out on a third title by just three points in 2016 to AXR team-mates Dane Cameron and Eric Curran – although beat them to the finish in a tense six-hour race at Watkins Glen – but an even bigger disappointment was to come at Daytona the following year as the new Daytona Prototype international era replaced the awkward hybrid class made up of legacy Grand-Am Daytona Prototypes and LMP2 cars.

Barbosa and Fittipaldi settled well into their roles and played to each other's strengths

Barbosa and Fittipaldi settled well into their roles and played to each other's strengths

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

Action Express’s Cadillac, which Fittipaldi and Barbosa now shared with Filipe Albuquerque, led into the closing stages but the last-named was being caught by Ricky Taylor’s Wayne Taylor Racing Caddy. The second-generation racer attempted a move at Turn 1 with just a few minutes left on the clock, Albuquerque closed the door and was turned around. No penalty call came from IMSA, and AXR took an unhappy second, which still gripes with Fittipaldi today.

“I remember looking at Joao when the whole thing happened with about two laps to go, and we basically couldn’t believe what had happened,” he says. “In the second half of the race, the #10 [WTR] car was slightly faster than us. But we pretty much got them on strategy at the end of the race. We were going to win it, period.”

The incident did however serve to bring Fittipaldi and Barbosa – plus Albuquerque, who replaced Fittipaldi as an AXR full-timer for 2018 as the elder statesmen elected to combine the endurance races with a sporting director role – closer together in their efforts to make amends.

"We accepted the fact that when the car wasn’t great or when we just got beat on the track, we had a strong finish and we scored the points, which we knew was going to make a difference at the end of the year" Christian Fittipaldi

“I remember going back to the truck after we got out of the podium,” recalls Fittipaldi. “We went to get changed and then Filipe, Joao and I, we looked at each other and said, ‘Okay, may the countdown begin’. The countdown for the following year started over there. We pretty much, I think, started winning the 2018 [Daytona] race with that attitude.”

Sure enough, they completed the job the following year in an attritional race of just four safety cars despite an overheating engine, as AXR “basically took care of what we had maybe a little bit better than the others”.

“I remember when the race was over like it was a huge relief because we pretty much carried that monkey on our back for a whole year,” Fittipaldi says.

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It was this result that partly spurred his decision to hang up his helmet after the 2019 Daytona race, when a lengthy delay caused by an electrical fault meant the Fittipaldi-Barbosa partnership ended with an unrepresentative seventh place finish.

PLUS: Christian Fittipaldi reflects on his racing career 

Barbosa took one more win with Albuquerque at Long Beach in 2019 before going with long-term backer Mustang Sampling to JDC-Miller Motorsports for 2020. Since parting company with JDC-Miller midway through that season, he’s spent the last two IMSA campaigns racing for the Sean Creech Motorsport LMP3 squad and took his latest class win alongside teenager Malthe Jakobsen and 60-something Lance Willsey at Sebring.

Barbosa, Fittipaldi and Albuquerque made up for their 2017 disappointment by winning Daytona together the following year

Barbosa, Fittipaldi and Albuquerque made up for their 2017 disappointment by winning Daytona together the following year

Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images

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