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Elio de Angelis, F1’s Roman Candle – Premium

Submitted by on February 24, 2015

Elio Imola 1986

Elio at Imola in 1986, image thanks to The Cahier Archive

May is a cruel month in racing – the list of losses almost unbelievable. One very unsung hero was among those: Elio de Angelis, who died on May 15, 1986. This is his story.

By Andy Hallbery

During his career he had a list of legendary World Champion teammates, yet was never the obvious number two. He certainly kept Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell on their toes.

Elio de Angelis 1984

Elio de Angelis in 1984, thanks to The Cahier Archive

Elio de Angelis was something of an enigma in F1. In a strange way, his name isn’t first on the lips when mentioned among drivers who made a mark in F1, and had legions of fans. Yet, he held his own as teammate to Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell, and later Ayrton Senna, and none totally overshadowed him.

The record books show he won “only” two Grands Prix, both for Lotus. That was Elio the driver. Maybe he was better known as being in that privileged position of Grand Prix driver due to his family’s wealth. His father ran a very successful construction business, the scale of which meant that Elio had to have security and armoured limousines to ferry him around when in his native Italy, such was the threat of kidnapping and ransom from political extremists. He was also good-looking, laid-back, charming and natural. And, of course, he was a classically trained pianist. Not your average Grand Prix racer.

But with all that in mind, Elio was emphatically NOT a ‘pay driver’ – he was in Formula 1 on merit. His maiden win, at the ‘old’, equally romantic, Osterreichring in Zeltweg, Austria came in 1982 – that calamitous F1 season that cost the lives of Gilles Villeneuve and Riccardo Paletti, and ended the career of championship leader Didier Pironi.

Austria 1982

Austria, 1982 thanks to the The Cahier Archive

The win, in the Lotus-Cosworth, came at a track where the turbos should have walked it. The Italian was chased to the flag by Keke Rosberg, also with Cosworth power in his Williams, and held on – just – to win the side-by-side finish by 0.050s…

That win was significant for many reasons. It was the first in four years since the Andretti/Ronnie Peterson domination of 1978, a barren spell for one of the F1 grid’s stalwart manufacturers. Colin Chapman, founder and patriarch – and the rest of the Lotus team – were almost caught by surprise as the tension built in the closing stages. Out came Chapman’s famous black cap. The cap that in the past had greeted wins by Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jochen Rindt, Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson.

“The last time my hat flew in the air was at Zandvoort in 1978, when Mario and Ronnie finished 1-2,” Chapman said during the spoils of the latest win. “We’d won again at Monza after that, but Mario had been penalised for jumping the start, so the win didn’t stand. Luckily, Hazel [Chapman’s wife] gave it to me before the finish here, and I’m hoping to throw it up a few more times next year.”

That wasn’t to be. Lotus didn’t win again until 1985 with Senna. And Chapman had died of a heart attack in December 1982, three months after de Angelis’s victory.

Nigel Mansell’s arrival at Lotus back in 1980, then to replace Andretti in 1981, rocked the boat as it often did back then, and de Angelis was a guy who felt he needed to be loved. The Bulldog Brit, in the British team, stole that, and it hurt the Italian’s performances.

The team had an unofficial policy of putting the ‘A-Team’ on the quicker car. Mansell bagged that, rightly but also fortuitously. Elio’s desire waned, again, which was something he admitted. “Nigel and I received similar technical and psychological treatment, I think my situation was worse,” he explained . “He had the advantage of being English, which made things better for him, easier to cope with what was happening. And sponsor-wise he had an advantage. He seemed to enjoy his driving, while I admit that I didn’t then.”

resize_Monaco Elio  85 PHC

Monaco, 1985, thanks to The Cahier Archive

Respect was a big motivator for de Angelis. Mansell’s departure, to be replaced by Senna, you would think with 28 years of hindsight, should have crushed the Italian. Far from it. For the majority of the 1985 season, de Angelis headed his illustrious team-mate in the points, having scored in eight races to Senna’s two.

They ended the season separated by just five points, fourth and fifth in the standings. It wasn’t lost on him.

“Senna has been compared with Villeneuve in Italy, me with Lauda,” he said. “But I could have done two races in 1985 – Imola and Canada – like Senna did, by taking the lead and staying there knowing that there was no hope of the fuel lasting. I am unspectacular in the car because I work out the situation. Senna is more spectacular than I am…”

France 85 EDA SENN

 France, 1985, thanks to The Cahier Archive

Midway through the season – de Angelis knew that Lotus had become Senna’s team, and they spelled it out to Elio by telling him he would not be back for 1986.

“Brabham was the only place I wanted to go. If it was not going to be Brabham, it was going to be nobody,” he said. “I am always looking forward: I would never go back. I always had a possibility for many years to go with Brabham, and this year I took it.”

resize_Belg 85 Spa SENN Elio PHC

Belgium, 1985, thanks to The Cahier Archive

It was generally felt that the world had not seen the best of de Angelis. The Brabham – if it was good – would allow him to take on the Sennas, Mansells, Piquets and Prosts of Grand Prix racing. Sadly, that move lasted just a few months, and four races. During testing at Paul Ricard, his radical lay-flat BT55 went out of control, vaulted the barrier and caught fire.

With no marshals on hand, it took members of the Brabham team to get to the scene themselves in the team’s rental cars and extract their driver. Effectively, he had few injuries, but having been in the car for so long, had suffocated. He died two days later. It was an unnecessary outcome, and the start of stringent safety rules for test sessions that included the presence of fire marshals and a medical helicopter.

It had been too little, too late for one of racing’s nice guys.

Photos by the Cahier Archive

Follow Andy Hallbery on twitter, @hallbean, and www.romanceofracing.com

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