“When you are lucky, you are lucky. When you’re not…” – Elio De Angelis, Monza, 1985
Hero is an overused word in many sports. Many fans have theirs, and they’re usually the fastest, most flamboyant or maybe the most outspoken. In my case, one of my F1 heroes wasn’t any of them, but merely a man who took Grand Prix racing in his stride without many complaints and sometimes a touch of class. Elio De Angelis was not only a fast driver, but if you’re to read the tributes about him throughout the years, was also a true gentleman and the true model of a racing driver.
Sunday, May 15th 2011 was the 25th anniversary of the young Roman’s death in a testing crash at Paul Ricard. A rear wing failure while putting the miles on Brabham’s radical BT-55 was the cause of the accident, but the lack of marshals both appearing in time to help and at the test in general robbed the sport of a popular and well-loved driver. He was 28.
From the moment he sat in a Shadow in 1979 the talent was obvious. Seventh place for a debut got everyone’s eye, and a season of shining performances in a car that was clearly poor in most respects brought the attention of Colin Chapman, who signed him for 1980.
It was at Lotus where Elio spent most of his career. Starting in the briefly Essex sponsored Lotus 81, he almost became the youngest Grand Prix winner in only his second race. If the race had lasted only one more lap then he surely would’ve taken the chequered flag as eventual winner Rene Arnoux ran out of fuel on his victory lap. The competitive consistency that he became renowned for became apparent with regular finishes in the top 6 through the next two years. In amongst all that was a first career win in Austria in 1982, finishing a hair’s breadth in front of Keke Rosberg. It would be the final win celebrated by Chapman throwing his trademark black cap in the air, as the great man would pass away that winter.
It was also in 1982 the Italian’s prowess on the piano became apparent, as when the driver’s decided to strike in South Africa early that season, Elio would play classical music to entertain them all while holed up in their hotel. He would also make regular appearances on television showcasing his talent.
Such a blow like losing a figurehead like Chapman would affect the form of Team Lotus for a full season, but the switch to Renault turbo’s and Goodyear tyres changed their fortune and Elio had the best season of his career to date finishing 3rd in the standings, but without the icing on the cake of a win. In fact, he only failed to score points in 5 races that season, with four retirements from races where he showed strong pace. Indeed, De Angelis was third in the standings, only beaten by the two dominant McLarens. Late in the season, it was announced that a rising Brazilian star by the name of Ayrton Senna would replace the outgoing Nigel Mansell at Lotus. Many envisaged a resurgence of the Lotus name.
Only, 1985 would be the last season Elio had with the British marque. Senna was fast, but was prone to reliability issues. De Angelis meanwhile had carried on his consistent driving to be a Championship favourite by mid-season, including taken a second career win on Italian soil at Imola. It was clear that Senna was the preferred choice for Lotus management though, as the Brazilian finished 5 points ahead of De Angelis and began playing the political mind games that he became so famous for. After 6 seasons, 3 pole positions and 2 wins for a team he helped to build, Elio was forced out, signing for Brabham-BMW.
The legacy from his accident is still in effect today. Testing is now manned the same way as a race meeting to prevent the delays that ultimately led to tragedy. Bernie Ecclestone, who owned Brabham at the time of Elio’s death, bought Paul Ricard in 1999 and has built it into one of the world’s most advanced test tracks, some say out of guilt. Jean Alesi sported a direct replica of his semi-compatriot’s helmet design throughout his entire career.
I was too young to enjoy the career of Elio De Angelis, but every now and then I flick through a book, watch a video on YouTube or read an article on Wikipedia and I am drawn to an image of him, usually of a jet-black Lotus with gold trim being piloted by a driver with a helmet designed after Darth Vader – and probably one that inspired the Stig too. It’s still as striking as the first time I saw it and, for me, epitimises F1 in that era more than Senna, Mansell or Prost.