A Tribute To Elio de Angelis: 1958-1986

Remembering Elio
1984 Dallas Grand Prix International Interview by Keith Botsford
We are in the mall of Loews Anatole the day before the 1984 Dallas Grand Prix.  Elio has to get to bed early to rise the morrow at 5.30 to get to warm-up.  He needs his eight hours.  The next day he will drive cooly and intelligently  - against the grain of his car which is misfiring and his rubber which is gone - to finish third.  On the eve of a race it's not about that a driver wishes to talk.  These are among his few private moments: sometimes, not always, drivers like to talk for it articulates their feelings.

We begin on America, because that is where we are, in Dallas heartland; and Elio's not happy here.  "Americans are so different from Europeans," he begins.  "I used to like it more here," he continues; "but I was myself different in those days.  But now I see that there is a culture gap between Europe and America that you can't ever bridge."  Of course, he agrees that his profession is a barrier.  It's hardly bridgetime at the track.  "I know it's a superficial judgement, but I couldn't really live here.  But one thing I do like is that in America you can live your own life, you can create it yourself."  Drivers, we agree, don't lead real lives.  "I go to a place to drive," says Elio.  "That distorts life."

In contrast, he like Germans: "They have class.  They are Europeans, but they are American Europeans.  They stick to their word.  And then my girl-friend (the lovely Ute) is German!"  Which leads, obviously to an excursion about love and marriage, which need not concern us here.  It is a subject on which Elio is in three minds.  He is a perfectionist, in that as in all things: "If I do something, I like to do it well.  And yet I do so many things well and do them only by halves". 

Because one of the things Elio has always said is that when he finishes racing, he wants to write music: not every driver's ambition.  During the Kyalami strike, Bruno Giacomelli was the court clown, but Elio was their musician.  "I studied hard when I was little," he says.  "I did classical piano until I was eight.  Then I couldn't stand being in short pants and going off to practice in old buildings, so I gave it up.  Then I took up the piano again when I was twelve, but I've never perfected myself in the instrument.  My second start was with the blues, though I'm coming back to classical music, too.  But you see, I gave it up because my teacher heard me one day; I was playing Brahms as blues and she threw a fit! How could I destroy such music!". 

As he says, he doesn't like playing the music of others.  Best of all, he likes to do his own thing, a form of improvisation.  Could he do it professionally?  He's had offers: "But they wanted me for my name, not for my music."  He has cassettes ready, but "I'm not yet ready myself.  I'd get caught up in it.  I am in racing and the two just don't mix."  Also, he can't write music.  From Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder on is his bag.  By ear.  If his ears last out the noise of the cars.  Other things, too, he would have liked to have done.  "So many others," he sighs.  "Driving is a limited world, but the truth is that driving is the only thing I've always fought to do.  From the moment I could think and reason, it's the only thing I ever wanted to do badly enough.  So I continue to struggle, even If I like it less now.  For good or ill, I am 'established'.  When I started out, it was for purely sporting reasons and it seemed to me a pure sport."

At which point arises the obligatory question.  Why, if he likes it less, does he drive?  "I was six or seven and I had a little red pedal car.  I used to play with it in the garden.  The ground sloped away: that wasn't enough.  I'd make my brother or my cousins push me so I could go faster.  By ten, I was too big for the pedal car and I got a bike.  I put a steering-wheel on the bike and a helmet on my head.  By then I was already watching Jim Clark, Rindt.  As I grew up, I became another Ferrari Freak.  Always wondering why Ferraris weren't winning."

Now Italians do sometimes follow Italian drivers, and not just Ferrari drivers.  But if Elio wins, it is still not the same thing as Ferrari winning.  Not in Italy.  And why not?  "Because that's the way Italy is," he answers.   "Ferrari is a myth, like Garibaldi.  For good or ill, in an Italy that's undone, that's all ups and downs, Ferrari remains part of the mythology, like the italian football team."  The nation needs triumphs.  But Elio doesn't feel out of water in England, or racing for a British team.  "At the beginning, yes.  But Italy never made me feel particularly Italian," he explains.  "I think I am very Italian, but Italy never adopted me.  Not in the right way.  I had to emigrate.  It wasn't my intention to race in England.  In Italy they told me I was finished when I was nineteen.  The English helped me to grow up; they have shown me some of the harder aspects of life.  I owe them a lot, especially when you think that the first time I raced in England, for team ICI at Brands, I spoke not a word of the language.  All I could do was point: tyres no good."

Of course, he'd been to England before, on trips with his family.  "For me, it was just the Beatles.  The Beatles and Carnaby Street, records and clothes I could bring back to Rome."  He remembers the brightly coloured shirts, but never got to see the Beatles live.

Otherwise, his early horizons and even some of his current ones are limited to his two great loves: the sea and the sun.  "The sea gives me a sense of freedom, " he explains.  "I like looking out there.  If you look up at the stars, you are lost, it's frightening; the stars lack dimension.  But the sea gives you space with dimension."  Of course his famliy, as he points out (no false modesty here), owns shipyards, boats.....I go back to Motor Racing.  So he's 'established' is he?  "No one is ever established," he answers.  "I could get a letter tomorrow morning....."  But as he told me in Detroit, he does feel more solid in his profession.  "I think it's a question of becoming concious of your own value.  You grow up within.  As a driver, I feel I'm still growing, because I'm still young, and yet I have a lot of experience behind me.  What is difficult is to integrate that experience into your life as a whole.  For instance, I remember little of my first two years of F1, but last year I remember perfectly.  Not because t's more recent, but because I now think differently.  At your age" he adds, referring to to my emerging grey hairs, "you know who you are as well as what you've been.  Mine is still in evolution.  Things change, circumstances are still changing."

But, as we know, F1 is also commerce and politics.  The former, being rich, Elio can perhaps do without.  The latter?  "I still ike the sport, I despise politics in the sport as I despise it in life.  I'm not a diplomatic man.  As my father constantly points out 'Why do you do things the hard way?' he asks.  The answer is that it gives you more satisfaction."  I am surprised by this lack of diplomacy.  Elio is all grace and manners.  He answers, disparagingly, that  "that's all part of my upbringing.  That puts a brake on my public expression of discontent".  Not always.  He had one set-to with Colin Chapman that he remembers well.  It took place in Las Vegas.  "Colin was a person with a sort of halo about him, it was hard to get close to him.  I felt that I was part of his car, that he didn't really see me.  We had no human relations as such.
But in Vegas - there was a problem of who was the number one driver- I gave him a real blast and he gave me one right back.".  It was part of a long standing quarrel between Elio and Nigel Mansell, who at the time, was the apple of Colin's eye.  And was getting the better deal.  "I was right," Elio continues.  "I couldn't go on in that situation.  Colin said it was because I sometimes didn't appear to be putting in all the effort I might, I wasn't professional, I was in Ibiza when I should have been testing.  It was his way of punishing me."  "From that I learned.  I learned that I had to take my job more seriously.  But when you're young, you think you can do it on sheer talent.  You make the car go faster than it will go.  When you succeed, all is well; when you make a mistake or when you get hurt, then you think, maybe I'm not all that omnipotent.  You learn to be a bit smarter.  It was a bad scene, but it was the first real human contact we had, and that was better than bottling everything up."  "At the time I thought I might even go back to Italy.  To go back as someone: that meant a lot to me.  But I didn't go back.  Colin insisted I stay.  He even sent a cable to the President of the Republic!  Colin was not your normal Englishman.  He was more of a Latin: both in moments of panic and his moments of genius.  He was in tears when I won in Austria and I was in tears when I heard he died.  He was a bit of a father to me.  A father in racing.  he gave me confidence.  He'd say "I'll build you a car to win with.....'"

Things are very different at Lotus now.  Elio no longer races for Colin Chapman; he races for himself.  "I've built this year on the horrors of last year," he says, "the year of the great NO.  I knew my stock was slipping; I was making mistakes I hadn't made for years.  I had to prove I was a man and I think I've succeeded in doing so: even if last year I finished 17th in the Championship.  It was the most critical year for me.  I was 26 and already I had no future.  Now I race for myself."  That victory is not far off.  If it hasn't happened, it's been , Elio says, "a little bit bad luck and also because we weren't geared up properly.  We just weren't techically prepared enough, there was insufficient testing."  Lotus is feeling the pinch?  "You say that, not me" grins Elio.  "But we are a small team now, we're not in the same league as Ferrari or Renault.  There was a lot more money when Colin was around.  We'd make a car, Colin would look at it and say 'I don't like it, get rid of it.'  If you pointed out how much it cost he'd say 'What do I care how much it cost'.   Today, our racing is done with a pocket calculator in hand.  That's Peter Warr's skill: with not much, he's put a lot together."

From outside, it looks as though Lotus has a winning car; yet it doesn't win.  Why not?  "We get the most out of very little," answers Elio.  Quite naturally, one is led to discuss drivers in this context.  Nigel Mansell in particular.  Has he the capacity to win for Lotus?  "Nigel's good, answers Elio charitably (he was to be less charitable after the race).  "He's just a little limited in some ways, he doesn't understand his own capacities."  There are limits to that understanding, that come from Nigel's background.  That makes for difficulties of communication between the two men.

Webmaster's note: During the 1984 season it should be noted that the relationship between Elio and Nigel probably reached it's lowest  point at any time during the four years they drove together.  Although Elio's comments were certainly not detrimental, I have decided not to print the more negative comments made during this interview ,as I feel  it inappropriate to do so in the year 2009.  Nigel has always held Elio in high regard, and this respect  increased after he left Lotus.  At the time of Elio's death, according to Nigel's autobiography by Christopher Hilton, the two drivers had become close friends.   However, I have decided to include part of the interview that I feel to be of most interest, and that being Elio's opinion that Nigel seemed to have huge pressure on him all the time - an indirect reference to his relationship with Peter Warr, perhaps?

"I know that he's very tense, as though there was this huge pressure on him.  As though, whatever happens he's still missing out on something.  Perhaps that's because he's not yet won his first race, that I can understand.  But underneath it all, I like him and and I respect him.  I've seen him evolve already.  It's slow, but it's constant."

At which point, since we've been talking about Nigel's defects, I asked Elio what his were.  He was quick to answer:  "Too much ambition.  And a little laziness, which I could do without.  Now I keep the laziness out of racing.  You can only really rest, anyway, when you're happy.  After I won in Austria, I spent the finest week of my life.  I didn't sleep for a whole day.  I wasn't sleepy.  And then Italy beat Germany in the World Cup the following week!  I was on cloud nine."

During this point, Ute chimes in, away from her usual quiet reserve.  To tell us that the present German Football team is a disgrace.  It is.

We all agree then.  On something.  Because on Elio the man and Elio the driver, whatever his position in the Championship table, there will always be disagreements and ambiguities.  It is as though the man came himself from a different world to most.  A world of greater ease.  For most, hunger is what makes men succeed.  And people think hunger is external.  That it's wanting something - money, success - that denied to others.  But hunger is also internal.  It's wanting to know who you are and have people see what you are so clearly that they accept your own definition of yourself.

With music, money, sun and sea, all Neptunian signs and manifestation, Elio is likely to remain his own man and serene.  But last year, Iron entered his veins.  Or he wouldn't have talked so freely. Nor raced half so well.

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