A Tribute To Elio de Angelis: 1958-1986

Remembering Elio
Elio de Angelis - A Gentleman With Ability And Style -Tribute by Mike Doodson
Elio de Angelis 1986 BrabhamWhen Elio De Angelis arrived in Formula 1 with Shadow, it was 1979: he was 20 years old, with enough money from his father's civil engineering company to buy him his place.  By the end of that season, he had decided to move to Lotus, and he was being sued for breach of contract.  He later said he was happy that Shadow wanted him to stay because of his ability, not his familys sponsorship.

Driving racing cars may seem like an enjoyable way for a rich young man to while away his youth.  Once, maybe that was true.  Not in 1986, as Elio explained 'Everyone who comes into Formula One has to make a sacrifice, one way or another,' he said.  'It's not that easy to come into F1: you can pay your ticket in, but the ticket out is very easy.  This is not an easy place to sit.  Tomorrow you can be sitting on the beach, without any apparent reason.'

Finally, the difficult sport at which this admirable Roman excelled also demanded the ultimate sacrifice.  It is possible that he died in vain.  When his Brabham ran off the Ricard track and overturned at 175mph during a test session in May, there were no marshals at the Verrerie corner where the car landed and caught fire.  Witnesses have suggested that he died, not because of his injuries, but because his brain had been starved of oxygen as he lay trapped.  His Father, Giulio, initiated a still unresolved legal action to establish the truth.

It should not be forgotten that he led the world championship points for several weeks in mid 1984 before the superior grip and reliability of the McLarens catapulted Lauda and Prost ahead of his Lotus.  Elio should certainly have won many more Grands Prix than the two which stands to his credit.  The first victory, at the Osterreichring in 1982, was a memorable scrap which saw him cross the line a tyre's width in front of Keke Rosberg.  They were to become close friends, perhaps because they could talk about things other than motor racing.  Elio loved his job, but he didn't take it home with him.

He was talented in so many other ways, too.  When he decided to race full-time in F1 he learned to speak English in a matter of months.  He could have been a professional pianist ('but I didn't want to end up playing in an embassy somewhere') and he would have made a fine diplomat.  He knew the meaning of old-fashioned values like loyalty and honour, qualities which he felt were not forthcoming from Lotus in his sixth and last year with the British team.

Why, as his long-term German girlfriend Ute Kittelberger, headed into her late twenties and the end of her career as a model, he even talked of settling down and marrying her.  He had two brothers and a sister himself, so he was looking forward to having a family of his own.

At the beginnings of the Lotus contract he built up solid friendships with Colin Chapman and Mario Andretti, both of them old enough to be his father.  Later, after Chapman died there were clashes of personality with those around him.  He was harsh about Nigel Mansells track manners, but actually asked to be forgiven soon afterwards.  He was never reconciled, though, to Ayrton Senna, whom he accused of dangerous driving and machiavellian plotting.

Maybe Elio was jealous of Senna's talent and fire, though he denied it: 'I've gone jumping over the top of other cars and banged wheels with other people, I've done all those things,' he insisted, 'but people tend to forget.'

The opportunity to drive for Brabham in 1986 was one which gave him great pleasure.  In spite of the team's almost incessant setbacks with the revolutionary BT55 'skateboard', he admired designer Gordon Murray and liked the iconoclastic Brabham mechanics.  The respect was mutual.  They weren't close to making the new car a winner when Elio was killed, but he had put enough hard work into the project by then to disprove all the theories about his alleged lack of motivation.  Murray was devastated but the accident, the first in which a Brabham driver had been killed since he started designing cars for the team in 1972.

In the aftermath of the accident, there was a rush to condemn the Ricard circuit and a hasty volte-face by FISA in its attitude towards turbo engines.  It would be no tribute to the memory of Elio De Angelis if he were to be remembered soley as the man whose death catalysed the authorities into action, for he enhanced the image of his chosen profession.

He was a driver who had all the makings of a champion, in spite of, not because of, his background.  That is how we should honour his memory.

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