The road to success has been full of rocks for CART's newest winner by Bob Judd Picture Christian in Formula One, six years ago at Monza, crossing the finish line at about 190 mph in his Minardi, ten feet off the ground, upside down and ...
The road to success has been full of rocks for CART's newest winner by Bob Judd
Picture Christian in Formula One, six years ago at Monza, crossing the finish line at about 190 mph in his Minardi, ten feet off the ground, upside down and backwards.
He was 22, in his second year in Formula One.
His Uncle "Emmo" was only 25 when he won the title in a Lotus in 1972, the world's youngest-ever world champion. His dad, Wilson, was a Formula One driver, driving a Brabham for Bernie Ecclestone in 1972, and later his own Copersucar-Fittipaldi Grand Prix car in 1975. Emmerson took over the driving of the painfully unwieldy Copersucar in 1976, but that is another story.
The point is, racing ran in the family blood. Racing is a great Fittipaldi family tradition and Wilson's kid with the movie-star smile looked like he was on the rails for another great Fittipaldi career. Except these terrible things kept happening.
In Christian's first year, Minardi was running the Lamborghini V-12. The engine had great promise and power, but it was heavy and fragile and neither Minardi nor Lamborghini had the money to develop it . . . or the car. They had endless problems with the gearbox. So, Christian was stuck at the back of the pack, spinning off in Mexico, finishing four laps down in Spain and Montreal, and crashing heavily in practice for the French Grand Prix. He injured his back so badly that there was some doubt if he would ever race again.
But not in Christian's mind.
Christian was replaced by an Italian kid named Zanardi who "failed to impress," a journalist wrote at the time. At the end of the season, Christian was back in the Minardi. . . in pain. Finishing a lap or two down, but finishing. His best was sixth in Japan. Next year would be different.
Next year wasn't different, apart from a Cosworth at the back of the car. His best finishes were a still lap or two down. He crashed at Spa. And now, coming out of Parabolica on the last lap, racing hard for seventh (ie. no points) with his teammate Pier Luigi Martini, Christian gets a little wide, they touch wheels and he is launched high up in the air, back-flipping towards the finish line. "It felt like an hour in the air," Christian said after the race. "I kept my eyes open the whole time because somehow I felt that if I closed them, I might never open them again."
Amazingly enough, the car completed its back-flip and landed on its feet about 30 yards past the finish line with a "whump!" -- pieces flying off it. Christian had the wind knocked out of him, but he was OK. Kept the car going straight down the track. Classified eighth.
He moved to Arrows the next year (always a mistake in a driver's career, ask Papis or Damon Hill) and got a point in Monaco, finishing sixth. Next year, he would have been rookie of the year in CART if de Ferran hadn't got 21 points at Laguna Seca (the last race of the year) to beat Christian by two points. In 1996, Christian moved from Derek Walker's team to Newman/Haas and finished fifth in the championship. He fought Michael Andretti for the lead in Road America until he went off the course.
"I was driving every lap like it was a qualifying lap," says Fittipaldi. "I'm a little wiser now."
In the beginning of the 1997 season, he was knocked into the wall in Australia at around 180 mph by de Ferran who just didn't see him. It was a very bad crash, but not his fault. There was nothing he could do but think, "I'm going to hit hard today."
When Christian came back -- at Portland 77 days later -- he had screws and a rod in his badly fractured leg. They had to lower him into the car. He was immediately quick again, and when they lifted him out the car, he was grinning and wincing with pain at the same time.
The 1998 season came and went with the usual promises and disappointments. He started the season with a third in Australia. But he never did better than that and finished 15th in the series. He was the only driver all year to miss a start for medical reasons. He backed into the wall heavily in an eerie replay of a crash that effectively ended his Uncle Emmo's career with a broken neck at the Michigan 500 in 1996.
Cosmopolitan had identified Christian as one of the sexiest men on the planet. But he was beginning to look like another one of the also-rans, a footnote, a driver who had some promise but not enough to overcome his persistent bad luck. This made his win last weekend all the more satisfying.
"It felt," he said, "like I had a tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders."
After the race, the Newman/Haas party went on until 9pm at Elkhart Lake. And when Christian finally left, he was still 10 feet off the ground.