In an exclusive interview, motorsport legend Emerson Fittipaldi tells Motorsport.com about his financial situation, and the recent TV show in Brazil that he feels has tarnished his reputation.
A two-time Formula 1 World Champion with Lotus and McLaren. Twice a winner of the Indianapolis 500, and a CART Indy car champion. Emerson Fittipaldi is a giant of motorsport.
But a recent TV show in Brazil showed racing cars and trophies being removed from his museum due to business debts being owed. Fittipaldi has been very clear about his group’s financial situation, and does not deny there have been problems that he is working hard to resolve.
But he is far from alone in this regard, as the Brazilian economy has been hit by recession and high interest rates.
He points out too that his assets are larger than his debts, so this is far from a bankruptcy issue, as has been suggested. His group is also working on having the cars returned to their museum – hopefully some time in the next week.
Fittipaldi visited the Motorsport.com HQ in Miami and spoke with Editor in Chief Charles Bradley to set the record straight in his own words.
Here’s what he had to say…
Integrity under attack, but fans support him
“I was very disappointed that a TV show on a Sunday night used my name and my image to promote their ratings – that’s the conclusion I’ve made,” he said. “To me it seemed that it was orchestrated to demoralise my integrity, my image that I’ve created over 40 years of racing internationally.
“First, I want to say thanks for the thousands of messages of support I’ve received from racing fans from all over the world, to support me and my friends and sponsors,” he added. “They know me, they know my integrity, they know the way I work. I’m working hard to recover, to take care of the situation.
“Many people don’t understand that after F1, I took Indy car racing to Brazil, and the Le Mans-style 6 Hours events at Interlagos – which I believe is a fantastic championship – I put a lot money into that and lost a lot of money on the three events in Brazil.
“The last one, we had an incredible event and I drove the Ferrari 458. I had a lot of fun, it was a very positive event – but I’d already lost a lot of sponsors before that race. On the marketing side, Brazil was backing off due to the economic situation – and we suffered from those circumstances.”
A hard-earned reputation
“I want to tell the racing fans, through Motorsport.com, that when I started racing in Brazil, my father was a racing journalist,” said Fittipaldi. “I started out building racing steering wheels, go karts, Formula Vee and prototypes to sell to fund myself and my brother.
“We come from a very honest family, had very good education via my father. We worked very hard to achieve what we did. When I went to race in England, starting in Formula Ford, it was very tough in the beginning. Dennis Rowland was preparing my engine, and during the week I would polish cylinder-heads as a mechanic. Nothing happened easy in my life, I always worked very hard.
“It was my results with Lotus and Colin Chapman that meant we had our first Brazilian Grand Prix in 1973. Brazil was a new country to racing back then, but then we had Nelson Piquet, Ayrton Senna, and now to Felipe Massa – all that fantastic history in Grand Prix racing.
“I was the pioneer, along with my brother and Carlos Pace, three Brazilian drivers who worked very hard to create this passion for motor racing. And now they destroy my image after so many years, and so much reputation.”
Hard times in business back home
“Everyone knows that Brazil has its problems, and that I’m going through a very difficult financial time within my group,” said Fittipaldi. “But we are still there, we are slowly solving these issues. Step by step we are recovering our situation.
“I believe in Brazil as a country. I love Brazil. I love the Brazilian people. I invested a lot of money in an ethanol refinery in Brazil. I was one of the biggest investors in the beginning of the ethanol flex-fuel cars in Brazil.
“I, along with big investors and multi-national companies, had expectation that the ethanol price was going to be enough per litre that you could pay back the investment. But the government established a price that was very difficult for any refinery to survive. Today in just the state of Sao Paulo, there is between five and eight refineries in Chapter 11 [filing for bankruptcy].
“Brazil is the perfect country for ethanol from sugar cane. The flex-fuel car technology was developed by Bosch and Magneti Marelli, so you could put any fuel in and the car would drive, or you could mix 50/50. Brazilian industry invested a lot to develop this, and what happened? They used the private investors like me, and just there I lost 7 million Real ($2.1m). That’s a lot of money, and was the beginning of my problems.
“This is what I call a lack of governance, the lack of commitment for a project that would have developed the countryside. Instead, the Brazilian money has gone to buy oil from the Arabs and other countries. That money could have stayed in Brazil. That money would have circulated, which would lead to better infrastructure. I’d call it a disaster of governance. As a result, my group started to suffer.
“And then there is the banks. Just to give an idea, the cheapest rate you can get for a business loan is about 20 percent per year. How can you do business where you need to pay back 20 percent?
“It is symptomatic of the problems in Brazil. It has the most expensive banking rates in the world. And the Brazilian people do not deserve that, and while the banks make huge profits the country is suffering. It affects me, and thousands of other business people – it’s like chaos.”
A new future for Brazil?
“I’d like to finish by saying thank God there is a guy like Sergio Moro, a very young judge in Brazil who I have a lot of admiration and respect for [Moro has prosecuted in a series of high-profile scandals of corruption and bribery in both government and business]. He is doing so much for Brazil, he is confronting all the corruptions – and as we speak, I believe this is to a level like nowhere else on the planet, in the history of the planet. Billions and billions of dollars of corruption, which is systematic in Brazil, it’s become the culture in Brazil. Every day he discovers something new.
“This judge is going to help the future generations, give them a new level of how to behave in business. I hope there becomes a new mentality, which will allow Brazil the opportunity to take off. The country has fantastic potential.
“We are 200 million people who work hard. If all this money from corruption which goes out from Brazil could stay in the country, then we could build a new infrastructure – get better hospitals and schools.
“It’s a chain of corruption, and it has to be broken. We could have a much better Brazil. We deserve a better country for our people. The new generation of politics has to work for the country, not for themselves.”