Emerson Fittipaldi: My greatest tracks
The double-World Champion picks his ten favourite circuits
By Emerson Fittipaldi
Last Updated: 27/09/13 9:01pm
I won the Belgian Grand Prix twice, in 1972 and 1974, but both races were held at Nivelles. The Nivelles circuit was nothing special - very flat with huge run-off areas - and it hosted just those two Belgian Grands Prix. It's now an industrial estate, so, for what it's worth, I have a 100% win record there which can never now be bettered!
I raced in eight other Belgian Grands Prix - 1971, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979 and 1980 - but all those races were held at Zolder. Zolder was a better circuit than Nivelles, but I never won there: my best Zolder result was third behind the Tyrrell boys Jackie Stewart and Francois Cevert in 1973.
So it is, therefore, that I'm sad to have to say that I never raced a Formula 1 car at Spa. That's one of my greatest regrets, because it's the kind of circuit I love most: fast, flowing, difficult, technical, undulating, full of dramatic elevation changes, and extremely demanding of driver and car alike.
It's consequently no wonder that, when asked, most modern Formula 1 drivers utter just one three-letter word when asked to name their favourite racetrack: "Spa."
What, then, I was recently asked by a friend at McLaren, in the absence of Spa from my personal Formula 1 database, are the 10 Grand Prix circuits of which I have fondest memories?
Well, here goes, I'm about to tell you, in reverse order, saving the very best till last.
10. Mosport, Canada
Mosport, which hosted eight World Championship-status Canadian Grands Prix in the 1960s and 1970s, was small but fast, difficult in terms of car set-up, and full of awkward elevation changes. As such, it was a pretty dangerous place, especially the section at the end of the long uphill curving straight at the back of the circuit, which is now called the Mario Andretti Straightaway, and which leads to Turn Eight, a fast and tricky right-hander.
In the 1973 Canadian Grand Prix, in which I finished second for Lotus behind Peter Revson's winning McLaren, I nearly had a massive accident early in the race. I was following my Lotus team-mate Ronnie Peterson, and, as I drew close to him on that long uphill curving straight, my car entered the 'dirty' turbulent air behind Ronnie's car's rear wing. Usually that would just cause an irritating loss of downforce, but it happened just as I was cresting a bump and, combined with the steep uphill gradient we were climbing at the time, my car went light at the front. For a second I thought it was going to flip up and back, as we've sometimes seen sports cars do at Le Mans, but fortunately it stayed level. It was a scary moment though: there were a lot of trees at Mosport in those days.
My best result at Mosport was victory in my McLaren World Championship year, 1974. The long-wheelbase configuration of my McLaren M23 was perfectly suited to the bumpy and hilly nature of the circuit, I found a very good balance, and I won from pole.
As I say, Mosport was a dangerous place, but a big challenge: Grand Prix racing in the raw.
9. Kyalami, South Africa
I never won at Kyalami, but I got pretty close in 1972. I qualified my Lotus third, behind pole-man Jackie Stewart's Tyrrell and second-placed Clay Regazzoni's Ferrari, and I felt pretty confident prior to the race. I felt even more confident when Clay made a bad start, allowing me to pass him straight away, and I felt better still 45 laps later, when Jackie's gearbox failed.
I was now leading, but unfortunately Denny Hulme's McLaren was catching my Lotus. Towards the end of the race my car began to develop a handling problem and I could keep Denny back no more. I ended up finishing second behind that wily old New Zealander.
Kyalami was super-fast, with a long straight that ran from the tight Leeukop right-hander via a tricky right-hand kink, called The Kink logically enough, up the hill to a famously challenging quick-ish right-hander known as Crowthorne. The next two bends were fast and tricky too - Barbecue and Jukskei Sweep.
Apart from the circuit itself, Kyalami was always a fun place to visit, because most of the teams used to turn up a week or so early, testing every day in the lead-up to the race, all of us staying at the nearby Kyalami Ranch hotel, and the sun always shone. In those days drivers used to hang out with one another in the evenings, and some of my rivals got into some pretty hairy scrapes, I can tell you!
8. Clermont-Ferrand, France
Forty-four long years before the modern era of World Championship Formula 1 racing had begun in 1950, the very first Grand Prix took place at Le Mans, in north-western France. That 1906 race was won by the Hungarian Ferenc Szisz in a 13.0-litre Renault, at an average speed of 62.88mph, over a gargantuan distance of 763.36 miles. And, no, I didn't take part in it!
Since then, the French Grand Prix has taken place at no fewer than 17 further circuits, making 18 in all.
I took part in 10 French Grands Prix - at Paul Ricard, Dijon and Clermont-Ferrand - and all three of them were very good circuits, the best of the three being Clermont-Ferrand in my opinion.
I only raced at Clermont-Ferrand once, in 1972, but I'm really glad I did so because it was an incredible racetrack, made up of public roads that wound their way around an extinct volcano. As such it was fast and flowing rather than slow and sinewy in the manner of street circuits such as Monaco and Long Beach: as I say, it was a road circuit, not a street circuit.
I finished second in that 1972 race, behind Jackie Stewart's winning Tyrrell, but what I remember most about that afternoon was what happened to poor Helmut Marko, who's now one of the most senior directors of the Red Bull team but was then a young driver for BRM.
I was dicing with Denny Hulme, and my Lotus and his McLaren were pretty evenly matched. The apices many of the corners at Clermont-Ferrand were made up of crumbling volcanic rock, and either Denny or I inadvertently ran over a loose chunk of rock and kicked it up into the path of Helmut's pursuing BRM. It struck him directly on his helmet visor, penetrating it, the injury causing him to lose his eye and call an end to his Formula 1 career.
There were no fewer than 10 tyre punctures caused by similar rubber/rock interfaces that afternoon, but fortunately no big shunts. Nonetheless, the French Grand Prix was never held at Clermont-Ferrand again, which in my view was a pity, because it was a unique,wonderful and natural arena in which to go motor racing.
Had the organisers resurfaced the asphalt, and thereby eliminated the problem caused by stray volcanic rocks, it would have become much safer.
Clearly, 21st-century Formula 1 cars are too quick for a linked-up circuit made up of public roads such as Clermont-Ferrand, but we could have continued to hold the French Grand Prix there throughout the 1970s, and I for one wish we'd done so.
7. Zandvoort, Netherlands
I loved Zandvoort, and raced there often, first competing there in Formula Ford.
It was a fast, flowing circuit, weaving its way through the sand dunes near the North Sea coast.
There were some brilliant fast corners at the back of the circuit - Scheivlak, Tunnel Oost, Pulleveld - and two notoriously tricky slower corners at the start of the lap - Hugenholtzbocht and, most famous of all, Tarzan.
In the 1977 Dutch Grand Prix James Hunt was leading in his McLaren M26, with Mario Andretti close behind in his Lotus 78. On every lap James hugged the inside of the start-finish straight, protecting the inside line into Tarzan, which was the best place to overtake on the entire lap. Eventually, Mario lost patience and tried to pass James around the outside of Tarzan. The result was an accident, and neither of them finished the race.
Afterwards there was an almighty row, two very strong characters both utterly convinced that the other was 100% in the wrong. As ever, these things are always more complex than the protagonists are willing to accept shortly after the heat of battle.
My view is that Mario had had many years of oval racing in the States prior to embracing Formula 1 on a full-time basis in the mid-1970s, and for him it was second nature to race wheel-to-wheel around the outside of a long-ish turn like Tarzan, even if it wasn't banked and even if it wasn't part of an oval.
James, by contrast, was as British as they come, and I recall him saying that what Mario had done "wasn't cricket". Having raced with both Lotus and McLaren for many years, I knew all about cricket, but it's not a sport I've ever learned to enjoy!
I finished fourth for Copersucar in that famous Hunt-Andretti Dutch Grand Prix, and my best Zandvoort result was only third, for McLaren, in 1974.
I'd qualified third for that 1974 race, behind the Ferraris of Niki Lauda and Clay Regazzoni, and as usual I went to bed early the night before the race.
I slept well - a good solid eight hours - and, after breakfast on raceday morning, I walked out through the reception of the Zandvoort Hotel, and to my astonishment I met Mike Hailwood, my McLaren team-mate, coming in. Mike was a party animal, and he'd clearly spent the whole night enjoying himself in Amsterdam.
He'd qualified fourth - and, as he and I lined up next to each other on the grid that afternoon, I remember thinking to myself, "There's no way Mike is going to be able to race well today because he must still be shattered from last night." But Mike was a one-off: over 75 laps he and I diced nose to tail, and at the finish he was just 1.02 seconds behind me.
Mike was a legend - an utterly brilliant motorcyclist and extremely good in race cars too. I was terribly upset when, years later, in March 1981, I heard the news that he'd been killed in a road accident near Birmingham, England, on his way to buy a portion of fish 'n' chips. But that was Mike: a no-nonsense good-time flat-out true-Brit guy.
6. Osterreichring, Austria
Alongside Monza, which was super-quick but not super-difficult, the Osterreichring was arguably the fastest circuit I ever raced on in Formula 1 - especially in the days before 1977, in which year a chicane was installed at the Hella-Licht corner. Prior to that, its 3.7 miles contained just seven real corners, which were linked by long snaking sections almost none of which were actually straight.
As such, it was a truly fantastic test of a driver's commitment. Yes, it was dangerous, of course it was dangerous, it was much too fast to be anything other than dangerous, but racing there was an unbelievable experience, especially as it often seemed to be wet or at least damp there.
I won there only once, for Lotus in 1972, from pole position. Next to me on the grid in P2 was Clay Regazzoni's Ferrari, and just behind me in P3 was Jackie Stewart's Tyrrell. Jackie got a great start, and led in the early stages from Clay in second and me in third. On lap five I managed to pass Clay - never an easy thing to do - and then I set about closing the three-second gap that Jackie had managed to open up. By lap 24 I was on Jackie's tail. Unlike Clay, Jackie was always super-professional in such circumstances, and he quickly realised that he wasn't going to be able to keep me behind him, so I got past him without too much difficulty.
It was a great win for me because it meant that I was 25 points clear in the World Championship standings with just three races to go. In those days you only got nine points for a win, so my only remaining World Championship challenger was McLaren's Denny Hulme, 25 points behind me, who would have to win all three remaining races without my scoring more than two points. Fortunately, he didn't manage to do that, and the World Championship was mine!
5. Watkins Glen, United States
Like so many circuits in my top 10, Watkins Glen was fast, undulating, flowing and full of elevation changes. I always thought it was rather like its North American counterpart, Mosport, but on a bigger and better scale.
It's a circuit that means a lot to me, not least because I scored my first ever Grand Prix victory there, for Lotus in 1970, and because I drove my last ever Grand Prix there, for my and my brother Wilson's Fittipaldi team in 1980. Sadly, my Fittipaldi car's suspension failed after 15 laps, so it wasn't a happy Formula 1 swansong for me.
Ten years previous to that, though, things had been very different. It was my first ever visit to the States and, as I say, I won the race, despite its being only my fourth Grand Prix start. I felt absolutely fantastic as I crossed the line.
The next day I decided to visit New York City for the first time in my life, to celebrate. As I checked into my hotel, which was on Broadway, I gave the clerk my passport in the normal way. As he took down my details, he spotted the back page of that day's New York Times, whose main headline read "Fittipaldi wins $50,000 race".
"Is that you?" he asked me.
"For sure," I replied.
He looked at my briefcase, somewhat greedily I thought, and I was gripped by the suspicion that he assumed it contained my $50,000 prize money in cash, which it didn't of course.
That night I therefore wedged a chair under the door handle of my room, in case he tried to break in and rob me. Fortunately, it didn't happen!
4. Brands Hatch, UK
Brands Hatch is a second home to me. I know it incredibly well, having raced there in Formula Ford, in Formula 3 and of course in Formula 1, and I absolutely love it.
In the 1960s and 1970s it was extremely bumpy, which made it tiring as well as challenging, but all good drivers always looked forward to racing there because it was a place where a skilled driver could really make up for the deficiencies of his car. It was extremely tricky from a technical point of view, and pulling a quick lap together without errors was therefore always very difficult indeed.
For most of my Formula 1 career I drove for Lotus and McLaren, and for both of those British teams victory at home was a particularly coveted goal. I'm therefore very glad to say that I managed to win the British Grand Prix twice - once for Lotus (Brands Hatch, 1972) and once for McLaren (Silverstone, 1975) - and I'll always remember that 1972 victory at Brands Hatch as a very special achievement.
Jacky Ickx took pole position for Ferrari, and I qualified in second place, alongside him on the front row. Behind us were Peter Revson (McLaren) in third place, and Jackie Stewart (Tyrrell) in fourth. At the start Jacky got away well from pole, but I slotted in behind him, emerging from Turn One, Paddock Hill, in second place.
But Jackie was always brilliant at Brands Hatch, and he overtook Peter on lap three and, after a hard battle, he passed me on lap 25.
I wouldn't let him get away, though, and by lap 35 I was looking for a way past him again. On lap 36 I found it - and duly retook second place. Jacky's Ferrari was only a few hundred metres ahead of me now, and Jackie's Tyrrell was still filling my mirrors. I was in a tricky situation, but I felt confident about it all the same.
On lap 49 Jacky's Ferrari developed an oil pressure problem and retired - so I was now in the lead. Jackie tried everything he knew to get past me again, but I managed to keep him back and was still 4.10 seconds ahead of him as I took the chequered flag.
I'd beaten the great Jackie Stewart in the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch! I was over the moon! It's a victory I treasure to this day!
3. Monaco, Monte Carlo
What can I say about Monaco that hasn't already been said a thousand times?
It was, and still is, narrow, bumpy, tricky, awkward and slow - but also absolutely magnificent.
I tended to drive differently at Monaco from the way I drove everywhere else. At most circuits, especially the fast and flowing ones, I tried to be smooth, to slide my car as little as possible, to drive with grace and poise and mechanical sympathy. At Monaco you couldn't do that. You had to really hustle your car, even to chuck it a little sideways on the entry to the corners. It went against the grain for me, but it's what you had to do to be quick at Monaco in a 1970s Formula 1 car.
I never won there - I wish I had - but I came second twice (in 1973, for Lotus, and in 1975, for McLaren). In both races I was in a titanic battle for the lead - with eventual winner Jackie Stewart (Tyrrell) in 1973 and with eventual winner Niki Lauda (Ferrari) in 1975.
I've described both those races in a previous mclaren.com/formula1 blog, so I won't do so again now, but I haven't described one of my proudest Monaco achievements before: namely bagging pole position for the 1972 race.
I was really proud of that lap, which was quicker than anything that the Ferrari duo of Jacky Ickx (who qualified second) and Clay Regazzoni (who qualified third) could muster. I particularly remember how I took the Harbour Chicane, which was a super-quick left-right in those days. I grazed the barriers on entry, apex and exit, riding the kerbs as I did so, and as I booted the car onto the straight towards Tabac I knew I'd nailed that daunting left-right combo as perfectly as it was humanly possible to do.
Sometimes bravery and precision come together in a perfect symphony in a race car, and that corner on that lap was one of those occasions.
Sadly, on race day it rained. No - correction - on race day the heavens opened. The result was a chaotic race that was won by Jean-Pierre Beltoise for BRM. I managed to finish third. Had it stayed dry, I'm pretty confident that I'd have been able to mount a serious bid for victory.
2. Interlagos, Brazil.
When I refer to Interlagos, I mean the old Interlagos, the 5.0-mile version, not today's 2.7-mile version, which is still very good but isn't quite as wonderful as its predecessor.
The old Interlagos was a simply stupendous racetrack - a seemingly never-ending series of oddly cambered switchback bends, some of them banked, most of them quick and all of them difficult. I'd learned how to race there as a teenager, first of all on motorbikes, then in racecars, and I absolutely adored the place.
The first World Championship-status Brazilian Grand Prix took place there in 1973 - and, as reigning World Champion about to contest my home Grand Prix for the very first time, I sensed enormous pressure on me.
In qualifying my Lotus felt good - but my team-mate Ronnie Peterson was clearly just as confident in his Lotus because when the qualifying hour was over it was his name that topped the time-sheets, with mine just below his in second place.
His best time was just two-tenths quicker than mine - very little when you consider that the overall laptime at Interlagos in those days was well over two minutes - and Jacky Ickx's Ferrari was in third place despite having qualified a full 1.30 seconds slower than I had. So it was clear that Ronnie's and my Lotuses were the class of the field.
I got a great start, and took the lead straight away. Ronnie had got bogged down and had dropped to fourth, so that my brother Wilson's old friend Carlos Pace (Surtees) was able to dart through to second place, with the ever-dependable Jackie Stewart third.
In the first couple of laps both Jackie and Ronnie pushed their way past Carlos, and I could see in my mirrors that Ronnie was desperate to find a way past Jackie too.
Before he had a chance to do so, though, he suffered a wheel failure and crashed out. So now, as so often, it was Jackie versus me.
Jackie tried to close the gap but my car was running perfectly and I was able to control the race, eventually winning by 14 seconds. It was one of the greatest days of my life.
Better still, exactly one year later, I repeated the feat, claiming victory in my home Grand Prix at Interlagos again, this time for McLaren, and this time from pole position.
1. Nurburgring, Germany
It may seem strange that my all-time favourite Grand Prix circuit is a racetrack at which my best result was a meagre sixth place (1973), but it's true.
The Nurburgring Nordschleife - not to be confused with the pale imitation that the Formula 1 circus uses today - was and still is the most majestic stretch of asphalt on which Grand Prix cars have ever raced.
It has everything - more than 100 corners, massive elevation changes (more than 300 metres difference between its highest and lowest points), steeply banked turns, off-camber bends, big yumps, huge hilly straights, and the unique characteristic that, because of its remarkable Eifel mountains micro-climate, it can be bone-dry on one side of the circuit and soaking-wet on the other.
I first raced there in the 1971 German Grand Prix. My boss at Lotus, Colin Chapman, was very keen that I should learn the great racetrack properly, which was always difficult since it was so enormous, so he sent me there for a week's practice in a Lotus 7 road car, which was a quick car by road-car standards and offered a fair facsimile of the knee-high viewpoint that a Formula 1 car's cockpit would afford of the most daunting racetrack ever built.
I drove many dozens of laps in that Lotus 7 that week - and, by the time the Grand Prix weekend was upon us, I felt I knew the circuit pretty well. Even so, my Lotus 72 wasn't very competitive that year, and I could qualify it only eighth. On race day I had a mechanical failure on lap nine, and that was that. As so often, Jackie Stewart won the race.
The next year, 1972, was very different. I arrived in Germany in the happy position of being World Championship leader, having won already in Spain (Jarama) and Belgium (Nivelles) and Britain (Brands Hatch), 16 points clear of my closest rival, who was Jackie Stewart of course.
When qualifying began, it soon became clear that the Ferraris were very quick - and Jacky Ickx, who was always quick at the Nurburgring, duly qualified his Ferrari on the pole. Jackie Stewart (Tyrrell) qualified second, and I (Lotus) was third, with Ronnie Peterson (March) fourth.
When the race got underway, Jacky led from the start, ahead of Ronnie, a fast-starting Clay Regazzoni (in the other Ferrari), me and Jackie.
Straight away I felt that my car was beautifully balanced for the conditions, and I was able to overtake Clay on lap two and Ronnie on lap five.
I was now in second place behind Jacky's flying Ferrari - and I felt confident that I'd be able to peg back the advantage he'd built up. However, to my bitter disappointment, on lap 11, my gearbox failed, forcing me to retire from the race.
In 1973 I was out of luck too, qualifying only 14th as a result of the acute pain I was still feeling in my ankles following my practice shunt at Zandvoort the previous weekend. I managed to work my way up to a sixth-place finish in the race, but it was a disappointing weekend all told.
In 1974 I qualified my McLaren M23 third, but my race was ruined when my team-mate Denny Hulme and I made contact with each other on lap one. Denny retired on the spot. I made it back to the pits but it soon became clear that I'd have to retire with suspension damage.
In 1975 my McLaren failed to finish the race too, this time as a result of a lap-two puncture.
And in 1976, in the Copersucar, I finished 14th.
And that was that, because Niki Lauda's famous and fiery accident in the 1976 race sadly but unsurprisingly ensured that the Formula 1 circus would never visit the Nurburgring Nordschleife again.
As I say, I never won there. I never even had a podium finish there. But the memory of racing a Formula 1 car there will stay with me for ever.
Truly, the Nurburgring Nordschleife was and remains the greatest of the greatest.
Better even than Spa? Oh yes, for sure, you'd better believe it.
Read Emerson Fittipaldi's regular monthly column on the Official Vodafone McLaren Mercedes website. View the full archive of Emerson Fittipaldi blogs on the Official Vodafone McLaren Mercedes website.