That charm that you just can’t forget

Thirty-six years ago, on 15 May de Angelis left us, following an accident in the private tests at Ricard. In these pages, his brother Roberto draws a moving memory which is also the faithful portrait of a talented boy, an art lover and gifted with exceptional ability behind the wheel.

Translated by this website

Thirty-six years since the disappearance of Elio de Angelis have not in the least affected memory, nostalgia, and the pleasure of remembrance. On the contrary, they even amplify the values, the experience, an existence, and a career that are short but full of talent and talents, goals, and humanly fundamental identities.

And in any case, looking for a round and happy anniversary, this summer we will celebrate exactly forty years since Elio’s first success in F.1, in Austria with the Lotus 91, when he beat the future world champion Keke Rosberg on Williams, giving the legendary Colin Chapman the last triumph of an ancient and legendary sequence.

And, talking about Elio, born in 1958, with his brother Roberto, a year younger and who has always acted as the ideal twin, gives shivers. Because he possesses at the same time the gift of otherness and impartiality with respect to the late champion but also an empathic and homogeneous inner vision, so much so that he can represent him, at times even embodying him. Giving us back his stories, his sensitivity, his reasons. Giving away anecdotes and points of view wonderfully attributable to both.

Yes, I always like to talk about Elio and even more in a moment like this, in which one perceives very well that his memory is so dear, grateful, and appreciated by those who knew him and by those who are only now discovering him, backwards. Champions are always champions but it’s also true that talents on a human scale like Elio no longer exist, precisely because today’s big names appear increasingly distant from reality for various reasons. Once the top driver was a hero, there was risk and the propensity to cherish values such as openness and friendship. Elio was ready to bond with journalists, with enthusiasts and even with mechanics, on a par with his more sympathetic and open-minded colleagues. Not now, almost all of them live in a kind of bubble, on a pedestal far from true sharing with enthusiasts. I’m not criticizing anyone, please, but I am expressing an analysis and explaining why Elio, here and now, is relived and re-interpreted by Motorsport lovers as a figure who over the years has taken on even more value for his way of being, as well as for the talent behind the wheel.

How would you define Elio?

A simple boy, who has many gifts from life and the opportunity to follow his inclinations. And his most beautiful talents are not material, but spiritual. Since he was a child, Elio has been drawing cars, especially racing cars, and he represents them wonderfully. He also loves competitions, obviously, but at the same time he has the gift of music, of knowing how to play the piano and to compose. Elio is an artist and at the same time an intelligent, cultured, sensitive and good boy. Here, maybe even too good. Capable of believing in people’s honesty when this is not always so automatic. In any case, Elio is a top driver in the 1980s F1 who, however, believes in his abilities and in his sincere and direct approach. He’s not a “politician” in the team, he limits the field of commitment to the track and doesn’t like working on the team or weaving plots. In this purity I find – and not only I – an important and fundamental added value.

Yes, Elio like Gilles Villeneuve is basically an ethical driver. One who believes and is believed. Respectful of fair play. Yet I notice in the sweetness of your memory also a different vein, which goes beyond…

Well, we can’t forget that in the middle of the 1985 season, or rather at the height of his racing history, when he had just been leader of the world championship, Elio was betrayed by Lotus, which from then on preferred Senna to him. Of course, Ayrton was Ayrton, he was very fast, he was a champion with a different DNA from that of the others, but at the beginning of the season Elio had also shown that he could be more effective and, in any case, suitable for driving in GPs in which it was necessary to respect the dictates of controlled consumption of gas. And when Lotus makes it clear that there are tools and means to serve only one top driver, Elio is forced to leave for 1986 at Brabham, which seems like a good team. But instead with the BT55, the so-called ‘Sogliola’, they put a bullsh*t car on the track with which he ends up dying.

Starting this recollection with the end of Elio may seem strange, but let’s let the flow of consciousness flow naturally, Roberto…

I speak freely, as to a friend, and I feel like saying that Elio is remembered by many in such a heartfelt and shared way also because, in addition to having many talents, he had immense bad luck, which made his story a broken one. So much so that safety standards have changed, after his accident in the Ricard tests, where, in addition to the lack of helicopter rescue, there weren’t even adequate extinguishing equipment for the marshals, who had shorts and small fire extinguishers in hand, completely unable to put out the flames of a real fire, so much so that to do so it was necessary to call the firemen from a nearby village. I mean that in racing and in life there are sliding doors, revolving doors, junctions of destiny which then place you well or very badly. And with fate Elio was ruthless. And I also tell you that when I look at modern F1 and see Grosjean’s accident in Bahrain 2020, I can’t understand how it is possible that they still use multi-blade rails today, with the Frenchman having found himself half a car from a part and a half on the other and he is saved in the middle… And I don’t even feel like justifying anyone when I see single seaters whizzing by at over 300 km/h between the walls of a street circuit like Jeddah… Maybe they haven’t been understood yet the lessons that fate has imparted, in the history of F1? You know, I tell myself, at times, fate was unfair a thousand times by depriving us of Elio, precisely because he was someone who always raced using his head so much. In fact, never making serious mistakes, running very effectively, but always cerebral. Elio was a complete driver, very fast, consistent, hyper-rational. He has never been the protagonist of an accident at the start and has always had a broad and peripheral vision in managing the race. For this reason, from the point of view of the mental approach, Elio is a modern champion, with an eye to the future and compatible with this era. In this is his actuality of him, which coexists with his exceptional nature as a man.

No less than 108 disputed GPs, two victories, 10 podiums, three pole positions from 1979 to 1986. Let’s try to think of a different destiny. Today Elio would be 64 years old. Could he be an entrepreneur?

Possible. Or maybe he’d still be in the world of F1 with a team of his own, who knows. However, I think that if he had managed to fulfill his dream of becoming world champion, he would have dedicated himself to something else. He would have repositioned the bar and looked for new challenges, even completely different ones.

Elio was engaged to a beautiful and refined German model, Ute Kittelberger.

Just think, unfortunately Ute passed away at the end of last July, of an unexpected and sudden death. In 2021 she left and shortly before her a great friend of Elio, Mario Aguglia, his classmate. Ute was married, had three children and in recent years we had resumed contact, until the day of her disappearance.

Why was Elio Elio?

I’ll tell you something simple. We are children and our family in Parioli lives in a building where there is also the apartment of our grandmother, who is a music teacher. Elio can only learn the delights of the pentagram, soon even starting to compose, loving modern music with an artist’s attitude. An eclectic propensity brought to art, as I said, to drawing and music, is immediately evident in him. He is a cultured, open boy, rich in style and in skills that find an important outlet even with his first approaches to the world of Motorsport.

How does your family history in racing begin?

In the beginning there was our father Giulio who took part in little more than local races, with Touring cars, uphill like the Vermicino-Rocca di Papa. Then our grandfather forbade him to race in cars because they were too dangerous and he devoted himself to motor boating (although even more risky), becoming a world-class champion. Being born into a family that breathed this taste for competitions then led me and Elio, who have always been very close, to begin a career in karting, until he moved to F3 in 1977, giving the beginning of the ascent by car which placed him on a different level. At the same time, I dedicated myself to entrepreneurial activity, however becoming his first fan, on a par with my father.

Elio proved to be very fast right away – after having been an internationally renowned kart driver -, becoming Italian F3 champion in 1977.

He had a Chevron, which he alternated with a Ralt, for fast circuits. The first year is a great fight with Piercarlo Ghinzani for the national title.

He had victories at Mugello and at the GP Lotteria di Monza, to play it all in Magione, in a dramatic shoot-out, since my brother is excluded from the final due to a problem and he manages to start only because Niccolini gives him his place. The fact is that on the small Umbrian toboggan Elio stages the race of life, comes back like a madman, takes the lead two laps from the end, and goes on to win the race and the title, launching himself into F2 and beyond…

1978 is the year of Chevron-Ferrari in F2, of the triumph in Montecarlo F3 and of the test at Fiorano with the F1 Ferrari 312 T3, which make you dream, but…

The F3 success in Montecarlo, all grit and comeback, launches it … But Enzo Ferrari wanted Elio to gain experience in F1 first with the Surtees and my father didn’t agree, judging the English car not valid. From here the roads of Cavallino and Elio separate and for 1979 an agreement is made with Shadow, a team in decline, but still a precious opportunity to gain experience.

Elio is seventh on his debut in F.1 in Argentina, so at Watkins Glen he contests another legendary race, finishing fourth, with two dry tires and two wet ones. In the pits, your father Giulio, lap after lap, counts the positions with one hand and blows the horns with the other, for good luck…

Ahahahah, he fits, it’s an image in which I see him again! Yes, at the Glen 1979 Elio performed a miracle and then, after a pre-selection test, he earned the Lotus for 1980, alongside the great Mario Andretti. And from 1979 I also want to highlight Elio’s prowess in the Procar one-make race with the BMW M1s, at Zolder, when he showed great natural talent, teaching the big names in F1 a lesson in the race that day, with perfectly equal cars.

Lotus is also a team on a downward slope, in the world championship, with Colin Chapman looking for new strokes of genius and finding them in 1981, hopefully with the revolutionary 88 with double chassis, which however is prohibited by the Federation.

At Lotus already in 1980, my brother establishes a great relationship with Mario Andretti, who recognizes his talent on several occasions. And he lends him a hand, teaching him how to manage the delicate parts of the Lotus, especially the gearbox. On average Elio proves to be faster and more effective than Mario and in 1981 he becomes the first drive, even if he falls victim to the case relating to the 88.

Which, incidentally, he didn’t like, according to him it didn’t even kick, so much so that when it prohibited, he breathes a sigh of relief.

The interim car, the 87, proved to be much more effective than the 91 model of the following year, 1982, which was however saved by the great day at Zeltweg, with the big win over Keke Rosberg.

A wonderful Sunday of sport and in history as the last GP won by Lotus in the presence of the founder Colin Chapman. My God, how much he sweated, Elio, to be able to conquer his first center in a Grand Prix!

Elio continues to prove to be a consistent driver, but also a lover of real circuits, such as lnterlagos, Spa, Osterreichring, Hochenheim, Monza…

True, he didn’t like toboggans. Monte Carlo, for example, he considered it a carousel. He also loved the tracks that gave the man the edge, the ones on which the driver could still make the difference.

The cohabitation with the newcomer Nigel Mansell, although five years older than Elio, does not give him any problems, since he dominates him.

At the beginning, in 1981, in his first full year in F1, Nigel still didn’t have much of the champion he would later become. Let’s say that on the tough tracks he takes about 1″5 per lap from my brother who gives him the nickname of ‘Mansueto’. The Briton, on the other hand, defends himself precisely on the sinuous circuits and from then on, he will progressively improve, until he explodes at Williams, from the second half of the 80s.

Elio got his big break in 1985, with a good Lotus, equipped with a powerful Renault engine in testing even if thirsty in the race. But the problem soon became the competitive and political coexistence with the new arrival, Ayrton Senna.

Senna is a bad customer, on the track – because he immediately proves to be very fast and exceptional as a driver – and good outside the car. Especially in soon bringing the team all on his side. In other words, he is a champion with fantastic grit in competition, while out in terms of fairness he is borderline. So much so that in the first GPs of the 1985 season Elio proved to be the most effective in terms of points, considering that after Imola he is even leading the world championship.

But this does not help him maintain leadership in the team, which becomes Ayrton’s fiefdom.

Elio’s triumph at Imola, moreover at the table, with the winner Prost disqualified because he is underweight, makes Ayrton lose his temper, who addresses you in a bad way.

At Imola for the race, Elio is given the new engine, which consumes less, while Ayrton goes with the other one, putting in a great initial performance, which however leads him to be stranded a few laps from the end, breaking down dry. My brother, on the other hand, races with his eyes on consumption and in the end he’s right, enjoying the victory, even if following Prost’s disqualification. And it is there that, upon meeting us, Ayrton accuses us of having had that engine because we were the “usual Italian mafia”, but these are things that escape in the excitement of the moment. Elio, as he said, had driven as a taxi driver, but it had worked great! Then, after the good pole in Canada 1985, the story went as it went. Ayrton grew more and more in the team, to the point that Elio had to find another accommodation, ending up at Brabham. the rest, unfortunately, is known.

And your mom?

Mom, it will seem strange to you, has accepted the loss of Elio better than all of us. He was the real pivot for our family, for us two brothers and a sister. So much so that I say that there were four of us in that F1 single seater, as he represented us all, perfectly. Here, we constituted a kind of single organism, and he was our spearhead. So, think how dismayed, hurt, traumatized by the loss of him we were… Even for decades I didn’t even want to hear about racing, I felt so burned. Then, gradually, I got brought closer to the environment, also noting with pleasure that Elio has not been forgotten at all. The truth is that it took me thirty years to make peace with the world of motoring, which before I was no longer able to look at even with sunglasses. But now it’s different, everything seems sweeter to me. I am also thinking of the wonderful book about my brother that has just come out, written by the talented Gian Luca Teodori, which has fully captured the essence of Elio. Giving him back to us in his pages in a delicate way, exactly as he really was.

*You can buy the newest book about Elio – Elio de Angelis Il Principe della Formula 1 by Gianluca Teodori – here (it is only in Italian)

© 2022 Autosprint • By Mario Donnini • Published for entertainment and educational purposes, no copyright infringement is intended

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