Elio

For thirty minutes he lay there, motionless under the bright May sky, unconscious to the world and the lack of attention being given. Debris was strewn over the embankment like shattered glass, glimmering in the light but telling a far darker story. Drivers stood around with heads in hands. Marshals looked on in utter disbelief. As the shimmering warmth from the glowing sun gave way to darkened clouds, Elio de Angelis left Formula One with a bitter taste and a tale of extraordinary negligence.

Being a gentleman, full of charisma and politeness one can only find in a young Roman, Elio de Angelis didn’t hesitate to entertain his fans, his team and even his rivals. The Italian’s popularity proved unmatched at a time when tensions in Formula One were running close to boiling point. He shook people’s hands, he smiled and joked. Always managing to light up a room, de Angelis will be remembered for his personality more than for his race craft. But even then, his place in the record books is as deserved as any other.

After only a couple of years in single seaters, Elio waved goodbye to Italian Formula Three and joined the Shadow team at the sharp end of international motor sport for the 1979 season. Elio’s first race set hearts beating faster than normal, with a great drive to seventh from sixteenth on the grid. In an uncompetitive car, Elio managed to capture the imagination of many fans.

The fine result of seventh, albeit only tantalisingly close to the points, would be repeated a few races later at Long Beach. This time from twentieth on the grid, de Angelis showed determination in his hauling of the Shadow up through the field. However, the biggest result of 1979 for Elio was yet to come.

Once again on American soil, although this time on the other side of the country at Watkins Glen, de Angelis closed his first season in Formula One in style, collecting his first points, and the first for the team in the whole campaign. Again, from twentieth on the grid, Elio proved he had the ability to make his car work at one with himself, despite how slow in comparison to others it was.

At the United States Grand Prix East, Elio cheered with his mechanics as he collected three points and raised himself from the bottom of the championship. An achievement that not even his equally inexperienced team mate could match.

It would prove to be too much for Colin Chapman to resist, and Elio’s Formula One career was moved up a notch for the second showing. Joining the Lotus team for 1980, de Angelis was starting to move up the field. Elio had a contract with Shadow, but the chance to move to a more competitive team was surely the right thing to do, even if it did mean getting sued in the process.

Although perhaps not as competitive as they were in previous seasons, Lotus was still a marked improvement for de Angelis, and the Roman’s career was surely about to take off. Lotus were world champions and knew how to race. Elio had landed.

Partnered with the much more experienced Mario Andretti, the start of the 1980 season went reasonably well for the Italian. In fact, de Angelis led his American team mate all year and proved that while Andretti may have been champion in multiple disciplines, the youth and vigour of Elio shone through.

In only his second race for Lotus, the Roman finished a superb second to René Arnoux, almost clinching the youngest ever win in the process. Unfortunately, de Angelis would have to wait, and that particular title failed to fall his way, but impressive Elio was certainly proving to be. Mario only managed one solitary point from 1980, Elio captured thirteen.

In 1981, Elio was partnered with up-and-coming British hopeful Nigel Mansell. It was Nigel’s first full season in Formula One, having entered just three races the year previous with Lotus. Therefore it can only be expected for Elio to dominate, having gained crucial experience and knowledge of the sport and team in the previous seasons.

Elio was progressing well in his career, and although the second place in Brazil was bitter sweet, the Italian looked upon his own presence in the sport with nothing short of a smile. With the knowledge of the car slowly losing competitiveness to its rivals, Elio would be forgiven for getting down, frustrated maybe or even showing signs of anger. Alas, it wasn’t his nature. And instead of kicking up a fuss, blowing his fuse or yelling at the sky, Elio just got on with the races.

1981 would yield no podiums for the Italian, but scoring an extra point than previously managed showed determination, especially as the car was proving harder to drive. From fourteenth on the grid though, Elio managed a fine fifth in Belgium, only shadowed by Nigel Mansell’s maiden podium, third place from tenth. The race though would be remembered for the fatality of one mechanic, and serious injuries to another.

Elio and Nigel remained at Lotus for 1982, and while the world watched in awe – and subsequent horror – of the battle between Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi, Elio was busy working hard with the team in attempts to improve the car. A podium came early for the Lotus squad, although it would once again be at the hands of Mansell. However, the fighting spirit of de Angelis would finally pay off later in the year.

A relatively strong run of points finishes saw Elio on thirteen as he entered the Austrian Grand Prix that year. Team mate Mansell was behind on seven. Once again it looked to be a season where de Angelis would shine above his team mate, and after leaving the Österreichring on Sunday evening, the dominance for that year was almost guaranteed.

From seventh on the grid, Elio drove a superb race and doggedly resisted the advances of Keke Rosberg in the chasing Williams. As each driver crossed the line on the final lap, the distance between the cars was almost immeasurable. Elio had won. By 0.050s. It was Lotus’s first win since 1978, and of course, Elio’s first in Formula One.

De Angelis netted 24 points that year, but the smile was soon to be wiped from the faces of the team members as 1983 brought more retirements than Elio had ever suffered in any previous season. Of the fifteen rounds that year, de Angelis retired from twelve, was disqualified from one, finished in ninth in Belgium and collected a measly two points from a fifth place in Italy. Mansell fared better, but on nine points himself it wasn’t exactly worth writing home about.

Perhaps it was the move to Pirelli tyres, perhaps it was the loss of team boss Colin Chapman in the December prior to the racing season. Either way, Lotus struggled from the offset in 1983, and halfway through the year they realised something had to change. The team hired a new designer in the shape of Frenchman Gérard Ducarouge. Within weeks a new car had been designed, and although it was too late for 1983, spirits were buoyed for ’84.

Returning to Goodyear tyres and with a Renault power plant nestled behind the drivers head, Elio returned to his usual charming self; the swagger was back in his step and once again, the racing circuit was his domain. De Angelis reasserted his authority over Nigel Mansell and claimed three podiums. Although a win didn’t happen, a healthy dose of championship points led Elio to a third place in the championship.

1985 would see almost as many points scored again, although Elio’s position in the championship slipped to fifth. Three more podiums were achieved though, including a second win, this time on Elio’s home soil. At the San Marino Grand Prix, race fuel allowances caused a hectic race as many drivers fell by the wayside in the final few laps. After crossing the chequered flag in first, Alain Prost spluttered to a halt, and after his McLaren was weighed, it was found to be a little on the light side. The Frenchman was disqualified and the Italian promoted.

The ’85 campaign would also be remembered for one other change in the Lotus team. Nigel Mansell had finally left to further his career, choosing Williams as a new home. In Nigel’s place came a driver with only one season of experience, but would eventually go on to become one of the greatest pilots to have ever graced a racing circuit.

Ayrton Senna proved to be a real match for Elio, and from the word go, the Brazilian was quick. In only his second race for Lotus, Ayrton converted his maiden pole into his maiden race victory. De Angelis was no longer the dominant force of the team. A string of five podiums towards the end of the year, including one more win, would put Senna in the spotlight, and de Angelis in his shadow. The team scored 71 points that year, Elio contributing just 33 of them. A healthy tally, but also the minority.

With the team showing a preference towards Ayrton Senna, Elio de Angelis decided to leave Lotus after the 1985 campaign, and instead moved to Brabham to replace Nelson Piquet. It would be a move that perhaps was made in a rare moment of frustration. It would also prove to a be a move that would ultimately lead to de Angelis testing on a day when he shouldn’t have been.

Brabham were on a downward spiral, and the BT55, designed by the legendary Gordan Murray, was said to be radical. Ultimately, it wasn’t all that great. Quickly realising this, de Angelis insisted on testing the car more regularly, and after a disastrous Monaco Grand Prix that year, Elio persuaded the team to allow him to test the car following the race. Making team mate Riccardo Patrese stand aside, Elio travelled to the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Castellet.

Some reports say that no one witnessed the accident. Others say that two Benetton mechanics saw what happened. All we do know is that at approximately 180mph, the rear wing on Elio’s Brabham gave way while the Italian was thundering though the Verrerie curves – the high speed left-right kink at the end of the main straight.

The BT55 cartwheeled over the barrier, landing upside down and trapping Elio inside. Unable to free himself, Elio sat there as his back began to burn from the smoldering wreck. Drivers and team personnel rushed to the scene and attempted to rectify the car, only to be forced back due to the heat.

After close to ten minutes, and with little help from the marshals who were in very short supply, Elio was freed from the wreckage, but was forced to wait a further thirty before a helicopter could transport the Roman to hospital.

Elio passed away the following day. His main injury? Smoke inhalation, which would have likely caused brain damage. Aside from this, a broken collar bone and burns to his back. Had Elio not been made to wait for a helicopter, it is likely he would have survived. Had Elio been freed from the car sooner, it is likely he would have made a good recovery.

Instead, Formula One lost one of it’s greatest characters. A competitive spirit who did his best to return a smile, to look on the bright side and to show courtesy and respect when all around him there was bitter rivalry and political shenanigans. A man who wouldn’t hesitate to entertain those around him, to play the piano he loved so much or to simply offer advice to a team mate. Elio was a gentleman, perhaps the last the sport has ever seen.

He lived with passion. He raced with passion. Elio.

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33 comments

  • I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that all marshalls at a GP are volunteers.

    Surely, with all the noise the FIA make about safety, they could spring a few $$$ to pay for marshalls who are properly trained and equipped? I’m sure this isn’t the only time when effective and efficient marshalling was needed and not provided, and a driver has died and/or been injured as a result.

    I know this occurred some time ago, but I’m pretty sure that with regard to marshalling, things haven’t changed all that much.

  • I know this occurred some time ago, but I’m pretty sure that with regard to marshalling, things haven’t changed all that much.

    As a result of de Angelis’ death, marshaling at races and tests was substantially improved.

    Part of the problem with what happened at Paul Ricard that day in 1986 was the fact that of the few marshals that were present, they were too slow to respond and were wearing little more than t-shirts and shorts.

    Marshals are now required to undergo fairly rigorous training, whether they are paid or voluntary. Hospitals are put on standby during racing events and neurologists are always on call. The FIA medical team spend the sessions sitting in a Mercedes with a skilled driver at the wheel and ambulances are posted at various places around the track. The facilities at the circuits have improved dramatically and a helicopter has be able to be mobile.

    The recent test in Bahrain was stopped because the sand storm prevented the emergency chopper from taking off. The drivers were simply not allowed on track. Early morning fog delayed the start of the test in Portgual as well for the same reason.

    For Elio, he had to wait 30 minutes at the side of the track. When Senna and Ratzenberger perished in 1994, marshals were on the scene almost immediately and the helicopter able to airlift the drivers to hospital. Unfortunately, it still wasn’t enough, but I don’t think the marshaling can be blamed for those tragedies.

    It is almost certain that poor marshaling has caused more than one death in Formula One and motor sport as a whole, but since 1986, just as many marshals have been killed at races as drivers.

    I believe three marshals have been killed since about 1997-ish.

  • A BBC Motor Sport article from 2001 talking about how driver safety has improved a lot since 1994, but marshal safety has been largely ignored in comparison.

    I’ll try and get Keith The Marshal’s attention in identi.ca. Keith is a marshal, although he doesn’t do F1, I don’t think. But he has had to complete some training and might be able to share a more accurate reflection on what people have to do these days before they are allowed to marshal at races.

  • Thank you for this Ollie, it’s a thoughtful, well written article that really makes you think.

    I love reading about all the history of F1 from a time before I was interested in the sport. It’s easy to skim over the past and forget the sacrifices that were made by many drivers over the years and who made the sport the spectacle it is today.

    For me, it’s fantastic to get a flavour of what it was like to race at that time, to get a feel for who Elio was as a person, what motivated him and the legacy he left.

    Articles like this serve as a sombre reminder of the dangers of motorsport and it’s something we should all be aware of.

  • Ollie,

    That was a brilliant article! Even though I know the story of Elio, it still shocked me to read this article. Very well written and a fitting tribute to the sort of character Modern F1 is craving for.

    Forza Elio!

  • I love reading about all the history of F1 from a time before I was interested in the sport.

    So do I, Jackie, so do I. Many of the stories I know, or half know. But when it comes to writing these longer posts, I always look forward to the research bit, and the verification of facts, the stories I half know, and learning little extra tidbits. That’s the bit I love the most.

    Although I should just point out that I don’t know what the weather was like in Le Castellet on the day of and the day following Elio’s accident. I just made that bit up – writer’s whatdyacallit.

    Very well written and a fitting tribute to the sort of character Modern F1 is craving for.

    Thank you (all) for the kind words. And yes, I suppose F1 is craving for an Elio type character. I hadn’t noticed until I read your comment, but there really isn’t a particularly strong personality in the sport at the moment. That’s a shame, although what it is lacking in personality is made up for in talent.

  • The facilities at the circuits have improved dramatically and a helicopter has be able to be mobile.

    Having boldly declared that, I’m not sure Ferrari have a helicopter on standby when the team tests at Fiorano or Mugello. I’m sure there is an ambulance around though, with paramedics onboard, just in case. Even Italian health & safety isn’t that bad. 🙂

  • Fabulous article Ollie and a great choice of subject. I really enjoyed the writing.

    de Angelis had a very cultured upbringing and was an incredibly good pianist. During the drivers strike at Kyalami there was a grand piano in the room the drivers lived in and Elio played everything from Mozart to Scott Joplin to entertain the drivers. I know there was another pianist in that group but I can’t remember who.

    It is incredible how many drivers have died over the years when they were perfectly healthy after the crash. It is hard to believe looking back on it that at that time safety had improved massively on a decade previously.

    The Brabham BT55 was an innovative design and by far the lowest car seen in F1 at that time and possibly ever. It effectively was the basis for the all conquering 1988 McLaren MP4/4. Because the BT55 was so low the BMW straight 4 engine had to be canted to make it low enough. This resulted in problems with oil scavenging. I can’t remember whether the problem was on right hand or left hand corners but because the sump was offset oil was not picked up when it was on the inside of a bend and this caused problems with lubrication. The MP4/4 had a Honda V6 so did not have the same problem.

  • Fabulous article Ollie and a great choice of subject. I really enjoyed the writing.

    I’m honoured, thank you sir. I personally feel I waffle a bit in between the intro and ending. My ‘career’ parts to these posts tend to be formulaic as I sink into a groove and churn out the same old phrase for each seasonal highlight. But I don’t mind having a go at conjuring up some emotion or response with a bit of, I dunno, whatdyacallit. 🙂

    Thanks for the great info on the BT55, MP4/4 and their respective engines.

  • I remember vividly going to Ricard for the first time (1989) and one of the very first things pointed out to me was specific area on the trackside where Elio’s car stopped.

    Relatedly, how (sadly) ironic that Circuit Paul Ricard in its reinvented and modern-day guise of High Tech Test Track should receive the very first FIA Center of Excellence Award in 2006.

    From the FIA press release on the day:

    “Professor Sid Watkins, FIA Institute President, said:

    “Paul Ricard has proved itself to be one of the safest tracks in the world and its medical facilities are second to none.” – Professor Sid Watkins, FIA Institute President

    http://www.fia.com/mediacentre/Press_Releases/FIA_Sport/2006/December/081206-02.html

    Great article Ollie; thank you.

    Kevin YORK

  • Great article Ollie; thank you.

    Thank you Kevin, I appreciate your kind words.

    Relatedly, how (sadly) ironic that Circuit Paul Ricard in its reinvented and modern-day guise of High Tech Test Track should receive the very first FIA Center of Excellence Award in 2006.

    Indeed. Back in 1986 it was considered pretty much the same; one of the safest circuits around. Of course, during race meetings it probably was pretty safe in comparison, and generally speaking it was probably miles ahead of other tracks. But on that day, that fateful day, it wasn’t. Be it the bump that some say caused the wing failure, or the lack of marshals present…?

    It just goes to show that because something is considered safe, it may not always be. Especially when you consider a driver who is determined to drive as fast as possible to further develop a vessel he is trusting his life with.

    Thanks for the comment, Kevin. And the link to the circuit’s recent award by the FIA.

  • Cevert was a great pianist but he had been dead almost ten years by the time of the drivers strike.

    There is a very spooky story about Cevert and music in JYS’s last book. Cevert constantly played Beethoven’s Pathetique(spelling?). JYS said that Cevert was very close to Helen Stewart and said if he died he would get a message to her letting her know everything was OK. Just before Xmas Mark Stewart the younger son asked for some money to buy his parents a Xmas present and made them stand outside a record shop while he chose a record for them. He chose one because he liked the cover. He had no idea what the record was.

    When it was opened on Xmas morning it was the Betthoven piece Cevert always played.

  • I finally found out who the other pianist was and I can’t believe it didn’t occur to me. It was Gilles and it was him not Elio who played Scott Joplin.

    Pironi was head of the GPDA at the time although Lauda was working him by remote control. Lauda controlled the drivers while Pironi negotiated on their behalf. Every time Pironi arrived with the latest news Gilles introduced him by playing the first few bars of Beethoven’s fifth.

    http://www.linksheaven.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=811

  • My father was a great Elio´s fan. My memories from the accident are very childish, but I remember I was shocked with the images.

    About the article, I really love the start. There´s a literature mood on it:

    “…For thirty minutes he lay there, motionless under the bright May sky…”

    This is a first class prose! What are your preferred F1 writers, Ollie?

  • This is a first class prose! What are your preferred F1 writers, Ollie?

    Thanks Becken. To answer your question: Clive and Patrick. I know that doesn’t really answer your question, but I rarely get time to sit down with a good book and read properly. When I get home from work I’m pretty much glued to the monitor until I fall asleep. It isn’t very healthy and I don’t recommend it! 🙂

    And when I do take a break, I like to completely disassociate myself from anything I would normally do on a day-to-day basis. So that means no F1.

    Although I will plug one or two books, not because of the authors especially, because I don’t really know much about them or their other work. For these two titles though, they did pretty good work.

    Stirling Moss, by Robert Edwards.

    Autodrome – The lost race circuits of Europe, by S.S. Collins, [gorgeous] photography by Gavin D. Ireland.

  • Thanks Ollie good to read your words… The past is gone and it is always nice… and bitter to remember the drivers who passed away but are still alive in our memories.

    Ciao Elio! Grazie mille Ollie!

  • But I don’t mind having a go at conjuring up some emotion or response with a bit of, I dunno, whatdyacallit. {Oliver White}

    That would be either writer’s prerogative or artistic licence. Either would describe the idea to which you refer.

  • The past is gone and it is always nice… and bitter to remember the drivers who passed away but are still alive in our memories.

    Thanks Ago. You’re are right as well. It isn’t always easy to remember, but we shouldn’t let these drivers be forgotten. Especially as they have all helped the sport and those drivers who today are charging around racing circuits at great speed.

    Thanks for the plug Ollie. I am thinking of making you my agent.

    Oooh, 10% of what Steven makes. Sounds lucrative. 🙂

    That would be either writer’s prerogative or artistic licence.

    Although I prefer the term Ollie-nonsense. 😀

  • A wonderful article about a driver I knew nothing about before reading this- thanks very much for enhancing my scope of Formula 1:)

    I knew about Senna, but I did not think any drivers had perished at the wheel between he and GV, so I was quite saddened to hear of this. I also did not know he drove with Andretti for a time- that was the most interesting detail of his career to me.

  • A wonderful article about a driver I knew nothing about before reading this- thanks very much for enhancing my scope of Formula 1

    No problem Gman, pleased you liked it.

    I knew about Senna, but I did not think any drivers had perished at the wheel between he and GV

    Ricardo Paletti died on June 13th, 1982 (5 weeks after Villeneuve), at the controls of a Formula One car during the Canadian Grand Prix. It was a pretty horrific start-line accident: Wikipedia link. It was Paletti who was the last to perish in a grand prix (so Elio aside) until Roland Ratzenberger some 12 years later.

  • It was Paletti who was the last to perish in a grand prix (so Elio aside) until Roland Ratzenberger some 12 years later.

    I’m not sure why, but I came back to this post this evening, and I just wanted to assert the Ratzenberger thing.

    I find it very sad, but to a degree, understandable, that Roland’s passing is overshadowed time and time again by Senna’s.

    Senna was a great driver and loved and loathed in the sport in equal measure (depending on you supported 😉 although, generally loved). But perhaps because he didn’t have the career Ayrton had, or drive for a team that was called Lotus, McLaren or Williams, Roland is usually forgotten.

    Ratzenberger will be a feature of a future “Character Post” on BlogF1 (possibly after the season now). At the moment I don’t know too much about his character, but I know he deserves my attention. If anything, because the events of April 30th 1994 are often forgotten among the Formula One fanbase.

  • Can I just say that was a fantastic article!

    I’m the webmaster for the Elio de Angelis website at the url listed, and it’s always great to read articles such as this one.

    Most of what happened that fateful day on May 14th, 1986 has already been mentioned, but here are some more details:

    http://www.geocities.com/chasey_uk/eliodeangelis

    It was perfect May weather that day, blue skies and sunshine with an early morning nip in the air. Weather definately had nothing to do with it, and actually I had not heard of a ‘bump’ theory before reading this article.

    In my opinion, it was more likely to have been something mechanical – Elio was trying a new rear wing that day which was one of the main objectives of the test. It only takes one loose nut, or an aerodynamic oversight – or both to cause disaster.

    Back in May of 1986, if you were going to have an accident at Paul Ricard there were 2 places you really did not want anything to go wrong – first place is the 190mph Signes curve at the end of the back straight, and the second place is the ‘Verrerie’ curves where Elio went off taken at about 180mph and a real test for any driver.

    Nigel Mansell had a huge accident at Signes in 1985 when his tyre exploded knocking him unconcious, fortunately the Williams stood up well to the impact with the catch fencing and he was ok.

    However, the MAJOR irony was that in 1985 the Brabham no 2 driver Francois Hesnault had a massive accident during the same testing week in May driving the BT54 at EXACTLY the same spot, totally destroying the car and ending up upside down in the catch fencing.

    Although nothing mechanical was found to have caused the accident (it was suspected that he had ran over the rumble strip) it was nonetheless extremely ironic.

    I have photos of Elio’s crash that were published in the Italian magazine Rombo that show the sequence of events, something that I do not publish to my website for general consumption:

    http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v81/chasey_uk/elio/ricard_1.jpg

    http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v81/chasey_uk/elio/Ricard_3.jpg

    http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v81/chasey_uk/elio/ricard_4.jpg

    http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v81/chasey_uk/elio/Ricard_2.jpg

    http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v81/chasey_uk/elio/Ricard_5.jpg

    [Editors note: These photos do not depict Elio de Angelis or anything gruesome (not that I can see anyway), and are therefore safe to view by all. They show a damaged barrier and some tyre marks on the track surface.]

  • Apologies – I did not include the last pic which showed the Brabhams final resting place, which was some considerable distance from where the accident first occured.

    http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v81/chasey_uk/elio/Ricard_6.jpg

    It’s never nice posting these pictures and viewing them again, but there has been some very constructive discussion from everyone in this thread as opposed to the usual crowd of vultures that appear everytime a dead racing driver is discussed in other F1 discussion forums.

  • Thanks for contributing Steve. Your site is brimming with information – I love it.

    The community here at BlogF1 are very respectable, I must say. The post was more on Elio’s personality and is a part of an occasional series looking at drivers who have had a real impact on the sport. Nuvolari and Zanardi have also received treatment from tired old fingers. 🙂

    I wish I could remember where I read about the bump on the track being a possible reason for the accident – I didn’t think to post links until I wrote about Zanardi – but if I come across it again I will add to the post and comment the addition as well.

    Also, my apologies. The automated system behind BlogF1 keeps marking your comments as spam, when clearly they are not. It should learn itself through my counter-actions, but obviously it isn’t. I always keep a close eye on the spam bin though and will recover any further additions of yours as soon as I spot them.

  • It was indeed an excellent article Oliver, and I would like to thank you for drawing attention to Elio as a character who did indeed make a very positive impact on the sport. Grazie!

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