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.