INTERVIEW: Fittipaldi on (belatedly) picking up the family torch at the Speedway

Phillip Abbott/Motorsport Images

INTERVIEW: Fittipaldi on (belatedly) picking up the family torch at the Speedway

IndyCar

INTERVIEW: Fittipaldi on (belatedly) picking up the family torch at the Speedway

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There is a quiet confidence in Pietro Fittipaldi.

Rightfully so, after having qualified 13th for his debut Indianapolis 500 and in turn, bringing his family name back into the historic race for the first time since 1995, when second cousin Christian Fittipaldi finished runner-up. But there’s something more to it as the 24-year-old Miami-born Brazilian strolls down Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway like he’s been here before.

Well, actually, he has.

In 2018, he made his IndyCar debut at Phoenix with Dale Coyne Racing and was primed for a run at the Indianapolis 500 before it all went awry roughly two weeks prior. The grandson of two-time Formula 1 champion and two-time Indy 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi was qualifying with DragonSpeed in a World Endurance Championship race at Spa-Francorchamps when a mechanical failure caused a collision into the outside barrier while going flat out at Eau Rouge. He broke both legs and suffered compound fractures, which derailed his 500 aspirations.

“When I had my accident, it was crazy because after the surgery happened, they were saying that it was going to take me more than a year to get back to physical activities and stuff,” Fittipaldi told RACER. “I thought about Indy, but I thought about my career in general. I said, ‘Man, I don’t know what’s going to happen,’ but I couldn’t accept it in my head. I told my family. My uncle, Max (Papis) helped me, too, and said, ‘Let’s fly you to Indianapolis and start working on some rehab there.’

“After that, I stayed the month of May here in the motorhome and was doing rehab here during the month of May at the medical center, and working at PitFit. Dr. (Terry) Trammell helped me a lot. After the month of May, I still lived in Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a month and a half with my mom.”

By July 29, roughly two and a half months after his accident, Fittipaldi found himself back behind the wheel of a race car. While admittedly not at 100 percent, he returned for the final five rounds of the season and managed to score an 11th at Gateway before following it up with a career-best ninth at Portland.

“Then I was looking at continuing to race in IndyCar full-time, but it didn’t happen,” Fittipaldi said.

Instead, he kept busy with opportunities to compete in DTM and the Formula Asian Championship, as well as becoming a test and reserve driver with the Haas F1 Team. Fast-forward through that stretch, and the experience also includes two Formula 1 starts as replacement for the injured Romian Grosjean, with whom he now shares the No. 51 Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing Honda in IndyCar this season.

Fittipaldi subbed for now-ride-sharer Romain Grosjean in two GPs for Haas F1 last year. Charles Coates/Motorsport Images

“I raced in Formula 1, but I always had in the back of my mind to come back and race the 500,” said Fittipaldi, who remains with Haas as a test and reserve driver for 2021. “You never know when it’s going to happen — opportunities come and go, and sometimes they come out of nowhere. I had already been talking to Dale and then the opportunity came actually pretty late. I mean, the end of January, beginning of February. Dale called me and was like, ‘You want to do the ovals?’ I said, ‘Yeah, for sure.’ I’m really happy to be back here and racing, other than being in a motorhome doing rehab because that was very painful.

“We were competitive in qualifying. I’m learning every day because you can learn a lot. There’s guys that come in and have 10 starts here, 15 starts, it’s crazy! So, taking it step by step. The team has been doing a great job, my engineer Olivier (Boisson) and all my engineers. Even Dale as well, with taking me through the process of how qualifying works, where I can improve and then now focus on the race, what I can do there, what we can do better. It’s just been amazing.”

It’s remarkable just where Fittipaldi fits within the landscape of motorsports right now. Not only was he forced to overcome injury and adapt on the fly while bouncing in and out of various championships, but there was also an extended period of time when, due to the pandemic, he didn’t even get an opportunity to drive.

“Last year, I was supposed to race in Super Formula and because of the pandemic, I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I stayed out of a car for nine months, and I hadn’t driven a Formula 1 car for a year when I got my chance to drive in Bahrain. I was there, and it was super-high pressure. My first Formula 1 race, straight out in FP1. No shakedown before, nothing; nine months without driving anything, a year without driving a car. The most I had been without driving a car in my whole career would have been like a maximum of three months, and because of COVID and everything, it was nine months without driving anything and straight into the biggest weekend of my life, and then we performed very well.”

Fittipaldi delivered a respectable 17th in his Formula 1 debut, staying relatively close in pace and finishing just 4s behind teammate Kevin Magnussen. His second race in the season finale at Abu Dhabi brought engine woes that forced him into multiple pit stops en route to finishing 19th. Even so, he found some positives from it..

“We had some issues there with the engine, in which we had to do some extra pit stops but we were able to pass Kevin and put some pressure on the Williams guys,” he said. “I was able to perform even with a crazy amount of pressure and not being as prepared as I would have liked to be for my first Formula 1 race.”

After being thrown in at the deep in in F1, Fittipaldi is ready to rise to the occasion for his Indy 500 debut. Phillip Abbott/Motorsport Images

That experience is a big reason why Fittipaldi remains unfazed by the magnitude of the moment coming on May 30.

“Coming to the 500, it’s a very high-pressure situation,” he said. “Qualifying was super high-pressure, but in my head, I was like, ‘I’ve done it before, so keep my cool and just execute everything that I can and that’s under my control and do the best. Don’t worry about the things that are not in my control.’”

At the end of the day, Fittipaldi is a racer. He’s driven nearly anything and everything that has four wheels. From junior formula to Formula 1 and IndyCar, he even captured a late model championship at Hickory Motor Speedway in 2011 before winning the Fall Brawl – the signature event – the following year. That all said, he still recognizes the significance of returning his family’s name to the Brickyard.

“It’s super–significant,” he said. “It’s an honor to be here and to be back with the Fittipaldi name, Fittipaldi family back racing in the 500. It’s a great honor for me to be carrying that name, having the name on the side of the car and it’s just amazing.

“People ask, ‘Is there added pressure?’ But there really isn’t because I’m here doing what I love. There’s no one that puts more pressure on me than I put on myself because I want to be here competing. I want to be here doing well. I don’t just race because I like driving cars. It’s because I like winning and being competitive, so that pressure comes from within. But just to have the family history here and to be able to continue that is really awesome.”

As Fittipaldi plans for The Greatest Spectacle in Racing this Sunday, there isn’t much thought into where he would like to finish. Instead, he remains calm, cool and collected with thoughts of doing the job, and letting the result speak for itself.

“Hitting all my marks, executing everything that’s under my control,” Fittipaldi said. “That’s the start of the race, restarts, coming into the pits, leaving the pits, getting up to speed on the out-lap and stuff, being able to run well in traffic. That’s my focus, is everything that’s under my control, being able to execute everything. Then where we end up at the end is going to be a result of how good we were, how competitive the car was, as well. So, for me, it’s just executing everything that’s under my control.

“For sure, I’d be happy, over the moon, to get a win. If you finish in the top three it’s great. But, obviously a win here, everyone remembers the win; finishing second or third, it almost hurts a bit more. But if we can finish in the top 10, that would be great. I’m not focused on the results. It’s more like I know we can be competitive, so focus on everything that’s under my control. Just execution. Making sure we’re on it from the green flag.”

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