To be a Formula One driver in the 1980s was a fearful premonition. As the turbo era entered its final few years, the cars being produced had power topping the 1000 BHP mark – not even the modern day F1 cars come close to this mark. The duels between Piquet, Senna, Prost and Mansell provided an incredible story of the decade, which began in such darkness with the death of Gilles Villeneuve, and ended with Senna and Prost colliding at the entry to the Casio Triangle at Suzuka. The in-between was special though. Lauda’s comeback, Rosberg’s title, Mansell’s deflation at Adelaide, and Senna’s wonderful baptism into F1 were some of the defining moments of the 1980s. Beneath the story though was a beautiful sub-plot, with the tinkle of a piano as the score. Elio de Angelis’ career defined the decade, meeting both triumph and disaster, and ultimately, death. He was a spectacular driver, and was the first driver to benefit from Lotus’ legendary partnership with John Player Special. Often dismissed as “Senna’s teammate,” de Angelis was one of the most successful drivers in the 1980s not to win a World Championship, but his legacy is greater than that of many a world champion.
The son of a motorboat racer, Elio was brought up with racing in his veins. He took the natural route of karting, before moving into Italian F3 and then F2 in 1978. The same year, he won the prestigious Monaco F3 race, which alerted Formula One teams to this bright talent. Shadow approached him with a race seat, which de Angelis duly accepted, making his debut at the Argentinean Grand Prix at Buenos Aires in 1979. He finished a confident seventh, and at the age of just twenty, he was certainly one to look out for in the future. In his debut season, de Angelis failed to qualify just once, a record many drivers would be proud of. His first points came in a wet race at Watkins Glen, famously dominated by Gilles Villeneuve. It was de Angelis who was the star though. Having started a lowly 20th on the grid, the Italian stormed through the field to come 4th, and was one of just four cars to finish on the same lap as the leader. This was enough to secure him a drive at Colin Chapman’s Lotus team for 1980, which would mark the beginning of a wonderful partnership.
The first season at Lotus was a mixed one for de Angelis, who very nearly became the youngest Grand Prix winner at the Brazilian GP, finishing a superb P2 in just his second outing for Lotus. He only managed to score a further three times though, but his performance at the Italian GP at Imola was commendable, fighting to 4th from P18 on the grid. This was what de Angelis could do so well – fight through the field. 1981 was a more consistent year, scoring in over half the races as the JPS backing began to give Lotus a new lease of life, which came to fruition in 1982, with de Angelis taking his first Grand Prix victory at the Austrian Grand Prix. Prost looked set to take the chequered flag, but a failure on his Renault meant de Angelis and Rosberg were fighting for the win with a few laps to go. The gap became smaller and smaller, but eventually it was de Angelis who claimed victory by 0.05 seconds – the second-closest margin of victory at a Grand Prix. This was Lotus’ first win for four seasons, and it would be the final time Colin Chapman would toss his cloth cap into the air, with the Lotus founder dying of a heart attack in the December of 1982. In a year that saw Formula One plummet to new depths, following the deaths of Villeneuve and Ricardo Paletti, and the row of superlicenses which became so insignificant on the face of things, de Angelis was a good news story. He was young, fast, and a highly likeable character.
It was also in 1982 that Elio de Angelis made his mark on Formula One. At the opening race of the season, the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami, the drivers decided to strike over their superlicenses. Led by Niki Lauda, the drivers felt that they were being unfairly treated, giving too much power to the teams, and not enough say in their own contracts. On the Thursday before the race, the drivers locked themselves in a conference room at a hotel in Johannesburg, refusing to come out until their demands were met. In the room was a piano, which de Angelis sat down to, and began to play. He was a concert standard pianist, and he managed to keep the drivers entertained until their demands were finally met. It was a wonderful show of how behind the helmet, a real person exists, and how such a simple act could be so significant. He also appeared on a German TV show, performing a piece that delighted the audience. This talent was part of what made Elio special.
1983 was a difficult year for de Angelis. Despite getting his first pole position at Brands Hatch, which he dedicated to Colin Chapman, he only managed to score two points in the entire season, and finish the race just twice. It all changed in 1984 though, as with Renault power in his Lotus 95T, de Angelis had his best ever season in Formula One. As Prost and Lauda dominated proceedings, de Angelis was consistent in picking up good points, and finished third in the world championship thanks to four podiums and a reliable Lotus-Renault. He was joined at Lotus by Ayrton Senna in 1985, and was tasked with nurturing the explosive talent of the Brazilian. It was another wonderfully consistent season for de Angelis, and he only finished five points behind Senna at the end of the season. The Italian also managed to pick up a second win at the San Marino GP despite never leading the race. After finishing second to Prost, the McLaren was declared underweight, handing the win to de Angelis. He said “Maybe it’s not the best way to win, but in a way it’s justice. I was catching Prost and then with two laps to go I lost the brakes, so…” It would mark his final GP victory, but he continued to challenge the leaders throughout the season, taking pole at the Canadian GP that would have seen him win the race had it not been for a problem with fuel consumption. As the team began to put more and more effort into Senna, de Angelis became disgruntled, and left the team at the end of the season to join Brabham. In an underperforming BT55 car, de Angelis could only manage 8th on debut, and then suffered three retirements heading into the fateful test at Paul Ricard.
Whilst travelling at a high speed, the rear wing of de Angelis’ Brabham came off, which caused the car to lose all rear downforce. His car subsequently crashed into and over a barrier, and caught fire. As this was a test, very few marshals were on site, which meant de Angelis was stuck in his burning Brabham. He was eventually rescued, and taken to hospital, where he died 29 hours later due to smoke inhalation. Had the marshals reacted quicker, he would have survived, having only broken his collarbone and suffered light burns on his back from the initial impact. He died of smoke inhalation, and the curtain was drawn on an amazing career that ended in the saddest possible circumstances.
Legends in Formula One are not made by race victories and world championships, but instead by their personality, and the mark they leave on the sport. In the case of Elio de Angelis, he was a talent with enormous potential, and in a better car, who knows what he may have achieved. The attitude he took towards racing was refreshing, and compared to many of his elder contemporaries, de Angelis was a mature racer. The last fatality until Imola in 1994, de Angelis left a legacy that many drivers recognised. Jean Alesi’s helmet replicated Elio’s, as a tribute to his semi-compatriot. Although he was lost too soon, de Angelis will never be forgotten.
“Whenever I am showing visitors around the workshops I enjoy asking them, ‘Who raced in the most Grands Prix for Team Lotus?’ If they know I am pleased. If they do not, I enjoy telling them it was Elio and that he is my hero.”