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Driving Legends:
Elio De Angelis, the last Gentleman Driver

Elio De Angelis will be remembered by all those who followed the Formula 1 championships in the early 1980s, drivers and car enthusiasts, without exception. It’s hard to recall another track champion of his calibre, who alongside his sporting talent had a certain class, politeness and good manners which earned him the name of the last gentleman driver. But the name Elio De Angelis will also be remembered by those who switched on the TV that fateful day, 14th of May 1986, to the see the pictures of his accident on the fast chicane “Esses de la Verriere” of the Paul Ricard circuit, his fellow drivers reaching into the flames to try and pull him out of the crumpled BT55 and the hot, toxic smoke which, tragically, cost him his life at just 28 years old. A pang in the heart which went worldwide.

A pure talent, sharp, cultivated with the greatest seriousness and passion. He had the DNA of a champion, with the speed genes inherited from his father - Off Shore world champion in the 1950s – which led him to get into his first kart at 14 years old and from that time quickly take the path that would lead him to competitive racing: his debut in Formula 3 at 18 years old, then in Formula 2 and Formula 1 at just 20 years old, signed by Lotus and Colin Chapman, becoming his protégé, also in the sense that he showed great humility in working so hard, collaborating on perfecting the cars, and for his refined ways, almost from another era.

Originally from Rome, raised in a good family that provided him with an excellent education, Elio loved tennis, football and classical music, so much so that he declared that if he hadn’t been a professional driver, he would have liked to be a composer. His hands, capable of drawing perfect trajectories on the track, were trained in precision through his studies of the piano, a skill which became evident in one of the most memorable off-track episodes of his career.

It was 1982, the World Championship was about to open in Kyalami and 29 drivers barricaded themselves into the conference room of a hotel to put up a united front in protest against a new super license proposed by FISA. It was, in fact, the first ever strike by drivers in the history of F1, faced with a great spirit of camaraderie despite the extremely high tension. Elio, with the precise intention of relieving some of that tension, sat down at the piano and started playing Mozart very skilfully: it became one of the symbolic moments of the protest.

On the track, his finesse of thought became the real tactical intelligence of a veteran: he was able to understand exactly when to really push the car or when to simply lead it to the finish line. This was a strategy that led him, despite the non-competitive cars, to stand 10 times on the podium, to 3 pole positions, 122 points won and 2 victories – in the Austrian GP in 1982 and in San Marino in 1985 – placing him by rights among the best drivers of his time, on a par with Mansell, Andretti, Patrese and Senna.

It was the rivalry with Senna, his team mate, which made him leave Lotus in 1985: when it became clear that the team intended to favour the Brazilian, De Angelis chose the path of pride and of Brabham. It was in a Brabham BT55, during a collective test session at Le Castellet that he wanted to take part in so as to familiarise himself with a car so low as to be nicknamed “sole”, that Elio lost his life in one of the most controversial on-track deaths of all time: the rear wing became detached at 270 km/h, the BT55 catapulted into a barrier, the first aid teams absent and the delay in transporting him to hospital…

An avoidable epilogue according to many, which paradoxically was actually useful for Formula 1 since it meant that the question of safety changes could no longer be postponed: from that time on, on-track assistance was improved and the FIA imposed the same safety levels in test runs as required for the races.
The extreme, unfortunate sacrifice of the last of the Gentleman Drivers.

Once more, Ayrton Senna was very lucky, he was very close to having an accident. When you are lucky, you are lucky. When you’re not…” – Elio De Angelis, GP Monza, 1985.

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