Feel The Butterflies – Christian Fittipaldi

Christian Fittipaldi has driven at all levels of motorsport. He is proud of his family name, has always been determined to make his own mark in the sport.

Mecca of Speed: Welcome back to Road America, I presume you have some good memories of this track?

Christian Fittipaldi: Yes, this place has always been good to me. I have had a couple of DNFs but always ran really competitive here. I think my worst race finish was the last time I raced here and finished 5th or 6th.  Apart from those I have always been in a winning situation including my win here in 1999.

It’s an awesome drivers circuit, one of the best if not the best in America and I’m really happy to be back here.

Mecca of Speed: After a career in the top open wheel racing series you made the transition to sports car endurance racing. How was the adjustment of setting up a car for multiple drivers?

Christian Fittipaldi: Sometimes it’s a little bit more complicated because we like different things and the seating position is not the same, but Joao Barbosa is almost a second Christian. If you ask him I think he is going to say the same thing in relation to car set-up about me. The only little difference we have is on pedal setup. We set up the car very similar, which makes life a lot easier. When I hop in the car now it’s sort of selfish because I’m thinking that I’m going to drive the car the full race distance. I’m 95% sure Joao is going to like how I set the car up. I’m sure he does the same exercise when it’s the other way around and he knows I’ll like the way he sets up the car.

There hasn’t been a single situation this year where I liked one thing and he didn’t or vice versa. It defiantly makes your life a lot easier and turns the whole operation into a much more proactive situation then when you have to make compromises between drivers.

Mecca of Speed: Is the set-up process for the Corvette this season a series of large changes or more fine-tuning?

Christian Fittipaldi: Large changes do happen but not at the level we are at with this racecar. We are exactly where you mentioned; fine tuning here and there to make sure we can extract the most out of the car in order to perform well.

If we find ourselves completely lost and we have to start shooting at the stars, then we go for big changes, but to be honest that has not happened in a long time. Where we concentrate the most like other teams is on the level of down force we are going to run in a race. These cars are so similar from one team to the next that if you have a little bit more down force you are going to be quicker in the corners but it’s going to kill you down the straightaways.

Other time you have too little down force and are slow in the corners. You burn your tires off and are slow on the straightaways. It’s all about the combination of having straight line speed and tire management.

The traction level once the car is dialed out is the most important.

Mecca of Speed: The goal is to set up a neutral handling car, but when you have to go one way or the other do, you prefer a little over steer or under steer?

Christian Fittipaldi: The quick way around a road course is to have a very slight bit of under steer that gives you the confidence to go earlier onto the power.

Now on an oval it’s something completely different. In a Sprint Cup car or an IndyCar you have to really pay special attention when qualifying to try and carry as much speed as you can through the corners. You want the car set-up so when you turn the steering wheel just a little bit the car dives into a corner with a solid back end.

On an oval in a race it’s a different situation. You definitely can’t go loose because you will be a sitting duck. In my IndyCar days, especially in the mid 1990s I remember in the race we lapping three seconds slower then our qualifying speed on a 21-22 second track. At those tracks setup was huge because if we got it wrong you would continually loose time and go nowhere.

Mecca of Speed: In IndyCar you ran on multicar teams. Was the setup approach similar taking feedback from both single driver cars to find an ideal setup as in sportscar where you take feedback from both drivers to set up one car?

Christian Fittipaldi: We did work together in IndyCar and exchange as much information as possible, as now the 9 car can help the 5 car and vice versa. You have a good amount of data now a days and I’ve pretty much driven all the tacks before so it’s not as critical as my first year in IndyCar. Back then when I got to each new track my teammate Robby Gordon had been there before. Every corner was new and sometimes there was limited practice time. We needed to get everything working quickly before qualifying.

The input from our two cars is good, but we wouldn’t be nowhere if we didn’t have input from the 9 car and in the same way in respect to the 9 car with input from the 5. Two cars worth of data is always good, but with our teams experience we don’t have to focus on helping our teammates.

At the end of the day there is only one winner and we can’t put both cars at the top of the podium so it is what it is. There is no doubt if the 5 car can’t win we want the 9 car to win and I would imagine it’s the same thing with them in relation to us.

Mecca of Speed: When you came into IndyCar with Walker Racing, who had the idea for the Brazilian flag paint scheme?

Christian Fittipaldi: All my sponsors were from Brazil. If they were not 100% Brazilian companies they were multinational and the sponsorship money was coming from their Brazilian branch. For example we had Marlboro, a bank and a burger chain, which made too may color schemes to mix on the car. So we thought why don’t we do the Brazilian flag, as all the sponsors are Brazilian and find a way to put them together.

A designer in Brazil started working on a bunch of different options including a million Brazilian flags with all the different sponsor logos. The best option was when you view the car from above and saw the Brazilian flag. Then you could really understand what it was all about. Looking at the car from the side you could not see the Brazilian flag as well. It was really cool and it worked out for everyone.

You are not the first one to tell me you liked the design. A lot of people come up to me and tell me they remember my first IndyCar. I ask why, because I finished second at Indy? And they say no because of the Brazilian flag.

It was a great operation and I think it worked out well for everyone.

Mecca of Speed: When you were racing in Formula One your helmet was yellow with green drops, was that inspired by your father’s helmet?

Christian Fittipaldi: Yes, that was from my father design but his was a green helmet with yellow drops. I wanted to be recognized as a Fittipaldi but at the same time have my own personality so I went with the opposite colors.

That design carried on until I signed my Newman/Haas contract. When Budweiser saw my dayglow yellow helmet they almost sent be back to Brazil (laughs) as it did not work with their colors. Although I think driving a red car with a dayglow yellow helmet would have been really cool they didn’t see it that way. That’s why my helmet was then painted red with silver drop.

After the Budweiser sponsorship ended and we moved to the Kmart car Carl Haas made me change the green drops to what ever color I wanted except for green so I switched to blue. Green is considered an unlucky color in racing and he was superstitious. You will never see any green at Newman/Haas Racing. After that I liked the blue drops better then the green so I never changed it back.

The drops came from the first painter my Dad had. Original my Dad had triangles, but the drop is the most aerodynamic shape, which is how the painter came up with the idea so my Dad started using the drop. I took it from there and did a lot of variations. Currently I have a bunch of effects but maybe next year I’ll go back to the square one helmet. I’ve considered going to a green helmet using my Dad’s design. I also thought of having my daughter paint something on the helmet. Regardless I’m thinking of doing something different next year.

Mecca of Speed: Looking at your time in Formula One in the early 1990s how much of the cars performance was adjusted based on telemetry and how much was on driver’s feedback?

Christian Fittipaldi: It’s always there but I think driver’s feedback is considered more important in America racing compared to Europe. In Europe now a days you have so much telemetry and information you basically arrive at a track with a program. No matter what the car is doing the engineers are going to look at the data from the spring rate to wing angle etc. You are not really chasing the problem with the car between sessions, but going through the data like a simulator.

I agree it works, but at the same time it doesn’t work. You need the feel from being on the track because there are variations like tire temperatures, if the racing surface is dirty and the overall race conditions. I am a fan of a combination, use telemetry to aid you, but not rely on it 100%.

I think what we have here in America is a very good balance.

Mecca of Speed: What were the events in 1993 at Monza that resulted in you flipping the Minardi end over end on the final lap?

Christian Fittipaldi: We have kept the story quiet but now I can say more about that day at Monza. It was the last lap, the guy in front of me (Pierluigi Martini) was Italian and I was going to pass him in the last 200 meters of the race. That was not going to make him a happy camper and he just lifted, period.

He lifted thinking I was going to step on the brakes, and then he would get a jump of a car and a half and beat me to the finish. It didn’t work that way, as I never expected him to lift so I ran into him. Luckily enough I didn’t lift and therefore had enough speed when my car took off and the wind grabbed it, it spun it in a 360. If I were going slower the car would have probably landed upside down. If that had happened we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Let’s put it this way, I have the telemetry and my car hit his at 314 kph He was going 284 kph. You can see it on the throttle trace, there isn’t a 30 kph difference created by drafting.

You are not expecting a guy to lift. If he has a mechanical problem like we have seen in many different racing series you hit the car in front of you but you are never expecting the guy in front of you to intentionally lift.

Mecca of Speed: Racing on street circuits your visibility is limited due to the concrete barriers; do you have any additional techniques you use to gauge activity around you  when on the circuit?

Christian Fittipaldi: When you go to a street course usually your last lap in qualifying or the race is going to be the quickest lap of the whole weekend because the track keeps getting quicker, quicker and quicker. You never start a practice session at 100%, your pace is 80-85% and you build up from there. You lose a lot more if you hit the wall and damage the car when you are on a street course compared to running more laps and getting better, understanding the limit of the car.

As far as visibility is concerned I really don’t pay attention to that. A track is a track and we use cretin markers for brake points, turn-in points and apexes, the same as on a road course.

Mecca of Speed: How has becoming a father expanded your view of the world?

Christian Fittipaldi: It’s by far the best thing I have ever done in my whole life. It changes the perspective of a lot of things, but at the same time you are still a racer. You are still competitive and aggressive, but have a different approach. Right now I understand things better then when I was in my 20s because my patience level grew after my daughter was born. You naturally have to have a lot more patience as things don’t work exactly the way you plan and that relates a lot to racing.

You can arrive at the track with a plan to do this and that so in qualifying things are going to be perfect. It’s never that way. Very seldom do you have a perfect weekend. Usually you have to make compromises and continually optimize your situations to take advantage of opportunities as best as possible. Increasing my patience level has helped me a lot as a driver.

Right now I’m very happy to be in this series with this team. I drive every lap as if it’s the last of my career. I’m driving and enjoying, not thinking about what is going to happen tomorrow. I’m driving to my ability and doing the best job that I can.

Tomorrow is going to be another day, the next race is the next race and I’m not trying to plan three races ahead. I’m no longer thinking I have to do this race well so I can get a contract for next season. You need to do your best and drive on the limit all the time. If you do your very best all the time things will naturally fall into place.

Mecca of Speed: How does the Brazilian motorsport community help young drivers develop a career in racing?

Christian Fittipaldi: Racing is funny; here is a practical example that recently happened. We won Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen and then went to Indy and things didn’t go our way. We went from hero to zero.

Max Papis, Joao and I were having dinner on the Thursday night before Indy and Max was a little upset. The season didn’t go as he had planned and he was thinking about next year. He wasn’t happy at all.

The next day Max goes to the track and wins the race. The following weekend he goes to the karting nationals and wins the championship. Then three days later Tony Stewart breaks his leg so they put Max in Tony’s Cup car to race Watkins Glen.

Ten days before this chain of events he was down on his prospects for the rest of the season.

I was in Brazil and gave him a call because I was so happy for him. He wasn’t there so I left a message about how things are in life. From ten days ago at Indy on Thursday night everything turned around. Sometimes when you are living out a problem it’s hard to believe things will get better.

As a racecar driver you can never loose that perspective and believe tomorrow is going to be a better day. Things can turn around very quickly and unfortunately in this sport you are only as good as your last result. People think when you win all of a sudden you have learned how to drive, but in reality you have had that talent for a long time.

Keep your head up all the time and keep digging because things are going to fall into place if you believe in yourself.

Mecca of Speed: Racing can breed close friendships over time, who do you consider in your close circle of friends?

Christian Fittipaldi: I think in this environment you have friends but it’s hard to make really close friends. At the end of the day you are still competitors. When you are close friends with someone in competition, at some time you are going to bump heads because you are both after the same goal.

Is it possible to be very close friends, yes. Is it hard? It’s very hard. I admire people that are very close, but at the same time it happens at different stages of your career.

I have had people challenge me, especially in my Newman/Haas days. They challenge me a lot more because everyone wanted my seat. In that environment I tended to stand back from people a little more compared to now in this series.

Nowadays I pretty much get along with everyone. I am who I am. Either you like me or you don’t. I’m not going to do anything to specifically please you, but I’m also not going to do anything against you. I’m going to do what I’m here to do and if it goes according to your needs excellent. If it doesn’t I’m not going to feel sorry for you either.

Having said that, I have always been close with Tony Kanaan who started his racing career a few years after I did. We live close to each other and traveled together a lot in our IndyCar days. Max Papis is obviously also close as he married my cousin and I have known him since I was 13. I met him when we were running in the junior karting championship in Italy.

I did a couple of long races in go-karts and this Grand-Am car with Nelson Piquet Jr. I got to know him a lot better the last 4-5 years and we get along very well. He is also a guy who is black and white, either you like him or you hate him. He is genuine and is what he is.

I go more with people that are honest and upfront as opposed to the guys that have an alterative motive. They are always planning ahead, how to get the most for themselves regardless of the cost. I’m not into that.

Mecca of Speed: You have some experience in a P2 car and currently race the Daytona Prototype; do you have any thoughts on how things may go next season with the merger into USCR?

Christian Fittipaldi: In past years the gap between the ALMS and Grand-Am was a lot bigger. The series have sped up the Daytona Prototypes and slowed down the ALMS P2 cars so we are a lot closer now compared to back in 2007-2008. I think the future brings us to a compromise where USCR is going to have two categories, Prototype and GT. That is my personal opinion on what I think is going to happen.

Is it going to happen next year? No. In two years? Probably not. If I was to guess what this sport is going to look like in 10 years, I see a prototype and a GT class.

The P2 cars are quicker in the corners and the Daytona Prototypes are quicker on the straightaway. At the end of the day we are talking about a two second difference in lap times.

If it was the difference of a P2 car to a GT car then the gap is a lot bigger. Depending on the track difference is 15-20 seconds a lap. The way the two prototype classes are set up I don’t see any issue. The P2 cars can develop the Daytona Prototype way or vice versa. I’m happy with whatever way is better for the series.

Mecca of Speed: Are there any current or vintage cars on your bucket list?

Christian Fittipaldi: I had the Formula One car (Minardi-Lamborghini) that I scored my first point with at Suzuka in 1992 until I sold it a couple of years ago. I should have kept it but it started getting old and required a lot of maintenance. It was in Europe and I was here, and really didn’t want to mess with it.

As far as a bucket list, not really. People ask me what my personal car is, anything that has AC. You can’t go quickly on the highway so it really doesn’t matter.

I love driving a racecar, but I’m not a real passionate car guy. I love racing and driving a car at speed to the limit. That is what motivates me.

My Dad is a lot more into the racing atmosphere. He can come to any race and stay the whole weekend watching all the races, mechanics working on the cars and how things operate. I’m not into that as much as just driving the car to the limit and being able to set a car up to its best ability.

I have had a bunch of different cars, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and other exotics but nowadays competition between manufactures is so great and one copies from the other that cars nowadays are very similar.

You can drive a Ford that handles similar to a Chevrolet and if it didn’t have a Ford or Chevrolet badge on it you would say it was coming from the same manufacturer. Only when you get to the fine-tuning do you see a difference.

Mecca of Speed: So the best car is whatever car you are in.

Christian Fittipaldi: The last two years in Brizil I was racing a 230 hp front wheel drive car. It was still a competition and I was doing my best to win all the races. I didn’t win all the races, but won a couple.

Felipe Massa and Fiat put the series together. The formula was a spec series with the same cars for everyone. You were allowed to tune them within the rules to your liking.

I don’t care if it’s a front wheel drive 230 hp car or going back to my IndyCar days with 1000 hp qualifying engines, you drive the machinery you have to its limit.

In my opinion that is the fun of racing. If it’s an awesome car excellent, but if it’s not an awesome car it doesn’t matter because my goal is to drive whatever car I’m in to its limit.

Mecca of Speed: You did do a stint in Brazilian Stock Cars correct?

Christian Fittipaldi: I did one complete season and a couple partial seasons while I was racing here. It’s a very competitive series. At some events in qualifying you can have 25 cars within 7/10 of a second.

It’s a very intense series but I enjoy the Grand-Am cars 20 times more because of the down force and speed compared to the Brazilian Stock Cars. Grand-Am cars are a lot closer to an Indy or Formula One car while the Stock Cars are much closer to a GT car.

Mecca of Speed: No matter the series it seems the Fittipaldis race with a never surrender attitude.

Christian Fittipaldi: I can see that in my Dad, we have racing in our blood. It’s not about the commercial side. Unless a miracle happens my days of making the most amount of money in racing have gone by. I do this because I’m motivated. I love it and I think it’s the same with my Dad. He is no longer driving but still involved on the technical side.

Emmo is currently promoting some races in Brazil.

The day we don’t enjoy racing anymore is the day we move on and do something else.

I sit in a car and still feel the butterflies in my stomach before the start of the race. The day I don’t feel the butterflies is the day I stop racing.

9/13/2013

Content credit Christian Fittipaldi and John Vatne. Photo credit Randy Erdman and John Vatne.