By his own admission Elio de Angelis disliked testing – he even remarked he would never drive for Ferrari as he would have to spend too much time lapping Fiorano.
De Angelis lost his life in a crash during testing at Paul Ricard in France. The rear wing failed on his Brabham at the high-speed Verriere left-right flick.
He crashed heavily and the car caught fire but there were too few marshals on at the scene of the crash to extract him. F1 lost a popular driver, renowned for his smooth style at the wheel.
De Angelis had arrived in F1 with Shadow in 1979. The Roman driver had something of a reputation in his early years, thanks in part to his parents’ wealth which helped him get started in racing.
He stepped up to the team following a difficult season of Formula Two in 1978. He had taken a break from his campaign to step back down into F3 and win that year’s support race at the Monaco Grand Prix, following a controversial collision with leader Patrick Gaillaird.
Although his backing helped him make his break into F1, the 20-year-old was occasionally able to impress in a car that did not look out of place at the back of the grid.
At the final race of the year at Watkins Glen he excelled in wet-dry conditions, despite being unwell. He postponed his switch to slicks as the track dried, but when he did come in the team gambled on running very soft qualifying tyres at the front for more grip.
The gamble paid off and de Angelis snatched fourth place – the last points the team ever scored. Having sussed in which direction the team was heading, de Angelis prepared to extract himself from his Shadow contract.
His performance attracted the attention of Lotus team principal Colin Chapman, who tested him alongside Eddie Cheever, Jan Lammers, Stephen South and Nigel Mansell. De Angelis was given the number two seat at the team for 1981, while Mansell joined as a test driver.
De Angelis repaid Chapman’s faith in him with second place in his second start for the team in Brazil. When Mario Andretti left the team at the end of the year de Angelis was retained as the lead driver alongside Mansell.
His second season with the team was frustrated by Chapman’s doomed attempts to race the controversial Lotus 88. But the following year, driving the more conventional 91, de Angelis, finally became a Grand Prix winner.
Still running normally aspirated Cosworth V8s, Lotus were at risk of falling behind their turbocharged rivals Ferrari, Renault and Brabham-BMW. The long, fast straights of the Osterreiching in Austria, where Nelson Piquet took pole position at an average speed of 244kph (151mph), looked an unlikely venue for a Lotus win.
But one by one the unreliable turbos dropped out, leaving de Angelis in a dogfight for victory with Keke Rosberg’s Williams. Rosberg pulled from de Angelis’s slipstream as they dashed to the line, but the Italian had it by five hundredths of a second.
The death of Chapman in the winter of 1982 combined with the move to Renault turbo power meant a difficult transition year for de Angelis and Lotus in 1983. But the team made a clear step forward late in the year at the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, where de Angelis started from pole position for the first time.
It heralded a far more competitive season in 1984. De Angelis scored consistently and ended the season a best-ever third in the championship.
But Ayrton Senna took Mansell’s place for 1985 and suddenly the team had a new favourite son.
De Angelis won again in Imola that year. It may have been an inherited victory after Alain Prost’s McLaren was disqualified for being underweight, but it put him in the lead of the world championship for the only time in his career.
It wasn’t to last: at the end of the year he was five points behind Senna in the world championship and de Angelis left Lotus to join another team whose better days seemed to be behind them: Brabham.
For in 1986 designer Gordon Murray had attempted a radical leap forward in car design with the Brabham BT55. But the low-lying car had many problems arising from its engine being tilted to improve the car’s airflow. De Angelis retired from all bar one of the races he started for the team.
He was the last driver to die in a Formula 1 car until that fateful weekend at Imola in 1994.
De Angelis may only have scored a pair of F1 race wins, but his personality and charisma won him many more admirers. He was also an accomplished classical pianist. During the drivers’ strike at Kyalami in 1982, he entertained his peers by playing the piano.
Here he is at the keyboard in 1985:
Did you see Elio de Angelis race? Share your memories of him in the comments.
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