Elio de Angelis was a unique charismatic person who was highly respected in the Formula 1 world. He was a very good man, a man with a very artistic talent, known for his very polite character and refined hands. Not only as a driver was the quality of the Angelis visible, but also behind the piano, the Italian could let his hands speak.
His father, Giulio, was a professional Formula 1 powerboat driver. Elio grew up in his father’s heyday as a powerboat driver. In 1972, when Elio was fourteen years old, he had his first contact with motorsport, racing karts. At the age of seventeen, he won the European title. This opened the doors to the Italian Formula 3 Championship. He won the championship in 1977 and in 1978 he won the Monaco Grand Prix for Formula 3 cars.
A year earlier, Enzo Ferrari had asked the Italian to join his team. De Angelis had a number of successful tests at the Fiorano circuit but eventually ‘il Grande Vecchio’ decided to choose Gilles Villeneuve. De Angelis had a black and white contract with Ferrari, but the racing team from Maranello didn’t want to hear it. Ferrari and the Angelis found themselves in court, and the judge agreed with de Angelis. Ferrari was ordered to pay a fee, a fee that turned out to be so low that de Angelis could not pay his legal costs.
De Angelis came from a good litter. His family had the financial background to let him do motorsport. One thing was certain – the Italian had talent. Shadow took the gamble with Elio and he made his debut during the Argentine Grand Prix in 1979. Elio finished his first Grand Prix in seventh place. Nowadays that would be good for six points.
It was a difficult season with Shadow in which he scored his first points with a fourth place during the last Grand Prix at the circuit of Watkins Glen. Colin Chapman was very impressed and decided to give Elio a chance with his Lotus team. The Italian caused a sensation by scoring more points during his first year than his teammate Mario Andretti and staying ahead of him during the internal qualifying battle. The Lotus was no longer the car that won the world title with Mario Andretti in 1978. Lotus was a team in decline.
In 1981 he got a new teammate in Nigel Mansell. The Briton and de Angelis became close friends. Colin Chapman worked in the background on a new project – the Lotus 88, an innovative ground-effect car that produced maximum downforce. The Lotus 88 used an ingenious system of a two-piece chassis, one inside the other. The inner chassis would hold the cockpit, the outer chassis was designed to absorb the pressure of the ground effect.
The outer chassis had no wings and was, in fact, one big ground-effect system that started just behind the nose of the car and stretched all the way into the rear wheels, creating an enormous amount of downforce. The car was powered by the Cosworth DFV engine. Elio thought the car was excellent to drive and reacted well with it. Chapman had made this car a potential winner. However, the car would never appear on the grid. Competing teams had protested against and the FIA decided to ‘ban it and Lotus had to look for an alternative.
This alternative came to Elio in 1982 when Lotus introduced the 91. The Angelis scored seven Grands Prix points and achieved his first victory in Austria by finishing ahead of Keke Rosberg in an exciting fight. It would be the last victory for Lotus under the leadership of Colin Chapman. After a very bad 1983 in which he could only score two points, Lotus came up with the 95T in 1984. It was a good car that was very reliable. Elio scored a total of 34 points and took third place in the championship.
Elio was ‘best of the rest’, the McLarens of Prost and Lauda were a size too big that year. For 1985 he got a new teammate in Ayrton Senna. Initially, both drivers could do very well against each other. Elio won the Grand Prix of San Marino after Alain Prost was disqualified. Elio even led the championship until the Monaco Grand Prix, but a series of fifth places in Canada, Detroit and France put him down in the championship battle. Elio wouldn’t make it to the podium again and his relationship with Senna cooled down.
It was a big ‘shock’ when the Italian let himself go after qualifying for the South African Grand Prix. He didn’t take the attitude of his teammate anymore and pushed him away. The fact that de Angelis, one very social and honest person, let himself go was a bad sign. Ayrton and Elio never came to terms with their escapade at Kyalami. Elio decided to leave Lotus after six years and found refuge at Brabham. With that team, he raced the revolutionary BT55 in 1986, but would only ride four races.
After the Monaco Grand Prix Brabham decided to hold a private test at Paul Ricard. What happened on the 14th of May in 1986 was typical of the amateurism that the sport brought in those years. It was 11.30 AM on that Tuesday in the south of France. The mechanics mounted a new rear wing on Elio’s car. As he came into the Verriere corner, the rear wing broke away from the car at a speed of 270 km/h. The car took off while witnesses are scarce. The monocoque remains intact, but nothing remains of the rest of the BT55 and the car catches fire.
Prost and Mansell stopped and try to get him out of the flames, and after seven endless minutes, de Angelis was finally out of the car. He had very serious injuries to his head and his spine is broken. He had no chance. He died on May 15th, officially due to cerebral asphyxiation. The pianist had played his last piece and the symphony that only Elio could play could never be enjoyed again.
After this crash, the safety measures in Formula 1 concerning tests were heightened. Testing was only allowed with the prior written approval of the FIA. The circuits had to be equipped with track workers. At all times helicopters and fire engines had to be ready at the venue. We all underestimated it at the time: an accident at in a minor corner. Why do we not take action until something tragic has happened?
It became painfully clear that this sport could not continue on this amateurish footing. Professionalism was desirable, professionalism in the field of safety. Elio received a tribute from his friend Nigel Mansell when he won the Canadian Grand Prix two weeks later. Jean Alesi’s helmet is an inspiration to the helmet that Elio always wore.