25 years ago today: Elio de Angelis killed at Paul Ricard


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Elio de Angelis, Lotus, 1983

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.

Keke Roberg, Elio se Angelis, Osterreichring, 1982

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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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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39 comments on “25 years ago today: Elio de Angelis killed at Paul Ricard”

  1. such wasted talent, both on the track and on the piano.

    1. I wouldn’t say it was wasted. At least he managed to achieve real success in his short career, unlike many drivers who died at the wheel of an F1 car before him.

      Did his career look like it would have developed to the stage where he might have won many more races and world championships? Realsitically, I doubt that

      1. Maybe not a lot, but he deserved at least one championship. He was the closest team-mate to Senna, apart from Prost and he also beaten Mansell more often than not. Senna respected Elio a lot, to the point that he made Lotus drop him, because in his opinion Lotus wasn’t in good enough condition to support two top drivers. Looks to me like WDC credentials.

        1. He sure was championship-worthy.

  2. What a nice piano performance… I’d not seen it before!.

    Sounds deep really… after reading the whole article, it feels incredibly sad.

    1. I enjoyed that performance a lot! It is sad to have lost a great talent, 5 points behind Senna is not much, especially against a future 3 times world champion. They were team mates and both of them had the same awful destiny.

    2. What a nice piano performance

      I’m listening to it from yesterday, at least 25 times!

    3. marcela viñas
      26th June 2012, 1:54

      Siento una profunda tristeza por la absurda muerte de Ellio de Angelis

  3. Photos of Elio from GP Brazil 1984, I was there.
    Pole Position: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pomeu/5562736767/
    Lotus number 11: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pomeu/5563259530/
    Elio’s handwheel without a lot of buttons the cars have today: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pomeu/5563258772/

    1. Thanks for those pictures Nelson. Amazing how close you could get to the action.

  4. sutil play piano!!!

  5. I believe the turn should be called “Verrerie”?

  6. 25 years ago? God, that makes me feel old. I was thinking only the other day about Ronnie Peterson’s crash and how long ago that was. You don’t realise how time slips by but how vividly the mind can recall such events.

  7. If you designed or fitted that wing, how unimaginable awful you must feel when somedy dies.

    Only now I realise that windtunnels and CFD also have improved safety: a flawed design will never get into actual production.

    Still, human error in fitting the part to the car is possible. Accidents such as this are a cruel way to emphasise the teamwork in F1.

  8. One of the real tragedies of de Angelis’ death is that it wasn’t until about five years ago that the FIA finally mandated that test days were to have the same safety standards (marshalling cover, medical helicopters etc) as race weekends. It could easily have happened again.

    1. Indeed. Remember the test sessions at Monza in the late 90s/early 00s, when pretty much every time they ran there was a huge accident.

      And wasn’t Elio’s death one of the reasons for Keke Rosberg’s (premature) retirement?

    2. Yeah, really scary when you think of what could have gone wrong all those years.

  9. Such a sad way to end a life. But he is always remembered fondly.

    On a slightly happier note, the failings of the Brabham BT55 were finally worked out when Gordon Murray moved over to McLaren in the following year and in 1988 developed the awesome MP4/4 which had a very similar design philosophy.

  10. Jean Alesi copied his helmet design.

    1. Not exactly, rather incorporated some of the design into his, as Jean Alesi was a big fan of Elio and wanted to pay tribute to him. A very great driver and a sad loss that could have been avoided.

      R.I.P. Elio

  11. I believe at one point they even used the piano to barricade the door to stop the strike being broken!

    A sad loss.

  12. I am no fan of De Angelis, because he, more or less, pushed away Jan Lammers in rather unsportingly ways when they were teammates at Shadow.

    1. marcela viñas
      29th June 2012, 2:21

      no creo en una conducta antideportiva de Elio de Angelis

  13. Elio de Angelis disliked testing

    HRT was his dream team.

  14. Looked like Marlon Brando as well. Could have made it into the movies.

  15. I remember DeAngelis from his time alongside Senna. He was a joy to watch. Very fast (not as fast as Senna but nobody was).

    1. Apart from Prost.

  16. Always substantially faster than Mansell who,of course went on to become World Champion & get far more coverage in the F1 history books.

    Not far at all behind Senna for out right speed & should he ever have decided to bring the same single mindedness & dedication to the job that Ayrton did who know’s if that small gap between the two would have been closed.

    My understanding was that it wasn’t so much a case of too few marshalls, more the fact that those who were present at the scene of his accident were wearing shorts & couldn’t get as near to the fire & possibly extricate him from the burning car.

    If memory serves me rightly Elio’s only physical injury from the crash was a broken collar bone.

    1. You are right, he had only a broken collar bone, and died because of smoke inhalation. A fire extinguisher could have saved his life.
      As you said he was very good in performance, and could have become more succesful.

  17. I remember a F3 race at Zolder. Among the field were Derek Daly, Derek Warwick, and others – a field packed with talent. I was watching from the outside of the fast first left corner. One driver stood out over all the others: he took a different line into that corner, carried more speed, and looked oh-so-smooth. It was Elio De Angelis. He didn’t win that race, but it was beautiful to watch…

  18. Always a shame to read these articles.

    1. It would be wonderful if the title read: “20 years ago toady: Elio de Angelis wins world title”.
      Of course it’s only May and he couldn’t have won it so early, but just as an example.

  19. Here is an emotional tribute to Elio.

  20. Agree with Elio 11, during his lotus years he used to outclass Mansell.
    Does anyone know if he had a proposal to drive for any other team than Brabham when he left Lotus?

  21. marcela viñas
    26th June 2012, 1:53

    Ami me pareció terrible la muerte de Elio de Angelis, asi como la de Ronnie Peterson, y otros pilotos más.
    Opinando sobre Elio de Angelis, un joven piloto que mucho prometia. Pero para sus padres, el recuerdo, y lo mejor que se lo recuerde como un hombre de bien como dicen que ha sido
    Una pena que no haya habido responsables, por una muerte que seguramente podría haberse evitado

  22. fantastic driver five point behind senna ! even when the team made him no two driver . he was faster than senna in the wet.

  23. Elio was my cousin. I only met him once when he came to America with his family. I was 12 years old, so Elio would have been 11 years old. I was reading old emails and I came across the video of him playing the piano. I have a nephew who is only 7 years old and he looks exactly like Elio. Amazing! I tell him stories about his cousin the race car driver.

  24. I saw Elio race with Lotus at Long Beach GP in 1980 and ’81. I was a 13 y.o. instant fan! Back then, you could just hang out on the right street and actually meet the drivers. In retrospect, it’s so amazing that a punk kid from California was able to meet and chat with this amazing Roman hero! I still have a small framed polaroid of us walking together while he autographed my hat. I remember being so devastated when I learned of his death in ’86. Of course there was no internet then and barely any F1 was ever on TV in the US back then. My uncle, who had taken me to the LBGP races years earlier mailed me a newspaper clipping with the news about the crash in France. Thank you Elio!

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