May 14th 1986: the rear wing of a Brabham BMW BT55-BMW came off the car as it was going into the Verrerie esses on the Paul Ricard circuit. The car hit the guardrail, flew into the air, bounced several times along the track before landing upside down and catching fire. Just a few days after the Monaco Grand Prix, the accident proved fatal to Elio de Angelis, who died the next day in hospital without ever having regained consciousness.
An impeccable manner and finely tuned intelligence had won him a reputation of sorts as the gentleman of the circuits, an unofficial title he shared with Patrick Tambay and which he would happily have done without. It seems that the self-proclaimed psychologists among the observers of Formula had decreed that Elio didn’t have the stuff which champions are made of. Such assertions got his back up:
“My career as a driver is the only thing I’ve really fought for, the only thing which has really motivated me. Naturally, my approach to the sport has changed over the years. In the early days I was only interested in the sporting side of it, Whereas today I’ve become a professional, a member of the establishment. Yet nothing is ever truly established: I could be given a letter tomorrow telling me l’m fired.”
His reputation as a ‘daddy’s boy” had long weighed heavily on his mind, and he had some trouble getting rid of it:
“I never considered myself a daddy’s boy, and in fact my father did everything he could so that I wouldn’t feel that way. I was concerned with knowing who I was, I wanted to be able to have a life of my own, not simply the product of a certain family or a certain class. You have to build your own life. When you’re young, there is no happy medium, there are two distinct sides: black and white. Never any grey. I thought that the sport was like that, and I would be able to express myself within it.”
Elio de Angelis’ first taste of victory came in his 54th Grand Prix. That was in 1982, at Zeltweg: “Being victorious is important in a mans life. Without any wins, all I’ve done up till now would be meaningless. The hardest thing of all is judging one’s own worth. You can climb up the ladder without ever knowing what your true value is. I have a lot of experience behind me, but the difficult thing is to learn from it and apply it to present situations. When I started in Fl, I got a lot of pleasure out of mastering the car. Now, that’s something I know how to do, it comes naturally to me. I still have things to learn, I still can progress as a driver but the world of things I can learn has gotten smaller. Against which the desire within me to get to the top has gotten greater. I’m well aware of the fact that I might find myself in a bad car, but I want to win all the more, knowing that the path to success is an extremely narrow one.”
The bad car, or in any case the car that was too revolutionary to be mastered quickly, came his way in 1986: after six seasons with Lotus for better and for worse, he signed with Brabham. His first contacts with Colin Chapman, the controversial genius behind Lotus, had been difficult and the mutual admiration between the two men was long in surfacing: ‘It wasn’t easy for me to approach Colin. I had the feeling of being just one of the manu parts that constituted his car: we had no personal relationship, I kept my dissatisfactions to myself because I’ve been brought up that way, but one day in Las Vegas I really had it out with him about who was the number one driver in the team. When you’re young, you think tour talent will be enough to get you by in life, that it will open all the doors. Then you make mistakes and you’re no longer omnipotent. You learn humility. After that argument, I thought about what I was doing in a different way and worked more seriously at my job. The first real contact I had with Chapman occured on that day. It was preferable to reciprocal indifference. Ten months later he had tears in his eyes when I won at Zeltweg.
During four seasons, from 1980 to 1984, Elio’s team-mate at Lotus was Nigel Mansell, who declared the day after the fatal accident that he had made enormous progress on a human level during his years spent with the Italian driver, It was evident that the two men came from extremely different backgrounds and had found it difficult to work together, yet de Angelis had come to care for Mansell as he would have for his own brother: “Nigel is a good driver but he is limited in certain aspects. He has a hard time judging how far he can go and I wonder if he doesn’t have a certain complex where I’m concerned. I’ve made a lot of efforts to understand him, to better the relationship between the two of us, but i’ve never been able to achieve a real partnership with him. In the beginning, everything was fine, but when he finished third at Zolder something changed in him. He started lying about small things, details, and then we stopped speaking. Then came Montreal, in trying to get by he sent his car flying off the track. I wanted no part of this war of nerves, which could have led to a serious accident. I sat down with him and we tried to get everything off our chests, but he had a real complex where I was concerned. Every driver is a bit of a liar, but Nigel was different: this complex of his was a sign of weakness. And it was the weakness that would make him lie on occasion. He was always tense, as if he was under intense psychological pressure. Still, he’s a man that I like and respect. I think he’s evolving in the right direction.”
Extremely ambitious, a perfect gentleman, but never blasé about the world around him, Elio de Angelis rarely revealed the burning passion which was his driving force: “My father often asks me why I take the most complicated paths to get to my goals. I’ve never told him to his face, but it‘s because I find that the pleasure is even greater that way.”