Elio de Angelis (26 March 1958 – 15 May 1986) was an Italian racing driver who participated in Formula One between 1979 and 1986, racing for the Shadow, Lotus and Brabham teams. He was killed in an accident while testing the Brabham BT55 at the Paul Ricard circuit, near the commune of Le Castellet, France, in 1986. De Angelis was a competitive and highly popular presence in Formula One during the 1980s, and is sometimes referred to as Formula One’s “last gentleman player”.
His debut Formula One season was in 1979 with Shadow. He finished seventh in his maiden Grand Prix in Argentina and 15th in the championship with three points.
In 1980 he switched to Lotus and – at the age of 21 – nearly became the youngest Grand Prix winner of all time when he finished second at the Brazilian Grand Prix, run at the Interlagos circuit.
De Angelis driving for Lotus at the 1981 British Grand Prix.
His first victory came in the 1982 Austrian Grand Prix at the Österreichring, 0.05 seconds ahead of the Williams of eventual 1982 World Champion Keke Rosberg. The win was the last hailed by Colin Chapman’s act of throwing his cloth cap into the air. Chapman died in December that year and Peter Warr became the new Lotus team manager.
In 1983 Lotus switched from the Cosworth DFV they had been using since 1967, to Renault turbo engines, but it was a disappointing season. De Angelis’ best result was a fifth place in the 1983 Italian Grand Prix.
In 1984 de Angelis had a much better season, scoring a total of 34 points and finishing third in the standings with three podiums. His best result was a second place at the Detroit Grand Prix. De Angelis was the only driver to finish in the top 5 in 1984 not to score a race win, showing his consistent performances throughout the season with the improving Lotus-Renault.
During tests at the Paul Ricard circuit in France, the rear wing of de Angelis’ BT55 detached at high speed resulting in the car losing downforce on the rear wheels, which instigated a cartwheel over a sidetrack barrier, causing the car to catch fire. The impact itself did not kill de Angelis but he was unable to extract himself from the car unassisted. The situation was exacerbated by the lack of track marshals on the circuit who could have provided him with emergency assistance. A 30-minute delay ensued before a helicopter arrived and de Angelis died 29 hours later, at the hospital in Marseille where he had been taken, from smoke inhalation. His actual crash impact injuries were only a broken collar bone and light burns on his back. The tragic circumstances of his death and the soaring amounts of money companies like Honda and Renault were pouring into making the turbo cars faster, caused radical changes to be introduced by then President Jean-Marie Balestre in the months following his accident which ultimately heralded the end of the turbo powered era in Formula One racing.
De Angelis’ death also saw the end of Formula One using the full 5.81 km (3.61 mi) Paul Ricard Circuit. In what many saw as a knee-jerk reaction from FISA,[ F1 was forced to use the 3.812 km (2.369 mi) “Club” version of the circuit, bypassing the Verriere curves where the Brabham had crashed, and cutting the length of the Mistral Straight from 1.8 to 1 km in length. The move was unpopular with many of the drivers, although most did like the reduced straight length as it was easier on the engines.
De Angelis’ place in the Brabham team was subsequently taken by Derek Warwick, allegedly because Warwick was the only available top level driver who did not contact team owner Bernie Ecclestone immediately after de Angelis’ death asking to replace him. McLaren driver Keke Rosberg, who was a close friend of de Angelis, retired at the end of the 1986 season.