Considering the circumstances, Pietro Fittipaldi’s return to a race car Tuesday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course was exceptional both in its rapidity and its entirety.
Fittipaldi, who sustained fractures to both legs when his car crashed during qualifying May 4 for the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, completed a daylong test session Tuesday in the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda and declared himself ready to rejoin the team for the Honda Indy 200 at the Lexington, Ohio, track later this month.
“I feel like I’m back,” Fittipaldi said by phone after the test. “Obviously it’s the first day back in the car after two and a half months and it takes a little bit more than usual to get back up to speed. I was expecting it to take a little bit longer, but I got up to speed quickly. We were able to work on setup and move forward for the race weekend. We have a decent base now, and I’m ready for the race.”
Fittipaldi, the 22-year-old grandson of two-time Formula One world champion and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi, spent much of his post-surgery recovery living in a motorcoach in the infield at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and attending daily physical therapy sessions with the help of Dr. Terry Trammell, an INDYCAR safety consultant and longtime member of the AMR INDYCAR Safety Team.
“I’d never been injured this badly, so I didn’t know what the time frame would be,” said Fittipaldi, whose left leg and right ankle required surgery. “But everybody has been happy with how my recovery went because it’s gone really fast. Obviously, I’m really happy about that, too.”
Fittipaldi credited his uncle Max Papis and cousin Christian Fittipaldi, who sustained a similar injury in a crash at Surfers Paradise, Australia, in 1997, with help and encouragement during the recovery process. Pietro Fittipaldi said his quick recovery also was inspired by DCR teammate Sebastien Bourdais, who recovered from multiple injuries sustained in May 2017 during qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 and returned to racing in August.
“Sebastien’s first test back was actually at Mid-Ohio, as well,” Fittipaldi noted. “I’ve been talking to Max and Christian and Sebastien, and they’ve been encouraging me and giving me information on how I should be healing and how I need to be before I get back in the car. They’ve gone through those experiences.”
The fact that he wasn’t in a cast after the surgery also helped hasten his recovery, Fittipaldi said.
“Back in the day, you would stay in a cast afterward,” he said. “I’d just be getting the cast off now. It would’ve been three months in a cast just waiting for the bone to heal, then I would start physical therapy. The difference nowadays is that you’re not in a cast. You’re in a boot that you can take off. A week after your injury, you’re already working on your mobility. That advanced it so much.”
Now that he’s ready to race again, Fittipaldi has goals for the final five races of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.
“We want to get some good results, but my main goal is really just to do my best and work as hard as I can with the team,” he said. “I can’t thank them enough. They’ve been amazing with me all season. I know we only did one race (a 23rd-place finish in April at ISM Raceway outside Phoenix), but throughout all the tests, I loved working with the whole Dale Coyne Racing team.”
Zachary Claman De Melo replaced Fittipaldi in the No. 19 car for six races, recording a 12th-place finish in the INDYCAR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and a 14th-place finish Sunday in the Honda Indy Toronto. He also led seven laps of the 102nd Indianapolis 500.
“We have a good package,” Fittipaldi said. “I want go and get good results – top-fives, hopefully a podium. You never know what can happen. I’m here and I want to push as hard as I can. … I’ve got these five races, and I’m going to give them all I can.”