In announcing Pietro Fittipaldi as Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s new NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver, team co-owner Bobby Rahal kept highlighting Fittipaldi’s experience.
The grandson of Emerson Fittipaldi has made nine starts in this series, finishing ninth in a road course event at Portland International Raceway. He has been the fastest rookie qualifier for the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
He has been part of the Haas F1 Team for six years, making a pair of race starts in place of Romain Grosjean in 2020. He has driven an LMP2 sports car in the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and he has contested such a machine in the World Endurance Championship. He spent a season in DTM, Germany’s top touring car division.
He has raced stock cars in Brazil, and he won assorted championships in junior categories around the world, including the U.S., Europe and Asia.
Add it up. Rahal has.
“I really believe that the more things you can drive, it can just enhance your ability,” the three-time INDYCAR SERIES champion and 1986 “500” winner said. “Whatever series you want to focus on – obviously (he has) the experience of running (sports cars), Formula One cars, World Series Renault, whatever – all that experience just makes you even further prepared for making the next steps. I think that’s an advantage.”
Fittipaldi has been in the sport so long it’s easy to forget he was 21 when he first suited up for an NTT INDYCAR SERIES race in 2018. Since then, the Brazilian-American driver has wheeled at least seven types of cars. With all that experience and his personal development, Rahal believes Fittipaldi is at the perfect stage of his life to be a factor in the role he was confirmed to Monday.
“I asked him how old he was, and he said he’s 27,” Rahal said. “I said I think that’s perfect because that’s the kind of experience you want coming into a team. I believe, frankly, a driver’s sweet spot in terms of years is from the age of 27 to 37 to maybe 40.
“Him bringing all of those different types of experiences (to RLL) is just a huge plus in my mind. So, I have no doubt that his experience in those many different formulas can be of great value to the organization this year.”
Fittipaldi will drive the team’s No. 30 Honda alongside series race winners Graham Rahal (No. 15) and Christian Lundgaard (No. 45). Rahal and Lundgaard combined to win a race and four poles in the series in the 2023 season, and they feel they have momentum for the 2024 season. The team also might field Juri Vips, who has been retained after performing admirably in RLL colors in the final two races of this year.
As a refresher on Fittipaldi’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES career, it started early in the 2018 season when he qualified 10th in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda at Phoenix International Raceway. He was scheduled to compete in additional series races that season, but he was badly injured in a crash at World Endurance Championship race May 4 at Spa-Francorchamps. The front-first impact with the tire barrier in the ultra-fast Eau Rouge corner broke both of his legs. Following surgery in Belgium, Fittipaldi spent much of the summer in Indianapolis rehabilitating, and he credits Dr. Terry Trammell for a successful recovery.
“The surgeon (in Belgium) told me it would take a year to get back (to racing) because I had metal in my legs and stuff,” Fittipaldi said. “I was like, ‘Listen, I have a contract with INDYCAR (and I have) five races to go, and I need to get back (to Indianapolis).”
Fittipaldi and his mother lived in a motorhome parked inside Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the recovery period. Trammell built him a carbon fiber brace, but Fittipaldi wasn’t the first competitive race car driver to admit he probably returned to the sport sooner than he should have. He said he wasn’t prepared for the rigors of road course racing when he attempted to race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course less than three months after the Spa accident.
“I couldn’t hit the brake properly,” he said. “(There was) a lot of pain.”
Yet, Fittipaldi finished the season with two oval races and three road course events. He finished 11th at World Wide Technology Raceway and ninth at Portland. The strong comeback led to an opportunity to test with the Haas F1 Team at the end of the season, and he has been a test and reserve driver for the organization ever since.
Despite all the various cars Fittipaldi has driven since then, including three oval starts with Dale Coyne’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES team in 2021, he said he always had an eye on landing full-time employment in this series. Born in Miami, Fittipaldi said his family’s history here has always been part of his attraction to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
In addition to Emerson Fittipaldi, who won 22 INDYCAR SERIES races and the 1989 season championship, family members Christian Fittipaldi and Max Papis combined to win five series races. Papis introduced the third-generation driver to Rahal in 2018.
“I’ve always been trying to come to INDYCAR full time, since 2018,” Fittipaldi said. “Honestly, man, I never gave up. I’m the type of person that I’m very persistent. You have to push; you have to hustle (to) try to make it happen. Every year I would try. If we weren’t able to get the opportunity, I was always racing other series.
“When an opportunity came to join Rahal Letterman Lanigan, it’s something I’ve been working (toward) for a long time. I had to grab it with both hands. Now we’ve got to dig hard and push to get the results.”
Said Rahal: “I think we looked at Pietro as being a guy that had experience and knew what the expectation would be. Seemed to be the right choice in our mind, and I think it is the right choice.”