From Formula Vee to F1 Champion
Updated: Sep 7, 2020
Formula Vee has been the proving ground for rookie drivers for decades. Even today it is still the most affordable entry to motorsport, which is one of the reasons behind its continued popularity around the world. Healthy competition continues to this day in New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, United Kingdom, Germany, United States, Canada, South Africa and Brazil and so it should come as no surprise that several F1 World Champions started their driving careers as Formula Vee steerer’s.
In fact, almost every single F1 World Champion between 1970 and 1987 started their successful racing careers behind the wheel of a Formula Vee where they learned the art of race craft. Jochen Rindt (F1 Champion ’70), Emerson Fittipaldi (F1 Champion ’72 & ’74), Niki Lauda (F1 Champion ’75, ’77 & ’84), Nelson Piquet (F1 Champion ’81, ’83 & ’87) and Keke Rosberg (F1 Champion ’82) all competed in the Formula Vee class before moving into other race categories.
Apart from affordability, one of the other appealing elements of Formula Vee is the strict category rules that make all cars closely competitive. This homogeneity forces drivers to develop the skill of race craft in order to beat their rivals. Whether its late braking, mastering the racing line, superior cornering or being able to pick a gap and go for it, drivers have no choice but to refine their driving ability if they want to win races. This makes Formula Vee the perfect training ground for champion drivers.
Jochen Rindt - Formula 1 World Champion 1970
Although the majority of his racing was in Formula Junior and saloon cars. In 1966 Austrian driver, Jochen Rindt, raced the Formula Vee 1500 at Bahama Speed Week for teams including Porsche Salzberg and Austro Vau.
Jochen went on to race Formula Two and Formula One where he debuted at the Austrian Grand Prix in 1964. Rindt drove for teams including Brabham and Lotus and sadly lost his life in a racing accident during practice at Monza. Rindt was crowned the World Champion posthumously after his closest competitor, Jacky Ickx, was unable to secure enough points in the remainder of the season.
Emerson Fittipaldi - Formula 1 World Champion 1972 & 1974
Before he was 17, Fittipaldi was racing motorcycles and hydrofoils with his brother Wilson in their home country, Brazil. While racing a hydrofoil one day, Wilson took off at 110 km/h and landed upside down. Afterwards, the brothers mutually agreed to no longer race hydrofoils and they return to dry-land racing.
The pair moved to racing Formula Vees and established their own company building customer Formula Vee’s or the “Fitti-Vee” . In his second season in single-seaters, Emerson Fittipaldi won the Brazilian Formula Vee title at age 21. Emerson left for Europe in 1969, with the ambition to convince team owners of his talent.
Fittipaldi went on to drive Formula Two and Formula One where he became the number one driver for Lotus following the death of Jochen Rindt. It was with Lotus that Fittipaldi won his first world championship at the age of 25 making him the youngest driver at the time to be crowned a Formula One world champion.
Fittipaldi also drove for McLaren where he won his second world championship before moving to his brothers team Fittipaldi Automotive before retiring. Emerson Fittipaldi also twice won the Indy 500.
Niki Lauda - Formula 1 World Champion 1975, 1977 & 1984
Arguably one of the most successful Formula One Champions both on and off the track, Niki Lauda became a racing driver despite his family's disapproval and started his racing career in 1968 with a Mini, however Lauda quickly moved into Formula Vee. Between 1969 and 1971 Lauda would command the wheel of Formula Vee’s and later Formula Threes before taking out a bank loan to buy his seat in the March Formula Two.
Lauda drove for high profile teams including March, Brabham, BRM, McLaren and Ferrari. Lauda won two world championship with Ferrari in 1975 and 1977 but it was 1976 that was his most challenging after being involved in a firey accident at the Nurburgring while behind the wheel of his Ferrari race car. Lauda went on to win his third world championship with McLaren in 1984 before retiring. Niki Lauda was also a successful businessman and pilot where he founded his airline Lauda Air.
Nelson Piquet - Formula 1 World Champion 1981, 1983 & 1987
Having cut his teeth in karting after a failed tennis career, Nelson Piquet, went on to race Formula Vee, a class that is still hugely popular in Brazil, where he won the 1976 Brazilian Formula Vee Championship. Following this, and on the advice of Emerson Fittipaldi, Piquet left Brazil to further his racing career in Europe where he had a highly successful stint in Formula Three before moving into Formula 1 driving for McLaren, Brabham, Williams and Lotus.
Prior to winning his first Formula One world championship, Piquet was runner up in the 1980 season while driving for Brabham, Piquet would go on to secure two world championships for the team in 1981 and 1983 before moving to Williams where he secured his final world championship in 1987 against his team mate Nigel Mansel. Nelson went on to manage the driving careers of his sons Nelson Jr and Pedro.
Below Piquet is pictured in his Formula Super Vee, a step up from Formula Vee and similar at the time to Formula Three.
Keke Rosberg - Formula 1 World Champion 1982
1982 Formula 1 Champion and father of Nico, Keke Rosberg raced Formula Vee in championships across Finland, Scandinavia, Europe and America. Between 1971 and 1973 Keke placed third in his debut season and went on to secure four championships. Following his success in the Formula Vee, Rosberg went on to race the Formula Super Vee between 1974 and 1976 where he continued his success.
Following the retirement of Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg secured a drive for the Williams Team where he would be successful in his first year driving for the team when he secured his worl championship in 1982. Rosberg would continue driving for Williams until 1986 when he joined McLaren before retiring.
Following his successful Formula One career Keke Rosberg drove sports GT's and competed in the famous 24hrs of Spa and the Le Mans 24hr without success. To this day Keke Rosberg and his son Nico Rosberg remain only the second father-son duo to both be Formula One world champions after Graeme and Damon Hill.