Never have the words “full speed ahead” been more meaningful to rookie Verizon IndyCar Series driver Pietro Fittipaldi until 2018.
As the Brazilian driver’s season was just heating up, a dramatic crash and injury at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium stunted it immediately. Left with fractures in both legs, the second-generation driver would miss out on his Indianapolis 500 debut with Dale Coyne Racing as well as races on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and at Texas Motor Speedway.
Almost immediately, it seemed, Fittipaldi would begin rehab work on both legs following successful surgery. In mid-May he made his first visit to IMS, this time in a wheelchair with both legs wrapped in bandages.
Between rehab sessions at Pit Fit, the 22-year-old could be found in his motorhome in the Speedway driver lot listening to the No. 19 team’s radio transmissions while Zachary Claman de Melo worked through his own rookie month of May.
Common with most unexpected life events, the support came quick and heavy for Fittipaldi in the immediate aftermath of his accident. When the series left Indianapolis (and Fittipaldi) behind at the end of May for Detroit, the well-wishes quieted and it was time for newfound motivation to move forward.
Still, Fittipaldi maintained he would return to a Dallara IR-18 Indy car by July’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, missing only three scheduled starts in the meantime.
While Claman de Melo and Santino Ferrucci each took turns in the Paysafe Honda, Fittipaldi quietly remained committed to the agonizing rehab that would help resume a prosperous racing career. Despite injuries to the right (throttle) leg being more severe than the left, Fittipaldi would work his way into a kart by the end of June to provide light at the end of the tunnel.
With help from the renowned Dr. Terry Trammel, Fittipaldi was remarkably back to racing activities before he could fully walk. Add in some mentoring by uncle Max Papis, cousin Christian Fittipaldi and teammate Sebastien Bourdais, and racing at Mid-Ohio’s July 29 event started to become more of a reality instead of simply a goal.
Christian has had experience with leg injuries in his own career after enduring an accident at Surfer’s Paradise in 1997, and Bourdais was present to offer guidance after missing time in his own Dale Coyne Racing machine just last year after injuries sustained at Indianapolis.
Finally, on July 17 it was Fittipaldi back in a Verizon IndyCar Series machine for the first time since a lap 40 crash at ISM Raceway in April. In speaking to INDYCAR after last week’s test at Mid-Ohio, Fittipaldi said, “I feel like I’m back. 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.”
In other words, full speed ahead.
Considering Fittipaldi’s time off, Claman de Melo has already completed 10 races in 2018. The Canadian driver was originally slotted nine IndyCar Series events at the start of the season, so he has already crossed that threshold.
With Fittipaldi already scheduled for Mid-Ohio, Portland, and Sonoma, it is not inconceivable that he finishes out the season completely by adding Pocono and Gateway to his August slate. In May, team owner Dale Coyne seemed to allude to that plan.
In speaking to the media during Indianapolis 500 practice, Coyne stated, “I think the plan is we’ve moved some races around with Zach, so he’ll do (the INDYCAR Grand Prix), and probably Texas. But that frees the whole rest of the season up so (Fittipaldi) can come back at Mid-Ohio and finish up the season.”
With just one oval start under his belt (a 23rd place finish at Phoenix in April) and a missed opportunities at Indianapolis and Texas, it would make sense for Coyne to put Fittipaldi on a couple ovals to finish out the year.
Fittipaldi will hit the track for Honda Indy 200 first practice on Friday, July 27 at 11:00 a.m. Eastern time. You can catch the Brazilian’s return to action by visiting RaceControl.IndyCar.com.
Image courtesy of Matt Fraver/INDYCAR Media.