From a wealthy background, Elio had a reputation as something of a cocky rich-kid when he stepped from karting into Italian F3 at the beginning of 1977. Winning his third-ever F3 race, de Angelis snatched the championship at the very last gasp from Piercarlo Ghinzani, and took an impressive seventh in the European series. After taking a controversial win in the 1978 Monaco F3 race, Elio moved up to Formula 2 but he endured a fairly barren year and, since he was not slow to show his feelings, was seen as something of a spoilt prima donna.
It may have been a considerable gamble, but at the age of just 20 the inexperienced de Angelis joined a Shadow team which was in steep decline. With the exuberance of youth and not a little skill, the young Roman extracted the very best from a poor car and his performances were not lost on Colin Chapman, who signed him for 1980. He made a great start for Lotus, taking a brilliant second place in Brazil, and - one or two silly incidents apart - soon settled down to become a most consistent points finisher over the next couple of seasons, the highlight of which was a hair's-breadth win over Keke Rosberg in the 1982 Austrian GP.
The following year was a transitional period for the team as they struggled to gain reliability from their Renault turbo-engined car, and results were thin on the ground. It was the reverse in 1984, though, as a string of excellent placings saw Elio leading the World Championship by mid-season, but in the end he had to settle for third place in the points table behind Lauda and Prost.
De Angelis had spent four seasons vying somewhat inconclusively for number one status with Nigel Mansell, but the arrival of Ayrton Senna in 1985 soon put the Roman in the shade, a lucky win at Imola following Prost's disqualification notwithstanding. Accepting the situation would not change in his favour, Elio joined Brabham in 1986 to race their radical but complicated 'lowline' BT55, but he managed just one finish, and that after losing a wheel, before a routine testing session at Paul Ricard in mid-May ended in catastrophe when the Brabham was thought to have suffered a component failure, crashing heavily at 180 mph. Elio's injuries were so severe he stood no chance of survival, dying in hospital a few hours later, and the entire motor racing world mourned the loss of a popular driver who had long since earned the respect of his peers.