With a family background in motorsport, Italian Gianni Morbidelli is one of the few to achieve his dream of being a Formula 1 driver. Snapped up for a Ferrari test driver role at the age of 21 after great success in Formula 3, Gianni’s Formula 1 CV (67 starts, 1 podium, 8.50 points) belies a great motorsport talent.
A stand-in drive with Scuderia Italia in F1 in 1990 was an opportunity not to be missed, although it was a difficult introduction to F1 – he failed to qualify at his debut in Phoenix with next to no mileage under his belt – he finished 14th in Brazil and was drafted at season-end into Minardi who were to take on Ferrari customer engines the following season.
A tough season against Pierluigi Martini proved his mettle, and he was again drafted – this time into Ferrari when Alain Prost was sacked – and finished in the points on his race-shortened sole outing in appalling conditions. It was back to Minardi for 1992 – this time saddled with Lamborghini V12 engines – but he failed to add to his half-point and was out of a drive for 1993.
A year of rebuilding in the Italian Touring Car Championship netted him two wins with Alfa Romeo and a call-back to F1 with Footwork for 1994. Two seasons with the underfunded outfit netted plenty of retirements and the occasional point, and he was forced to step aside for the pay drivers mid-1995. A late call-up for the final races of the 1995 season resulted in a miraculous podium at Adelaide, and at last, a reward for Gianni’s talents.
F1 again left Gianni by the wayside for 1996, and he returned after 18 months with Sauber as the replacement for Nicola Larini. But his relationship withy Peter Sauber headed south and he was injured in two separate testing accidents, the latter which ended his F1 career for good.
Post-F1, Gianni has raced successfully in a multitude of tin-top categories with marques such as Alfa Romeo, SEAT, BMW and Audi, and it the three-time and defending Italian Superstars Champion.
Recently, Gianni returned to the F1 paddock as a driver in the Speedcar Series alongside other retired F1 driver, taking several victories in his two seasons en route to taking the 2008/9 title. At last, Gianni was able to beat his F1 campadres in equal machinery and could everyone what a talent he is!
Gianni graciously accepted our interview request, and has provided a great insight into the highs and lows of his F1 career, including his interest in joining the V8 Supercars Championship! I offer my sincere thanks to Gianni for his time and effort with this interview.
|Full Name:||Gianni Morbidelli|
|Born:||13 January 1968, Pesaro (ITA)|
|First GP:||1990 Brazilian Grand Prix|
|Last GP:||1997 Luxembourg Grand Prix|
|1982||World Junior Karting Championship, 2nd overall|
|1984||World Karting Championship, 4th overall|
|1985||EUR-AM Karting Championship, 1st overall|
|1987||Italian Formula 3 Championship, Team Euroracing Junior, Rookie of the Year, 6th overall|
|1988||Italian Formula 3 Championship, Forti Corse Dallara F388, 1 win, 3 podiums, 5th overall|
|1989||Italian Formula 3 Championship, Forti Corse Dallara F389, 6 wins, 1st overall|
|European Formula 3 Cup, Forti Corse Dallara F389, 1st overall|
|Italian Superturismo Championship, Bigazzi BMW M3, 2 wins, 4th overall|
|1990||International F3000, Forti Corse Lola Ford, 1 win, 5th overall|
|Formula 1, Scuderia Ferrari, Test Driver|
|Formula 1, BMS Scuderia Italia Dallara Cosworth F190, 2 entries, 1 DNQ, 0 points|
|Formula 1, Minardi Cosworth M190, 2 races, 0 points, Not Classified|
|1991||Formula 1, Minardi Ferrari M191, 15 races, 0 points|
|Formula 1, Scuderia Ferrari 643, 1 race, 0.5 points, 24th overall|
|1992||Formula 1, Minardi Lamborghini M191B / M192, 16 entries, 1 DNQ, 0 points, Not Classified|
|1993||Italian Superturismo Championship, Alfa Romeo, 2 wins|
|1994||Formula 1, Footwork Ford FA15, 16 races, 3 points, 22nd overall|
|1995||Formula 1, Footwork Hart FA16, 10 races, 1 podium, 5 points, 14th overall|
|Italian Superturismo Championship, CiBiEmme BMW 320i, 2 wins|
|1996||Formula 1, Jordan Peugeot, Test Driver|
|Italian Superturismo Championship, CiBiEmme BMW 320i, 1 podium|
|1997||Formula 1, Scuderia Ferrari, Test Driver|
|Formula 1, Sauber Petronas C16, 7 races, 0 points, Not Classified|
|1998||British Touring Car Championship, TWR Volvo S4, 26 races, 11th overall|
|2000||European Supertouring Cup, CiBiEmme BMW 320i, 5 wins, 3rd overall|
|2001||European Supertouring Cup, CiBiEmme BMW 320i, 1 win, 5th overall|
|2003||European Touring Car Series, SEAT Sport Italia Toledo, 1 win, 7th overall|
|2006||World Touring Car Championship, N.Tech Alfa Romeo 156, 2 podiums, 14th overall|
|2007||Italian Superstars, Audi Sport Italia RS4, 6 wins, 1st overall|
|2008||Italian Superstars, Audi Sport Italia RS4, 3 wins, 8 podiums, 1st overall|
|2008-9||Speedcar Series, Palm Beach Racing, 1 win, 5 podiums, 1st overall|
|2009||Italian Superstars, ROAL Motorsport BMW M3, 6 wins, 9 podiums, 1st overall|
How did you come to be involved in motorsport? Did you always harbour ambitions of making it to Formula 1?
When I was very young, my father was a motorbike constructor. Back then, I always had a passion for motorsport and I also had a cousin who was involved with karting. My father decided to buy a kart for me when I was 12 years old and I started to go racing. It was just a passion, for my father and I. I never thought about Formula 1, I’d only just started with karting. Like many kids who start to play soccer without professional ambitions, you do it only for the fun and passion!
Growing up, did you have any motorsport idols?
Alain Prost was my idol when I was in karting and F3, and it was incredible to work with him in 1990. I was the reserve and test driver for Ferrari during that year and I was so glad to work beside him! He was a good teacher.
You had a very quick rise to Formula 1 after karting, and were signed to Ferrari as a test driver at the age of 21? How much of an honour was it to drive for the Scuderia as an Italian?
Well, of course for every driver, Italian or foreigner, they follow the dream to work with Ferrari.
Ferrari is a legend and after my success in Formula 3 where I won the Italian and European Championship in 1989, I received a calling from Cesare Fiorio (who was the Team Manager during that time). They signed me on a 3-year contract and my experience with Ferrari was amazing. They improved me as a driver and they helped me to grow up a lot as a man, too.
Your F1 debut came at the 1990 United States Grand Prix with Scuderia Italia as a stand-in for the unwell Emanuele Pirro. It must have been difficult to perform a stand-in role without any time in the car beforehand.
Yes it was a hard and difficult debut, until that moment I had only F3 experience and just a few Formula 1 tests with Ferrari in my backpack!
You comfortably made the grid at the following race in Brazil when you qualified in 16th and finished 14th. What was going through your mind on your first F1 starting grid?
You can’t even imagine how a young guy feels the first time he is on the F1 grid in the midst of drivers like Prost, Senna, Mansell, Berger, Patrese, Piquet, Boutsen, Alboreto, Warwick … I tell you, I don’t know if it was like a dream or a nightmare, the pressure was so high but the excitement was also incredible!
Were you offered any advice from any notable figures in the pit lane during your debut?
I remember Senna, he was the only one who came in my pit garage before the practice of the Phoenix GP and he said to me:
“Ciao, I’m Ayrton, welcome in F1.”
A legend and a sir!
After this, it was back to testing with Ferrari, but you then went to Minardi for the final two rounds to replace Paolo Barilla. Was it difficult moving into a team at short notice and to replace a fellow Italian?
I don’t know why the relationship between Paolo and Minardi finished before the end of the year but Ferrari had already signed a contract with Minardi to supply the team with customer engines for the 1991 season. I was a Ferrari test driver and the easiest solution was to put me in the car, and I stayed with the team for the following 2 seasons.
You stayed with Minardi for the 1991 season, and the team became the first ever to use customer Ferrari engines. How did Minardi compare with Ferrari, and how much was expected of the team with this engine behind it?
Well… the main difference in F1 is always about money. I was driving the Ferrari as a test driver and at the same time I was involved with Minardi in the regular season. Between the two cars there were big differences, even if they had the same engine.
With Minardi we did not have enough money to research the performance in terms of testing and development, and of course it was frustrating to know from my side how big the potential of Ferrari was and then be a competitor in a car with less performance!
What was your relationship like with Gian Carlo Minardi and your team-mate, Pierluigi Martini?
Gian Carlo is a great person, a friend, simply one of the most genuine people that I met in F1. Our relationship was friendly and professional during our time together. It’s a shame we didn’t achieve brilliant results but at least we enjoyed ourselves a lot!
Piero [Martini] was my first team-mate in F1. He was a fast driver with a lot of experience compared to me. I was young and new but our competition was tough!
Your dream opportunity came about in (perhaps?) a nightmare way. Alain Prost was fired by Ferrari before the Australian Grand Prix and you were drafted into the race team to replace him. How daunting was it to start a race for Ferrari, as an Italian?
We were on vacation in Port Douglas, – my parents and I – between the Japanese GP and the last race in Australia when I received a call from Ferrari. They were very straight to the point: “Next Sunday, you will race in Adelaide with our car instead of Prost”.
I thought was a joke at the beginning, but I immediately realised that a ‘dream comes true’! It’s was like touching the sky with your finger, a mix of emotions!
Apparently Prost had likened the 1991 Ferrari to a truck in the lead-up to him being fired. Was the car really that bad? You managed 6th place in the rain-shortened race, your first F1 points’ finish…
Honestly the car was not competitive enough that year compared to McLaren or Williams, but from my point of view it was a big step forward with respect to my Minardi. I had a great qualifying session on the first day, but unfortunately I had an engine problem during the second qualifying session. I didn’t manage any laps during the second qualifying session and managed just 8th on the grid.
We did the race in one of the worst weather conditions I’ve seen in my life. During the race I was running 3rd behind Senna and Piquet when they stopped the race. Unfortunately for me they took the classification from 2 laps previous to when it was red-flagged. On that lap I was 6th!
Robbed of a podium! It was back to Minardi for 1992, but this time the team were equipped with Lamborghini engines and the team took just one point all season, with your team-mate Christian Fittipaldi. What was the reason for the poorer showing, relative to the team’s best-ever season in 1991?
Once again, we had quite a good 12-cylinder engine, but the car was not competitive. It was a frustrating season without reward.
Formula 1 appeared to leave you behind for 1993. What was the reason for this?
As in life, it’s always hard to stay on the top. One day you are a star and the day after nobody calls you! It was one of the hardest periods of my career. I was still too young to be out of F1, but I had to accept the reality of the situation!
You went to the Italian Touring Car Championship with Alfa Romeo for 1993, and took two race victories. Was it a difficult adjustment to move to touring cars?
Touring cars are very different, heavier cars with respect to F1, with much less power, less braking and we ran in sprint races. But it doesn’t mean that is less difficult than F1. I had a transitory year where I worked hard to return to Formula 1.
You returned to F1 in 1994 when Footwork signed you up, but the first half of the season would best be described as a nightmare with eight consecutive retirements. You finally made the finish at the ninth race, in Germany, and finished in the points. I read that Alan Jenkins [Footwork Technical Director] felt that the mid-season regulations’ changes (after the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna at San Marino) really harmed the car’s handling and performance. How much of an impact did this have?
I must say that was a sort of revenge to be in F1 again that year! Jackie Oliver [Team Principal] helped me a lot and gave me a big opportunity, a sort of second life in the circus maximus!
The FA94 was the best car I have ever driven, but unfortunately it was not very reliable. We always retired in the points positions and after that dramatic weekend in Imola the aerodynamic rules changed and we lost our performance. Alan Jenkins is one of the best friends I have ever had in F1, a genius! With Footwork, I spent two fantastic seasons with them in F1 and even if the financial situation of the team was really bad, they always worked hard to make me feel comfortable inside the team.
You stayed with Footwork in 1995 and were partnered with Taki Inoue, who many journalists over the years have torn apart because he was a pay driver, and not particularly quick. Was it frustrating to operate in such an environment when your team-mate was so much slower than you, and where the team had so little funding?
I was working for the team, not to compete against my team-mate. Taki was a choice of the team and I can only say that he was a good guy.
Max Papis stepped into your seat mid-season, but you returned for the final three rounds and peaked with a podium at the last race in Adelaide. With your 6th place in 1991, was Adelaide always kinder to you than other circuits? What did this podium result mean to you?
The team had many financial problems and they had to replace me with a pay-driver.
After few colourless results, Oliver called me again and we did a brilliant end of the season… 3rd place in Adelaide, my best result in F1.
But this wasn’t enough to land you a F1 drive for 1996, and you became a test driver with Jordan before joining Sauber mid-season to replace Nicola Larini. It was an unhappy year and you suffered injuries in two separate testing accidents. What was the 1997 season like for you?
I don’t wanna talk about that season, I just have bad memories and unfortunately I finished my career in F1 in the worst way, with bad injuries to my left arm.
After that, I didn’t drive a Formula 1 car again, I was fit and able after a year and a half. But it was too long a period and unfortunately I lost all my chances to drive again in F1.
You moved from Formula 1 and have been involved in a range of Touring Car and GT championships for a variety of marques such as Volvo, Alfa Romeo, BMW, SEAT and Audi. Was it much of an adjustment to move away for Formula 1 for good?
The years after F1 were up and down for me. I did races in every category, from GT to WTCC with some good results.
In 2007, I started to work with Audi Italia in the Italian Superstars Championship. I won the championship in 2007 and 2008. Last year, I began working with BMW Italia in the same championship and for the third consecutive year I won the title.
You took championship glory in the 2008-9 Speedcar Series championship, ahead of your fellow ex-F1 drivers like Johnny Herbert, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jean Alesi and Jacques Villeneuve. What was it like to race against them again, and win?
An the same time I was also involved in the Speedcar Championship, a very nice challenge in the Middle East with stock cars! The standard of the drivers was really high and the competition was really hard. It was a sort of sweet revenge for me: when we were all together in F1 I always had the less competitive car compared to them. After many years apart, we competed again together in a championship, but this time all with similar cars! I won an incredible battle and I must say I really enjoyed it!
What would you say were your best and worst moments of your motorsport career?
I have many great memories of motorsport, from the victory of the Italian and European championships in F3, the experience I had with Ferrari, the podium with Arrows in F1, the last 3 seasons winning the Italian Superstars championship, and other great moments of my long carrier.
Probably the worst moment was my last season in F1. Not only for the bad accident with Sauber, but also because that year I had one of the worst personal relationships with some people of F1.
What is your favourite racing circuit in the world?
I like a lot Sao Paolo and also Portimao in Portugal is an incredible circuit.
Do you still follow F1 today? If so, what is your opinion on the current state of F1?
I still follow F1 and I really hope to see a nice season this year. There are many interesting things to watch!
In my life I have raced in almost all the categories but one day I would like to come to Australia, a country that I really LOVE, and experience the V8 Supercars Championship! If somebody has a car to offer to me … I’m ready to come!!!
Images via Corbis Images, Dario Motorsport, FIA WTCC Media, F1 Nostalgia, The Cahier Archive