To examine Giovanni Lavaggi on his Formula 1 results alone would be a misapprehension indeed.

Granted, a total of ten entries split between the back-of-the-grid Pacific and Minardi teams – which included three failures to qualify and a best finish of tenth – hardly makes for heart-stopping reading. You might regard him as characteristic of the mid-1990s pay-driver that frequently graced the stage during that era, helping to prop up the finances of the less-well-heeled outfits on the F1 grid.

But to assume a snap judgement of Giovanni on these results is a disservice to the man, who harbours an intense passion to succeed in motorsport.

And to assume that he is little more than a pay driver would be wrong. Very wrong indeed.

Any drivers who grace the F1 stage have to have more than just a little bit of ability behind the wheel. What hampered Giovanni was largely being in very uncompetitive equipment.

Granted, he might not be a Schumacher, a Prost, or a Senna, and indeed we’ll never truly know just what he could have achieved.

He brief time in F1 provided audiences with plenty of excitement and entertainment: nearly catching fire as he climbed out of his burning Minardi during practice, and seemingly holding up Michael Schumacher to allow Jacques Villeneuve the opportunity to perform the pass of the 1996 season at Portugal are but two examples.

But like many who worked the hard slog to climb the ladder into F1, his road to credibility was filled with many pitfalls and obstacles, and it became perhaps too easy to simply write Giovanni off as another star-eyed aspirant driver.

His story makes for a fascinating read…

Born in Sicily and a descendant of an Italian noble family, Giovanni – a count, in today’s standards – shares the same birthday as Enzo Ferrari. The date is perhaps serendipitous, but even Giovanni feels a close connection to the founder of the most successful F1 team in history, and is seeking, in his own way, to emulate Il Commendatore.

History sites plenty of examples of men – Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren, to name two examples – who set out to design, build and compete in their own cars on the world stage, and who achieved considerable success in doing so.

That era seems to have been left behind, but Giovanni is one of the few, who his own Scuderia Lavaggi concern in the Le Mans Series, is seeking to turn that around. But the technological innovation and enormous expense in doing so makes it very difficult for an independent player to succeed in such a manufacturer-oriented, big business environment. But as you will read in this interview, Giovanni certainly has the ambition to carve a successful enterprise on this new journey in motorsport.

Giovanni gave Richard’s F1 an extremely detailed, candid interview about the highs and lows of his motorsport career. No question – no matter how uncomfortable or embarrassing – was left unanswered, and his humility and honesty were very refreshing to behold. We offer our sincerest thanks to Giovanni for his time and support in making this interview possible, and we trust that you will enjoy learning more about this truly interesting man who achieved his dreams of becoming a Formula 1 driver. I can guarantee you that your perception of the man will certainly change.

Giovanni Lavaggi Giovanni Lavaggi, 1996 German GP Giovanni Lavaggi Helmet

Full Name: Giovanni Lavaggi
Nationality: Italian
Born: 18 February 1958, Augusta (ITA)

First GP: 1995 German Grand Prix
Last GP: 1996 Japanese Grand Prix

Entries: 10 Grands Prix: 7 Non-starts: 3
Wins: 0 Best Finish: 10th Best Qualifying: 20th
Fastest Laps: 0 Points: 0 Retirements: 6

1984 Italian FIAT Panda Championship, 2nd overall
1988 World Sportscar Championship, Techno Ford / Salamin Porsche, 37th overall
1989 World Sportscar Championship, Techno Ford / Salamin Porsche, 25th overall
1990 World Sportscar Championship, Davey / Kremer Porsche 962C
24 Hours of Le Mans, Davey Porsche 962C, 19th overall with M. Cohen-Olivar & T. Lee-Davey
Interserie Championship, Kremer Porsche 962CK6, 5th overall
1991 International F3000, Crypton Renard 91D, 10 entries, 8 DNQ, Not Classified
1992 24 Hours of Le Mans, Kremer Porsche 962CK6, 7th overall with J. Nielson & M. Reuter
1993 Interserie Championship, Kremer Porsche CK7, 3 wins, 1st overall
24 Hours of Le Mans, Kremer Porsche 962CK6, 12th overall with J. Lassig & W. Taylor
1994 IndyCar Series, Euromotorsports / Leader Cards Racing, 2 races, 38th overall
1995 Daytona 24 Hours, Kremer Porsche K8 Spyder, 1st overall
Formula 1, Pacific Ford PR02, 4 races, 0 points, Not Classified
1996 Formula 1, Minardi Ford M195B, 6 entries, 3 DNQ, 3 races, 0 points, Not Classified
1998 International Sports Racing Series, GLV Brums Ferrari 333SP, 16th overall
1999 International Sports Racing Series, GLV Brums Ferrari 333SP, 1 win, 10th overall
2000 Sports Racing World Clup, GLV Brums Ferrari 333SP, 9th overall
2001 FIA World Sportscar Championship, GLV Brums Ferrari 333SP, 1 win, 7th overall
Monza 1000Km, GLV Brums Ferrari 333SP, 1st overall
2003 FIA World Sportscar Championship, GLV Racing Ferrari 333SP, 9th overall

Your father was a racer of some renown. Is this what sparked your interest in motorsport?

My father stopped racing when I was 5 years old. Too late, unfortunately, to avoid the motorsport virus inoculation!

Growing up, did you have any motorsport idols?

My first idols were Lorenzo Bandini and Jim Clark, then Jochen Rindt, Jackie Ickx, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Gilles Villeneuve and Ayrton Senna.

You competed in motocross and motorbike racing in your teenage years, and a few rallies in 1979. Was circuit racing always the ultimate goal?

Not really, when I was a little boy, my dreaming goal was just go racing, it doesn’t matter where. I had no help to cultivate my passion, therefore I competed where it was possible. I started at the age of 14 with “enduro” races, just using the motorbike I was given by my family to go to school. I took care of the tuning and maintenance of it and I could go racing without spending money. I won the 50% of the races contested and, as a result, I had two bikes stolen. My father didn’t want to buy another one, but I was offered to race with motorbikes of friends just because I was very fast.

So, that was quite easy; it was more complicated racing with cars, because you need more money for that. When I was 18 years old, I moved to Milan for my university course and I received from my family a small and cheap second hand car to go to the university easily. I managed to exchange that car with an old Simca Rally 2 prepared for Group 1 rally races; you can imagine what a horrible racing car I could get on exchange. I tried to contest a couple of rallies, but the car broke during recognisance or at the beginning of the race and I realised that I could not obtain any result that way. For this reason I decided waiting for better opportunities. In the meantime I made different jobs to pay me the Henry Morrogh racing school. I was the best student of the year and he told me that I was the best student he’d ever had. He pushed me to start racing in any feeder category, because he was absolutely convinced that I could have a brilliant career as a racing driver, even if I was already quite old to start.

You started racing competitively at the relatively late age of 26, finishing runner-up in the Italian FIAT Panda championship. Can you tell me about your early years competing in motorsport?

That was the opportunity I was waiting for. The Simca-Talbot car agent that I knew in Milan when I tried to fix my Simca Rally 2, became FIAT agent and I convinced him to help me with a small sponsorship to compete in the Formula Panda championship. It was a small Formula car using the FIAT Panda engine, therefore a good opportunity for them to make some advertising with a very small budget. I also convinced a rally team, which wanted to start with circuit races, in buying one Formula Panda car and preparing the engine. We participated to the last race of the ’83 Formula Panda Championship and I won two heats and I was fighting for first position in the final race when my engine broke – a brilliant debut, which was enough to see me engaged as factory driver by Ermolli, the constructor of the car I was racing with.

You moved to the World Sportscar Championship in 1988 and competed in prototype racing for several years in the WSC and Interserie championship. How did you cope with the transition to endurance racing, and can you describe the different approaches needed for endurance racing when compared with shorter-length races?

In my opinion there is not a big difference between endurance and sprint races. You have to push 100% on the throttle all the time even for endurance races. Maybe we could say that drivers with some characteristics are better than others; for example it’s important to be fast but also consistent: if you have to cover hundreds of laps it is not important to set the fastest lap, but to complete your stints in the shortest time. Also a smooth driving style pays more than an aggressive one because you can save tyres and mechanical parts of the car.

Giovanni Levaggi, 1989 24 Hours of Le Mans

Lavaggi has been a semi-regular competitor at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Here is the Kremer Porsche 962C he shared with Kunimitsu Takahashi and Bruno Giacomelli at the 1989 race, although they retired after 303 laps.

Your aim was single-seater racing and you moved to Formula 3000 in 1991 with Crypton Racing. In 10 rounds, you qualified just twice. How difficult was this period for you and the team?

Actually, in that period, my aim was the F1 championship, which is the top level for a racing driver. So, in order to get the F1 superlicense, one full racing season in F3000 was mandatory, that’s why I moved to F3000. It was difficult for me because the budget at my disposal was extremely limited and I had to accept uncompetitive cars, but the important thing was to be there.

Lavaggi briefly tested for March in 1992

Lavaggi briefly tested for March in 1992

You landed a role as a test driver for the March team, who was competing in what would be its final Formula 1 season. Its budget was extremely limited and the car was very underdeveloped. What were your impressions of the team and the car when you had the chance to drive it?

The team was very good and the car was too. I had the opportunity to work with Gordon Coppuck, a very good and experienced engineer.

And we shouldn’t forget that the chief aerodynamicist who designed the car was none other than Adrian Newey!

Hopes for a race seat for 1993 disappeared when the team collapsed, but you moved back to the Interseries Championship, and took the 1993 title in dominant fashion. How important was this success for you?

Giovanni Lavaggi, 1993 Interserie

Lavaggi romped to the 1993 Interserie title

It was the first opportunity in my career to participate in a whole championship with a competitive car. In six rounds (12 races) I obtained four pole positions, six fastest laps, six victories, one second place, three third places, one fourth place and a 10th place (because of a puncture), breaking all records settled the year before by Manuel Reuter with the same car, that way increasing the confidence that Kremer Racing always had on me.

This success made quite clear for everybody that, as soon as I have the opportunity to get a result, I succeed in reaching it.

Tell me about your brief foray racing in CART in 1994, and your win in the Daytona 24 Hours in 1995. Your fortunes could not have contrasted further…

A friend of mine was taking care of public relations for CART with European drivers and he introduced me to some teams. With no chance to get a seat in F1 for 1994, the CART championship appeared to me as the right alternative. The first experience (Detroit) was a disaster because I was engaged by a team which went bankrupt. Then I joined Leader Card; a team with a great history but not enough money to run the car properly. They had failed to qualify with the previous driver (Buddy Lazier) and we succeeded in qualifying twice in three attempt. The team was satisfied and me too finishing 13th at Elkart Lake just in front of Nigel Mansell.

The Daytona 24 Hours win was a masterpiece. We knew that the new Ferrari 333 (which could profit by new rules advantages) couldn’t last for 24 hours at its first race, therefore, we made our race against the other competitors. I drove with Bouchut, Werner and Lässig. A very good team, but it was me to settle the qualifying lap time and I drove a total of 8 hours and 49 minutes with a night stint lasting nearly three-and-a-half hours; therefore I really feel that victory as mine.

Giovanni Lavaggi, 1995 German GP

Lavaggi’s F1 debut came at the 1995 German GP

You made it into Formula 1 in 1995 with Pacific, competing in four races for the team. The team was very cash-strapped and very much a back-of-the-grid outfit. What were your first impressions of the team and the PR02 car?

Uhmm… what can I say? The car was really difficult to drive and the gearbox too weak.

We never finished one race because of gearbox problems. The team was in their first F1 year, therefore, with no experience of the major Formula championship.

Were you offered any advice from other figures in the pit lane during your Grand Prix debut at Hockenheim?

No advices. I could say that there was a lot of scepticism around me (may be because F1 people only knew about my difficult F3000 season); anyway everybody was really surprised after the first free practice session, where I was just a few tenths behind my teammate, Andrea Montermini.

You were looking to join the Forti team for the 1996 season, and even represented them at the Bologna Motor Show. It was perhaps ironic that you should return to Formula 1 at the 1996 German Grand Prix, with Minardi offering you a race seat in place of Giancarlo Fisichella. It would be the last appearance in F1 for Forti, which collapsed that weekend. How did the drive with Minardi come about?

Giovanni Lavaggi, 1996 German GP

Lavaggi returned to the grid with Minardi at the 1996 German GP, but failed to qualify.

I had been talking for quite long time with Guido Forti to be one of his drivers. Guido knew me very well since F3 time. In 1985 I drove the “Forti team” car of the previous year, managed by a mechanic with no specific experience of F3 who wanted to settle its own team. At the first race, at Varano, we finished seventh overall between the two new “Forti team” cars and Guido was really surprised by this result.

We were really close to settle a F1 deal for 1996, but, unfortunately, due to the bad economical situation of his team, Guido had to accept a new partner who didn’t agree to engage me as Luca Badoer’s team-mate.As you said, I was lucky because Forti collapsed on the same weekend of my 1996 debut at Hockenheim with Minardi.

Minardi gave me the opportunity to race in a good team with a really good car whose only problem was the weakness and unreliability of its engines (which were 180bhp down on the best engines in the field, and seven engines broke in my car in the six races I drove for the team!).

I’m sure you’re no doubt aware of the often-played video clip of you climbing out of the M195B during practice, not realising it was on fire. Can you tell us about the incident from your perspective?

That’s a long story. For the first free practice my car had a problem with the differential and I lost the session. When I went out for the second free practice session, I noticed something wrong with the engine. I came in straight away and Cosworth engineers checked all data and said that everything was ok. I went out again and I came back immediately because the engine was even worse. The Cosworth engineers said again that data engine were good but they changed the ECU anyway just to make me happy.

After that I made other two or three out-in because the engine was each time losing more revs and power, but the engineers didn’t find any problem and they insisted that I kept pushing the throttle until the right shifting revs limit. I told them that the engine would break but they didn’t want to believe me. As a result, on the second straight during my out lap the engine exploded and you can imagine how I was upset for losing the second free practice session in my first F1 race of the year.

The engine was not on fire while I was slowing down therefore I was going out of the car quite slowly, trying to absorb the situation and relax. And you should also consider that it’s not easy jumping out from a F1 car for a driver 1.81-metre tall driver like I am! Suddenly Minardi told me by radio that the engine was on fire and I speeded up getting out of the car!

This engine failure should be famous for the way it came out and not for the way I got out from the car. Anyway, even if that wasn’t any special incident at all from my point of view, I’m glad that I’m still arousing hilarity for so many people.

The 107% qualifying rule had been brought in for the 1996 season. In a back-of-the-grid car you hadn’t tested, this must have been a huge challenge for you and you failed to qualify for your return race. What was expected of you during your time with the team, and what expectations did you place upon yourself?

Giovanni Lavaggi, 1996 Hungarian GP

Lavaggi’s best finish was 10th at the Hungarian Grand Prix

I cannot understand why FIA introduced this rule in 1996 when there were only 22 cars (and just 20 after Forti’s collapse). Anyway, as you know I lost the first two free practice session in my first race of the year with a car which I didn’t know.

Nevertheless in qualifying, with a lap time really close to my team-mate’s lap time, I was in the race until the last minute, when Hill pushed me out scoring a fantastic pole position with a great lap time.If we could consider just the second lap time of the grid or the average of the first and second time, I would be in the race.

However, I succeeded in qualifying in all the next races of the season – with the exception of Spa, where my engine exploded again during qualifying session and I couldn’t set a good lap time.

Although you’d been classified in 10th place at the Hungarian GP, you’d spun out with a few laps to go. At Portugal you saw the chequered flag for the first time in a Formula 1 car. What did the moment mean to you?

Yes in Budapest I spun because of some oil spread on track from Berger who broke the engine, in Hockenheim and Spa I couldn’t start, in Monza the engine was broken in race, therefore in Estoril I absolutely wanted to see the chequered flag. After a third of the race I had an oil pressure alarm flashing, therefore I continued using 1000 revs less that way saving the engine and I finished the race. My goal for that race was reached.

The race was also famous for the overtaking manoeuvre made by Jacques Villeneuve on Michael Schumacher, which involved them lapping you in the process. What do you remember of the incident?

I remember that even Schumacher admitted that I was not responsible for him being passed by Villeneuve. I invite you to watch the incident from the camera cars of Villeneuve and Schumacher. You could easily see how far ahead I was from both Villeneuve and Schumacher, and that into the long corner before the straight they didn’t gain one metre (it was rather the opposite). I went out of the corner with a big advantage and they overtook me only at the end of the straight.

I personally think that Schumacher wanted to slow down before the long last corner, thinking that I could be too slow into the corner and expose him to being passed by Villeneuve on the following long straight. At the end he was wrong twice: first of all because he slowed down too much and Villeneuve overtook him going into the corner, and secondly because I could be slow on the straights (and certainly I was with 180bhp less), but I was definitely fast into the corners.

You’d achieved your ambition of competing in Formula 1 and returned to sportscar racing, setting up your own team under the banner of Lavaggi Sport (formerly GLV Brums). Is there a different mindset when you’re competing as a driver and a team owner at the same time?

It’s double the job and double the effort, but on the other side it’s double the satisfaction when you win, as we did for example at the 1000km of Monza in 2001. Actually I should even say a triple satisfaction, because I was not only the team owner and the driver of the car but, at the same time, I was also the technical director of the team.

Your team won its first ISRS race at Magny Cours in 1999 with you paired alongside Gaston Mazzacane. In 2001, you took an incredible victory at Monza after being 4 laps down. Tell us about that race.

Yes we scored very good results with a very limited budget. The victory at Monza was really another masterpiece of my career. Everything had worked badly since the beginning. We arrived at the track very late on Friday, just in time for a late scrutineering and the first free practice. I worked the whole night and after a quick shower I jumped in the car for the first practice session. During my out lap the oil pump failed and the pressure dropped down to zero forcing me to stop. We had to replace the engine and use the spare one, almost at the end of its life. We spent the whole night changing the engine and also trying to solve a problem we had with the starter motor.

I slept only three hours but the car was ready for Saturday sessions. Unfortunately the engine didn’t want to work properly; it was misfiring badly and, for the whole day, we tried to solve the problem changing almost everything (ECU, battery, spark plugs, filters, coils, wiring looms, etc.). There was no way to set a reasonable lap time in qualifying and we would have to start from last position on the grid. We also struggled around the starter motor problem: we called the European importer of Tilton who came on a private flight but he couldn’t solve the problem either. On Saturday night, everybody in the team was very tired and disappointed and they suggested we should give up. That is something I never like to do; therefore I kept two young mechanics with me and I sent everybody to sleep. I made some other changes in the engine and I arranged a very special installation of the starter motor leaving it free to move a little bit around the flywheel in order to engage on it easily and I finished the car at 5 o’clock of the race day. I went to sleep two hours and at 8:30 I was ready for the warm up. Unfortunately even during warm up the engine was misfiring; then I asked Judd engineers to change the injectors (the only thing unchanged in the engine yet) even if they were convinced that the problem couldn’t be there.

Levaggi's trip through the gravel was the precursor to an amazing recovery drive

Levaggi’s trip through the gravel was the precursor to an amazing recovery drive

With big surprise of everybody, in the race, the misfiring problem disappeared and already in the first lap I realised that the set-up of the car (made at the workshop and virtually untested) was somehow perfect. After three or four laps I was already third overall when, approaching the first chicane I felt like someone was pushing me while braking. I thought that it was Baldi, who I just had overtaken, but I saw him far away through the mirror and I realised that the throttle was stuck open. I immediately switched off the engine, but it was too late to get into the corner and I went out on the gravel (pictured).

I thought there was a sort of malediction for that race, and I unfastened the belts to retire when I saw the marshals coming to me with the intention to push me on the track again (I was in a dangerous position) and I fastened my belts again saying to myself: “Come on Giovanni, it’s almost a six-hour race and we are just at the beginning… anything can happen”.

I lost almost five laps because I had to join the pits, clean the car and fix the throttle problem, but after that, I was the fastest on track each lap. I had so much adrenaline in my body that I could drive furiously for 5 hours (leaving the car to my team-mate for only for one stint) even with so few hours sleep during the whole week, and I progressively caught everybody, taking the lead only three laps before the end of the race and leaving everybody really astonished. Now that you know the whole story, you can imagine what a great satisfaction has been that victory for me.

You appeared in the opening round of the Italian Superstars Series for Chrysler, alongside other former F1 drivers such as Gianni Morbidelli, Johnny Herbert, Andrea Chiesa, Emanuele Naspetti and Domenico Schiatarella. Is it almost like being with old friends again?

I drove in the first race of the championship as a favour to my old friend Mauro Nocentini. The team received that car for the Monza race only two day before the event and they needed a driver whom they could rely on in order to understand the potential of the car. Maybe I will join the team for one more race before the season end.

Your popular nickname among F1 fans is ‘Johnny Carwash’, a liberal translation of your name into English that was popularised by talk-show host David Letterman. Had you heard of the nickname and what do you think of it?

That nickname came out as a joke of a friend of mine. An English journalist asked me if I could translate my name in English. I answered that the literal translation was John Washes, but the an Italian journalist that was assisting at the conversation, (Paolo Bombara, who is a big friend of mine) said that, considering my job with cars, it would had been better to translate in “Johnny Carwash”. Obviously the English journalist loved this liberal translation much more than the literal one, and I became “Johnny Carwash” for everybody. Anyway, it was definitely better than the American nickname I had from my team manager of IndyCar who used to call me “Johnny Lasagne”!

What would you say were your best and worst moments of your motorsport career so far?

Best moment? It’s easy: my period in Formula 1 (because of the popularity and the affection of fans) and my best victories like Daytona 24 Hours, Monza 1000km and the Interserie championship.

Worst moments? Maybe trying to operate as a constructor, because it’s very hard to do what I’m trying to do: bring alive again the figure of the driver-constructor that the likes of Jack Brabham was able to achieve. It has been a great satisfaction to design and complete the car I’m racing with, but with a very limited budget it’s really hard to compete with big car brands.

What is your favourite racing circuit in the world?

Spa, Mugello, Suzuka and Le Mans are my most favourite tracks. Then Brands Hatch, Laguna Seca and Monza would be among my second-favourite!

Are you still following Formula 1 today? What is your opinion of the current state of F1?

My opinion is that something should be done to make F1 as spectacular as it was in the past. The rules should be decided in order to build cars which facilitate overtaking and enhance the driver’s abilities instead of giving advantage to teams with more technical and economical resources.

Images via Corbis Images, F1 Facts, F1 Rejects, Giovanni Lavaggi, Motorsport Blog

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Richard Bailey

Founder & Chief Editor at MotorsportM8
Hasn't missed a Grand Prix since 1989. Has a soft spot for Minardi. Tattooed with 35+ Grand Prix circuits.