Thierry Boutsen, 1986
Put a picture of my father on his wedding day alongside one of Thierry Boutsen from the same era and you’d be hard-pressed to spot the difference between the two, and I’m quite certain I asked my father on more than one occasion – at all of the tender age of six, no doubt! – how he’d managed to hide this double life of a famous racing driver ever so well.
It was when this stylish and unflappable Belgian took his third Formula 1 race victory that I really sat up an took notice of him. It wasn’t that he’d won in a Williams (a rather rare feat in 1990, it must be said) or made a Hungarian Grand Prix interesting – he had certainly ticked both boxes quite comfortably on that hot summer day in Budapest – but it was that he had beaten my childhood hero, Ayrton Senna, in a straight fight.
Had the race gone on one for a lap longer, as Thierry himself said afterwards, there was little doubt that Ayrton would have beaten him. But Boutsen’s uncomplicated approach (in spite of mountains of pressure from the great Brazilian) bore all the hallmarks of a brilliant drive.
But sadly that win would prove the zenith of Boutsen’s Formula 1 career. The Brussels-born driver had achieved great success in the junior formulae before his sponsors forked out some $500,000 to get him onto the 1983 Belgian Grand Prix grid with Arrows. He grafted out three seasons with the midfield squad, patiently waiting to impress his talents upon a better outfit, and Benetton duly came calling for the 1987 season.
Seven third-placed finishes came his way in the following two years, and he was offered the role of lead driver at Williams, who had just lost Nigel Mansell to Ferrari at the end of a wretched 1988 season. Armed with Renault engines, 1989 was going to be about rebuilding, but Thierry immediately set the pace and provided the team with two splendid wet-weather wins in Canada and Australia.
But by mid-1990 and in spite of his win at Hungary, there was this feeling that Boutsen was perhaps too much of a nice guy, lacking the ruthless streak needed to make him championship material, and Williams dispensed with his services in favour of, and not without irony, Nigel Mansell.
With all the good seats taken for 1991, Thierry opted to join Ligier, knowing that it would be an interim year while it waited on the same Renault engines that Williams had for 1992.
But the 1991 car was beastly, and Thierry repeatedly joked that no other driver had the right to complain about their car until they’d done some laps in the Lamborghini-powered JS35.
His relationship with team-mate Érik Comas fell to pieces in the political French environment, and matters were not helped when they collided with each other on more than one occasion.
After two seasons at Les Bleus, Thierry was cast into the F1 wilderness, but got a call-up – along with his Barclay cigarette sponsorship – to join the underfunded Jordan outfit at the third round of the 1993 season. But the 193 chassis was rather more built for Rubens Barrichello’s shorter stature than Thierry’s much taller frame, and despite bravely battling on, the car’s lurid handling made him deeply concerned and he retired before the season was out.
Boutsen later moved into sports car racing and team management, but has since made a great success of himself operating his eponymous aviation sales company in Monaco.
Amidst a truly hectic work schedule, Thierry kindly accepted our interview request and we talked about his lengthy F1 career, the current state of F1, and what was really wrong at Ligier. His warmth and genuine approach quickly shine through, and he clearly took great pride in the privilege of being on the F1 grid for as long as he was. Richard’s F1 is extremely grateful to Thierry for his time and support in making this interview possible.
THIERRY’S BIO & CAREER SUMMARY
|Born:||13 July 1957, Brussels (BEL)|
|FORMULA 1 CAREER SUMMARY|
|1983||Arrows Cosworth A6, 10 entries, 0 points|
|1984||Arrows Cosworth A6 / BMW A7, 16 entries, 1 DNQ, 5 points, 15th overall|
|1985||Arrows BMW A8, 16 entries, 11 points, 11th overall|
|1986||Arrows BMW A8 / A9, 16 entries, 0 points|
|1987||Benetton Ford B187, 16 entries, 1 podium, 16 points, 8th overall|
|1988||Benetton Ford B188, 16 entries, 5 podiums, 27 points, 4th overall|
|1989||Williams Renault FW12C / FW13, 16 entries, 2 wins, 5 podiums, 37 points, 5th overall|
|1990||Williams Renault FW13B, 1 win, 3 podiums, 34 points, 6th overall|
|1991||Ligier Lamborghini JS35 / JS35B, 16 entries, 0 points|
|1992||Ligier Renault JS37, 16 entries, 2 points, 14th overall|
|1993||Jordan Hart 193, 10 entries, 0 points|
|OTHER CAREER HIGHLIGHTS|
|1978||Belgian Formula Ford, 15 wins, 1st overall|
|1980||European Formula 3, 2nd overall|
|1981||Formula 2, March BMW 812, 2 wins, 4 podiums, 37 points, 2nd overall|
|1982||Formula 2, Marlboro Spirit Honda 201, 3 wins, 6 podiums, 50 points, 3rd overall|
|1989||‘Belgian Sporstman of the Year’ award recipient|
How did you come to be involved in motorsport? Did you always harbour ambitions of making it to Formula 1?
I had a dream when I was 3 years old, I told my parents I wanted to become a racing car driver… The dream came true!
Growing up, did you have any motorsport idols?
Not really, I saw the big names winning but had no real idols neither at that time nor later.
You had a successful junior career and managed to secure a seat with Arrows in 1983, making your debut on home turf at Spa Francorchamps. How did the opportunity come about?
It was my only chance to get into Formula 1. I could only get some money together for that Belgian race, but my performance was good enough [he qualified 18th, one place ahead of Nigel Mansell] to secure a bit more funding for the next race, and it went on like that for the whole of 1983.
I was very impressed racing together with the likes of Keke Rosberg, Niki Lauda, John Watson and others, but it only lasted a few laps as, unfortunately, a wheel bearing went.
Were you offered any advice from any notable figures in the pit lane during your debut?
Everybody tried to give me advice, but as always, you only learn by yourself.
You were something of a fixture in the Arrows team for four seasons. What were your impressions of the team?
[Team bosses] Jackie Oliver, Alan Rees and Dave Wass gave me my chance. I believe I did pretty well considering the amount of money we had at our disposal. I stayed there for four seasons until I found a better seat, Benetton.
Your move to Benetton in 1987 was a step forward, but the promise of the car was often masked by niggling mechanical issues, until you finally picked up a podium in the season-ending round at Adelaide. The following year was better, with five podium appearances. How much of a difference was the Benetton team to Arrows?
The Benetton team was a much more competitive team, with [chief designer] Rory Byrne being the key to the competitiveness of the car.
Unfortunately we had too many trouble with the engine reliability during 1987, and I should have won in Austria and Mexico for sure! The turbocharged B187 was by far the best car I ever drove! We switched to normally-aspirated power in 1988, and the lack of power that year only gave me six third places [while the turbocharged McLarens went on to win 15 of the 16 races that season…].
Two seasons with Williams brought three fine race wins: two in pouring conditions at Canada and Australia in 1989, and then a brilliant defensive win ahead of Ayrton Senna in 1990. Looking back, which of these gives you the greatest pride?
Oh, definitely all of them, without any distinct favourite.
Three race wins: Boutsen’s lengthy F1 career saw him pick up three victories. His first two victories came in teeming conditions at Canada and Australia (above left) in 1989, and his third and final race win was a great drive under enormous pressure from Ayrton Senna at Hungary in 1990 (above right). The above clips are the closing stages of each race, with commentary from the BBC team of Murray Walker and the late James Hunt.
What was atmosphere like in a frontline team such as Williams? Was there enormous pressure for you and Riccardo Patrese to succeed?
Racing for one of the top team equals huge pressure and expectation from the team for sure, but the major pressure comes from yourself. I wanted to win for myself only, not to please anybody else!
Above: Despite impressive performances with Williams, Thierry’s contract was not renewed and he joined Ligier for 1991, with the team set to inherit Renault engines for 1992. But two wretched years gave him a solitary two points, and his relationship with rookie team-mate Comas didn’t take long to completely break down.
You ventured to Ligier for the 1991 season. No points, a very difficult car, how did you cope?
It was difficult indeed. The car had no power, no reliability, and I had a team-mate [Érik Comas] who was terribly good at confusing the team in his way of setting up the car and developing it.
I had some good appearances but in the end, the year was terrible…
After the 1992 season you were without a Formula 1 drive for 1993, until Jordan called you up to replace Ivan Capelli. How would you describe your final F1 season?
Below: Thierry’s F1 career was book-ended at Spa-Francorchamps in 1993, bringing down the curtain at the same track where he made his debut ten years before. He had an unhappy time at Jordan, and struggled to fit in a cockpit built for Rubens Barrichello’s much shorter stature.
It was very frustrating. The Jordan 193 chassis was too small for me, I needed at least 10cm more in chassis length in order to be able to turn the steering wheel properly because I was simply too tall.
I never got my head around it, found that driving in these conditions were too dangerous and gave up after the Belgium GP.
You were a keen pilot during your motorsport career, and now own and operate your own airline sales company, Boutsen Aviation, which is one of Europe’s foremost business aviation brokers. How did this business venture come about?
Naturally I should say, flying has always been one of my hobbies. I started in 1986, bought a small airplane for myself, sold it a couple of years later to purchase a bigger one, and did this four times!
One day, Heinz-Harald Frentzen came to me and told me he wanted to purchase a Cessna Citation and asked me to look for that Jet. I took care of the whole transaction and gave him the keys two months later.
Then Guy Ligier asked me to do the same for him, and following that I have since sold aircraft to other F1 drivers with success.
In 1997 I decided to go away from the racing scene into the ‘real world’ to sell my planes. I founded the company with my wife Daniela and I am proud to say that to-date we have just sold out 200th airplane operating as Boutsen Aviation. Our sale fleet has ranged from four Airbus Corporate Jets to Gulfstreams, Falcons, Bombardiers and of course, the whole Citation plane family.
Who was your favourite team-mate in Formula 1?
The funniest was Sandro Nannini, the quietest was Teo Fabi, the best “businessman” was Gerhard Berger, the fastest and most challenging was Riccardo Patrese (pictured, chasing Thierry at the 1989 Belgian GP), but I also had some very good teammates in endurance racing with Stefan Bellof, Bob Wollek, and Allan McNish.
What would you say were your best moments of your motorsport career?
Honestly, I enjoyed every single moment of it, being able to drive the most fantastic cars for so long was a real present, and I learned a lot from working with some of the best people on earth!
What is your favourite racing circuit in the world?
By a very, very long way… the Nordschleife!
One assumes you still follow Formula 1 today. What is your opinion on the current state of Formula 1?
It has changed a lot, it seems that the whole human side has faded away and the technology has taken over from driver input in the set-up and development of the cars.
They are also much lighter to drive, everything being artificially assisted. In my days computers did not exist… Is it better or worse? I don’t know. But it is different, it follows the world’s trends.
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