Piercarlo Ghinzani was once credited as saying, “It is better to be at the back in Formula 1 than not be in Formula 1 at all.”

Sadly, that’s pretty much where this Italian driver stayed during his nine-year Formula 1 career – well short of the results that his talent deserved.

It was perhaps more by the clinching of sponsorship deals than outright pace that Piercarlo was able to extend his F1 career for so long, and it took him quite a while to get there too. Starting in motor racing in 1970, he broke into Formula 3 in 1973, and it was a further four years before he won the European title and graduated to Formula 2.

Called in as a last-minute replacement at Osella in 1981, he started what would be a long, although not very fruitful, association with the little Italian team in Formula 1. The only points finish of his career came at the attrition-hit 1984 Dallas Grand Prix, where he survived on the disintegrating track to finish a hugely-praised fifth.

He briefly switched to Toleman in mid-1985, but returned to Osella again in 1986, switched to Ligier for 1987, Zakspeed for 1988, and finally again to Osella for his last season in 1989.

On the basis of his equipment, Piercarlo was never going to feature at the pointy end of the field – the highest he ever qualified was 13th – and he certainly was never destined to lead a race, ranking tenth on the all time list of our ‘Never Led a Race’ top-ten feature.

Two points from 112 entries – including a mammoth 36 times where he failed to make the grid – cast Piercarlo as one of F1’s all-time tail-end heroes.

After hanging up his helmet at the end of 1989, Piercarlo remains active in motorsport circles, with his Team Ghinzani outfit running teams in several European feeder categories. He was also the seat holder for the Italian entry in the A1GP series.

And what better way to commemorate his 61st birthday today with an exclusive interview for RichardsF1.com, where he chews the fat and gives us all of the inside stories of a fascinating time in motorsport…

Piercarlo Ghinzani Piercarlo Ghinzani, 1986 Spanish GP Piercarlo Ghinzani Helmet

Full Name: Piercarlo Ghinzani
Nationality: Italian
Born: 16 January 1952, Bergarmo (ITA)

First GP: 1981 Belgian Grand Prix
Last GP: 1989 Australian Grand Prix

Entries: 112 Grands Prix: 76 Non-starts: 36
Wins: 0 Best Finish: 5th Best Qualifying: 13th
Fastest Laps: 0 Points: 2 Retirements: 58

1976 Italian Formula 3 Championship, Scuderia Angeleri, 2nd overall
1977 European Formula 3 Championship, AFPM March Toyota, 1st overall
1979 Italian Formula 3 Championship, Euroracing March Alfa Romeo, 1st overall
1981 Formula 1, Osella Cosworth FA1B, 2 entries, 1 DNQ, 0 points Not Classified
1982 World Endurance Championship, Martini Lancia, 1 win, 15th overall
1983 Formula 1, Osella Cosworth FA1D / FA1E, 15 entries, 8 DNQ, 0 points, Not Classified
1984 Formula 1, Osella Alfa Romeo FA1F, 16 entries, 1 DNQ, 2 points, 19th overall
1985 Formula 1, Osella Alfa Romeo FA1F / FA1G, 8 entries, 1 DNQ
Formula 1, Toleman Hart TG185, 7 entries, 0 points, Not Classified
1986 Formula 1, Osella Alfa Romeo, 16 entries, 1 DNQ, 0 points, Not Classified
World Sportscar Championship, Joest Porsche 956, 3 entries, 1 win, 22nd overall
1987 Formula 1, Ligier Megatron JS29B, 15 entries, 0 points, Not Classified
1988 Formula 1, Zakspeed 881, 16 entries, 7 DNQ, 0 points, Not Classified
1989 Formula 1, Osella Cosworth FA1M, 16 entries, 12 DNPQs, 0 points, Not Classified
1992 Founded Team Ghinzani

When did you first become interested in motorsport? When you were young, did you imagine that you would ultimately become a racing driver?

I grew up in my father’s machine shop and I had a great passion for motorsport. But I certainly never thought I’d make it all the way to Formula 1.

Who were your first motorsport heroes? What was significant about their achievements or character that you admired?

Before I started racing, my heroes were Jackie Stewart and Emerson Fittipaldi. I admired Jackie Stewart for his great ability and that he rarely made mistakes: you don’t become a three-time World Champion in less than 100 races without that. I admired Emerson because he was very fast and a great leader.

You were a later starter in motorsport and spent some time in the junior championships before working your way into sports cars and then Formula 1. During this time, you won the 1977 European and 1979 Italian Formula 3 championship titles. How important were these successes for your career aspirations?

I started to race to give an outlet to my passion for motorsport. But in doing this I saw that I could get close to winning. so then I focused more precisely on my driving and won both the Italian and European F3 titles, plus I broke the record as Italy’s fastest racing driver.

From there, I knew I become professional because I had won against drivers such as Nelson Piquet, Alan Prost, and many others.

Your Formula 1 debut came in 1981 when you contested two Grands Prix with the Osella team. How did the opportunity come about, and what were your first impressions of the team and the sport when you joined the team?

I was called up by Enzo Osella just one week before the Grand Prix at Zolder to replace Argentine driver Miguel Ángel Guerra, who had been injured in the previous race at San Marino.

Piercarlo Ghinzani, 1981 Belgian GP

Piercarlo’s F1 debut saw him scrape his Osella onto the back of the grid, and retire early on. It was a scenario repeated over several years!

This would be my F1 debut, but I had never tried driving an F1 car before and when I managed to qualify first time out it was a great feeling and it showed I had some potential.

Unfortunately on my second attempt at the Monaco Grand Prix, I missed out on making the twenty-car grid by a few thousandths of a second, all because of a slow puncture in one of my tyres!

Entering the world of F1 was the first time was an incredible impression. It was a great thrill to be fulfilling my dreams, to be among the 24 fastest riders in the world.

As for the Osella team, it was a quality team with the problem of a very small budget, leaving it unable to do the technical development in the same manner of the top teams.

You would become the Osella team’s longest-serving driver in your Formula 1 career. The team never enjoyed the finances to make it successful; how do you look back on your time with the team?

I was with Enzo Osella for a long time. We always worked in the hope of finding good sponsors for the team in order to make the leap forward from the back of the grid.

Unfortunately, the budget never made it possible and therefore I never could have help secure competitive engines and aerodynamic developments for the team. This was certainly a negative side of being with such a small team, however, it still stimulated a lot of my driving skills and I was able to claim some good results for the team.

You joined Formua 1 full-time in 1983, returning to Osella. You would also drive in the World Endurance Championship that year. Was it difficult trying to juggle the two vastly different disciplines?

In 1983 I finally made my full-time F1 debut. However, it did mean sacrificing the relationship I’d built with Lancia, for whom I’d raced in the World Endurance Championship. My F1 drive meant I did not have the time available to do more racing and testing for Lancia. It was a great Italian drivers (Riccardo Patrese, Teo Fabi, Michele Alboreto) at the time and together we won the 1981 championship.

In 1984, the Osella team reduced to a one-car team and the new Alfa Romeo V8 turbo engine proved to be more competitive. You only failed to qualify for one race all season, and you earned your one and only top-six finish at the famous Grand Prix at Dallas. This was a very famous race because of the heat and track conditions; can you describe it in more detail and the important of the result?

The famous Grand Prix of Dallas! I remember the track temperature reading 60°C (140°F) and the ambient was close to 50°C (122°F), it was unbelievable.

Piercarlo Ghinzani, 1984 Dallas GP

Ghinzani’s sole points finish in Formula 1 came at the infamous Dallas Grand Prix in 1984. Held in baking conditions that caused the track to literally fall to pieces, he hung on to claim two precious points in a drive that Motorsport magazine described as “one of extraordinary skill and determination”.

Finishing in fifth place was a great achievement, it was like winning. The result allowed the the team to have enough money to finish the championship season.

This was more than your normal Grand Prix where success is measured by the strength and performance of the cars; here they measured the resistance and strength of the pilots in the torrid heat.

My stamina was higher than that of many other drivers and I could cope in the extreme heat without getting fatigued. I didn’t commit any mistakes and that allowed me to finish the race in the points. I still remember the great pleasure and satisfaction on Enzo Osella’s face – it was the first time he’d seen his cars score points in the F1 World Championship.

You stayed with Osella in 1985, but you were replaced by Huub Rothengatter mid-year. Not long after, you were thrown a lifeline by the Toleman team, which gave you a drive for the rest of the year. While the car was much more competitive than the Osella, it’s reliability was very poor and you never finished a race. Can you describe this period of your career for us?

In 1985, Benetton bought into the Toleman team as a sponsor. But Pirelli had only provided tires for one of the cars. At that time, I was Pirelli’s official test driver.

Piercarlo Ghinzani, 1985 European GP

Ghinzani showed much-improved form with Toleman, although the unreliable Alfa Romeo engine thwarted any hopes of solid results.

Osella needed more money to see out the season, and it just so happened that there was a combination where Huub Rothengatter had the budget to take over my seat, so I proposed to Mr. Benetton that he let me test the Pirelli tires on the second car and drive for them. He accepted!

This way, I could drive a more competitive car for the rest of the season, and Osella took Rothengatter’s money to finish the season.

Unfortunately, while the Toleman was competitive in qualifying, in the race I had many engine problems and it meant I never finished a Grand Prix with them.

It was a good time for me because I could qualify in the midfield for the first time, I could never see the checkered flag!

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stay on for 1986. Gerhard Berger joined the team with the backing of BMW, and Teo Fabi took the other seat. I was without a drive and back to Osella once again.

You were back with Osella once again for the 1986 season. But the team’s finances were very bad and you finished just one race all year due to reliability concerns and occasional accidents. Your big opportunity came for the 1987 season when Ligier offered you a drive, one year after one of their best seasons in their history. How did that opportunity happen, and how did the team differ from the familiar environment at Osella?

In 1986 I returned with Osella but the team had virtually no budget and lived race by race. I remember that year in the major financial problems of Osella; somehow they managed to keep a near-dead programme alive all year with some monumental sacrifices and strength. It was definitely a transitional season that only bore disappointments.

At least I had some success in the endurance racing with two wins, claiming the 1000Km races at Fuji and Kyalami.

Ligier was meant to have a factory-supported Alfa Romeo engine for 1987, but your team-mate René Arnoux criticised the engine before the first race and Alfa Romeo quit. Was Arnoux’s behavior warranted, and how much did this impact the team as it was forced to pick up Megatron engines instead?

The big story for my move to Ligier in 1987 was its supply of works Alfa Romeo engines. I happened to be Alfa Romeo’s test driver, and I helped develop the engine in testing during the winter.

Unfortunately, FIAT and Alfa Romeo were both bought out and this put the entire programme in jeopardy.

In the end, the cause of Alfa Romeo’s withdrawal was courtesy of my teammate René Arnoux, who decided to strongly criticise the engine after his first test run at Imola. That gave FIAT all the invitation they needed to break the contract and pull the entire programme.

Just a month out from the F1 season starting, we were without an engine deal. In the end, we secured a supply of Megatron-badged BMW. But the Ligier was designed for the Alfa engine and we lost a lot of competitiveness through unreliability. Quite often I’d be running in the points, only for the engine to fail…

That wasn’t the only problem I had. We didn’t get a decent allocation of Goodyear’s softer tyres on most occasions, and when we did, they’d always to go René. I had to work extremely hard trying to qualify on the harder, slower tyres.

Piercarlo Ghinzani, 1987

The 1987 season should have been Piercarlo’s to shine with Ligier, finally getting his hands on works-supported Alfa romeo engines. Sadly teammate Rene Arnoux was too hasty in criticising the power units, prompting Alfa Romeo to withdraw their programme and triggering a frantic search for substitute powerplants, which came in the form of less-than-competitive Megatron (BMW) engines. Not surprisingly, Piercarlo racked up retirement after retirement, and never had a hope of competing at the sharper end of the field.

The engine issue wasn’t the only drama you suffered in 1987. I recall you were disqualified from the British Grand Prix when your mechanics refueled your car illegally…

Unfortunately, this also happened. I ran out of fuel in practice and the mechanics ran out of the pits and refuelled my in the car down on the trackside, leading to our disqualification. and we were disqualified.

In 1988, you moved to Zakspeed, but that was another difficult year as the car was very unreliable. How frustrating was this becoming for you? You had much experience at this stage of your career, but never the right car or circumstances to show your skills?

Zakspeed was a team that had a lot of will and passion. They had on many occasions in touring cars, but that was an area where the focus on aerodynamics was virtually nonexistent.

Piercarlo Ghinzani, 1988 Spanish GP

With Zakspeed trying to run its own engine design against the mighty manufacturers, it was a predictable experiment that was going nowhere…

Along with Ferrari, they were the only other team to design their own engines. Of course, their main focus was all about engine output, and little importance was given to the downforce of the car. Aerodynamics was nowhere near what it is today, but even then it counted for some 70% of a car’s performance.

Despite my insistence that they focus more on aerodynamics, it forced me to evolve my driving style to run all the races without any development to improve performance.

It was another difficult year full of aggravation. I didn’t come close to a points finish or that much-wanted podium.

The 1989 Formula 1 season would be your last, and you were back once again with Osella. By this point, Formula 1 had many cars and teams, forcing you and team-mate Nicola Larini to have to prequalify for each Grand Prix. It must have felt like a ridiculous set of circumstances for you at this stage of your career?

I returned to the team Osella, and at the same time we had to take part in pre-qualifying due to the the excessive presence of F1 teams. We had over 32 cars at each race, fighting for 26 positions on the grid. I had to participate in pre-qualifying,

With the budget problems Osella had, now being faced with a desperate attempt to pass the pre-qualifying on Friday morning, it just aggravated the situation further. I had to fight with my team to get more more performance.

At that point in my career I was getting tired and disappointed with this situation, and I was beginning to realise a desire to retire from F1, despite feeling that I was still fast.

In fact, at the end of the year the Osella team was bought by the main sponsor, Fondmetal, who offered me good money to stay in the car to develop a new project that would debut the following year in 1990. But I refused, having decided to end my career and devote the next phase of my life to business.

Your final race ended with a big accident in heavy rain on the streets of Adelaide. How did this accident compare with your fiery crash at Kyalami in 1984?

Unfortunately, in the last race in Australia, it was soaking wet. Nelson Piquet did not see me in the spray and he hit me hard from behind. I was a sad way to end my career; it was hardly the champagne moment I’d been hoping for.

Nelson was gracious enough to apologise for what had happened, but my race was over.

Still, it was nothing compared to my accident at Kyalami in South Africa in 1984, where the car caught fire in the accident and had to stay for 20 days in the hospital after sustaining burns to my left hand and face.

Of all the Formula 1 cars you drove in your career, which was your favourite?

Without a shadow of a doubt, my favourite car was the Toleman Benetton designed by Rory Byrne. It was a spectacular chassis that could have won the championship if equipped with a more reliable engine.

What is your most favourite circuit at which you have raced and why?

My favorite track is the old Nürburgring Nordschleife where I won back-to-back Formula 3 races in the same weekend. It won a Master’s trophy that has all other Masters winners’ names engraved on it.

From an F1 perspective, Monza was my favorite track. Over the years, it gave me great satisfaction and disappointment – one example was in 1985 when I was fought with Riccardo Patrese for third place, but I ran out of fuel on the last lap!

After Formula 1, you moved into motorsport management and established your own racing operation. You also fronted Italy’s entry in the A1GP Series. How did team management compare to the challenges of motor racing, and who are some of the young drivers you have supported?

After F1, I had a lot of experience to offer and I wanted to give something back. I formed Team Ghinzani, which has run in a host of categories such as Formula 3, F3000 and and the A1GP Series. We earned a lot of wins with more over 50 young drivers who gone on to have made successful racing careers in different categories around the world.

You raced in a time when there were many Italian Formula 1 drivers. Today, that number has dramatically dwindled. What needs to happen at the grassroots level to increase the number of Italian drivers in Formula 1?

When I was in F1, we had up to ten Italian drivers in the field. In 2012, we had none, and it looks to be the case in 2013.

For a long time, an Italian driver’s path to Formula 1 was well-supported, but we’ve seen that drop off and many talented drivers are unable to break into better championships because of two things: a lack of commercial support, and little interest from the local media.

Fortunately we have seen the Ferrari Academy step in to give more support to entry-level categories such as the FIAT Abarth championship, so perhaps that will revive our hopes that we will have Italian driver back on the grid. Perhaps…

This issue applies to many countries – not just Italy. The media and sponsors need to get involved at the grassroots level to help talented youngsters climb the ladder. It’s simply a fact of life that talent alone won’t get you into Formula 1 anymore.

How would you summarise your motorsport career?

My time in the junior categories gave me huge satisfaction and pleasure because of the success I enjoyed.

But my results in F1 were dictated by vast differences in performance due to the financial gulf between the big and small teams. If you were in the top three teams with a half-decent chassis, tyres and engine, then you could win. Outside of that, you were sometimes just a spectator.

I’m disappointed that I never had the opportunity to show what I was truly capable of.

[Images via The Cahier Archive, Corbis Images, F1 Rejects, LAT, Motorsport.com]

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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.