The story of Fabrizio Barbazza’s arrival and exit from motorsport is one of the most unique of his Grand Prix peers – his car was cut in two in his very first and very last races.
The Italian was born just outside the gates of the historic Monza circuit and hooked on all things motorsport at a very young age. A talent scout guided him into Italian Formula 3, where he earned a reputation as a wild, but fast driver. With few opportunities in Europe, he took the unusual step of crossing the Atlantic in 1986 to contest the new Indy Lights series and romped to the championship title.
He made his IndyCar debut the following year and dazzled with a third-placed finish as a rookie at the Indianapolis 500. Still intent on making it to F1, he spent the next three years scraping around in Europe, Japan and the United States.
His F1 opportunity finally came in 1991, aged 28, except he endured a miserable season with the backmarker AGS outfit and failed to qualify at every one of the twelve Grands Prix he entered.
Undeterred, he scraped together the finances for a half-season with the Minardi F1 team in 1993. He confirmed his talent with a pair of superb sixth places, both in wet/dry races, before making way for Pierluigi Martini.
He sat out of racing in 1994 and spent the year designing new crash barrier structures in the wake of the death of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger, and returned to racing in the USA the following year. This time it was in sports prototype racing, where he immediately impressed in a Ferrari 333SP.
Having just been offered a factory test driver role by Ferrari, Barbazza was involved in an horrific multi-car accident at Road Atlanta which saw him put on life support with major head and chest injuries. He spent over a year in recovery before announcing his retirement from racing.
Today Barbazza enjoys life with his family in Cuba where he pursues his other passion, fly-fishing, and has managed a number of successful fishing resorts.
In a rare retrospective interview, Barbazza looks back on his incredibly fascinating career with MotorsportM8…
|Fabrizio Barbazza||Italian||2 April 1963, Monza (ITA)|
|FORMULA 3/ INDY LIGHTS / FORMULA 3000 CAREER|
|1983||Italian Formula 3, Cesare Gariboldi Ralt RT3, 11 races, 3 points, 15th overall
|1984||Italian Formula 3, Astro / Venturini Racing Dallara 383, 11 races, 2 podiums, 22 points, 6th overall
European Formula 3, Venturini Racing Dallara F384, 1 race, 1 podium, 2 points, 16th overall
|1985||Italian Formula 3, Venturini Racing Dallara 385, 14 races, 4 wins, 6 podiums, 52 points, 3rd overall
|1986||Indy Lights, Arciero Racing, 9 races, 5 wins, 7 podiums, 145 points, Series Champion|
|1988||International Formula 3000, Pavesi Racing / Genoa Racing, 2 races, 0 points, Not Classified|
|1989||Japanese Formula 3000, Motor Sport Development, 8 races, 1 point, 17th overall|
|1990||International Formula 3000, Crypton Engineering, 10 races, 3 points, 16th overall|
|1991||International Formula 3000, Crypton Engineering, 1 race, 0 points, Not Classified
|FORMULA 1 CAREER|
|First Grand Prix||Last Grand Prix|
|1993 South African Grand Prix||1993 French Grand Prix|
|1991||AGS Ford Cosworth V8 JH25 / JH25B / JH27, 12 entries, 6 DNQ, 6 DNPQ, Not Classified|
|1993||Minardi Ford V8 M193, 8 races, 2 points, 19th overall|
|CART / INDY CAR CAREER|
|1987||Arciero Racing March Cosworth, 14 races, 1 podium, 42 points, 12th overall
Indianapolis 500, Qualified 17th-fastest, Finished 3rd, Rookie of the Year
|1989||Arciero Racing Penske Cosworth, 8 races, 6 points, 24th overall|
|1992||Arciero Racing Lola Buick, 3 races, 1 point, 35th overall
Indianapolis 500, Did Not Qualify
|1995||IMSA, Euromotorsport Racing Ferrari 333SP, 3 races, 1 podium, 51 points, 25th overall|
You were born in Monza – perhaps it was destiny you would go racing? What inspired your interest in motorsport as a child?
I do not know if it was the proximity to the track, but I know I’ve always been fascinated by race cars, which I could watch on TV. The games that I loved most were the Scalextric cars, radio-controlled cars, all types of machines with pedals. I knew how to control the cars in the drift down from the descents. I have a vague recollection of an Indianapolis incident when I was about 6 years old. I remember my father took me to the Italian GP at Monza in 1970 and we arrived just after Jochen Rindt’s fatal accident. I remember watching all the car races at Monza that could be seen at the time.
I remember the afternoon of Roger Williamson’s accident in 1973 [at the Dutch Grand Prix] because I had just returned from a morning of fishing. Although those were terrible years because there was no driver safety it was a world that did not scare me.
From my house I could hear the roar of the engines of the Monza track; I took my bike and ran into the park to see who it was. I knew all the holes in the autodrome to get in. The first time I climbed into a kart I went faster than I could and I already knew what the trajectories were without anyone explaining them to me. At the fairground rides always I only wanted to ride on the cars. It was something in my blood.
Who were your idols early on and what is it about their character or achievements that you admired?
The first driver who I supported was Ignazio Giunti, who unfortunately had an accident and died in Argentina [at the Buenos Aires 1000km when his Ferrari 312B ploughed into the back of Jean-Pierre Beltoise’s Matra while the Frenchman was illegally pushing his car across the track to the pits after it ran out of fuel].
Then like all the children of that time I was rooting for Jackie Stewart, Jochen Rindt, Emerson Fittipaldi, François Cevert, Mario Andretti, Ronnie Peterson and Graham Hill – then along came Niki Lauda who was ultimately my idol. I remember the morning of the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix when he retired [ultimately handing James Hunt the World Championship title] the and I started crying.
What is the meaning or significance of your racing helmet design?
I asked a friend who then became a great racing car manufacturer – his name was Artico Sandonà of Tatuus – to design my helmet. He gave me the idea of a daisy flower on the helmet and when all the segments were painted green it then turned into a turtle shell.
To be a racing driver whose symbol is one of the slowest animals on earth – it’s not bad! After each race win I applied a tortoise sticker to my helmet.
You were an accomplished motorcycle rider in your childhood and teenage years, particularly in motocross. What triggered a permanent switch to four-wheeled competition?
I raced motocross because my father wouldn’t allow me to run in karting. He told me that the karting tracks were too far from home (and it was true) so in a bit of spite I said “If I cannot run in karting, then I want to race motocross.”
I liked the bike, I won a few races, but my dream was four wheels. At age 18 in 1981 I took my driving license and my father asked me: “Do you want to race cars?” I had a friend, Riccardo Paletti, who eventually made it to F1 in 1982. In September, my father was introduced to someone recommended by Riccardo, who had me take a racing course. Would I do that and meet him at the circuit?
Alex Caffi (who had raced with me on bikes and would also make it to F1) came with me and he also had a go in the karts. The instructor told my father that I had the stuff to become a racing driver and my father had a little laugh, knowing he had paid for a service and that he thought it was the default answer to all the fathers who paid for the instruction.
Riccardo told my father to cut off the bull’s head and let Fabrizio try a real car. In November he tested Osella F1 at Misano and if he wanted he would let me try an F3 car so I could see if I really had some potential. Riccardo put me in touch with Cesare Gariboldi who had raced in 1981 with Oscar Larrauri in the European F3 championship. I went to him to do the seat fitting and he definitely thought they were crazy to put a a kid with no racing experience apart from the Morrogh karting course in a formula car.
I had the seat fitting and went to Misano on a foggy and cold morning. Riccardo, to see if the car was OK, drove 10 laps and then gave it to me. I slipped into the cockpit and had no idea what a true racing gearshift was; I put the first one forward to put the second gear, but it went into reverse and the gearbox jammed. I sat motionless in the car and told myself that my career was over right there. I got scared for causing damage (I remember that noise as if it happened right now), Cesare came and told my father they repaired it and that it was their mistake not to take off the reverse gear to prevent it happening and it was an easy error for a novice to make.
I began to calmly drive on the first day and everything went well. I began to get used to the speed in the corners, the brakes, the acceleration and to feel the changes made to the car. On the second day I went better, and with good tyres I made a time 1.5 seconds faster than Riccardo and Cesare said the time I had posted would have seen me qualify mid-grid in that year’s European F3 Championship race!
Now it was no longer the instructor saying that I was quick and had chances, but it was the lap times that talked for themselves. In 1982 I signed to race in Formula Monza; they were cars with Fiat 500 engines designed by Artico Sandonà, the creator of Tatuus. I had the 001 chassis which was the first race car designed and made by him.
The beginning of my racing career was a disaster; it was one thing to turn laps by yourself in a private test but a totally different challenge to race with other cars. Due to the fact that I had never raced in karting I had to learn all the competition. At the first race at Monza through the Parabolica, I crashed and split the car in two, so that’s how I started my career.
Looking back at my career, my car was split in two in the first race and the same outcome happened in the last race. Maybe that’s why I decided to stop racing. Twice you come out alive, but a third time? There is a saying in Italy that says “There is no two without the three.” Would I be so lucky a third time?
Within two years you were racing in the Italian F3 Championship in a Ralt RT3 Alfa Romeo entered by Cesare Garibaldi’s Genoa Racing. At the end of your second season of competition you claimed your first F3 race win at home at Monza. What did this success mean to you?
I spent three years in Formula 3 between 1983 and 1985. The first year of F3 with Genoa Racing was a difficult experience that taught me what racing cars were. I lacked racing maturity and with the help of Caesare and his team I grew up during the season. A bigger team, the Venturini Racing Team, took me on for 1984 and it was in direct contact with the Dallara chassis company who at the time was not still very well known, having won little.
I finished 6th in the 1984 championship with my first victory at Monza. In 1985 Venturini, who was from Parma like Dallara, immediately believed in the project of the carbon body chassis and I also had the body No. 001 (which has just been rebuilt). Tatuus has become famous and Dallara even more, maybe to have driven the chassis’ 001 of both has brought good luck?
In 1985 I won the first race in Vallelunga. At the second round at Misano I was leading the race before a tyre blew out but went on to win the third and fourth races. At the fifth round in Imola I was leading when a broken throttle spring stoped my car. Then came victory at Monza. In the following GP Lottery of Monza I was leading until five from the end when the gearbox broke, but in September I won again at Monza. It was a season where I could have won nine races out of the twelve, but bad luck has put us out several times.
I had a guest outing at the Monaco Grand Prix’s Formula 3 race and finished in second position. I finished third in the Italian championship and at the end of the season I did not want to spend a fourth year racing in F3.
The Monza track was easy for me, it was like going around my house. It had fantastic curves that unfortunately no longer exist, particularly the first and second Lesmo corners and the first Variante. It was in these corners where the difference was made compared to the other drivers.
You took the very unorthodox step of moving to the United States in 1986 and joined the new American Racing Series (today known as Indy Lights). You won the title at your first attempt and along with team boss Frank Arciero moved up to the IndyCar championship the following year. How did racing in the United States compare with the European scene?
I didn’t have sponsorship backing and while I really wanted to move to Formula 3000 and build my reputation, the only opportunity that was offered came through Cesare Gariboldi. He was a great admirer of the American racing scene, and offered to run me in the US via Robin Herd, co-founder of March, in a new championship that was being created as an equivalent to F3000. I signed the contract with a team run by 40-year-old Italian-American, Frank Arciero, and spent the best years of my racing career with him.
I arrived in Los Angeles without knowing how to speak English, and on the first morning that I met Frank and the team leader and seeing the communication gap between the parties, the crew chief Mark Weida predicted a disastrous championship. Instead I won five races out of nine and the championship. I had two incidents on as many ovals, one at the Milwaukee Mile and the other at Pocono Raceway.
We ran against very experienced drivers and sons of former racing drivers, but it did not stop us. With my mechanic Mark Weida, a great relationship was formed. Eventually I also won on an oval at Phoenix. Frank was like a father to me, having won a very important championship for him as an Italian gave me the opportunity to debut in 1987 in the Indy Car Series and I signed a three-year contract that opened the door to a long-term professional career in racing.
One of the biggest successes of your career came in your one and only Indianapolis 500 appearance, finishing third and winning ‘Rookie of the Year’. How did you adapt to the vastly different challenge of oval racing, and what are your reflections of the achievement and the race today?
In my first Indy Car race at Long Beach, I was in third place and the gearbox broke just 15 laps from the finish. The gearbox broke several times thereafter and eventually the gearbox mechanic was fired.
Before the Indianapolis 500 race I had to do the Rookie Orientation, and I took it very calmly. I started to run every corner in third gear constantly at 6000RPM, and as I gained more confidence I raised the engine revs by 1000RPM increments up to 11,000RPM, so I laps in fourth gear and then in fifth gear. At the end of the test I turned a 211mph average speed and passed the orientation without a problem. The car was also good.
We returned confident in May, but the car was not the same, it did not want to go as quickly. We did not go into qualifying in the first week because we were not fast enough. One evening the chief mechanic went to a party, and returned the next day claiming that he had solved the problems after drinking with rival teams’ mechanics. That morning he changed two push rods in the rear suspension and like a miracle the car began to handle perfectly.
In the second week of qualifying our best laps were just 6mph from the pole effort of Mario Andretti. Here I am in Indianapolis at only 23 years old, I am running near to the pace of two drivers who had been my idols as a little boy – Andretti and Fittipaldi – it did not seem true.
A friend of mine, a journalist called Giancarlo Falletti, was also a friend of Mario Andretti and asked him to help me as a favour and explain how to drive and set up the car for Indy. Every day, Mario passed by, asked me how I was going, and gave me some advice. He explained to me how to behave then in the race and the trajectories to do through the Brickyard’s four corners.
Mario dominated qualifying and led the first 170 laps in the race. My car was fantastic in the race, it was very good both in traffic and out of traffic. After a few laps I was in the top ten and by the middle of the race I was already in fifth.
The team and I could have won on our first time to Indy. In the race I twice overtook Al Unser Sr, who eventually went on to win. Thirty laps from the end the left end plate of the rear wing broke at Turn 3 – I lost control of the car at 340 km/h, all in a fraction of a second. I closed my eyes, and told myself to crush the accelerator to get the car pointed straight. And so I did, I huddled, closed my eyes, opened them and crusheded the accelerator and the car went straight again.
Instead of leaving me out on track, the pit crew made the mistake of calling me in to the pits – we lost a second lap that I could not get back and ultimately it cost me the race. It was an example of the experience that was missing from both driver and team. We were probably the fastest car on the track after Andretti.
I finished an impossible third, which did not seem possible. I had seen that with the car in place Indianpolis was not so difficult; it had four corners that were like the second of the Lesmo curves at Monza.
The Indianapolis 500 gala awards dinner afterwards was a funny thing for me. I was sitting next to the winner, Al Unser Sr., who surely wondered who I was even though I had fought with him in the race. Mario Andretti did not greet me, seemingly jealous of the result I had obtained with all his recommendations – the student surpassed the teacher.
That year I won the ‘Rookie of the Year’ at the Indianpolis 500 and was also the best placed rookie driver in the final championship standings at the end of the year.
That year I Arie Luiendyk’s nightmare: he always started in front of me but after a dozen laps I would overtake him at every race. He once told a journalist that when he saw a red dot approaching in his mirrors that he knew it was Fabrizio, and by the next time he looked I was already past him!
Racing on the superspeedways was unique. I remember we drove 180 laps in one race without a single yellow flag interruption. We were traveling at an average of 340km/h and I had to shake my head to keep myself awake. When you’re doing that speed your eyes no longer become accustomed and don’t perceive the speed differential anymore.
Being from Monza and seeing the drivers that I was beating in F3 getting to F1, I made a great and incorrigible error for my career: I left the certainty of success in Indy Cars for the uncertain.
A friend introduced me to a big F1 character (who shall remain nameless), who had helped many pilots to get there. We met in Lugano and he told me to get rid of Arciero with whom I had a three-year contract and that he would take me to F1. And so I did, I refused to listen to others’ advice and made the worst decision of my career at the age of 23.
By the time I made it to F1 I was 28 and they considered me an old debutante. Today I see these young drivers in many formula series who have super cars that do everything themselves. Modern drivers do not know what it means to fix a car, or use human intuition rather than a computer. They do not know what a manual gearbox is, they do not know what a race was like without power steering, or how to handle a jamming gearbox as happened to me in Monte Carlo. They sound like nightmares but to me it’s a pleasure.
Today in F1 you can take Eau Rouge flat without fear. When I was racing you prayed you made it through the two Lesmo curves at Monza or Indianapolis’ four corners. Today’s machines have lost their charm.
You raced for the Crypton Engineering F3000 team in 1990. Team owner Patrizio Cantù and fellow Italian Gabriele Rafanelli bought out the AGS Formula 1 team early in the 1991 season, and Cantù brought you into its driving line-up as the replacement for Stefan Johansson. What are your recollections of learning you would realise your dream and graduate to Formula 1?
I spent three years back and forth between International and Japanese F3000, as well as another short stint in IndyCars. In 1990, Patrizio Cantù offered me a full season’s drive in the International F3000 series with his new team, Crypton Engineering, with a Leyton House chassis. Adrian Newey was in F1 designing the Leyton House F1 team’s chassis and I, having just raced in Japan for the last year, I thought it was a good chance to get back into the loop in Europe.
Unfortunately, the car that I thought was engineered by Newey, was not, and it was not as fast as the rival Lola and Reynard chassis’. I was the only driver in a Leyton House chassis to take a car to a points’ finish at Jerez de la Frontera. I could have won the SuperPrix race in Birmingham from fourteenth on the grid if it had not been for the villainy of Eddie Irvine who lifted the throttle at the moment I was overtaking him and sent me into a triple-somersault over the barriers.
We finished the season and it was not at all positive. Eddie Jordan contacted me to run in his F3000 team, but as he was graduating to F1 it felt wrong to go. So I stayed with Patrizio Cantù for 1991 in F3000 – this time with a Reynard chassis – but the team was inexperienced and the car did not suit my style of driving.
Cantù bought into the AGS F1 team and took me with him. I brought a little bit of money that my father was able to raise but the team was in total disarray. I found myself as the teammate to another childhood friend, Gabriele Tarquini, who’d been in F1 for a few seasons already.
I missed out on qualifying for the Canadian Grand Prix by just three-hundredths of a second and I was faster than Gabriele seven times in qualifying, but was never able to make the grid to see my potential. The JH25 chassis was not bad, it just needed another 100BHP.
Late in the season the new JH27 chassis was finally ready (it broke down on your prequalifying out-lap at Monza) and you were given the chance to drive it at Portugal. It still didn’t get you out of prequalifying, but was it an improvement?
In September I tried the new chassis on the new Barcelona track in a test session and it seemed fantastic. We were always lacking engine power, but the car was glued to the track and responded very well to the changes required. The engineer, Mario Tolentino, had made a fantastic car. In the tests, I managed the third-fastest final sector time behind Prost and another car. In the high-speed parts of the track the car was fantastic. I was looking forward to going to Japan, where I knew the track perfectly from Japanese F3000 – I knew that I would have qualified with this machine. Unfortunately the team closed down after the Spanish Grand Prix and that left me speechless.
BACK TO THE USA AND BACK AGAIN TO F1
After such a tough baptism in F1 you went back to the USA and reunited with Frank Arciero’s IndyCar team in 1992. You were racing with two-year-old equipment and results were proving hard to come by in the opening races. Then in practice for the Indy 500, you wrecked your Lola and were not able to qualify. What happened?
In 1992 Antonio Ferrari called me to race in the Indy 500 with a two-year-old Lola. After three days of testing I took it to an average speed run of 217mph, which were fantastic times for the vehicle that it was.
Lola’s own engineers did not want me to qualify because the car’s chassis was all delaminated and twisting. Nonetheless I entered in qualifying and managed to do three laps at flat throttle – I would have comfortably qualified at that speed – but on the fourth lap a tyre went at Turn 2 and I crashed. I decided to withdraw and the team substituted me with another driver (Johnny Parsons) could not do better than 207mph and failed to qualify. I returned home and never saw the Indy trail again.
You were signed to the Minardi team for the 1993 Formula 1 season. How did the deal come about?
In September 1992 I saw one of my former classmates, Massimo Ciceri, the owner of Beta Tools who I hadn’t seen for years. I told him about my recent years of racing and it turned out that Beta was probably interested in getting back into F1. I began contact with Minardi, they scheduled a test drive in Misano where I did well and that opened the door to join the team, provided I could bring a good budget. It must be said that I was out of practice racing cars over the past two years, because with AGS I only attempted qualifying and in 1992 I did almost no racing.
Like AGS, Minardi was a backmarker team and finances were very tight. How did the atmosphere in the Italian team compare to AGS?
The team’s atmosphere was good, even though some elements within the team looked at me suspiciously. They had no way to judge me. I missed kilometers in pre-season testing; the car was ready late and we did only one test at Estoril before the first race.
The new M193 was designed by Gustav Brunner and Aldo Costa. What were your early impressions of the car?
After signing the race contract with the team, I had another test in November 1992 at Misano with the old car [the M192] to test the new semi-active suspension that they planned to use on the M193. It was almost two years that I had not driven, but the times recorded they were very close to those of Christian Fittipaldi who had just finished the season with that car.
I remember that I told Gustav Brunner to Aldo Costa that I think the suspensions did not work properly because you could not control the car. At the September race in Monza (after the car reverted to normal passive suspension), Brunner told me that he should have listened to me first when I had warned him. This pleased me, to know that an engineer at his level had told me that thing. This showed my sensitivity in driving that I was demonstrating in inferior machines to those of my competitors, and I was able to bring them to the limit as with Crypton’s Leyton House in 1990.
The M193 was a good car in certain situations – in the wet it was excellent – but on the dry track it lacked downforce and mechanical grip due to the active suspension. The driving position was very uncomfortable for me; I did not feel the car under my seat. I was very laid back and this was not good for my driving style. It was the first time I drove in that position and did not facilitate me at all.
You made the qualifying cut in your first race with the team in South Africa, while teammate Christian Fittipaldi finished a superb fourth in a dry/wet race. What are your recollections of finally being on the starting grid and participating in your first proper Grand Prix?
At Kyalami I had reached the dream of my life. I qualified comfortably, I was driving a good race until Aguri Suzuki rammed me at the hairpin. In the Grands Prix I drove I saw drivers with years of racing on their shoulders who, when they lowered the visor, did not understand anything anymore and you realize it while sitting in the cockpit.
In the second Grand Prix in Brazil, Martin Brundle – who had a lot of races behind him – collided with me on the opening lap. Another Grand Prix was thrown to the wind for a stupidity of an “expert” driver.
The car clearly had potential and as you mentioned it was particularly good in wet conditions. The third race, the European Grand Prix at Donington, is famous for Ayrton Senna’s stunning opening lap that handed him victory – less talked about were two other starring performances that came from Rubens Barrichello and from you. In the end, you finished in sixth place and earned your first points’ finish. What do you recall of the race?
I knew the Donington track from my past races in F3000, everything was wonderful. It started well and in the deluge I passed several drivers and I did not make mistakes. I was lapped by Senna and I saw that he was passing cars where nobody else dared and I immediately adopted his trajectories, which helped me.
It was a race where some drivers made seven pit stops. We only made one pit stop and twenty laps from the end my wet tyres were very worn. I was in front of Riccardo Patrese and I feared losing the position. It did not seem true, he was one of my idols when I was young. However, I finished in sixth place that for Minardi was like winning a Grand Prix in an era when only the first six finishers claimed points.
Next time out and you repeated the result with another sixth place in San Marino – the venue where you had your troubled F1 debut just two years before. How did this result, on home soil, compare to Donington?
In wet conditions, the driver-to-car ratio becomes narrower, I proved to be able to do it. However, I made a serious mistake that cost me fourth place in the race: I had a problem with the braking regulator and did not move it to the rear during the wet phases of the race, so that at the entrance of the Acque Minerale chicane I spun and lost two positions.
Sadly by mid-season you had to make way for Pierluigi Martini. Were there any further opportunities to get back into Formula 1 after this?
I knew from the beginning of the season that I had only enough backing to do the first eight Grands Prix. I no longer had any contacts – the sponsors I brought did not follow me, but followed other paths within F1.
LIFE AFTER F1
It was back to the USA again in 1995 where you started to race in the IMSA series. How did prototype racing differ from open-wheel racing in terms of driving technique?
In 1994 [former racing driver] Massimo Sigala invited me to drive at the Bologna Motor Show in a Ferrari 333 of course I accepted. He was impressed with my driving and had signed to race in the American IMSA series with my long time admirer Antonio Ferrari’s Euromotorsport team. Antonio gave me the chance to race with them and a new adventure began.
The car, designed by Dallara, was very nice to drive. At the season-opening Daytona 24 Hours we were the fastest Ferrari on the track but we lost the race due to a gearbox problem when I was resting. They put me in the car at 2AM and I had to take the car through an eight-hour stint to the finish line.
For the second race at Sebring we were still the fastest Ferrari, and the same engineers as the official factory team did not understand why we were so fast. I had a good engineer who blindly trusted my explanations and arranged as I said. Massimo himself told me that he had never driven a car so fast and at the same time easy to drive. This was my strong point, the setup that I did without the help of computers. I felt the car as few could without technological help.
In the race I was running second and closing on the leader when I saw the fuel warning light come on; the team told me to stay out and that they had filled the car up enough. In half a lap the tank ran dry. Another race to win, but nothing.
Massimo Sigala went to talk to Ferrari president Luca Montezemolo for help in the current season, and Massimo told me that Montezemolo asked to have me as their test driver for the future – that offer was made before the round at Road Atlanta. Finally, I was being recognised for my ability to develop racing cars.
Road Atlanta saw the accident that would ultimately end your racing career. What recollections do you have of that crash and its aftermath?
I have little flashes of the weekend but nothing more. I have no physical memory of my accident.
You did not return to racing again. Was that your decision or was it forced by your injuries?
I did not come back to racing because I knew I would struggle to find a seat after such an absence and I did not want to suffer with a bad drive knowing the value I had at my peak. I was aware that people would have thought: “He’s not the same after his accident.”
So I decided to leave, aware that racing is not the only thing in life. I had to find other motivations.
Despite retiring from racing you gave back to the motorsport community by helping to redesign crash barriers at racing circuits. Can you tell us more about this work?
In 1994 I was in New York and I saw Ayrton Senna’s accident. When I returned to Italy I went to the family company – we produced heat exchange packs for PVC radiators, and I got the idea that they could also have impact-absorbing applications. I put a parcel against the wall and drove into it with a forklift; the crash impact was totally absorbed.
I worked with an engineer to design the product which we called IPS (Impact Protection System), which I patented and had homologated by the FIA. Crash tests were carried out with an F1 nose cone to simulate the same crash tests done at the time. The results were sensational, much better than what was then on the market, which were tyre walls.
But I hit road blocks with many circuit owners who did not want to invest despite the safety benefits – it was as if they did not give a damn. Too many circuits still use tyre walls. Where I have seen major advances have been with the Tecpro barriers widely used on oval circuits. They are essentially from my own principle but are designed more for side-impact crashes as opposed to frontal crashes.
How would you summarize your motorsport career?
That of a driver who has never had a car to be able to demonstrate his value. I have seen drivers who have had tremendous success and fame who were not fast and technical like me, but this is life.
I’ve never had a person to manage my career, I’ve been a self-man in a period where managers were starting to have their weight of influence. However, I’m happy with what I did in my career, I’m not sure it was as wide-ranging as I would have expected.
Your other major passion is fishing and in 2003 you moved to Cuba and have run a number of fishing resorts. Can you tell us about life in Cuba and your new career in this industry?
In 1987 I moved to Cuba to open an international fly fishing center. I wanted to bring my experience and knowledge made into another activity and to work very well. It was and is a wonderful life experience in a completely different activity. I wanted to show myself capable of being able to regenerate myself away from what had been my whole previous life.
You still follow Formula 1 today. What is your opinion of the championship today – its drivers, its rules/regulations/technology/circuits?
Technology has too much influence in F1 and now it’s feeding down to the lower categories. Of course the world moves forward, but it has taken away those feelings that a driver has when they enter the cockpit. You were in direct contact with the car there was nothing between you and her.
Now you are no longer you, there is a whole electronic apparatus that almost everything drives the car. The true drivers of my era and before were something else.
Images via Fabrizio Barbazza and Minardi F1 Team