A good racer and a fine gentleman is how most people will recall Michele Alboreto, who would have turned 60 today. David Malsher pays tribute to his hero.
I’ve never been much of an autograph hunter, so while I do have items of signed racing memorabilia, most of it was generously given to me. While I’ve always felt very privileged to meet and interview legendary figures in racing, many of whom were and remain my heroes, for some reason it never crosses my mind to request that they scribble their name for me.
But there was one exception. Back in spring 2001, I was planning to attend the Vintage Sports Car Club event at Donington in the UK, with the primary intention of meeting Michele Alboreto, who was due to demonstrate a mighty Auto Union from the epic between-the-wars Grand Prix era. I was going to take with me the large-format photo album I had carefully compiled over the previous decade, a selection of images from Alboreto's Formula 1 and World SportsCar days. Rather than bore my hero by asking for a signature on each photo, I’d simply ask him to sign the album.
And then I hoped to grab an interview. Neither myself nor my editor at the time had decided a particular angle for this. I hoped it would turn into a nice long career retrospective, but realized ‘Albo’ would be at Donington as an ambassador for Audi, and would likely have several demands on his time. So I’d wing it, and hope that my fan-boy request for an autograph wouldn’t undermine my professional intentions…
It never came to pass. In an utterly rancid season that had already accounted for the great Dale Earnhardt and sportscar legend Bob Wollek, Michele Alboreto perished in an accident on April 25, while testing for Audi at Lausitz, Germany.
I’m not sure why Alboreto became my hero. But if, like me, you were weaned on F1 in the early 1980s, when Alboreto scored the once-mighty Tyrrell team’s final two wins against a tidal wave of turbo-powered opposition, and you then saw him take a dominant victory for Ferrari in a McLaren-dominated 1984 season, he became a fairly major point of interest. When he then became Alain Prost’s main threat for the ’85 World Championship, Albo became one of the focal points in any given race.
Don't tell me Alboreto wasn't the greatest driver of his generation; I know that. His prime competitors at the height of his powers – Alain Prost, Keke Rosberg, Nigel Mansell, Niki Lauda, Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet – were all former or future World Champions. And, hand on heart, I don’t believe Michele was consistently on their level. He was missing that last percent that separates the greats from the very goods. Maybe he was just too nice.
But don't tell me, either, that Michele didn't have his days of greatness. In his second season at Ferrari, he was confident that the imperious McLaren team, which had switched from Michelin to Goodyear tires during the offseason, were now a bit more beatable. And the opening rounds of the season had proven the Scuderia’s 156/85 to be a big improvement on its predecessor, the 126C4. At the season-opening Brazilian GP, Alboreto took pole position and finished second to Prost's McLaren. At a soaking Estoril, the #27 Ferrari was the only car left unlapped by the brilliantly-driven Lotus of Senna. At Imola, he retired but set fastest lap.
Then, on May 19 at Monaco, came one of those special performances from this proud Italian. Having qualified third, behind Senna and the Williams-Honda of Mansell, Alboreto pulled a stunning fishtailing pass on the Briton into Ste Devote at the start of the fourth lap, and was hounding Senna for the lead on lap 13 when Ayrton's Renault engine blew. Alboreto then pulled away from his opponents but, as leader, was the first to discover a major oil slick at Ste Devote five laps later. He shot up an escape road, kept the engine alive and turned round to rejoin the track, but saw Prost slip past into P1. Yet on lap 23, Michele caught and re-passed the Frenchman, and again appeared to have the race in his pocket. Then fate intervened once more. A punctured left-rear tire forced him to slither to the pits, and dropped him to fourth.
The Ferrari rocketed back out of the pits and Alboreto began a series of mesmerizing, qualifying-style laps. I like to think the stunning LAT image at the head of this page, showing his right-front grazing the Armco barrier through the Swimming Pool section of the track, was taken during his amazing comeback. Past Andrea de Cesaris' Ligier into third. Past the other Lotus of Elio de Angelis for second. Only Prost to go...
Sadly, he ran out of time. Despite recording a fastest lap more than 1sec quicker than anyone else's, despite pulling off more passing moves than anyone else at this tightest of tracks, Alboreto was a gutsy and gallant runner-up.
In Canada a month later, he led teammate Stefan Johansson to a Ferrari 1-2, and at the Nurburgring, an overambitious passing attempt at Turn 1 saw him collide with the other Ferrari, puncturing one of the Swede’s rear tires. Afterward, Stefan was stoical, Michele apologetic – but victorious.
He now led the championship by five points from Prost. But Ferrari's fortunes plummeted thereafter. In the remaining seven races, a distant third, distant fourth and five consecutive DNFs were Michele's lot. Johansson fared no better and recalled: "I think Ferrari had changed turbos earlier in the season, and the engine just got worse and worse. We had one of the quickest cars at the start of the year, the other teams caught up, we tried to find more power, and then the reliability went. By the end of the season we had neither."
Alboreto had scored his fifth Grand Prix win and it would prove to be his last, as Ferrari fell into one of its then-habitual slumps. The political situation caused by such a fall from grace could have taken its toll on driver relationships, but Alboreto seems to have been a very easygoing guy. Rene Arnoux, an 18-time polesitter, was recognized as one of the very quickest drivers in Formula 1 in the early ’80s, and might reasonably have been upset when Alboreto joined him at Ferrari and outpaced him most weekends in ’84. Yet Rene says it was never an issue.
"Michele was a fantastic guy,” he told me, “and the atmosphere between myself, Michele and Enzo was very good. It was not a good year for Ferrari but we all worked hard as a team. Whenever he was quicker than me, it was not a problem. And when he got good results, I would say, 'Congratulations, I am very happy for you'. It's very easy for there to be war between teammates, but with Michele and me it was impossible! He was a perfect man. It was the best relationship I ever had with a team partner."
The Johansson-Alboreto combo was strong too, but on the back of that disastrous end to 1985 they were dismayed to discover the prospects for '86 were worse. As Johansson remembers, “When we were first shown the F186, Michele and I looked at each other and said ‘F***, this is going to be a long season'."
The drivers’ misgivings over the scarlet humpback, one of the few bad creations by the talented Dr. Harvey Postlethwaite, were borne out; it never came close to winning a race. And in these circumstances, Stefan, though still slower than Michele in qualifying, frequently raced harder for longer. Ferrari’s backroom politics were finally dissolving the resolve of Alboreto, and the fact that he was a Postlethwaite apostle would soon put him out of step with Ferrari management. The good doctor was being edged out in favor of John Barnard.
When the brave, cocky and quick Gerhard Berger arrived to replace McLaren-bound Johansson for '87, Michele initially rose to the challenge, but just past midseason the Berger-Barnard axis gained preeminence, and over the remaining 18 months of his spell at Ferrari, Michele gradually fell off Gerhard's pace. When it was announced that Nigel Mansell was arriving, it was clear which Ferrari incumbent was heading for the exit.
But Michele didn't care. For one thing, he knew that when fully motivated, he was the equal of Berger. And for another, he reckoned he had a Williams deal in the bag for ’89. Having come close to replacing Nelson Piquet in Frank's squad for 1988, all seemed in place for Frank and Michele to get their acts together a year later. By the time of the Italian Grand Prix, though, the deal was off.
One man who'd never lost faith in Alboreto was Ken Tyrrell, and initially their 1989 reunification worked. The Tyrrell 018 was a sharp tool, designed by Postlethwaite and Jean-Claude Migeot, and made the most of a Cosworth V8 unit that was no match for the V10s of Honda and Renault and V12s of Ferrari. Alboreto’s fifth place in Monaco and third in Mexico suggested Tyrrell was in the ascendancy. However, a dispute over clashing cigarette sponsors – Tyrrell landed a Camel deal, Michele was a long-time Marlboro man – ended the relationship midseason. That couldn’t have been the entire story, however, because Albo saw out the remainder of the season in the Camel-backed Larrousse team… and looked a shadow of his former self.
A switch to Arrows for 1990 saw him match young gun teammate Alex Caffi, but in '91 the team started off with the heavy and gutless V12 Porsche, before running back to Cosworth. Team owner Jackie Oliver did a deal with Mugen for ’92, running a previous generation Honda V10, and while it was neither on the cutting-edge nor light, it was reasonably powerful and very reliable. Michele posted just two retirements that year, blew teammate Aguri Suzuki into the weeds and, had the current F1 point system been in place, he would have scored 12 times in the 16-race season. However, back then, points were only distributed to the top six finishers. Albo scored a pair of fifths, a pair of sixths and a frustrating string of six seventh places!
Alboreto quit Arrows after three seasons to join Scuderia Italia for a disastrous year wrestling the Ferrari-powered Lola T93/30 at the very back of the grid. It was a car that Alboreto once described as relying only on gravity rather than aerodynamics for its downforce.
His rookie teammate that year, reigning Formula 3000 champion Luca Badoer, recalled of his 37-year-old compatriot: "We spent a lot of time together – testing, practice, driving to and from hotels. I was only 22 and Michele was like a father to me. On track we would fight each other – there was no-one else to fight at the speed we were going! – but off track we were friends.
“It felt a little strange, though, because back in the 1980s, Alboreto was a famous name on TV in Italy, but now here he was, my F1 teammate. I wasn't surprised at how quick he still was, but I couldn't believe how much pleasure he got just from driving – even that car!”
The team dissolved before the season finished and Alboreto spent his last F1 season at Minardi, for whom he scored a point with sixth place at Monaco. But two weeks earlier, at Imola, one of his rear wheels fell off in the pitlane and injured Ferrari and Lotus mechanics, and a few days after that, he was in Brazil attending the funeral of Ayrton Senna. This pair had despised each other back when they were fighting for wins and podiums, but as Alboreto’s star faded, they had become friends.
Those calamities, along with Roland Ratzenberger's death and Karl Wendlinger's grim accident, were always going to take a greater mental toll on a driver in his 14th year of F1. At year’s end, with 194 Grands Prix to his name, he quit.
A dismal year in International Touring Cars followed, then came a few impressive drives in the inaugural season of the Indy Racing League. But what Michele really wanted was to return to endurance racing. Back in the early ’80s, he’d raced for Lancia in the World Sportscar Championship, and he’d enjoyed the fast and fun camaraderie with compariots Riccardo Patrese, Teo Fabi and Piercarlo Ghinzani. Despite their uphill battle competing against the iconic Porsche 956s, they’d won several races.
It was a privateer Porsche entrant from that era, Reinhold Joest, who provided Albo with a golden opportunity. Racing a Joest-run TWR Porsche WSC-95 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1996 resulted in a DNF, but a year later, Michele took pole and, partnered by future Le Mans legend Tom Kristensen and former teammate Johansson, Le Mans victory was achieved.
"It was very satisfying," said Johansson. "It felt like Michele and I had closed our circle of friendship. Twelve years on, we were teammates again, and had won together."
When Audi asked Joest to run its works sportscar team, Alboreto was one of those selected, and it led to a happy and fulfilling new portion of his career, and a close bond with one of his co-drivers, Rinaldo “Dindo” Capello.
"You would never have known Michele had been a Grand Prix winner,” Capello told me a couple of years after his friend's death. “He didn't act like a superstar; he was so open and so friendly, and still quick. Because he was not doing the full American Le Mans Series, Michele had been driving in the dark much less than the rest of us and once he realized he had lost a bit of pace at night, he used to ask for an extra stint in the daylight and one less stint in the dark, so the car did not lose time. He didn't have a big ego.”
This pair, along with Allan McNish, took victory for Audi at Petit Le Mans in 2000 and then, with Laurent Aiello, conquered the Sebring 12 Hours in March 2001.
"I remember so clearly,” said Capello. “He was so incredibly happy on the podium, like an 18-year-old scoring his very first victory! That is the picture I will always remember."
It was a mental image that would flash back with dreadful poignancy little more than a month later.
"I was on my way to join Michele at Lausitz that day,” Capello sighed. “I was waiting at the luggage carousel when there was an announcement, 'Mr. Capello, please go to the information desk'. A few seconds later my wife called me and said, 'I think Michele has had a crash. It's on the news'.
"I tried his mobile number, then I called the doctor over at the track, and he told me what had happened. He said, 'Please do not come to the track, go straight to the hotel'. I just couldn't believe it. But then I got a call from Michele's wife, Nadia, asking if I could bring all his stuff home…"
As always in such cases, the grief felt by Nadia, their daughters Noemi and Alice, and the entire family, can only be imagined. I recall that the tributes from his former rivals, teammates and team colleagues in the days immediately after his death came across as heartfelt and without reservation. The message was clear – Alboreto was an excellent driver but also a lovely guy.
So maybe I’ve got my answer regarding why he is my ultimate motorsport hero. It wasn’t just about ‘cheering for the underdog’, because I’m aware that in the nine winless years that followed his F1 zenith, sometimes Michele unintentionally cast himself in that role by letting his head drop when polemics or poor cars eroded his motivation. He was very human in that regard.
But he was also a gentleman, a grown up, in a high-tension sport. I feel sure he'd never have let down himself or his fans by behaving like a conceited or petulant brat. I’m certain, too, that as a 60-year-old, Alboreto would have retained his interest in racing and appreciated what it had brought him – just as he had a deep love for the sport’s history, long before his passion became his career. He loved dressing to resemble the iconic Tazio Nuvolari when demonstrating those Auto Unions for Audi. And the reason Albo’s racing helmet carried blue and yellow was in honor of his hero, Ronnie Peterson. As a teenager, Michele used to travel to Monza each year for the Italian GP and would stand among the Ferrari-worshipping tifosi, waving his Lotus banner. Pretty brave…
I have no idea if Michele ever managed to meet Ronnie. I do know that, more than 15 years after Alboreto's death, failing to meet my first and most enduring motorsport hero remains the biggest regret of my career.
In the final scene of Rob Reiner's beautiful film Stand By Me, Richard Dreyfus's character is seen typing: I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?
The same is true of heroes, I feel.
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