The man that time forgot

Many drivers have the talent, but only a few get the breaks. Andrea Gilardi’s junior CV is a thing of wonder, a tale of titles won and future heroes conquered – Michael Schumacher among them. Sometimes, though, that simply isn’t enough
Writer Rob Widdows

It is July 1985, a roasting hot day in Northern France, and the stage is set for the climax of the Junior Kart World Championship on the Maison Blanche circuit at Le Mans.

In pole position is young Italian hotshoe Andrea Gilardi, seeking a second consecutive world title. Alongside him are two other teenagers, one from Kerpen and one from Dumfries. All three had won their heats, were at the top of their game, desperate to catch the eye.

A race report from that weekend sums up what happened next.

“At the start Schumacher tagged onto Gilardi and squeezed in front of McNish. Schumacher desperately tried to get into an overtaking position but Gilardi looked in absolute control, the pair opening up a small gap to McNish. In the closing stages Schumacher gave all he had but Gilardi held him off and took the flag, a worthy retainer of the title. Schumacher looked bitterly disappointed but on the day didn’t have enough to stop the flying Italian, who’d won his last 10 races on the trot.”

So, Andrea Gilardi stood atop the podium, world champion for the second time and the first driver to win the title two years running. He was already dreaming of repeating the feat in a Grand Prix car. On the steps below him Michael and Allan shared the same dream, little knowing they would not see much of their Italian rival along the way.

Cut to May 2014, under the blue skies of a warm spring day in Turin. The same Andrea Gilardi is in Piazza Carignano, instructing potential customers in the art of handling BMW’s new eco-friendly i3, the C-Evolution scooter and the sensational i8 hybrid supercar. Now retired from racing, he works as an instructor with Guidare Pilotare BMW in Italy. A lot happened during the intervening decades, but at least as much didn’t.

Sadly, natural speed and talent were not enough, these few words encapsulating a career that took Gilardi to the F3 podium in Monaco, to victory in the Marlboro-Alfa Romeo Challenge for young drivers and top-six finishes in F3000, but never to his ultimate goal of Grand Prix racing. A tennis player needs only his racquet, a cricketer just his bat. But a racing driver needs so much more to demonstrate his abilities. The right car, at the right time, in the right place. And money. Gilardi never had much of that.

Born and brought up in Alessandria, he started karting when he was 10 years old, supported and managed by his father Enzo (he had connections with Angelo and Achille Parilla, who built the DAP karts raced in Europe by Ayrton Senna and Terry Fullerton). Enzo Gilardi and the brothers Parilla looked after Senna when he first came to Europe to race karts, Andrea treasuring some rare photos of the Brazilian. “My father and I travelled to the kart races with Ayrton from 1980 to 1982, and as a boy I worshipped him. He was my hero – I had a picture of him on my bedroom wall, and of course we knew he was some kind of genius on the track, even in those very early days in karts and Formula Ford. The Parillas ran two teams, one for Ayrton and one for Terry Fullerton. It was very professional.” For a few minutes we look at the photos of his father and Senna in silence, before Andrea picks up his story from the early days in Alessandria.

“My father, he was very special to me in my karting when I was so young. He could see that I was quick, so we made good progress. You had to be 12 years old to race in Italy, so my father moved my date of birth to make me older.” Andrea laughs at the memory. “I was 14, or really 13, for my first world championship in Kerpen-Mannheim in 1983. Everyone was talking about this really quick German boy called Schumacher, whose father was the circuit manager. I was fourth there but then I won the title in 1984 at Laval, ahead of Yvan Muller, Roberto Colciago, Gianni Morbidelli, Michael Schumacher and Mika Häkkinen, which was fabulous. Then in ’85 I won it again, fantastic you know, and I thought, OK, I am on my way, I have beaten Allan and Michael, I dream now of Formula 1.”

The first of many setbacks came just weeks later. Out for a blast around Alessandria on his new 125cc motorcycle, Andrea collided with a car. Broken bones and a head injury would keep him out of racing for many months.

“I wasn’t wearing a helmet, no, because stupidly it was not the law in Italy, and I spent three months in bed with broken bones in my legs, my arms and my hands, plus a big bang on the head. While I was in hospital Michael Schumacher was racing his kart at Parma. He’d heard about my accident and a postcard, one of his first publicity pictures, arrived with this kind message.

“He wrote, ‘Dear Andrea, All best wishes for a good recovery and convalescence. It’s a shame you’re not here. Come back soon, and in good health. Good luck, Michael Schumacher.’

“You are the first person to see this card from Michael and I think it says something about him as a person. I was so shocked and sad about his skiing accident in the Alps.”

Broken bones and sore head mended, Andrea was back to his winning ways and determined to climb the next step on the ladder, from karts to cars, but support from within Italy was not yet forthcoming.

“We never had money, but in ’88 I found a way into cars with a bit of help from the Italian Karting Federation, and finished runner-up in the Formula Alfa Boxer series for under-21s. From there it was into Formula 3 with a Reynard-Alfa Romeo and I won the trophy for ‘best newcomer’ of the ’89 season.”

He fails to remind me that Autosprint magazine described him as a ‘revelation’ in that first season, and continues: “So, by 1991 I had the Spiess Volkswagen engine and won three races at Pergusa, Mugello and Vallelunga and, best of all, got fourth in Monaco. I remember it so well, driving out of the pits onto the streets of Monte Carlo, such a fantastic moment for a young driver, an amazing sensation, with the atmosphere, and the walls so close to you. The next year was even better, fabulous for me, coming second to Marco Werner in Monaco and standing on that famous podium. Wonderful. I had a Dallara-Alfa Romeo that weekend and qualified fourth ahead of Jacques Villeneuve and Pedro Lamy. The race was very close, many great battles, chasing Werner, holding off the other guys. Sadly though, my father died very suddenly that year and my life changed completely. He had been a very important support in my life, from the start, so now I had many problems. Formula 3000 teams wanted so much money, and it was impossible. No money, no race, you know? I tried so hard to find the money, but…”

All was not lost, however.

Throughout that ’92 season Marlboro had been watching seven young Italians under the banner of the Marlboro-Alfa Romeo Challenge, with the winner eligible for an F3000 seat with Crypton Engineering, who had won the championship with Luca Badoer. Gilardi duly won the challenge, based on his race in Monte Carlo.

“It was unbelievable,” he says. “I did a test at Monza with Crypton, who were interested in giving me a drive for the ’93 season. This was very exciting, the most powerful car I’d ever driven, so fast through the Lesmos, fantastic. I was half a second quicker than Pedro Lamy in the same car on the same day – but he was well supported, and already had a contract and a full budget for the season.

“So Marlboro and Alfa, they come to me, and they give me 20,000 dollars towards a seat at Crypton… but it was not enough to secure the drive, and I spent a lot of it looking for another team. I did get some F3000 races with Cobra Motorsport, and some good points finishes at Pergusa and Hockenheim. This was in an old car from ’92, so was quite good. But, in Italy, you know, it was always political, and like all politics in Italy it was a mess. Motor racing in Italy was a mirror of the state itself, the same disaster. There was really no support for young drivers, no media interest. OK, there was Marlboro, but otherwise it was tough to get money or promotion for a young Italian driver beyond Formula 3. It is still the same, no Italians in Formula 1, which is sad, and at Ferrari they still don’t take an Italian driver. I think this is because Ferrari is more important than its drivers, the problem is never the car – the Scuderia is a religion in Italy. OK, we love their production cars of course, but the F1 team has not been good for Italian drivers. Maybe if I had been English, or German, it might have been a different story. Perhaps it was my destiny not to get to F1, but it was not so nice watching all my young rivals from the karting days climbing the ladder. Am I still disappointed? Yes, when I talk about it today, but I’ve never met the manager, or financier, who maybe could have changed the course of my career.”

And yet, despite the setbacks, all was not lost. At the end of 1994, after a year away from the track, Andrea was called to a test with the Alfa Romeo touring car squad at Mugello. They were looking for a young Italian to race an Alfa Corse 155 in the Super Touring series and Gilardi set fastest time among eight drivers chosen for the test. Things were looking up. But Alfa switched its budget away from Super Touring to DTM and that was pretty much the end of the road.

A brief return in the Porsche Cup was rewarded with overall victory in the GT3 class, but beyond that there were only a few races in a Ferrari F430. Motor racing history is littered with ifs and buts, but surely never more so than in Gilardi’s case. Often in the right place, sometimes at the right time, and occasionally in the right car, he never managed to get all three together. They say drivers make their own luck, but some of that would have helped.

“Yes, that’s true,” he says with a smile, “but I really have only one big regret. At Macau in 1991 TOM’S Toyota made me an offer for the Japanese Formula 3 season in ’92. They were also taking Tom Kristensen and Jacques Villeneuve, two friends and rivals. Jacques and I were on the same plane home from Macau and he said to me ‘I’ve decided to do it. I will race for them next season, and you must come too, we’ll find a place to live so we won’t be all on our own in Japan’. But I wasn’t so sure, maybe I didn’t give it enough thought and in the end I turned the offer down. That was stupid, a bad decision.”

After so many missed opportunities, Andrea’s dream of following his young karting and Formula 3 rivals to the top slipped from his grasp. Walking away from the sport, he began a new life as an instructor at Andrea de Adamich’s performance driving school at Varano before moving to the Porsche school in 2001. This year he joined Guidare Pilotare BMW, which is owned by former F1 driver Siegfried Stohr, and teaches owners how to handle the company’s powerful M-cars as well as a new range of hybrid and electric vehicles.

“It might seem strange to many people,” Gilardi says, “but I have so many happy memories of my early success and don’t dwell on what I might have done with the talent I was given. Now I have discovered a new passion for mountain biking – not so fast, maybe, but still a challenge on all those steep and narrow tracks. I still love motor racing, of course – I am Italian and we are all passionate about the sport. That’s why I started on the kart, for the driving, the competition, the love of racing.”

We put away the scrapbooks, the archive photos, and start on some pasta, with a glass of his favourite Barbera. As you read this, Gilardi is probably showing a BMW customer just what his new car can do. Or perhaps he’s riding up and down the slopes near his home in the foothills of Mont Blanc. He remains a happy man, with fond memories.