This was a defining moment. Yannick Dalmas had landed the ORECA drive, but Earle had seen Modena in Macau and put pressure on Marlboro to give him the Onyx F3000 seat. “I was maybe not the perfect Marlboro man. I was very shy and they called me ‘Scruff’ because of my long hair,” he says, with a laugh. “I did try to socialise with other drivers but… I felt different somehow, my personality was not like theirs and the Italian press started calling me ‘Il Diverso’, the odd one. So yeah, I had to prove to Marlboro that I could do something and I didn’t want any distractions from my focus on winning, because I had to work at it, to concentrate completely. People talked about talent, but it was always a big effort for me.”
The drive with Onyx was a big prize but it also meant moving to England, leaving behind girlfriend Sveva, an Italian princess whom he later married. “At first it was difficult,” he says. “Suddenly I was on my own, cooking, washing, you know, in a flat in Littlehampton near the factory. So I spent a lot of time with the mechanics – they thought I was checking on their work, but it wasn’t that. It was to help me understand everything, to prove that Italians are not all the same, not all of them are unreliable, a bit wild, you know?
“I had no big dreams of getting to F1, but then one day, testing at Snetterton, Mike took a call from Peter Collins at Benetton. He wanted me to test for them at Jerez, but I refused, I wanted to focus on my F3000 championship fight, which was very close with Luis Sala and Roberto Moreno, so I told him no, sorry, it’s not the right time. They asked again later, after I’d won the championship, and I drove the car at Imola. It was good and I was fast – a good experience, but it was a heavy car on big tyres and after 30 laps I was physically at my limit.”
This brings us to what was arguably Modena’s weak spot when he got his first Grand Prix opportunity, with Brabham at Adelaide in November 1987. He was immediately quick, yes, but not properly prepared. “I was not fit enough,” he says, “although it’s strange because when I was very fit, with strong muscles, I could never feel the car too well. When I was less fit, I could feel better what the car was doing. They were long races, no stops for fuel or tyres, so it was like a marathon and in the middle I would be tired. If I could go back now I would prepare myself in a better way, mentally and physically.”
There was another element to Modena that was much discussed at the time: superstition. This is not so unusual in racing drivers, but with Stefano it was a significant factor.