Stefano Modena: 'Going up was fantastic, but going back down...'

His track record spoke volumes for his potential and there were many who placed great faith in Stefano Modena, a young Italian who preferred to eschew the spotlight. When he reached Formula 1, however, his career momentum simply petered out…


Modena: Dubbed 'Il Diverso' by the Italian press

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Aspiring to sing at La Scala is one dream, but others would prefer to score for Juventus. Some think only of designing the perfect suit. There is one Italian, however, who was surely destined to race a red Formula 1 car. This is the story of the enigma that is Stefano Modena. Touted as a future world champion, his rise to the grand prix grid was meteoric, but he never made it to Maranello.

Over the years, many people have not known what to make of the wild-haired, bohemian character who, having won the 1987 FIA F3000 championship, had his first taste of Formula 1 in a Brabham-BMW on the streets of Adelaide. The word in the paddock was that he was a moody fellow, a bit weird and scruffy, not a perfect fit in the sanitised world of suited sponsors and political correctness. But he was very quick, they said, and could spring a surprise.

As we shall discover, Modena – nowadays based in Rome, where he helps develop performance tyres for Bridgestone – is not your typical racing driver. He’s a maverick, a thoughtful and intelligent individual who comes from a different place. With hindsight, there are comparisons with Ayrton Senna, both rising rapidly through karting and F3, both sensational on street circuits, although Stefano was never burdened with ruthless ambition.


Making F1 debut with Brabham at Adelaide ’87

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“My targets were always just in front of my face,” he says, “but Ayrton was more ambitious. We raced against each other in karting, we were both difficult guys, big battles, both very competitive. Later we were friends, not having deep conversations about racing, just relaxing and laughing. I never dreamed of being in Formula 1, I was passionate only for racing, and winning, that was my motivation. Winning the world championship in karting, being on the F3 podium in Monaco, winning the European Cup at Imola, getting pole at Macau, tracks where you had to really feel the car, where you could make a difference. Those were the best times and brought me the Marlboro sponsorship plus the F3000 title with Onyx. It was a passion to race, to win, not a crazy ambition for big money and prizes.”

There were those who found his attitude, his aloofness, intimidating. His talent and raw speed were never in question, which is why Marlboro was persuaded to put him in an F3000 car. In the winter of 1986 Stefano headed to Le Castellet, where the Onyx and ORECA teams waited to assess the potential of a crop of exceptional young Italians.

“I don’t think Marlboro was very happy about my character” Stefano Modena

“I don’t think Marlboro was very happy about my character, my way of doing things, the way I looked,” he says with a rueful smile, “but my F3 team, Euroracing, had been pushing for me to be given a chance. I was with Onyx on the first day. I didn’t speak much English, but it went quite well. I wasn’t at all sociable, I’d always been quite shy, but all the drivers went out on the first night and Nicola Larini warned me that the ORECA car was terrible – so I was anxious before I started. First lap out, down the Mistral Straight, I took my hand off the wheel and whooaaa, the car flew off the road. I thought, ‘S***!’ – there was obviously something very wrong and I knew from karts that the corner weights were way out. So I came in, they said they’d checked the corners, but I asked them to shorten the pull rod on the left, by three turns, I just knew it was the right thing to do. It was better, the times came down, so now I asked them to put better tyres on, and I went faster than I did with Onyx, whose boss Mike Earle was watching all this. I made changes to his car, too, so I think he liked that. After this I went to Macau, got pole and went on to Hong Kong to do a kart race, which was fun. When I got home Mike asked me to go to see him in Littlehampton.”

From the archive

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.”


Second stint with Brabham brought a podium at Monaco ’89

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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.

“I am still very superstitious and always was,” he says, “so I took care to receive those signals, right from karting. People spoke about my gloves, wearing them inside out, but this was not superstition. It was because the seams on the inside were cutting my fingers, making my skin very sore. At the F3000 street race in Birmingham, with so many gearchanges, my palm was bleeding. It was bad, so I had some gloves made with seams on the outside. Also, I always got into the car from the left-hand side, ever since karting, putting my right foot in first. This was important for me. I didn’t care about being different, this was my character and it was my results that mattered, not how much I smiled, not my superstitions.”

Small wonder that he chose James Hunt as his mentor, a maverick character who was employed by Marlboro to help young drivers. Stefano and Sveva became very close to him.

“We were in love with James,” he says. “It was just fantastic for us and he was such a special person. He gave good advice. We didn’t always agree, but he knew my way of thinking. It was a good relationship; he helped me a lot and we understood each other.”

But back to that first Grand Prix. He was hot property, tipped as a future champion, and the call came from Marlboro which placed him in a Brabham-BMW for the last race of 1987.

“I knew it would be a disaster,” he says. “My target was to win races but there was no chance in Adelaide. I wasn’t sure I was ready and on the first day I was very jet-lagged. I had Patrese’s seat and the overalls of de Cesaris, but Herbie Blash and the mechanics helped me so much. They were great. But I couldn’t handle the car, so much power, 900bhp. It was dramatic and on a street circuit, I just could not drive the car, so I stopped. Bernie Ecclestone came to me and asked what the problem was. I replied ‘I cannot drive the car because I have too much power!’ He said, ‘OK, reduce the boost to 2.5’. A mechanic showed me the button, so out I went and immediately I was five seconds faster because now I could drive, now I could open the throttle and learn the car.


Modena “learned a lot” from Brundle in ’89

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Then in qualifying they wanted me to go back to 4 bar on the turbo, but I said, ‘No way, it’s not for me coming suddenly from 400bhp to 900’. Anyway, I stayed with less power, got a new seat, changed some springs and qualified 15th, which I think was good. On Sunday I was third in the warm-up, started well, switched the turbo to 4 bar to pass Warwick, went back to 2.5 bar and was up to seventh behind Fabi when I started to get cramp in my leg. The pedals were so easy in F3000, very soft, but with the BMW turbo the throttle was so bloody heavy, and the brakes, so it was a big effort. I broke my leg in three places in karting, so I never had enough strength in it. I had to stop. I was destroyed and I said so, not a problem, no point in making up something about the car.”

From the archive

That same weekend Ron Dennis offered him a job as test driver at McLaren. He would be paid to race in Japanese F3000 and help develop the Honda engine for the F1 team. A great opportunity, you might think.

“I told him, ‘Thanks very much, but I don’t want to be a test driver – I want to race. The best thing you can do, Ron, is to prepare another car and put me together with Prost and Senna’. That was the beginning, and the end, of my story with Ron Dennis. He just cut me off, not even a ‘hello’ again. I didn’t want to test engines for Ayrton, even though we were friends. I just wanted to be a racing driver. It was probably the biggest mistake I made, but who knows? Emanuele Pirro got the job.”

When Ecclestone decided to sell Brabham, Stefano went to Eurobrun for 1988, scoring not a single point, the car way off the pace. A return to Brabham came at the behest of journalist Peter Windsor, who’d joined the team as part of a new structure. “I went to Chessington and was a bit shocked because Peter Windsor had already left. So my meeting was with Bernie Ecclestone [back as ‘caretaker’ at his old team before the Middlebridge Group took over]. ‘Yes, he’s just walked out of that door’, Bernie said, ‘but just relax Stefano, everything will be OK’. So we talked, I went home and later we signed a contract. I asked for an amount of money and Bernie said, ‘You can ask for this when you are world champion, but now I offer this, plus a part of your overalls to sell’. This was OK with me. Bernie was very straight, so I was back at Brabham, with Martin Brundle, and I got third in Monaco, where I always went well. Over one lap I was quicker than Martin, but he had more race experience and I learned a lot from him. It was a great team, great people.”


Modena enjoyed Tyrrell stint, but still yearned for more success

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After a tough second year at Brabham, there was talk of Stefano going to Ferrari for 1991 but the Prancing Horse eventually took Jean Alesi. “I didn’t really care about Ferrari,” Modena says. “It looked like such a political team and for me it would have been too much. I never really thought seriously about Ferrari, there was so much pressure on the drivers, not the right place for me.”

So Tyrrell snapped him up, a period Stefano recalls with a smile, although an F1 victory still eluded him.

“Ken was such a fantastic person, the perfect team leader,” he says. “We had the Honda engine but communications between the team and Honda were not good, the engine was heavy, the car was 20 kilos over the limit and designer Harvey Postlethwaite walked away, leaving the team in limbo. Late in the year the car was better. I was second in Canada, but we all expected more of the Tyrrell-Honda. It could have been a great package and we had good sponsors, so it was disappointing. For me F1 was disappointing. I never won a race, but I don’t think I had a lot of talent and other drivers had greater application. When I got to Tyrrell I was still hungry, but I could have worked harder. It takes time to make big changes, though, and I lost my motivation. It was a nightmare. Going up the mountain from karting was fantastic, good fun, successful, but going down is not so good. Sport is like that.”

The end came with Jordan. Things did not go well. The Yamaha engines were horribly unreliable and Stefano’s career ended where it began, on the streets of Adelaide, with sixth place and a single point.

Walking away from Formula 1 at the end of ’92, Stefano spent eight years racing touring cars for BMW, Alfa Romeo and Opel. Although he won two DTM races at AVUS with Alfa in ’94, life after F1 brought him little satisfaction. “It was nice to be an Italian in an Alfa Romeo,” he says, “but it was frustrating – small tyres, no power, private teams. It was a mistake. I should have driven the works cars, which were always winning. The more I tried, the slower I went. My heart wasn’t in it but I was too young to re-invent myself, which is why I kept racing. In the end, after a year with Opel in 2000, I was just making up the numbers and this was bad for my head, for my confidence. So I am not a happy man because I never had the success I wanted in F1. Racing is one thing, winning quite another.”


Modena had difficult final year with Jordan

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A true talent lost: Onyx team boss Mike Earle looks back on and old favourite… and a missed opportunity

Before the 1987 F3000 season started, Stefano said he might be able to get some support in Italy and took me to see Enzo Ferrari. We chatted, but no money changed hands, so we went back to Maranello when we’d won the championship. We didn’t come away with any deal but, when we left, the Old Man looked at me and said, ‘It would be a dream for me to have a boy called Modena, from Modena, driving a Ferrari’. Sadly it never happened. Stefano was never in the right place at the right time.

“When we first tested the Marlboro F3000 drivers, Stefano sat there very quietly in the corner of the garage, watching everything, waiting his turn. Late in the day he went out, did two laps, and said it understeered badly – which it did, we’d set it up that way. Within five more laps he had the car where he wanted it, so we put new tyres on. He only did about 15 laps, went quicker than anyone else, came in and that was that. He said he wouldn’t go any faster with any more laps. I thought, ‘Hey, you’re good’ and chose him to do the championship with Onyx.

“He was a lovely guy, probably my favourite of the drivers we ran. It’s true that he had some unusual traits, and he was a different kind of individual, but I liked him very much and so did the mechanics. He was intelligent, raced well and nothing was a problem to him. When he came to live in Littlehampton he came into the factory every day, got involved in the preparation of the cars. When he crashed one in testing he was mortified, very upset – not for himself but for the mechanics, because he had seen how much work went into building his car. Sadly he never got his talent into the right place; that happens in racing.

“He could have been a significant figure in F1 for a long time, certainly in the top group. He raced karts with Senna and Ayrton told me how good Stefano had been, how he would for sure be very competitive in an F1 car.

“We did have a plan to run him in F1, but Marlboro decided not to back the project in the end and he took the drive at Eurobrun. If we’d done an F1 deal for 1988 it would have been better for him, and us. There’s no doubt that Stefano was a talent lost to motor racing.”