Happy the man

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Alfa Romeo is entering the BTCC this year. Lead driver will be Gabriele Tarquini,
a man who has never enjoyed a real opportunity to demonstrate
what many believe to be startling natural ability

Back in March 1985, few people outside the world of karting had heard of Gabriele Tarquini . . .

International motor racing was entering a new, experimental age. Formula Two had been axed on the grounds of cost, and in its place came F3000, designed as an egalitarian formula based around the ubiquitous Ford Cosworth DFV that Formula One had abandoned in favour of 1.5-litre turbos.

The teams involved in the first F3000 race at Silverstone were mostly familiar. F2 refugees, in the main. Amongst them was Sanremo Racing, run by rotund Italian Alberto Colombo, himself a former F2 competitor. A pleasant, straightforward individual, Colombo’s expression often bore witness to the frustration he felt at seeing his cars’ potential left untapped by a series of journeyman drivers. On this occasion at Silverstone, his mood was different. Still a touch sombre, perhaps, but different all the same.

In one car he had Alessandro Santin, Italy’s reigning F3 champion. In the other, he had Tarquini. What few of us knew was that the latter, who qualified 13th of I 7, was about to enter only his seventh motor race. There wasn’t much evidence of that as he came through to finish fifth in horribly greasy conditions. “The first part of that season was amongst my happiest times in motor racing,” he recalls. “I’d won the world 125 karting championship in 1984, and at the end of that year I did a few Italian F3 races, about six I think.”

The leap from karts to F3 is customary practice in Italy, which has none of the UK’s numbing confusion of junior formulae. Usually, however, F3 newcomers tend to stick around for a year or three to learn the ropes.

But not Tarquini.

By Thruxton, round two of the F3000 series, Alberto was almost smiling.

His new discovery qualified on the second row and finished fifth in a wet-dry race.

Next time out, at Estoril, Colombo had broken into a fully-fledged smile as Tarquini started fifth, and ran third all race, hot on the heels of the experienced John Nielsen and Michel Ferté.

lust nine races into his career, and he was on the F3000 podium.

It was a stunning start to his international motor racing career, but somehow he was never able to build upon it. Results faltered as 1985 wore on, as other teams got to grips with the niceties of Formula 3000 while Sanremo stood still. Tarquini slipped back to finish sixth in the series, and he transferred to the poorly-funded team of would-be F1 entrant Enzo Coloni for 1986. Using year-old March chassis, results were predictably modest, though there were flashes of panache, most notably in the Austrian GP support race, where he finished third.

Lamberto Leoni’s ambitious First Racing promised rather more as Gabriele remained in the formula for a third season, but the team’s effort was diluted by its insistence on running three cars and good news was strictly sporadic. He finished third at Enna and second at Imola, a result that was to be his best in 33 starts.

In May 1987, he made his Grand Prix debut when Osella stretched itself to run two cars at San Marino. Rather remarkably, he entered F1 not only never having won a single-seater race, but never having led one either . . .

That situation hadn’t changed when he renewed his association with Enzo Coloni for a full F1 programme in 1988.

OseIla, Coloni . . . such breadline marques were to be a trademark of Tarquini’s five-season stint in Grand Prix racing. There were promising moments, notably with AGS in 1989 and Fondmetal last year, but by and large he was fighting simply to qualify cars entered by teams whose budgets wouldn’t keep McLaren in headed notepaper. Hoping at best for crumbs, he qualified for 37 races and scored a solitary point, in the 1989 Mexican GP.

He left F1 with his curious record of under-achievement sadly intact, finding solace, and a decent living, as a member of Alfa Romeo’s factory team in last season’s CIVT, Italy’s national touring car championship.

Three races into the year, he finally broke his duck. “We lost the championship because BMW was much stronger than us at the beginning of the season,” he reflects. “The 155 wasn’t brilliant at the start of the year, but we developed it quickly and I think we had the best car for the second part of the year.” Five victories ensued, but Roberto Ravaglia’s initial form and subsequent consistency were enough to give him, and BMW, another national touring car title. “Sure, we had some bad luck,” reflects Tarquini most notably a last-lap engine failure at Enna – “but we lost the title because of BMW’s strength at the start of the year. They won it in much the same way as they did in Britain.”

And Britain, of course, is of especial interest to Tarquini this year, as he shapes up to lead Alfa Romeo’s handsomely funded (six million pounds has been committed by Turin) BTCC assault.

Christian Danner, who drives one of Alfa’s Class One tourers in Germany’s faster, more brutal DTM, dismisses the widely adopted Class Two regulations that evolved in the UK. “It’s just no challenge for a driver,” he insists. “I promise you, it’s easy for anybody to go quickly in these cars.” Danner also insists that Alfa’s financial sledgehammer is going to raise the opposition’s performance requirements.

On both counts, Tarquini who has previous experience of Brands Hatch, Silverstone, Donington and Thruxton has a more measured view. “Realistically, I hope we can win maybe three or four races. It will be hard to win the championship. I don’t know all that much about the British series. I’ve watched a couple of races on Eurosport, that’s all! The best cars were at Monza, though, for the big race in October, so I have an idea what the standard will be like. And I know that there are many competitive cars.

“For me, the two-litre formula is good. The driver is important. In my time in Formula One, it was almost impossible to get into the top six if you were driving for a medium team. Too much depended on the car. In the CIVT, the driver had much more influence on the result, and I like that.

“I miss Formula One, of course. If you like, that is my real fever. But it would be difficult for me to get back into F1 in good conditions. It’s very difficult to re-enter F1 as a professional, and I accept that. With Alfa Romeo, I am working as a professional driver in a professional team. We have already tested for two weeks at Nogaro, and tomorrow I’m at Mugello. We’re working very hard all the time. I don’t know how far the other British cars will have evolved over the winter, but I know that we’re already going faster. The new 155 is definitely quicker. The team will be the same as last year. We get on well, we all know each other. It’s a good situation.”

There have been F1 testing offers, but while he appreciates such gestures, he is adamant that they will not suffice. “I’ve done five years of F1. I don’t want just to test. I want to race.”

Tarquini should fit in well in the BTCC. He’s a straightforward, no-nonsense racer. Uncompromising in the car, but warm and approachable out of it. His Cheshire Cat smile is seldom far away, and he retains an engaging sense of humility, forever apologetic that he can’t express himself better in what, to him, are alien tongues.

His English, however, has improved.

Time was that he would amble up, smiling sheepishly after an unintentionally violent trip over a kerb, and explain: “My fly is broken.” His time in F1 may not have taught him much about leading races, but he did at least learn the word “wing” . . . S A