The caffeine racer

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He only took an inherited single GP win, but coffee-drinking, Marlboro-smoking Alessandro Nannini was fast and popular – until fate cruelly ended his F1 career
Writer: Rob Widdows

“Suddenly he arrives, from nowhere, a yellow helmet in my mirror.”

The afternoon of Sunday October 22, 1989 was one of the most tumultuous in the history of Grand Prix racing. You will remember that McLaren team-mates Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost collided at the chicane while fighting for the lead of the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka. With just seven laps to go, Prost’s race was run and, seemingly, the world championship lost. Senna got going again, pitted for a new nose and went on to win the race after a demonic drive back to the front.

Later the FIA, led by Frenchman Jean-Marie Balestre, decided that Senna should be disqualified for bypassing the chicane after the accident. The winner’s trophy was duly taken to the Benetton garage, where Alessandro Nannini, who’d finished second, was only too pleased to receive it.

Almost a year later, on Friday October 12, he was lucky not to lose his life, not in a racing car but in a helicopter. In just a few seconds, that day in Tuscany, Alessandro Nannini’s Grand Prix career was finished. But he was not ready to stroll away into the sunlit vineyards surrounding his family home.

Thanks to hours of micro-surgery in the Orthopedic Trauma Centre in Florence, his severed forearm was re-attached and the painful process of rehabilitation began. Two years later, despite restricted movement in his right hand, he embarked on a successful second career in touring cars, first with Alfa Romeo and then Mercedes, before retiring in 1997.

Now, in the late autumn of 2014, we are in the magnificent living room of his apartment in Siena. We have coffee, we have cigarettes, we are reminiscing about what we often call the ‘good old days’. Certainly, they were different days. More relaxed, shall we say, a little less corporate. Sandro just loved to race, to be around the best cars in the world. We talk about his approach to racing all those years ago.

“For me, it was a passion,” he says. “Anything with an engine I love – rallying, sports cars, Formula 1, anything that makes that beautiful noise. In the beginning, with my Lancia Stratos, I liked very much the gravel, sliding the car. Just recently I did a rally for fun, in Sardinia, in a Subaru, on the gravel. Fantastic.” He has a big smile, arms crossed.

“So, you know, I was just so happy to be racing, without any great ambition, because also I had a passion for life, for the other side of being an F1 driver. I brought my Italian coffee machine to the races – I needed one hour to wake up before going on the track… I smoked my Marlboros – from a Camel packet at Benetton – and, you know, the best times were when I was in the car… and after that the girls. I liked very much the girls. I liked not so much the bullshit but maybe I could have worked harder, had more focus.” Cue laughter.

“Of course, they were very different days, I mean we had a lot of fun. My sister Gianna was a big pop star, and when she came to the races the mechanics, they were crazy, wanted to be with her, not me.” More laughter. “The atmosphere at Benetton was very relaxed, always music in the garage. In some ways it was tough, at Monaco thousands of gearchanges, my hands would bleed after the race, and it was dangerous. I had some big accidents, at Imola, at Hockenheim. It was part of the job. I saw many drivers die and we all tell ourselves ‘it won’t happen to me’. I told myself, ‘I don’t want to die’, and I was lucky. Now it is very safe, much safer than rallying, and the circuits are more correct.”

The name of Nannini first came to prominence when he raced for Minardi in Formula 2, his talent attracting the attention of Lancia’s sports car team for whom he set the fastest lap at Le Mans and won the Kyalami 1000Kms in 1984. Giancarlo Minardi tried to sign Sandro for his new F1 team in ’85, but he was refused a superlicence and finally came to the Grand Prix grid in 1986. He stayed two years before Benetton snapped him up.

“Giancarlo discovered a lot of drivers, including Alonso, and had a very good eye for talent. He had a passion for racing. Minardi was a very good little team and Giancarlo is still doing a lot for young drivers in Italy. It was my first step, I learnt a lot, but the engine, the Motori Moderni, was no good, not as much power as the others. Carlo Chiti, he was a clever man, but not so practical I think, and I had so many retirements, finished only one race, at Hockenheim. It was very frustrating, the engine broke all the time, I was not happy, but still I could beat [Andrea] de Cesaris – I was faster – and Benetton saw this so they approached me. Giancarlo was very good, he said, ‘Sandro, you go, is a good chance’.

“This was a good time for Italian drivers. The ‘Mother Fiat’, with Abarth, Lancia and Ferrari, was investing in racing, but now it’s not so good for our drivers. Back then there was support for us, for me, for Patrese, for Alboreto, for de Cesaris and many others. Now, apart from Ferrari, they don’t spend so much marketing money on racing.”

The Benetton clothing chain, with its many colours, came to F1 in spectacular fashion. It had its eyes on talented young Italians and Sandro duly signed up for 1988, the start of a three-year stint that was to prove something of a rollercoaster ride alongside the flamboyant Flavio Briatore. To begin with he partnered Thierry Boutsen and scored a point in only his second outing.

“I had a good relationship with Briatore when he came to the team,” Sandro says. “He was a businessman and didn’t know much about F1, you know, but he was tough, a strong manager. I remember, in Hungary, I was in third place and the gearlever broke with three laps to go. On the Monday Briatore came to Witney and asked, ‘OK, who was the person checking this piece? Whose job was this?’ and a guy said ‘It was mine’. Briatore looked at him and said, ‘Go out, go away’, and he didn’t do that job any more.

“When I had a chance to go to Ferrari, Briatore was correct. He did not try to stop me. ‘You are ready for this’, he said to me. I spoke with Cesare Fiorio, he was my friend from Lancia. He offered me a contract for 1991, but I would not sign it because it was not exclusively for the Scuderia. They could have put me with any type of team using a Ferrari engine – like a Minardi – so I was angry with Fiorio. In the end they took Alesi because, I think, they wanted the marketing in France. Maybe Ferrari was not so good for drivers anyway, eh? Look what happened to Prost when he said the car was shit. I mean this is Alain Prost, what were they doing? Crazy.

“Actually, after the accident with the helicopter I did drive a Ferrari, at Maranello, but it was difficult for me in the little tight corner, you know, with my hand. I drove a Benetton again too, at Estoril with Alesi, and that was easier for me with power steering and a paddle gearchange. I was five years out of F1, the grip was incredible and in the fast corners my head was not ready for the car. So much grip, the car was fixed to the road. I was amazed, and faster than Alesi in some places.”

You might imagine that Suzuka 1989 would be Sandro’s finest hour, his one and only Grand Prix victory. Not so. The victory was inherited, after Senna was disqualified, and this was not the way he wanted to win.

“Prost and Senna, they were winning everything with McLaren, and my second place in Australia was a far better result. In Japan, after they crashed at the last corner, I was way ahead when Senna came back into the race so there was no reason to go flat out with so few laps left to the end. So, for safety, I backed off, the gap was OK. Then, suddenly, Senna arrived on his new tyres but nobody told me he was catching so fast over the last laps, no pit boards, no information. He was lapping so much faster than me, but I did not know this, and then… hey, at the last corner, he arrives in my mirrors, I see only the yellow helmet. I think, what is going on? He was not there, anywhere, before, and then he passes me. What is happening? I didn’t know and I couldn’t fight, my tyres were gone.

“After the race I was asking, ‘Why no information?’ Then, very soon after the podium, Senna is disqualified, I am in first place, but not a proper win. He never spoke to me, I never saw him, there was no point.”

The following season, however, in Hungary, there was plenty to talk about. Sandro was right with race leader and former Benetton team-mate Thierry Boutsen, ready to pounce on the Williams, when the man in the yellow helmet drove into his Benetton, nudging him off the track.

“I had caught Boutsen, I could have passed him, and then Senna arrived and pushed me off into the sand at the chicane. This time I did talk to him. I was angry, yes, so I went to him and said, ‘I don’t like this manoeuvre you did, I don’t like that kind of racing – it was like karting, a stupid risk. We could discuss this for a hundred hours but I am telling you now – next time, when I find you, if I can do it, I will kill you’. He said ‘OK’ and walked away. I don’t think he had very good relationships with people and when I was invited to Imola for the anniversary of his death this year I said, ‘No, I don’t want to be there’, and didn’t go.”

Despite the bad feelings in Hungary, 1990 was a strong season for Sandro, his star in the ascendancy. In his home town of Siena he was a hero, a seat at Ferrari beckoned and at the end of September he was on the podium again, this time in Spain, his third of the year. Less than two weeks later he was in a Florence hospital, his career finished.

“I remember everything,” he said. “We had picked up my new helicopter from Florence, an Ecureuil, and we were going to land at the airfield in Siena – but the pilot said, ‘No, we’ll land at your home’. He was very experienced with Agustas, but not on the Ecureuil, and where we landed the ground was uneven, the tail rotor hit the ground. He tried to get some height but made some mistake, and the helicopter was just spinning round in the air, out of control. I put my hands up to protect my head, I thought we would turn over when we went down, but the rotor blade hit my arms and I was thrown out. It all happened so fast, just a few seconds, but my right arm was gone. My parents ran out of the house, my father picked up the arm, told the ambulance people to take it to the hospital – they didn’t want to, but he did the right thing. On the way to hospital I lost a lot of blood, became unconscious and woke up two days later.

“When I looked at my arm, at my fingers, it was a big shock, but I didn’t think it was the end, not at all. A racer drives with his arse, the hands are not so important, the arse is important, for the feel, and this I knew when I went to DTM with Alfa Romeo after the arm was mended. There were some jokes, I would hide a false arm up my coat sleeve and it would fall out when I took off the coat, things like this, you know. It was tough, many pieces taken from other places to repair my arm and my hand, but I could have died. I mean, in 95 per cent of helicopter crashes people die, so I am in the lucky five per cent, no? I was an F1 driver, and so many have died since the early days of Ascari and Nuvolari… So, every morning I wake up and I thank God.

“So, I went to the DTM, I was fast, IT was easier with power steering and the new gearboxes so that was successful for me. Nicola Larini and I won many races and Alfa won the championship in 1994, so this was happy.”

For a man whose burgeoning career was taken so abruptly from him, Sandro remains upbeat. He presides over a successful family business in Siena, and treasures memories of wheel to wheel racing with some of the greats.

“Yes, Prost, Mansell and Piquet I liked very much to race, especially I liked to fight with Nelson. We were team-mates at Benetton and he taught me a lot. He was very serious about his racing, but Nelson loved his practical jokes and… we both liked the girls. Mansell, he was always friendly, and a brave driver, big balls. It was a great time, I have no regrets.

“I have plans for the Nannini business outside Italy, expanding beyond the bakery and the cafés. I came back from the accident, won races for Alfa, for Mercedes and, as we say in Tuscany, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, so… Ora mi sento sempre bene – you can translate, eh? [Now he feels happy all the time.] I learnt a lot from my days in F1, about contracts, about business and how to be careful of those who will not be honest in their relationships with me.”

Does he watch Grands Prix these days, I wonder? “No, was exciting from the inside, not so much from the outside, I think.”

By now we have moved on to his local trattoria in Via Camollia, started on a fine Castellaccio Chianti and a spaghetti con pomodoro. A pretty girl sits down at the next table. She’s a musician from Pescara, teaching at Siena’s Accademia del Jazz. We speak of that spectacular road circuit on the Adriatic coast, but not at length. Unsurprisingly, I no longer have Sandro’s full attention.

Pat Symonds’ view…
The former Benetton technical chief on Nannini at his peak

Sandro was a very charming guy and he was pretty damn talented, no doubt about that. Perhaps he relied a bit too much on all that natural talent, and he could have gone further if he’d pushed himself a bit more. He took his racing seriously, don’t get me wrong, but he wanted a life as well.

He was so good to work with; he loved his racing and he was ambitious. He wanted to win – but he wanted a good life alongside his racing. He drank a lot of coffee, and I’m sure he always gained a few tenths from drinking all those espressos. He smoked a lot too, as I did at the time. We thought it should be compulsory, it seemed a cool thing to do at the time. They were very different days.

To be honest, I don’t remember much about the race at Suzuka in 1989 – I’ve always tended to remember the races we lost rather than those we won. He was there to pick up the pieces, to take the win, after Senna and Prost had their shunt, but I don’t think he’d say it was his best drive. I do recall Hungary in 1990, though, when everyone forgot to tell Sandro that you can’t overtake at the Hungaroring. He was very good that day, might even have won it, until Senna pushed him off the road.

On the technical side he didn’t put in more effort than he needed, but I’ve always wanted a driver who tells me the truth, not a driver who thinks he’s an engineer, and Sandro was so straightforward, such an honest guy. If he didn’t understand something, or didn’t know something, he’d say so. Drivers should be like that.

At the end of 1990 Rory [Byrne] and I were leaving Benetton to start the Reynard project, but Sandro never made it to our leaving party because of the helicopter crash. To this day, I’d love to see more of him; he was such a lovely normal guy, great to work with, and we had a lot of fun. We went to Siena with him, for the famous Palio horse race, and met his family who have their bakery business there. They were absolutely happy days, and I have only very fond memories of working with him.