Third time around
When all eyes are focused on the front row of the grid at Silverstone, and most likely on Ayrton Senna in particular, spare a thought for one of his compatriots who had a taste of the big time when Senna was in Formula Ford but who is only now having a second bite of the apple.
It was as a 22-year-old Formula Three driver that Roberto Moreno was offered a Lotus test-drive. Who could blame the young man from Rio from accepting? He had already proved his worth by beating new World Champion Nelson Piquet in the 1981 Australian Grand Prix (then a Formula Atlantic event), and as the winner of the 1980 Townsend Thoresen series and the Formula Ford festival his credentials were good. Good enough for Team Lotus, which was going through one of its periodic lean phases which neither Elio de Angelis nor Nigel Mansell could alleviate.
When Mansell was forced to miss the 1982 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort through an injury received at the preceding Canadian race, Roberto was called upon to stand-in for the Englishman. Coincidentally, it was at Zandvoort that the little Brazilian spoke to us before his one-off appearance in the Honda Civic CRX Challenge at the BRSCC meeting.
“It was the wrong decision to put me in the Lotus, but I was too young and too committed to the team to say no. Unfortunately I had a bad result by failing to qualify. Those with more experience than I should have known that they couldn’t bring me here with a wing car I wasn’t used into a circuit I didn’t know, and still expect me to qualify.”
That non-qualification was a serious reversal in Roberto’s career and it caused him a great deal of anguish and resentment. “It was very, very hard indeed to come back from the down I had after that drive.”
Although, seven years on, he claims it is all in the past, surely there must be that burning desire in his subconscious to prove to those who so readily dismissed him then that he has what it takes to make a top Grand Prix driver?”! don’t want to prove anything to anybody, I just want the satisfaction of winning races for myself. It’s in my blood to win. I enjoy it and I like to be competitive.”
Yes, he is the current International Formula 3000 champion, but that doesn’t mean a bean to some in Formula One. The only place he is likely to earn their respect is in the heat of the Grand Prix kitchen, and so far this year that has not happened.
One of the newer, smaller teams in Formula One, Coloni is still struggling on a steep learning curve, Moreno and teammate Pierre-Henri Raphanel further handicapped by having to use last year’s FC188B. Nevertheless Roberto remains fairly upbeat about the situation.
“Up to now we have been struggling because we are still driving the old car and have been unable to achieve good results with it, but it hasn’t been frustrating because we can see a light at the end of the tunnel. The new car was meant to be ready for the first race of the year and was delayed, but we are definitely going to have a two new cars for Ricard.
“l am confident the new car is going to be good and so we are going to have a chance to race. It’s not a development of the old car but a completely new project and it will be a lot better, a smaller car with improved aerodynamics. The same people who are building it built the AGS, and if you look at how that is going now, Tarquini qualified fifth on the first day in Monaco for example, then you can see why I am so optimistic.
“If the new car had been ready in Rio, I am sure we would have qualified for every race. The delay has put us at a disadvantage because by the time we get the new car the other teams will have already developed even further their 1989 cars, but at least it is a step in the right direction.”
For the first half of the season Roberto has been lucky enough not to have had to undergo the rigours of pre-qualification, unlike his team-mate, but after the British Grand Prix the pre-qualifiers are re-assessed and it seems most likely that both the Colonis are doomed to an early start on Friday mornings. Unless, of course, the new car is as good as Roberto hopes and allows him to bang in a good result at either Paul Ricard or Silverstone.
The team retains Roberto’s confidence, and he even acts as apologist for it rather than more and gripe. “The team is young. They have learnt a lot from 1988, their first year, and are now taking the next step. They have hired five new designers who used to be at AGS last year, including Christian Vanderpleyn as chief designer, and have spent their time working on the new car. There have been some delays but that is because we want the best.”
In the light of the fiasco in Mexico when, to comply with the regulations stipulating that every Grand Prix team must attend every round of the championship, Coloni sent over a crew of just four people, two cars, and instructions to the drivers not to bend them at any cost so as to ensure their presence in the following week’s race in Phoenix, it was difficult to believe there were any resources for testing, as Roberto confirmed. “The decision was taken to finish the new car and cease development on the old car. That way the new car will be ready earlier. You must remember we are a small team.”
One of Roberto’s finest achievements in 1987 was to win for the little AGS team its first World Championship point in an end of season drive at Adelaide. Until then the car had been hopelessly uncompetitive, even in the small division of normally-aspirated cars competing for the Colin Chapman Trophy that year, but Roberto wrung more out of it than anyone.
Although AGS had hoped to draft him into the team at Monza, Roberto resisted as he preferred to finish the job in hand, which was trying in vain to clinch that year’s F3000 Championship in a works Ralt, and so joined the team in Japan, the penultimate race of the year. The omens for a successful return to the top flight did not look too good, for Roberto only made the race after Mansell’s withdrawal following his practice accident.
Australia, however, was a different story. Moreno just kept going, finished seventh on the road, and ended up sixth officially following Senna’s disqualification from second place in his last race for Lotus. AGS was naturally delighted, that one point earning them subsidised travel to all the Grands Prix in 1988, and contractual discussions began in earnest for the following year.
Once again, Robeno’s ambitions were to be thwarted. “AGS promised me a drive for 1988, which excited me as I had seen the plans for their new car and I thought it was a potential winner. I was having a holiday at home in Brazil in January when they rang me up and informed me that I wasn’t going to drive for them anymore because they didn’t have the money to continue. They had to cut down the project, they even had to compromise on the car’s design because of money problems. Philippe Streiff was subsequently hired primarily to attract French sponsors..
It was the beginning of February and the talented little Brazilian was without a drive. “Just before the first Formula 3000 race Gary Anderson of Bromley Motorsport asked me to do three races, which I readily accepted. As it happened things worked out well. We won the third race and with the money we went to the fourth, won that and with the money went to the fifth, won again and repeated the exercise. We then struggled a little bit before winning the important race at Birmingham, the team’s home town.
“It was a struggle but we made it. It was a very low budget, but at the end of the day it worked out the best for me because I became Champion which was something I had wanted in 1987 but with so many breakdowns did not achieve. I started the year being very disappointed, but ended it being very happy.”
While Roberto was winning in F3000, he had also landed a Ferrari test-drive which subsequently made him a very attractive proposition to a number of teams. “I was very close with Ferrari during the last half of the season, and have been able to bring that experience to Coloni.”
It is an uphill struggle to come to terms with the competitiveness of Grand Prix racing, but if a team fails to develop an inner driving force, often found within only one or two key personnel, they may as well pack up and go home unless, of course, they have a sugar-daddy sponsor who is prepared to pay for their indulgences. Coloni does not have that luxury, so no matter how it may be derided, there is a belief within the organisation that they can beat everyone else, even McLaren. If Dallara or Brabham can come good, so can they.
“I believe that this year it is still possible because of the engines,” says Moreno. “The major manufacturers have not developed their engines in a big way yet, so it is still possible to buy a Cosworth or a Judd and make a challenge. But I think it will get harder next year.”
Whether or not his faith in the new car is justified, rising stars such as Moreno make current Grand Prix racing that bit more interesting. While Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost drive off into the distance, remember the other 24. Roberto Moreno and company will be doing their utmost to make a race for the rest of us to watch. WPK