The one that got away
Andrea de Cesaris – 1983 Belgian GP
The man with the most F1 races without a win made ‘once in a lifetime’ starts to lead both Grands Prix at the ‘new’ Spa. Adam Cooper explains
Andrea de Cesaris was much maligned during a Formula One career that stretched from 1980 to 1994, but he didn’t deserve to retire without a victory to his name. Alas, having started 208 races and failed to win a single one, he carved a rather unfortunate niche for himself in the record books. “It does piss me off,” he says, “but I know I did not have a very good car many times. I don’t have one single regret”
Andrea’s closest brush with F1 victory came at Spa in 1983. He had joined Alfa Romeo the previous year, when the team was still running its old V12. He stunned the paddock by putting the car on pole position at Long Beach, and was briefly in contention for victory during the mad final laps in Monaco, until he ran out of fuel. He was classified third, his only respectable result in a season of unchecked unreliability.
“In one way it was a disappointing year, but in another it was very pleasant I was often running in second or third position, but the car was always breaking. It wasn’t like nowadays when you have a test driver who makes sure the car is reliable. It was a bad year on a results basis, but my car was quick and I was competitive.”
Alfa finally made the switch to turbo power for 1983 and its new V8 proved to be surprisingly competitive. However, a change of management from Autodelta to Euroracing did little to improve the team’s finishing record.
“The problem was that Alfa decided not to have an official team and instead gave its name, brand and engine to a private team, to run the cars on its behalf. So it was not really the same. We didn’t have enough money or do enough testing to make the car reliable. We always had a good performance during races — until a stupid problem stopped us.”
De Cesaris achieved little in the first five races of the campaign, although he did qualify on the fourth row at Paul Ricard, Imola and Monaco. The sixth round was the Belgian GP — F1 ‘s first visit to the shortened but still magnificent Spa. Andrea was soon on the pace and set the third-fastest time in Friday qualifying, behind only Alain Prost’s Renault and the Ferrari of Patrick Tambay. When it rained on Saturday, his grid position was assured.
“I think there is not one driver who would say that he doesn’t like that track. There are quick corners, slow corners; it’s really demanding and a good track for a driver. That was my first time there, but I wasn’t surprised to be quick, as the car was always quite good.”
Thanks to the fact that the grid was on a curve, there was a little confusion when the field lined up. Starter Derek Ongaro decided to abort, but Andrea was one of several drivers who misinterpreted his signal and took off, slicing between Tambay and Prost to take the lead.
“When I managed to get into the lead I was very disappointed when they stopped the race. I realised after only three corners, when I saw the red flags, but still I was really disappointed. It’s not something that you can do every time from the second row, especially at Spa, where the straight you start on is very narrow. I thought, ‘This is not going to happen again!’ ! was upset. Why do these things happen to me? I always had problems, and now I was leading a race — and they had stopped it. I felt like I would never get it.”
However, at the second attempt, he again barged into the lead.
“It looked like I did the same start, but it wasn’t. I remember when I watched on TV, one time I went to one side of Prost, and the next time I went to his other side. But both times it was a good start — the kind of start that you rarely do in the whole of your career.
“I was very happy and, after a few laps, I realised that I really deserved to be leading the race, because Alain couldn’t keep with my pace; I was pulling out one or two tenths over him on each lap. So when I came in for the tyre change I was feeling really confident that maybe this was my time.”
Andrea pitted on the 19th of 40 scheduled laps, by which stage he was holding a 7sec lead over Prost. Alas his Euroracing mechanics fumbled the stop, and over 10sec were wasted before the left-rear was secure and he could blast out of the pitlane.
The first of the front runners to pit, he had fallen down to sixth, but as Keke Rosberg (Williams), Eddie Cheever (Renault), Tambay and Nelson Piquet (Brabham) came in, he climbed back up to second. Only one man emerged from his pitstop still ahead of the Alfa: Prost.
For a while it seemed that Andrea might be able to catch the leading Renault, but he was soon back in the pits. The turbo V8 had failed. He was out of the race.
“I had a problem a few laps after the pitstop — the engine started to sound not quite right. I was a bit angry, but when a driver knows he has done his job properly, he doesn’t feel so unhappy. It’s one thing when you lose points when you’re fighting for the championship; then you feel depressed. But I had got used to the problems that the car had; if I’d got depressed each time it had stopped, I would have never gone back to the track!
“In those days I thought, ‘When you do your job properly, you’re quick, you’re making no mistakes and are performing well, all the rest is up to the team.’ Spa was the first race after the team had sacked Gerard Ducarouge, the chief designer of the car. We’d lost a guy that I was very confident in. That’s what was worrying me as I left Spa, more than the result itself.”
De Cesaris would score a couple of second places later that year, but never again would he come so close to a victory. However, there would be one more tantalising chance — also at Spa — in 1991.
On that occasion Andrea was catching the leading, but crippled McLaren-Honda of Ayrton Senna (its gearbox was playing up) when his Jordan’s engine failed on lap 42 of 44. Cosworth had forgotten to inform the first-year team that it required an extra two litres of oil.
Instead, that race is recalled for the short debut of Andrea’s temporary team-mate…
“Michael Schumacher beat me in qualifying, but I think I would have been as quick as him in the race if he hadn’t stopped [Schumacher had fried his clutch at the start and retired on the first lap]. That would have been a good memory.”
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