The nearly man

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Long before double Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya, Colombia had another racing son. Talent helped him shine, but misfortune cast its shadow
Writer Sam Smith

Perhaps the writing was on the wall. When Roberto José Guerrero turned up for his first Monaco Grand Prix in May 1982, he had to explain to his sponsors that he was unable to participate because his team did not have any tyres. It was perhaps a sign that, for him, Formula 1 was simply never meant to be.

Prior to Monaco, Guerrero had already grown tired of explaining to his backers the often surreal reasons why they would not be seeing the small Ensign team in action. Striking drivers at Kyalami, a boycott at Imola and then the tyre-less indignity of Monaco.

‘Too nice for F1’ is a throwaway term that has often been attached to the Colombia-born US citizen, but those who raced with – or against – him speak of great skill and finesse. As Guerrero says, more than 30 years beyond his brief F1 career, “Maybe I was too nice. Perhaps that was my problem. But the sport I loved was never going to change who I was.”

With the drive of his father Roberto Sr – who cycled for Argentina in the 1948 London Olympics – Roberto karted in South America before moving to England in 1976. Initially studying engineering at North Worcestershire College, he soon discovered the Jim Russell Racing School and it was there that he caught the eye of chief instructor John Kirkpatrick.

“When I first saw Roberto, I witnessed pure natural driving talent, no doubt about it,” Kirkpatrick says. “He wasn’t just good, he was on another planet to anyone else at that time. He also worked very, very hard, the perfect combination. In fact, when I look back at him now, he is probably the best I ever saw at that stage of a career. That list includes a few world champions. He was very special.”

After a year taking the hard knocks of Formula Ford in 1978, he opted to race a works/Anglia Cars Argo JM3 in the 1979 British F3 Championship. “Those days are some of the most treasured in my career,” he says. “I shared a house with my team-mate Thierry Tassin and we were always down at the workshop, developing the car.”

He won some races and went on to challenge for the title in the following season’s JM6, the battle boiling down to a three-way fight between Guerrero, Stefan Johansson (Project 4 March 803/Ralt RT3) and Kenny Acheson (Murray Taylor Racing March 803/793). “It was a very competitive year,” Johansson says. “I knew Argo would do a good job because I worked with them in 1978. Roberto was a great guy and there was a nice camaraderie – as there was in 1981, when we were in F2. We hung out quite a bit, played golf together, that sort of thing. I remember the pressure at Thruxton. I had to win and take fastest lap. Roberto didn’t make it easy, though, and he was a really tough competitor.”

One of the integral cogs of that 1980 season was Anglia Cars co-owner Derek ‘Nick’ Jordan, who brought direct yet enormously genial practicality to the team, something that suited Guerrero and matched his own pragmatic. “Roberto was fantastic,” Jordan says. “He was probably among the best two or three drivers I ever worked with and had a very intelligent way of going racing. I remember at Monaco in 1979, when he just missed the qualifying cut – no disgrace in his first F3 season, as there were about 60 cars going for 20 places.

“He was desperately disappointed, so I had a chat to him and said: ‘Look, don’t worry, you’ll be back here next year and we will just get the job done then’. We went through every corner and every kerb and we got the lap planted in his head for 1980.”

A year on and that ‘lap’ had stuck. Guerrero was right there, qualifying third although a spectacular clash with Thierry Boutsen meant he gained little benefit. “They collided at the chicane, which was much quicker than it is now,” Jordan says. “Indeed, he nearly got tipped into the bloody harbour. He was mad as hell and I remember him kicking Thierry up the arse in the paddock afterwards, which was most unlike him!”

He won at Thruxton during his 1981 F2 season with Maurer and by the year’s end F1 beckoned: he was poised to become the first Colombian ever to start a world championship Grand Prix. His two years in F1 would often be harrowing, though.

In 1982 there was a distinct lack of investment or testing in the Nigel Bennett-penned Ensign N181. It was the same with the merged Ensign/Theodore effort in ’83, when two N183s were entered for Guerrero and F1 rookie Johnny Cecotto. There were flashes and reminders of Roberto’s deft talent, but they were infrequent due to wretched reliability.

Despite the ravages of two dispiriting seasons, Roberto was unbowed. An offer from Ligier was seriously considered, but a change of scene was needed. With Theodore having closed its doors just before the 1983 season ended at Kyalami, Roberto made a big decision. “I had seen how Teo Fabi had gone to CART and been competitive straight away,” he says, “and thought, ‘Well, I can do that’.”

With his California-born wife Katie more than happy with the decision, the Guerreros moved to America early in 1984. He lined up a drive in the small Cotter-Bignotti team’s March, with engineering support from relocated former Ensign boss Mo Nunn. It would be a superb campaign. At Indianapolis he put in the best rookie showing since Graham Hill triumphed in 1966, with a fine second place behind Rick Mears. He also shared Rookie of the Year honours with Michael Andretti.

His 1985-86 CART performances – he came within an ace of victory in Miami in ’86, only to run out of fuel – meant he was much in demand among the American teams and he signed for Vince Granatelli’s STP-backed team for 1987. “We won at Phoenix, Vince’s home track, which went down well,” Nunn says. “Roberto soon adapted to ovals and was dynamite through traffic that day. Then came Indy and it was back to heartbreak time.”

What appeared to be a straight fight between Mario Andretti’s Lola and Guerrero’s March took a horrible twist on lap 130. An errant wheel from Tony Bettenhausen’s March was hit by Guerrero and sent high into a grandstand, killing 41-year-old Wisconsin race fan Lyle Kurtenbach. Somehow Guerrero continued, after repairs to the nose, but he was now a lap down on Mario. It appeared to be a cruise to the flag for the 1969 winner, but with 30 laps remaining his fuel-metering unit developed a fault that allowed Guerrero to take a clear lead. He was 22 laps away from becoming the first South American to sip the famous milk.

“We were a lap and a half ahead of Al Unser Sr in the Penske car,” he says, “and I had one fuel stop left. It was a done deal. But as I came into the pits for the last time I could feel the clutch dragging and I couldn’t get it out of gear when I came to rest. It was just a fuel stop, so I sat there praying, willing for it to be OK.”

Halfway through refuelling the engine died. The team tried to restart the engine, but no gear could be found. Unser ate up the gap and, two minutes later, when Guerrero finally rejoined, he was a lap down and destined to finish second again. “Roberto was a great team player and never criticised the mechanics or the car,” Nunn says. “Sometimes you could get frustrated with him, because often a driver needs to be a little nasty to get things changed. It just wasn’t in Roberto’s nature to do that.”

After a commanding win from pole at Mid-Ohio, and other podium positions, Guerrero had a sniff of the title, but everything came to a shuddering halt on the last lap of a tyre test at Indianapolis in September. “It was just before the track closed,” Nunn says. “As he went past the pits I said, ‘In this time, Roberto’. Almost as soon as I said it, his left rear suspension broke going into Turn One. He was still pushing hard because at a tyre test you want to get accurate data and keeping it at racing speed is critical on the in-lap.”

Guerrero adds: “We were on top of the world when we went to that test. We went straight from Mid-Ohio to Indy and were second in the championship. With the momentum we had I was convinced we would have been champions, ahead of [eventual winner] Bobby Rahal.”

A broken bracket on the rear upright had let go and pitched him into the wall. Although a large impact, it was by no means thought to be disastrous… but the front right wheel came back and struck Roberto on the helmet. Without a scratch on his body but with severe brain haemorrhaging, Roberto lay in a deep coma. Katie was constantly at his bedside during every waking hour.

“The worst thing was for her to see me in that state,” Roberto says. “My eldest son Marco ‘celebrated’ his second birthday while I was in a coma and Katie was pregnant with our second child, Michael. They really weren’t sure if I would come back and, even if I did, Katie might have a third ‘child’ to look after. It was a super-tough time, but she was so strong.”

He emerged from the coma after 17 days. Soon, the familiar smile was back and the young Guerrero family was able to regroup and start living again. Remarkably, Roberto was an honorary grand marshal at CART’s Miami finale in November. A few months later he was back testing a new Granatelli-March in readiness for a full campaign in 1988.

The Granatelli team decided to move its base from Indianapolis to Phoenix, against the advice of many, including Mo Nunn, who stayed and joined Patrick Racing instead, going on to mastermind Emerson Fittipaldi’s dramatic 1989 Brickyard triumph.

Granatelli’s results withered and at the year’s end Guerrero signed a deal with Alex Morales Motorsports to develop the Alfa Romeo V8 engine. It proved to be a disaster and, after a further season with Pat Patrick in 1990, Roberto’s top-line reputation had all but disappeared in the same smokescreen as the detonated Alfa engines.

“People did question whether I was the same driver after the accident and that hurt me quite a lot,” Guerrero says. “I knew that I was the same racer, but circumstances with the teams and the Alfa project meant I was perceived as ‘damaged goods’. But really I always felt I was the same driver.”

For 1992 a deal to race for Kenny Bernstein in a brand new Lola T92/00, engineered by John Travis, looked very good indeed. Roberto stunned everyone by taking Indy pole with an average of 232.482mph, but then came the race.

Even before the unseasonably cold conditions played havoc with the 33-car grid, Guerrero was not especially looking forward to the 500 itself. “Some of the Buick-powered teams had a sliding butterfly system for their engines,” he says, “but we ran a mono-valve that gave more horsepower when flat out, so we were just that bit quicker. The downside with the mono-valve was massive lag and it took forever to respond, so trying to overtake people was always going to be tough.”

Overtaking wasn’t going to be a problem, though. On the final parade lap, getting temperature into his rubber, disaster struck.

“I was just warming the tyres and being careful when the thing turned sharp left, 90 degrees and into the wall. When it came to rest I was convinced I was in a nightmare and that I’d wake up. I didn’t.”

As he got back to the pits, his team boss Bernstein had a word. “Kenny said to me, ‘This is a tough one, Roberto. Look after yourself. Do what you have to do and say something broke’. I thought for a moment and said: ‘Kenny, I can’t do that. It was my fault. I have to live with it’.”

Through the rollercoaster of peaks and troughs he experienced at the Brickyard, this could have been a nadir. After the events of September 1987, though, he was able to deal with it.

A brave and dignified man, he might easily have won far more with the right breaks. Whatever motor racing threw at him, though, he hurled it back even harder.