He may not have been the most famous driver in the sport’s history, but when the news came through that Michele Aboreto had been killed testing an Audi R8 at the Lausitzring, near Dresden, it left the international motor racing community genuinely stunned with grief.
At the Spanish Grand Prix last weekend, little knots of people periodically seemed to pause in the paddock and swap happy memories of the curly-haired 44-year old who, back in 1985, had touched the hem of world championship glory, only for it to slip from his grasp.
At the start of the previous year, the patriarchal Enzo Ferrari put aside his reservations about employing his native drivers and hired Alboreto, the first Italian to drive an Fl Ferrari since Arturo Merzario more than a decade earlier. The Commendatore reckoned Italian drivers were not generally worth the extra aggravation he received in the country’s national press, but AJboreto baked a rather special proposition.
Three years with the British Tyrrell team had honed his talent to the point where he was ripe for the big time. He also came to Maranello with two grand prix victories under his belt. The first came in the baking heat of Las Vegas at the end of 1982, through the car park of the Caesar’s Palace casino. My colleague Eoin Young saw some favourable betting odds for Alboreto and immediately invested a fistful of dollars. Michele duly obliged at, I think, 30-1. That night the drinks were on Eoin.
Michele won again for Ken through the streets of Detroit the following summer (the final win for both the Tyrrell marque and the Cosworth DFV engine) before signing up with the Prancing Horse. But ’84 was the year of the dominant Michelin-shod McLaren-TAGs which won 12 of the season’s 16 races. Michele sneaked a pole-to-flag victory for Ferrari and Goodyear in the Belgian GP at Zolder, but otherwise it was thin milk for the popular Milanese.
At the end of that season Michelin quit F1 and McLaren ran head-to-head against Ferrari on Goodyear rubber for 1985. Michele really caught his stride, storming to wins at Montreal and Nurburgring to consolidate his lead at the head of the table. Then a string of engine failures wiped out his challenge and handed the title to Alain Prost. Alboreto stayed at Ferrari for another three years, but was finally dropped from the team and replaced with Nigel Mansell for 1989. He went back to Tyrrell briefly, but quit midway through the season — despite a fine third place in Mexico — due to clashing sponsorship interests. Thereafter Alboreto’s F1 career went into gentle decline at Larrousse, Footwork Arrows, Scuderia Italia and Minardi, second division operations all. He finally quit F1 at the end of 1994.
Yet he wasn’t just an F1 driver. Michele Alboreto was a racing driver. For him, to participate was first and foremost, his driving passion. Berger said of their last meeting: “He loved just driving racing cars. He said to me ‘Hey, Gerhard, you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing now. Come with me. We’ll ring up Stefan [Johansson] and all go sportscar racing together.’ I told him that wasn’t for me, and I never saw him again.
“When I joined him at Ferrari in 1987, I suppose I added to the pressure he was already under, but he never showed any signs of resentment. For me, Michele was always the perfect Italian gentleman.”
AJboreto was far from a soft touch, though. Lurking beneath the surface was a volatile streak. After Ayrton Senna put Michele’s Ferrari on the grass at Hockenheim in 1987 at 190mph, he paid the Brazilian back at the following race by ‘brake testing’ the Lotus-Honda, knocking off its nose section.
After F1, Michele raced in touring cars and sportscars, sharing the winning Porsche at Le Mans in 1997. He was testing the Audi prior to another run at the Sarthe when a rear tyre was punctured and his story came to an end. Alboreto’s great hero was the brilliant Swedish star Ronnie Peterson. He painted his helmet the same yellow and blue colours as Ronnie’s and admitted that, as a kid, he was the one waving a Swedish flag in the grandstand at Monza, isolated in a sea of Ferrari fans. No doubt about it, Michele Alboreto had a lot of style. Alan Henry