Bruno Giacomelli: Besotted by his craft

Talented but unrewarded in Formula 1, Bruno Giacomelli never stopped trying to make the best of whatever hand motor racing dealt him

Even Ermanno Cuoghi, legendary mechanic of Pedro-and-Jo-in-Gulf Day-Glo and Lauda-at-Ferrari glory, knew motor racing has fewer ups than downs, yet his disappointment was palpable. His shoulders (and moustache) drooped as the PA system blared the news: the runaway leader – his man in his car – was out.

Bruno Giacomelli, perched forlorn on the Armco next to his silent Alfa Romeo 179, was “pissed off” too, though not surprised. Reliability had been tough to come by.

“It was going too nice,” he says today. “Engine running well, temperatures under control, tyres perfect.” Then a coil burnt out.

That United States GP – the last at bumpy-swoopy Watkins Glen – on October 5, 1980 was a timely reminder of what this little man from Brescia was capable: cool, calm, collected control. Domination. Taking pole by almost eight-tenths, he made a perfect start, muscularly rebuffed Nelson Piquet’s Brabham and drew smoothly away thereafter. By lap 31 of 59 he was 12sec ahead of Alan Jones’s Williams. Admittedly, the Australian had made a first lap mistake, dropped to 12th and been charging ever since. He had not long cleared team-mate Carlos Reutemann for second when Giacomelli coasted to a halt. Would the new World Champion have caught the Italian in any case?

“No way!” grins Giacomelli. “I had 500rpm in hand. Quickest through the chicane, quick down the straights too – we had the rear wing set negative [trailing edge pointing down]…”

Giacomelli knew how to run at the front. Only twice before had a car of his felt this good: at the 1976 Monaco F3 and 1977 Misano F2. He ran away and hid on the first occasion; on the second, he set pole and fastest lap but lost time when the gearbox jammed. His 1978 European F2 title would include eight wins from 12 starts. He’d almost won in ’77 too, as a rookie. And had Rupert Keegan not swiped him off at the Thruxton finale, he would have claimed both British F3 titles in 1976. All the signs pointed to Bruno being fast, smooth and technically astute – yet by 1980 this had become blurred by a sequence of unfortunate events.

In 1977, less than two years since the reigning Formula Italia champion – “I beat Riccardo Patrese. It’s important to say that” – had cadged a lift to England, Giacomelli made his F1 debut. He did so with McLaren, albeit as its third driver in an outdated M23, at Monza. Quicker in the first session than Jochen Mass’s M26, he qualified 15th. He was in ninth place when his Cosworth let go. But here’s the rub: the resultant slick caused Reutemann’s Ferrari to slide out of third. Though not Bruno’s fault, this was how many remembered a promising performance.

And so a theme begins.

Marlboro’s facilitator John Hogan, one of the sharpest minds in the paddock, was still impressed, however, and McLaren was happy to offer a five-Grand Prix deal for 1978. Giacomelli was still hot property.

“I was ready. McLaren was an excellent opportunity, so why not? This was not Life [of which more later], this was a good team.”

And a brand-new M26 awaited…

Giacomelli: “I’m not saying M26 destroyed my F1 career before it started, but only James Hunt could get 100 per cent from it. The team did everything to make me happy. [Designer] Gordon Coppuck worked with me to modify certain things, but it was always a heavy car to drive. M23 was better.”

The programme wasn’t a total disaster – eighth in the Belgian GP, seventh in the British – but it dulled the shine on Giacomelli’s F2 crown and began an insidious swing of perception. ‘Plump’ and ‘chubby’ became familiar adjectives, and Bruno ‘Jack O’malley’ (sic), Ireland’s fastest ice cream salesman, was plastered on his cockpit sides. Even today Giacomelli, a man still rightly confident in his ability and speed, is adamant that this did not adversely affect his career – it was, however, indicative that his serious talent was not being taken as seriously as it ought. Outsiders now put those F2 wins, all 11, down to his being in a works March fitted with a works BMW engine: right place, right time. At a McLaren running short of steam and inspiration – wrong place, wrong time – he couldn’t hack it. Simple.

Nice guy Giacomelli wasn’t making enemies exactly, he just wasn’t making friends. At Brands Hatch he had baulked Niki Lauda’s Brabham, and Reutemann’s Ferrari had grabbed the lead. He’d given a ‘Please pass’ signal – tellingly, Lauda did not administer a post-race dressing-down – but the Brabham mechanics sent Bruno “a shit in a box” in any case. Another ‘joke’.

“I didn’t impress too many people in Formula 1 [in 1978],” Giacomelli concedes. “But to go with McLaren was the most logical thing. F1 was my dream, and I believe you have to play your chances 100 per cent.”

Giacomelli’s climb up the ladder had been swift but packed with graft. His father was a quiet farmer, his mother a strong-willed housemaid. His first sporting foray was astride a self-assembled 50cc motocross bike and in 1972, aged 19, he dug deep for a Formula Ford, a third-hand Tecno. He enjoyed it but “did bad” because of a lack of funds and new tyres, and during his national service Sgt Giacomelli vowed to quit racing. Had friends not invited him to test their Formula Italia while he was on leave, he would have been lost to the sport.

Brescia’s Scuderia Mirabella Mille Miglia loaned Giacomelli an in-bits Formula Italia for 1974, and he won first time out, at the new Mugello, in the wet. The following year he won five times and was crowned champion. His prize from Mirabella was a drive at the final round of the Italian F3 championship in a March prepared by Cesare Gariboldi.

“Cesare was regularly going to England to pick up spares,” says Giacomelli. “We have a long history of motor racing in Italy, but England was where I needed to be. So I asked if I could keep him company.” Their circuitous itinerary included a stop at March, where Bruno met Sandro Angeleri, the fast-talking, multilingual Milanese who’d become the firm’s sales director. “This is how everything started. They were looking for drivers for their F3 team, so we started talking. Going to Britain was a big jump and Sandro helped me a lot. He got us sponsorship.”

The first Italian to contest British F3 plunged right in. Basing himself in Bicester, mechanical engineering student Giacomelli spent every spare day at the March factory: “I had a lot to learn: I didn’t speak English and I didn’t know the circuits. By the time I did, Keegan could afford to be aggressive with me, while I couldn’t fight back in the same way because I needed to keep winning.”

Giacomelli took the Shellsport title, Keegan the more important BP Super Visco version. But it was Bruno’s domination of the Monaco GP support race that caught the eye.

“The day after I was approached by two friends of Enzo Ferrari. They picked me up from my hotel in Menton on Monday morning and drove me to Modena in a big Mercedes. They used a road I didn’t know and I became wary. We arrived at a hotel near Modena which was closed, and we drove round the back. ‘Shit! Where are they taking me?’ Then I saw a few cars and relaxed.

“The restaurant had been opened just for us, and there I met Enzo Ferrari. I sat eating as they talked about everything except racing. Eventually Enzo spoke to me: ‘I never saw anybody driving like you: such authority, very smooth. I would love for you to drive in my F1 team instead of Regazzoni.’ Wow, amazing! But I had to tell him: ‘Ingegnere, I’ve signed an option with March.’ Max [Mosley] had made me sign one in Monaco. Enzo offered me the assistance of his attorney.

“I went back to Max and told him I hadn’t known exactly what was written in that option because of my poor English. He realised what had happened and said if Ferrari wanted me, March would let me go. So I went to Maranello, feeling important. ‘Here I am. I’m free.’ But Enzo offered me F2 with Minardi and the Dino V6 engine. I said, ‘No, thank you.’”

March happily placed Giacomelli with Angeleri’s Euroracing F2 team at Silverstone, but when its boss was arrested on a drugs charge, Bruno and the remainder of his budget (four rounds had already passed) were transferred to the works squad. Its 772P, based on the narrower Formula Atlantic monocoque, had set the pace in the hands of guest drivers Patrick Neve, Alex Ribeiro and Mass – and Giacomelli was no different, winning first time out at Vallelunga. He was victorious at Mugello too, and at the Donington finale in the 782 prototype he’d developed in conjunction with its designer and March co-founder, Robin Herd.

This relationship was the most productive of Giacomelli’s career. Both men are effusive of each other’s talents. But Herd’s renowned simpatico ability to extract the max from his charges perhaps worked against Bruno once it became clear March couldn’t take him all the way to F1: the rumour circulated that he needed wet-nursing to give his best.

This was patently unfair. He’d made it to F1 without a vast personal fortune to smooth the bumps, had gambled in moving to Britain, had told Enzo no, had consistently made the most of the best equipment… No wonder he bristles still when his mental fortitude is queried.

He was, however, in no position to be choosy when Alfa Romeo called for 1979. He continued the development of its flat-12 177 F1 challenger at Paul Ricard and Balocco, Alfa’s test track, during the winter, and turned up at Zolder for May’s Belgian GP. He qualified an impressive 14th, halfway up the grid.

“That car was quite good. Its only problem was weight. [Designer Carlo] Chiti was a nice person if things went the right way, really tough if they didn’t. He was a very capable technician, though. His 179 [the replacement] was quite advanced; Ferrari was still using a flat-12 when we had a V12, a proper engine for a proper ground-effect car. Chiti had been quick to take that decision. And the shape of the car was decided in the French wind tunnel, SERA. It looked big but didn’t feel it.”

Patrick Depailler joined Alfa for 1980, Giacomelli’s first full season of F1. The wiry Frenchman, still fragile from his hang-glider accident, was convinced Alfa would win a GP before the season was out, and told everyone so.

“Patrick was more experienced than me,” says Giacomelli. “I heard him having a tough discussion with Chiti about the car. This was something he could do and I couldn’t, because he was a GP winner.”

The 179 went on a diet, its suspension reworked, and it shot up the grid. New-shape carbon-fibre sidepods and 15-inch front wheels at the British GP brought another spike in performance. There were, however, just two points to show for this promise. Then the team was stunned by Depailler’s fatal crash while testing at Hockenheim.

Giacomelli: “I was one of the first to arrive. I saw him die. I saw scratches on the asphalt, too. You might expect this would have affected my driving, but it didn’t. We are racing drivers. My suspension broke three times that year… I was lucky.

“When we lost Patrick it was a huge moment. Now the team had to listen to me. I think I did a bloody good job, but it took a while for them to understand that.”

Thrust into the role of team leader, Giacomelli proved his mettle. He began with a morale-boosting – and brave – fifth at Hockenheim. In Austria, he ran fourth after a great start, but worried by deteriorating handling, pitted for new rubber on lap 28. The stop was chaotic and the right-rear, only finger-tight, parted company as he accelerated away. In Holland, he was third and pressuring Jacques Laffite’s Ligier when overheating rear brakes caught him out and he spun, wrecking his aero skirts. At Imola, he was fifth when he ran over debris from Gilles Villeneuve’s accident, punctured and retired. In Canada, side by side with Didier Pironi’s Ligier for third, the Frenchman refused to yield, and again the Alfa’s skirts were ruined. Then came Watkins Glen.

Giacomelli, still regarded as impetuous by some, was lauded for his efforts. He was 28 years old, absolutely ready to be tested as a number one.

Alfa signed Mario Andretti.

“He came because he saw my performances at the end of 1980, when our car was as quick as the Williams. He was a World Champion, stronger than me politically.”

As it transpired, the team struggled to circumvent the new 6cm ride height rule and adapt to the ban on sliding skirts, and Andretti became exasperated with Chiti. The mid-season arrival of designer Gérard Ducarouge did not improve the atmosphere – “Chiti became jealous” – but it did improve Alfa’s performance. Andretti pipped Giacomelli 8-7 in the qualifying stakes, but the latter won their points battle 7-3 and again finished the season strongly: he was lying third at Monza when the gear lever malfunctioned; he finished fourth at a wet Montréal; and at Las Vegas he was running fourth on lap 27…

“Gilles Villeneuve and I were the only drivers on Michelin’s harder 701 compound. I tried too hard to keep up with the leaders and half-spun. But then I couldn’t get reverse. By the time I got going the leader was about to lap me.”

Jones’s Williams led throughout, but Giacomelli was just 20 seconds down in third – a fraction behind Alain Prost’s Renault – at the finish. He had recovered a minute in fewer than 50 laps. Again he could have won the last race of the season, the one everybody remembers over a long winter.

Ducarouge designed a new car for 1982, F1’s second carbon-fibre monocoque, the 182, and Andrea de Cesaris joined the team. Despite Giacomelli’s seniority, both men were awarded equal status. (Giacomelli had understandably but perhaps hastily signed a two-year contract at the end of 1980, having just set a lap record at Balocco in the new Luigi Marmiroli-designed ground-effect, sliding-skirt car. Regulation changes meant it never again ran in this form and instead morphed into the end-of-1981 179D.) De Cesaris grabbed the vital early internecine momentum with pole at Long Beach in April. The team had its new blue-eyed boy.

Giacomelli: “Andrea was very fast, and the team got excited by that pole. I understood. Andrea was driving well, but I was perhaps more precise in how a car should be developed.” There was, however, no Herd figure willing to listen, understand and interpret. “I was still underrated in that team. We had reliability problems and the car was not as good at the end of the season as it had been at the start.” Just seven points were scored. De Cesaris scored five. He was staying.

Ken Tyrrell was keen to sign Giacomelli for 1983, but Danny Sullivan’s sponsorship clout stymied that, and Bruno joined Toleman. There he played second fiddle to team stalwart Derek Warwick and had a falling-out with team principal Alex Hawkridge – “he treated me like a 19-year-old”. Giacomelli’s F1 career, apparently, was over. He would have to look to America for 1984.

After three outings in the rare Theodore Indycars, Giacomelli contested the penultimate round of the PPG World Series at Laguna Seca as team-mate to Emerson Fittipaldi at Patrick Racing. He qualified its March 84C seventh and finished eighth. He took nine starts with the team in 1985, scoring a fifth and two sixths, and shone at the final round in Tamiami Park. He qualified third, led for three laps, and was again challenging for the lead when a front brake disc exploded. It was his last Indycar race.

“That Newey 85C was the fourth and last time I had an almost perfect car. But I decided to quit America. The team was good. The problem was that Emerson decided everything. Plus I didn’t want to race on high-speed ovals. My smooth style would have suited them – I was fifth on the grid at Sanair [his only oval outing of 1985] – but they are too dangerous. No control for the driver.”

Ironically, Giacomelli had a massive accident upon his return to Europe to race Group C sports cars when his Lancia LC2 suffered a blowout during practice for an Interserie race at the Österreichring. He recovered to share the winning Leyton House Porsche 962CK6 with Kris Nissen at a 1988 Fuji 1000Kms race and to test for Alfa’s Indycar project and the Leyton House March F1 team. Then came the final ‘joke’: Life in F1 in 1990.

Except Giacomelli was deadly serious: “Why not? I had the possibility to be a test driver for McLaren, but I don’t understand people who are happy to test year after year. Racing drivers should race.” Yet he failed to pre-qualify the oddball W12-engined L190 10 times out of 10 (and two times out of two with Judd V8 power). “People thought I was crazy. But I knew it would never show fantastic things, I’m not stupid. That engine, though, fascinated me. To work with [designer] Franco Rocchi, with all his history at Ferrari, was special. I looked at the technical aspect of it, not the sport. I don’t think Life destroyed what I’d done before.”

In many ways it reinforced it – in the same way his immediate response upon waking from that monster Interserie shunt had: “I found myself in this white room. I didn’t know where I was, but my mother was there, so I asked her… ‘What was my best practice time?’”

Bruno Giacomelli – not a politician, nor a hard or devious bastard behind the scenes, ‘just’ a very fast racing driver besotted by his craft. Is that so hard to understand? It shouldn’t be.