The go-to guy

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F1, Champ Car, GTs, historics – if you need a driver in a hurry, Roberto Moreno has always been ready to give it everything. And he’s still got the fire…
By Rob Widdows

In America they called him ‘supersub’. Super he may be, but he is so much more than a substitute.

When Roberto Pupo Moreno left his home in Brazil he was still a teenager and had never raced a car. His mother promised to keep his room exactly as he left it. Her boy could come home any time he liked. And that was what spurred him on as he trudged around the UK tracks with his Formula Ford, unable to speak English and shivering through his first winter. He would make it work; he was going to make his living from motor racing.

And that he has most certainly achieved. Formula Ford champion in 1980, Formula 3000 champion in 1988, a Grand Prix driver at Benetton in 1990 and a Champ Car winner in 2000. But the headlines don’t even begin to tell a remarkable story of guts, Godgiven talent and cheeky charm.

“Hey, you know what,” Roberto exclaims, putting his arm around me, “I’ve been so lucky, made a good living from racing cars, and that’s all I ever wanted to do. OK, when I first came to England I nearly went home again. It was cold and I couldn’t speak the English. But Nelson Piquet was my saviour, my mentor, and he got his manager Greg Siddle (Peewee’ to his mates) to sort me out. In that first year, 1979, I travelled from race to race, towing my Formula Ford Royale and sleeping in the car — it was tough but I learnt so much — and Ralph Firman at Van Diemen started to take an interest in me.”

We are sitting in a cafe in London. Moreno is a bundle of restless energy, the story rattling out of him as he reels back 31 years to that breakthrough Formula Ford title. He’s already charmed the waitress as the anecdotes and tales stream onto the tape in that familiar, expressive South American accent.

A RIGHT ROYALE BEGINNING
“Where it really started getting good was at Silverstone, on the Club circuit, and again it was thanks to Nelson. He told me ‘focus on the straightline speed, forget the corners, just make sure nobody can live with you on the straights’. So I modified the car, narrowed the track, got it down to the weight limit and lowered everything I could. I got lighter wheels from a scrapyard that made the track narrower, used a motorcycle battery to save weight, cut the ends off all the bolts to save more weight, lowered the rollbar — that’s not allowed any more — and I put the car on pole. Then the scrutineers were all over it like ants, locking and sealing everything, which was fine by me because it was all legal.

“When Royale designer Pat Symonds saw it he said, ‘Hey Roberto, what have you done to my car? You’ve chopped off the rear bodywork. That was all designed for the airflow to the carburettor and then down over the back of the car. And the wheels, they’re so ugly.’ Anyway, I’d been working at the Ralt factory to make some money and I told Pat I’d never seen an F3 or F2 car there that had an engine cover.

“I went out, won the race, and Ralph Firman called me and said ‘you can drive my works car any time you want’.” He pauses, tears in his eyes. “And… well, that day changed my career. It was the start of something big for me. You know, Royale owner Alan Cornock gave Pat Symonds a hard time after the race, telling him they didn’t need to keep spending money on rear bodywork!”

He drags himself back from that day at Silverstone, where life suddenly got much better.

“It was incredible,” he smiles, “but I couldn’t drive for Ralph until I sold the Royale and paid all my bills, so I kept going as I was while Peewee did a deal with Ralph for 1980 which involved me driving a van for the Van Diemen factory during the week, and racing a works car at weekends. That year we won the British championship, the Formula Ford Festival and came second in the European championship, and all this got me a testing contract with Lotus because Peter Warr had seen me win the Festival. They paid me £10,000 and without that I’d have been back in Brazil mending motorcycles, which is where I had started.”

The Lotus contract, however, proved to be a double-edged sword, almost putting an end to what was now a promising career.

THE LITTLE GLOBETROTTER
“Jeez, yes,” he says, looking very serious now. “Peter Warr put me in the Formula 1 car in 1982, standing in for Nigel Mansell at Zandvoort without any testing, and I wasn’t fit enough to deal with the downforce of those cars. It was bad, I didn’t qualify. But the Lotus contract was all I had to live on while I looked for an F3 drive. Then along came Barron Racing, which needed a driver for their Ralt F3 because they’d fallen out with Michael Bleekemolen, and Ron Tauranac put my name forward. I’d been a cleaner at the Ralt factory in 1979 and Ron had been impressed with my results in Formula Ford. Anyway, I got the drive with Barron even though I crashed the car at the end of my first test with them. I won some races, though, and already I was a substitute driver — which later became a theme of my career.”

So began a long, hard slog to Formula 3000, with Moreno finally becoming champion in 1988. In between times he travelled back and forth to Brazil, searching for money and racing Formula Atlantic in America. Piquet, always in the background, helped out when times got tough. The failure at Zandvoort in ’82 had been a major setback, but an F2 drive with Ralt saved the day.

“I won the first race at Silverstone in 1984 and Ron [Tauranac] was furious,” he laughs, “because he wanted Mike Thackwell to win races to pay him back for helping Jonathan Palmer the previous year. Boy, I was so frustrated, I was crying. From then on I had to give way to Thackwell. I knew I could have won, and I was ready for F1.”

But Moreno didn’t go to F1, not until 1987 with AGS, though he’d had an offer from Toleman that fell through. So instead he went to Japan where Honda paid him to do F2 again with a Ralt. He’d become a globetrotter, racing the Indycar road races for Rick Galles in America, F2 in Japan and some F3000 for Barron with mechanics on loan from Tyrrell… Yup, Moreno is a survivor. By 1987 he was back in England and Tauranac had signed him up for a full season of F3000.

Reliability let them down, but soon his luck would change. Briefly, at least.

BENETTON… AND ON
It had been seven years since Roberto had won the Formula Ford championship. By rights, he should have been firmly ensconced in F1. Then after a roller-coaster ride that included a brief tenure at AGS came another big break, and thanks to more support from friends including Piquet and Adrian Reynard, he was back in F3000 with a shot at the title.

“We had no money, my wife was pregnant, but I had to make this work,” he says. “So I went to Bicester and began persuading Adrian and Rick Gorne to do me a deal on a car. I knew I could get a drive with Ron Salt at Bromley if I could get hold of a car and engine, so I called Nelson, asked him if he’d guarantee me some money, which he did, and then I sat down with Adrian and Rick. I just had to persuade them because Gary Anderson had gone to Bromley and without a car to run there was no job for him and no job for me. That’s how it was. I was desperate, I was in tears, I didn’t even know how to pay for my rental car to Bicester, but eventually I managed to talk Rick into a deal. I told him if he lent me the car I’d pay him for it at the end of the season… and I told him I had a guarantee from Nelson. So I got the car. Not only that, but if I did win the championship then I wouldn’t have to pay for it — can you believe I did that? And Rick agreed? Incredible.

“I had no engine for this car but I went to see John Nicholson and he lent me a Cosworth because he was so keen to get into F3000 and perhaps win some races. And we did — we won the third race at Pau, the fourth at Silverstone and then at Monza where, after the race, Marco Piccinini from Ferrari gave me his card and asked me to call him.

“So now I was leading the Formula 3000 championship and I had an invitation to test John Barnard’s new semi-automatic gearbox for Ferrari. Bob Warren lent me the money to fly to Monaco to see Marco, and he offered me a three-year testing contract. I could only think what happened with Lotus and how that set me back, and I turned him down. I wanted to be a race driver, not an F1 test driver.

“So then Marco offered me the testing plus he got John Hogan to sponsor my F3000, plus a seat with Coloni before joining a secret new ‘Ferrari Formula 1 junior team’. Wow! Then Mr Ferrari died, Fiat cancelled all these plans, and Cesare Fiorio came in and scrapped all the schemes set down by Piccinini. Wow! So it was back to F3000 where I won the title, this time being able to win as I pleased without having to play second fiddle to a team-mate like I did with Mike Thackwell, and then in 1989 I went to Coloni. That fell apart when Fiorio pulled the plug, so I went to Eurobrun in 1990 and that was hopeless as they had no money. So I was out of a drive again for ’91. Story of my life, I think.

“Very late in the 1990 season I went to see John Barnard, who wanted me to sit in his mock-up of the new Benetton and help his engineers sort out the positions of switches, gear lever, that kind of thing. By the time I got there John had heard about Alessandro Nannini’s helicopter accident [in which he almost lost an arm] and he’d just put the phone down from Michael Andretti and Andrea de Cesaris — and Briatore was pushing him to find a driver. He looked at me and said ‘we need a driver for the race in Japan — can you do it?’ I was speechless, didn’t know what to say, but by luck I’d been the first driver to call him before he heard about Nannini’s terrible accident.

“So I told Eurobrun and it turned out they’d decided to stop racing before the end of the year. They put it in writing, by fax, and I was now a Benetton driver. Incredible. But that is how my career went along — up, down, then another opportunity. Anyway, I did a seat fitting, had my overalls made and went to Japan as team-mate to Nelson Piquet.”

Moreno finished second at Suzuka to his old friend, even though he was barely fit enough to drive the high-downforce car. But the following year, at Monza, everything was up in the air. Again. Mercedes-Benz wanted to put Michael Schumacher in the Benetton and it was an offer the team could not refuse.

“You know,” Moreno says with a shrug, a smile and another flurry of his indefatigable enthusiasm and energy, “I don’t look back on that as a negative thing, honestly I do not. OK, I don’t want to talk about the whole thing in detail, but the way I saw it was that I’d been Nelson’s team-mate at Benetton, I’d driven well, raced well, and I’d made it to a top Grand Prix team. OK, it was suddenly over, but there would be another opportunity for me, there always is. I never had this big thing about being World Champion, I just wanted to have a career, make a living from racing cars, and I did that — every day — until I retired, whether it was in F3000, F2, Indycar, F1, Champ Car or whatever it was. I only see the positive side — if I hadn’t been at Benetton I would never have had a podium in F1. There are no negatives. The deal with Schumacher had to be done. I could see that.”

A remarkable man, Roberto Moreno. Whatever happens, he bounces back. And this time the bounce took him to the Ford touring car team in Italy, and then to Andrea Moda.

COMING OFF THE BENCH
“You know what,” he laughs, “in qualifying at Monaco I put that car into 14th place in the first 10 minutes, and when I came in the whole pitlane came out of their garages and cheered me. But that car could only do four laps before it overheated, so of course we never made the grid for the race. But I’ll always remember that afternoon in Monaco, an incredible few laps. I could have developed that car but the team was really not very good at all.”

Putting F1 behind him — apart from a brief return in 1995 — Moreno went to America where he carved a successful career in Champ Car, notably standing in for Christian Fittipaldi at Newman-Haas and then in his own right as a ‘super-sub’. “Yeah, right, I mean that’s the story of my career — ‘turning things around’. The driving was the easy bit, getting the deals was the tough part.” Any time a team needed a replacement driver it was Moreno’s door that got the knock, delivering him a continuous stream of results and podiums.

“I have no regrets,” he says. “I would have my career all over again. Except maybe the shunt at Indianapolis on Carburation Day. To avoid a spinning car at Turn 4 I had to go into the pits at 200mph, and I hit everything that stood in my way, including two cars and the wall. I had to turn left because Indycars don’t really want to turn right. I actually arrived in my own pit but the car had no wheels by this time and when the mechanics pulled me out I was completely unhurt. At one point I went underneath a car on its stands… My car was just sliding along the ground without any wheels, and every time I opened my eyes I saw a mechanic running away from all this. And, you know, I never hit a single person.” By this stage he is laughing at this extraordinary memory of the worst accident he ever had.

BACK IN THE FOLD
In 2003 Moreno retired to a comfortable life at his new family home in Florida. But now he is restless again. This year, aged 52, he has raced a Mini in a historic event at Oulton Park and has plans for more.

“I just want to drive again, and historics are so much fun,” he tells me. “Also, to go back to Oulton was great, a place I remember well from Formula Ford. I plan to do more racing, possibly in GT2, and some coaching for historic drivers who have no experience of the bigger, more powerful cars. I am already involved with coaching two young Brazilians — Pedro Nunes in GP3 and Lucas Foresti in F3 — so I am busy again, which is nice. I am not an old man; I’m still quick and pretty fit. And, of course, having been a mechanic and driver I know how to set up a racing car.”

Roberto Moreno will be warmly welcomed back into the fold. This thoroughly charming and determined little Brazilian will always have a place in the hearts of racing enthusiasts, especially those of us who recall his early exploits in England. Seems a long time ago. But welcome back, Roberto.

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