Thierry Boutsen: On a different plane

Thierry Boutsen spent 10 years as a Grand Prix driver. But today, jet power dominates over downforce for a man who beat Ayrton Senna

Thierry Boutsen 2012 portrait

Boutsen Aviation

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When compiling a list of famous Belgians, I think instantly of Georges Prosper Remi, better known as Hergé, whose Tintin stories have long been favourites of mine. Then there’s Eddy Merckx, five times winner of the Tour de France. Or the surrealist painter René Magritte. As motor racing fans, we would surely include Jacky Ickx, six times winner of the Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans.

More recently, a quiet man from Brussels came along, raced for five Grand Prix teams, won three races, and impressed a great many people with his speed and skill in the rain. His Formula 1 career began, and ended, on home turf at Spa-Francorchamps. In 1983 his Arrows suspension broke after four laps and, 10 years later, the gearbox on his Jordan-Hart gave up before he could complete a single lap.

In 1997 he put his mind to running what has become a successful business. Thierry Boutsen is president of Boutsen Aviation, purveyor of private jets, and based in Monte Carlo’s Rue Grimaldi. Mounted on the wall of the president’s office is the Williams in which he won the Canadian Grand Prix in 1989, but more of that later.

Thierry Boutsen in his Monaco office with his 1989 Canadian Grand Prix winning Williams-Renault on the wall

The ’89 Canadian GP-winning FW12C on the wall of Boutsen’s office

Boutsen Aviation

Despite the woes of the global economy, Boutsen Aviation goes from strength to strength, selling more than 220 aircraft thus far. He still has an interest in motor sport through Ginion Boutsen Racing, which is about to take him back to Le Mans, as a team owner, for the first time since the crash that ended his driving career – and almost so much more – in 1999. But private jets are the day job these days.

Thierry is a busy man, constantly on the move. I finally pin him down, but not for long.

“I did the suspension development on the Williams FW14. Unfortunately I was not the one to take advantage of it…”

I first speak to him on the phone. He is in America. Too far to go. Now he’s back in Monaco. Too many meetings. Azerbaijan is in the diary. Hamburg is next. Then he’s off to London. Getting warmer. So I head for Heathrow where we will relax with coffee. Wrong. The plane is late. Now we’re off to Paddington. So we talk as we take our subterranean journey into the capital.

“I must tell you,” he leans back in his seat, resigned to the train journey, “I went racing because I liked the sport. I liked driving race cars – I hate driving road cars – but most of all I liked the technical part. I was educated as a technical engineer, so I had a lot of input in setting up my car. I knew exactly what I wanted from the car, and always I had long talks with my engineers.” The English is perfect, the accent slips between Brussels and Boston.

“I was lucky, I worked with many great engineers. Sometimes the cars I was given did not work very well – but between us we managed to make them much better. I liked the engineering side of it.

“I never had any doubts about my ability as a driver because, by the time I went to F1, I had been successful in Formula Ford, F3 and F2.

Thierry Boutsen in an Arrows BMW during the 1984 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder

Four F1 seasons with underfunded Arrows yielded one podium

Grand Prix Photo

I knew I could be fast. But I didn’t have money. For my first Grand Prix at Spa in ’83 I had to find a great many sponsors and somehow I had to look after them all. I was busy. I never found one big sponsor so I took many smaller ones with me to Arrows, and they came to Spa.

I think there were 22 different sponsors… I needed half a million dollars for the year, and Spa was the best place to start for the publicity I needed. That was the last time I ever paid to drive an F1 car, and in the future I would play musical chairs, five teams in 10 years, never one big backer to keep me in a top team.

“That first race was a big weekend for me, to be in front of my home crowd, and of course I was aware of the history – Willy Mairesse, Olivier Gendebien, the Pilettes, Patrick Nève and most of all Jacky Ickx of course. Remember, we came from a very small country.”

“Ayrton Senna was my best friend in F1, in my life”

As we talk, engineering is a subject Thierry returns to. In that 10-year period he raced for Arrows, Benetton, Williams, Ligier and Jordan, none of whose cars were at their peak when he was there. He was rarely in the right place at the right time.

“My first engineer, at Arrows, was Dave Wass, a very good man, but he had… shall we say, limited access to funds… so it was hard for us to produce anything really competitive. Then it was Rory Byrne and Pat Symonds at Benetton, they were absolutely great people, wonderful to work with on the car. At Williams I worked with Patrick Head, a totally different character, and this was at a time when the cars were not working well and we were always searching for the answer. They’d been overtaken in speed by McLaren and Benetton and it took them time to recover. Adrian Newey arrived too late for me but I did the suspension development on the FW14 that Nigel [Mansell] used to win the championship in 1992. I was very proud of my work as a test driver there but unfortunately I was not the one to take advantage of it…” He smiles, a little ruefully.

“Ligier was not a good time, we had many different engineers, then at Jordan the car was very good, lots of potential, but I could never use it because of my physique, my physical proportions. I was never comfortable in the cockpit, I was too tall, and they never did anything about it because I was only there for a year. In my last race for them at Spa the gearbox broke before I could even do one lap – Eddie knew I was leaving and the gearbox was… well, not a very new one.” He chuckles in the way that Jordan drivers sometimes do.

 

Thierry Boutsen in a Benetton Ford at the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix

Boutsen enjoyed working with Rory Byrne and Pat Symonds at Benetton

Grand Prix Photo

Thierry Boutsen in his final Grand Prix for Jordan at Spa Francorchamps during the 1993 Belgian GP

Last GP in Belgium in '93, ended with failure of 'old' gearbox

Pascal Rondeau /Allsport via Getty Images

Two of Thierry’s three Grand Prix victories, Montréal and Adelaide in 1989, came in very wet conditions. Like Ickx before him, he excelled in the rain, racing as if the track was dry, barely putting a wheel off the asphalt while others wiped his spray from their visors.

So what was it about the rain?

“In Belgium you can practice every day in the rain,” he laughs, but he means it. “It rains every day in Belgium – no, I mean I had raced a lot in the wet, and it was never a big problem for me. I was good in wet conditions because it’s all a matter of concentration and attitude. Also, I like driving in the rain very much, because it’s difficult, because it’s a challenge. If you make a mistake, you spin and you are off the track. There is no room for a mistake, and the limits are much more difficult to reach. And then to stay on the limit, lap after lap, is much more demanding than in the dry. It’s a big challenge. You have to know the limits of the car and you have to know your own limits, while staying as close as possible to these limits. You must never let your concentration fade away, you have to be focused and not pay attention to anything else, not the fog on your visor, not the water in your overalls, nothing. It must be total focus.

“You must follow the evolution of the track, you pass the same place every 90 seconds or so, and conditions can change. You have to adapt to how much faster, or slower, you can go. This is a very complex exercise over 70 or 80 laps, and not many people are able to do that. You must accept that driving in the rain can be a nice thing and that it can give you advantages over those who don’t like it. Then you get good at it. This is not instinct, this is like a neck exercise, something you have to do and have to accept. Then you are more at ease with it.

“The wet races helped to prove I was good enough to be in F1 – because most of the time I was driving cars that were not the most competitive – so the rain gave me an opportunity to show what I could do with a car. This was how I could win in Canada and in Australia, I could set the car up for the wet with my engineer, and I knew…,” he smiles broadly, “…I knew I had the ability.”

Thierry Boutsen on his way to victory in the 1989 Canadian Grand Prix

Wet-weather virtuosity in the FW12C at Montreal in 1989

DPPI

Thierry Boutsen on the podium alongside Ricardo Patrese and Andrea de Cesaris after winning the 1989 Canadian Grand Prix at Montreal

Boutsen on the podium alongside Patrese and de Cesaris in Canada

Gille Levent/DPPI

Rightly or wrongly Boutsen is best known for his victory in the Hungarian Grand Prix on a hot – and dry – day in August 1990. Starting from pole in the Williams-Renault FW13B he led the entire race, inch-perfect over 77 laps and nearly two hours of racing. What made this special was that he kept none other than Ayrton Senna behind him, winning by a mere 0.288 seconds. Nelson Piquet in the Benetton and Riccardo Patrese in the other Williams were half a minute up the road in third and fourth.

From the archive

“I knew the car was good. The Hungaroring was the only place where the car was performing well so I got a clear lap in qualifying and put it on pole. When I say the car was good, I mean it was good up to a certain level. Not as fast in race conditions as the others – but I could drive it in such a way that the tyre wear was not as high as the other cars – so my tactic was to stay out the whole race, no pitstops for tyres at all. And it worked. But at the end I was right on the limit, there was just no rubber left on the inside of the rear tyres, none at all.

“For me, this was a big achievement because it was not easy at all, and I made no mistakes under big pressure. You have to understand Ayrton Senna was my best friend in F1, in my life actually, but we were fighting each other that day, both of us 100 per cent, so I was pretty happy at the end. He could have tried to push me off but he didn’t do that… I wouldn’t have minded if he had tried,” he holds up his hands and laughs, “but there was no room to pass and I was never going to give him any room. Absolutely no way. He was my friend, yes, but I had the race under control.

“We first met in Detroit in 1984 when we raced each other in uncompetitive cars, he in the Toleman and me in the Arrows, but we had a good battle. Later we became very close friends. He was the strongest man I ever met, I admired the way he dealt with life and with racing. He was different to anyone else: nobody could match his commitment, nobody. And he had the skills to drive the car at the limit more often, and for longer, than anyone else.”

Thierry Boutsen ahead of Ayrton Senna at the Hungaroring during the 1990 Hungarian Grand prix

Boutsen held off Senna to win in Hungary ’90

Simon Bruty/Allsport via Getty Images

We are nearly at journey’s end. He checks his watch, checks his phone, tidies his immaculate haircut (the same as it ever was), flicks dust off sharply-pressed black trousers, and slips on the company jacket. Just time to ask him about the end of his career and that horrendous crash at Le Mans in 1999 when a backmarker strayed into the path of his Toyota GT-One and left him with serious back and leg injuries.

“It was going to be my last race anyway, I’d already decided to stop,” he tells me, “but this was a more brutal stop than I was expecting, not the nice soft one I had planned. I was very lucky to escape from that crash. It took me a long, long time to recover, to be able to live a normal life again. It was two years learning to walk normally and four years to be able to sleep without any pain. The crash was absolutely nothing to do with me, but that is motor racing; anything can happen when you are out on a racetrack. In most accidents, you are the victim of something beyond your control, but I was lucky to be in good hands afterwards and my wife Daniela supported me very strongly, every minute of the time, every step of the way back.

“It was a nasty crash, yes, and bad luck, but I was also lucky – to survive and to recover.”

Earlier he mentioned musical chairs – five teams in 10 years. Maybe that had held back his career in some way. Or not?

“I enjoyed every minute of it. Not many drivers can say that”

“Some choices I made, others were made for me,” he explains patiently. “I decided to move from Benetton to Williams in ’89 and that was a good decision. Williams had huge experience, huge potential, and Flavio [Briatore] was not yet at Benetton to bring all the good things together. The cars were competitive, nice to drive, and with Riccardo [Patrese] we had a really good atmosphere in the team. I’m not saying I liked him – I mean, he was my biggest competitor and I had to beat him, you had to hate your team-mate, you know,” he laughs. “Frank [Williams] made it clear that the drivers’ championship was not important to him, he wanted the constructors’ titles, and that can de-stabilise the drivers a little bit. He was never really behind his drivers because who won the race was less important to him than his car winning the race. You could feel that.

“But it was not my choice to leave; this was made for me, because the team could make more money with Nigel [Mansell] than with me. It is not only a sport, it is a business, and a business to make money. A driver can lose his self-belief so it is really important, all the time, to be fit, physically and mentally, because once you sit in the car you are alone. You must cope with many things, technical things, all the paddock gossip, and mental challenges, so you must be fit to stay at the top.”

After his retirement, had his passion for aviation ever tempted him to start his own airline. Air Boutsen, perhaps? I am thinking of Niki Lauda who so famously… but I get no further. “Absolutely not, no,” he interrupts, laughing, “Niki has many more problems than me, many more… No, I’m not interested in flying passengers. My passion is for the aeroplanes. I’ve always loved them – I bought one when I first got some decent prize money in F1. Not just for the technical side, they are works of art also, the small business jets. Now my wife is designing the interiors, a new business that gives our clients a complete service in the acquisition of business jets. And it’s going pretty well.”

So, how does he look back on his decade in the heady world of F1? How does he reflect on that chapter of his life, I wonder?

“I think about it a lot, you know,” he smiles. “They are good memories because I came from nothing, pushed my parents into letting me sit in my first race car, went to racing school, won championships, made it to F1, so I’m quite proud of what I achieved. I never thought about F1 when I started and I was always aware that it could stop at any moment. But I put pressure on myself, took it seriously, and I was extremely lucky to be in F1 for 10 years, and to win three races, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Not many drivers can say that, and I know that, so I am happy to look back in this way.”

Happy sums him up. Serious, yes, but contented, not burdened by baggage or regret, ego or facade. Nice man, is Thierry Boutsen. He knows he’s not a superstar but he also knows he made a lot of not-so-quick cars very much quicker during his decade in F1. When he goes to work in Rue Grimaldi, there’s that Williams-Renault on the wall, and a glinting Gulfstream G550 model on his desk. From here, Thierry Boutsen can survey the past, and the future, with some satisfaction.