He was set up by Gerhard Berger and Nelson Piquet, but he’s more likely to ask them to join him for a cigar in his Rolls-Royce than his early French rivals
You were born in the south of France to Sicilian parents. As a boy, were your heroes Italian drivers or French? Bryce Hancock. Port Talbot
Definitely not French! I’ve been a Ferrari fan all my life and my all-time hero was Gilles Villeneuve.
Was your rally-driving father Frank a big inspiration? Harry Barrington, via e-mail
I grew up in the garage of my father — I was always there at weekends. I always wanted to be in a rally car since I was very young. My early career was in rallying, but I had to go to the circuits because the promotion cups, like Renault 5s, were a lot less expensive, so that’s why I then started on the circuits.
When you came through the ranks there were a lot of very good French drivers. Who did you rate as the best of them? And is there one who should have made it but didn’t? Jeff Harrington, Leather head, Surrey
To be honest, I was the enemy of the French group. They were all pushed by Elf, and I was outside that system. I was happy when everybody fell off the ladder — for me it was good revenge! In this business you always have drivers who say they were not lucky, or whatever, and that’s why they didn’t make it. But I don’t believe in luck. If it is your life, that means you must make it to the top. I’m sorry to sound hard like this, but I didn’t like any of them!
Did you enjoy your experience at Le Mans in a Porsche 962 in 1989? Any chance of you going back? Jon Love-Hagger. Manchester
I was a bit afraid. It was the first time I raced with a door right next to my helmet, and I didn’t feel safe in the car. It was the time of the very long straight… Even though I was young and crazy, I didn’t feel comfortable at all with that. For sure, I won’t go back!
What was it like battling with Senna in your Tyrrell at Phoenix in ’90? E Brent Hemsley via e-mail
It was really good. I made a great start from fifth on the grid, and I was in the lead on the first lap. After the first corner I thought, ‘I must complete the first lap in the lead for all my friends watching on the TV.’ That was all I was thinking about, but then I started to pull away. For those next few laps I really thought I could win the race, and suddenly I saw a red-and-white car coming towards me, and it was Ayrton. I decided I had to fight, but I was not going to block him or do anything bad. The circuit could have been designed to repass someone if they passed you, so I was quite confident, but from Ayrton’s side I don’t think he expected it. I had the chance to do it once, and I did it! After the race I apologised to him, because he was such a hero of mine.
How much fun did you have racing Jean Sage’s Ferrari F40 in IMSA? Ormond Grace, Oregon. USA
I enjoyed it very much. The car was very powerful but there was not so much grip. I was weaving on the straights, flat on the throttle. He was always asking me not to push too much, and I would say to him, ‘Jean, there is no way that I won’t drive 100 per cent!’ At Laguna Seca we finished third behind the two Audis and I led for two or three laps, but then I had no rear tyres left. It was a good time; great fun.
In 1991 you changed your mind and went to Ferrari instead of Williams. Do you have any regrets? Remi Paolozzi, Nort-sur-Erdre, France
A lot of people say it was the wrong decision, and it would be easy for me to say it wasn’t my fault. But the truth is that I had an agreement, not a contract, with Williams. When I pushed Frank to sign, he asked me to wait, maybe too long. I said to Ferrari if you can wait, then fine, otherwise I will give up. So Ferrari said they would find a solution to my contract issue to seek an agreement with Frank. And that is what happened, basically. I don’t want to say I made a mistake to go to Ferrari.
Is it true you rolled Jean Todt’s road car on the way to Florano for a test? Arie Kennis, Bergeyk, Holland
Yes, but the truth is that I was driving and had Gerhard Berger by my side and he pulled the handbrake! We went on the roof— rolled completely over. The car was really bad! When we got out, Gerhard got straight in the F1 car, because I was driving him to do the test. The mechanics were so fast to clean up the glass and hide the car behind Enzo Ferrari’s house. Then Jean Todt arrived and Gerhard said, ‘Do you know Jean had an accident in your car?’ So Jean came to me and said, ‘Gerhard said you had an accident, what happened?’ So I said, ‘No, I didn’t have an accident; we had an accident!’ Gerhard tried to push all the shit on me; it was so funny. We had good times.
Do you regret only working with Alain Prost at bad times, at Ferrari in 1991, and then driving for his team? Jim Malwyn, Southampton
When you have something that doesn’t work as you hoped, it’s always a problem. The sad thing is I lost a friend, because we are still not friends anymore. But that’s life. It’s a shame, certainly.
Apart from your ’95 Canadian GP win, have you ever cried in your helmet? And was this happiness or despair? Barrie Rowe, via e-mail
I did it again in DTM, for example, in my first race when I threw my helmet into the crowd. It’s my way to react; to show my emotion if I am happy or not. That is how I expressed myself at that time, and I’m very happy that I did that. When I was unhappy in the racecar, I would not cry— I would shout a lot!
From your two years at Benetton, which race do you think was the one you should have won? Giles Dunworth-Maunby, Taunton
In Monaco [in 1996] when it was wet, I was third when Michael Schumacher crashed on the first lap and then Damon Hill’s engine blew. I had nothing to do, basically — I just had to finish the laps. I was cruising when a rear damper broke, so the car was on three wheels. That was a real, real shame.
What was the worst trick that Nelson Piquet ever played on you? Martin Ford. Wolverhampton
With Nelson, I had a special situation. He was always using my room for his dates. At the beginning I didn’t really understand why he was always asking me for my key, I thought he just wanted to rest. One day I came into my room and found a girl sleeping in my bed! That’s when I realised what he had really been doing in my room — it certainly was not resting…
How much did Eddie Jordan make out of your career? Was he a good influence on you? Albrecht Goosens, via e-mail
I would say 95 per cent. When I was sacked by ORECA, Eddie gave me the chance to race in F3000. Without Eddie I would never have raced in F1. He’s still a good friend.
Do you really retire to the back of your Rolls-Royce Phantom II for a glass of wine and a cigar on occasion? Sharmila Kalvani, Twickenham
Yes, I love my Rolls-Royce. I need to find a chauffeur though because it’s not an easy car to drive. When I’m at home with friends, we have the car at the front of the house — it’s like having another room!