Only four Indianapolis 500 rookies in 100 years have started from pole: Teo Fabi in 1983 is one. Prematurely balding and softly spoken, his puppy-ish face often apparently bemused, occasionally morose, he was a beautifully smooth operator at 200mph-plus.
“Everyone was afraid that I would make a mistake at the start,” he says. “So I decided that it wouldn’t matter if I got on the throttle before the green flag. I had such a big lead at the end of the first lap that I was thinking that maybe there had been an accident.”
The little man from Milan pulled away at four-tenths per lap until his first fuel stop. His inexperienced crew cost him some time and positions, but he had planned to back off in any case to conserve his equipment. Fourth at his second stop, he was still blissfully confident so easy did it feel. At which point a gasket in the refuelling system blew: “My thinking then was, ‘Okay, I’ll win it next year.’ I was quite wrong of course. My disappointment is stronger now.”
Only one F1 driver has secured three poles yet failed to lead a lap of a Grand Prix: Fabi. In 1986, in the most powerful GP car, Benetton’s B186-BMW, he recorded laps of 159 and 154.3mph for back-to-back races at the old, flowing Österreichring and Monza. In Austria, his engine let go yards after taking the lead from team-mate Gerhard Berger. In Italy, his engine stalled on the formation lap and he had to start from the back. He set fastest lap before leaving the road because of a blow-out.
He had the speed, particularly at the ballsy tracks, but not always the luck.
“Austria was my biggest mistake,” he admits. “That was the race to win. But I missed a gear and over-revved the engine a couple of laps before passing Gerhard. I hit a bump as I was changing gear exiting the first chicane. Even now I think, ‘How is this possible?’ I still feel that I owe Pat an apology.”
Symonds that is, his engineer for four seasons at Toleman/Benetton: “Teo liked to drive with a lot of precision, which pays off in the quicker corners. He could find more time than anyone else by scrubbing off less speed. But he needed unbroken concentration to do it. That was his downfall. If there was traffic, he lost speed. He wasn’t the all-rounder that Gerhard was.”
Fabi contested 64 GPs from 1982-87. He qualified inside the top 10 for half of those, yet scored just 23 points and two podiums: thirds, in Detroit ’84 and Austria ’87. His machinery was not kind to him: no finishes in ’82, just four in ’84, one in ’85, and five in ’86 and ’87. Of those myriad retirements only six were due to spins, incidents and accidents.
Symonds: “Teo deserved better. He should have had a win or two. He was at that level. His results in America are a more accurate reflection of his talent. And he should have won more races there too.”
March boss Robin Herd guided Fabi through the Can-Am and Indycar campaigns that twice resurrected his career in the early 1980s: “Teo was as quick as anybody on a qualifying lap: Stewart, Peterson, Andretti, the lot. A fantastic competitive skier, he brought that balance and co-ordination to his racing. The one thing that he had difficulty with was driving a bad car. Luckily he tended to land in our good ones. He’s very significant in March’s history.”
This most important relationship of Fabi’s career began in F3 in 1978 when he won three European races at a time when Ralt’s RT1 was tops. He graduated to F2 but struggled as March’s “number 10 driver”. Promoted to number one for 1980, he won twice at Hockenheim and at the 14-mile Nürburgring, but was out-scored by the Tolemans of Brian Henton and Derek Warwick. Three engine failures when second didn’t help. Still, F1 with John Macdonald’s March team beckoned.
“I visited the factory in Bicester, and there was my car — with Derek Daly’s name on it,” he says. “I realised that my GP career might be over before it had started. Robin was not in England, so I waited. My girlfriend — who is now my wife — stayed too, supporting me through the two worst days of my racing life.”
Fabi, an aeronautical engineering graduate, was then 25. Twice he had skied World Championship slaloms for Brazil — thanks to his mother’s nationality. He was a European karting champion in 1975 — alongside younger brother Corrado — the Italian Formula Ford 2000 champion of ’77 and the ’78 and ’79 Formula Pacific champion. Thus America had never heard of him when a contrite Herd persuaded Paul Newman’s nascent Can-Am outfit to hire him for 1981.
“And we just loved him,” says Barry Green, the Australian ex-Chevron driver managing the team. “He couldn’t talk much English when he arrived, but he did what he was told, never got out of the car unless he had to, and helped us to develop it. He had a fantastic year.”
Seven poles, five fastest laps, four wins, Fabi was quickest — but unlucky. A mechanical failure flipped him into the trees at Elkhart Lake, and although he put team-mate Al Unser Sr’s car on pole — despite being battered, bruised, black-eyed and temporarily blinded — politics dictated that the all-American hero take the start. At Riverside, a wheel fell off after an unnecessary stop. Hence more consistent Geoff Brabham won the title in a Lola.
Fabi: “I don’t think that being faster than Al was important. He just had a few weekends to fill and never had a good feeling with the car. He wasn’t as hungry as I was.”
Five-foot-five Fabi was ski-racer tough. Days before the second Mosport round he was diagnosed with appendicitis: op Wednesday, pole Saturday, win Sunday.
Herd: “He shrugged it all off. Typical Teo. Inner steel. He didn’t need a kiss and a cuddle like some. Very determined, totally straight to deal with, he drove as well that season as any driver I’ve ever worked with. F1 with Toleman in ’82 must have come as a shock.”
That team was built around Warwick. Its ‘General Belgrano’ TG181C was hopeless, with no development forthcoming because its replacement for 1983 was the priority. Fabi’s confidence was shot, his stock rock-bottom… Let’s just call it the Herd Instinct.
Johnny Rutherford had been slated to drive for the Forsythe brothers’ start-up Indycar team until he made a late swerve to Pat Patrick’s Wildcats. March’s ‘works team’ thus consisted of Green’s defunct Can-Am set-up, Herd, engineering when he wasn’t at F1 — and Fabi.
“Everyone was very motivated,” says Fabi. “I’d just had a terrible season in F1. And Barry had had a bad year in Can-Am.” And March, almost bankrupt at the start of 1981, wanted to push on from its American beachhead. Yet nobody gave this rookie team, with its rookie driver, a hope — until they ran third at the Atlanta opener. Indy was next.
“There is all this history and procedure to go through,” says Fabi. “An old driver takes you round and makes you watch. Sitting in the grandstand, the speed, the closeness of the walls, looked crazy to me. So my impression was distorted when I finally got in the car.”
Herd: “He’s not the first driver to have this happen. He found day one difficult and was all for jacking it in. I told him to sleep on it. The next day he just flew.” And would break every qualifying record.
The ‘inevitable’ win — the first for a European since Graham Hill’s 1966 Indy success — didn’t arrive until Pocono in August, by which time Penske’s Unser Sr held a commanding points lead. Second at Riverside, first at Mid Ohio, third at Michigan, Fabi needed to win the final two rounds — Laguna and Phoenix — from pole to stand a chance.
Herd: “He achieved it all. His pole at Phoenix was by half a second — on a 25-second lap. Phenomenal. Mario Andretti got slightly the better start but Teo overtook him on the outside of Turn 1. Wow! As stunning a pass as I have ever seen.”
‘Big Al’ clung on, but Fabi, with four wins to his rival’s one, ended as the moral champion. He had already re-signed with Forsythe when Bernie Ecclestone called. Such was Teo’s reinvigorated clout, however, and so compelling is F1 to an Italian, that all sides agreed to a compromise: Teo would take the wheel for Brabham when his Indycar commitments allowed, and Corrado would take over when they didn’t.
Green: “Teo was a young man who thought that he could win everything. That’s why we signed him, so I can’t complain. It was a shame, though, because we were on a roll. We’d had a brilliant year, and yet so many more things could have gone better. We had the right people; we just needed more time to gel.
“Teo was a brilliant development driver. I’d choose Jacques Villeneuve as my number one in that respect, but after that it would be a toss-up between Teo and Dario Franchitti. He could have been a little more aggressive as a racer. Having said that, his plan was always to make his car faster than everyone else’s.”
Fabi soon realised that he had bitten off more than he could chew in 1984 and by July had decided to concentrate on F1: “When you have such an opportunity, it’s impossible to say no. But flying every week, driving a different car every week, is difficult physically and mentally.
“Brabham was like a family team. Nelson Piquet was world champion and its number one, no doubt, but I felt part of it. Maybe I didn’t have the best qualifying engines, but in the races I had the same treatment. The car [BT53], though, was difficult to set up and to drive. Its chassis wasn’t stiff enough because its BMW engine was tall and difficult to package, so I was never able to drive at the limit. The ’86 Benetton was the same: flexing at the rear, impossible to find a consistent set-up.”
A third, fourth and fifth were insufficient to keep the drive, and he re-signed with Toleman, soon to become Benetton. It missed the first three races of 1985 while it rebuilt its bridges with Pirelli, but at least Rory Byrne’s step-floor TG185 was right up Fabi’s alley, even if its Hart turbo engine was not. A wet Saturday at the Nürburgring saw him retain a surprise provisional pole from Friday. Not that he knew.
Symonds: “It was raining and he lost it exiting the last corner. He hit the barrier and head-butted the steering wheel. Then we had a surreal conversation inside the motorhome: ‘You do know that you are on pole?’ He thought I was winding him up; I thought he was winding me up. For five minutes he genuinely lost his memory.
“Teo was more confident by this time. When he rejoined us he knew he could do it. We didn’t have a lot of data acquisition in those days and drivers tended to tell you more than they knew. Teo didn’t. He told you what he felt, not why something was happening and what you should do about it. Much better. But although our 1985 car was very good, its reliability was appalling.” At the ‘Ring, its clutch failed on lap 28. Fabi was sixth at the time.
“It was the same in 1987,” he says. “Rory’s chassis was the best, for sure able to win many races, but its [Cosworth GBA V6] engine was unreliable and down on power.”
That final season of F1 was ultimately disappointing — 12 points in the slender B187 — and concluded with an out-of-character spat at Adelaide: “At Estoril I was fighting Piquet for third when [team-mate Thierry] Boutsen blocked me as I tried to lap him. Peter Collins, our team manager, chose not to give an order. The situation in Adelaide was the same except that I was about to be lapped. This time he gave an order. But because I was already out of the team, I decided to get even.
“I had outqualified Boutsen at the start of the season. But in the middle of the year we had bad flooding in Italy and my family’s company was nearly destroyed. I had a few nights without sleep and my performances suffered.”
Indycar, in the form of three seasons with Porsche’s programme, provided him with solace rather than salvation on this occasion. Stuttgart’s chassis had been dumped in favour of a March, but its engine still lacked torque. By the second half of 1989, however, the tailor-made 89P wrapped tightly around him, Fabi was CART’s form man after Indy, winning from pole at Mid-Ohio and finishing fourth in the points.
“We were on an upward curve and I was feeling good,he says. “Everyone was expecting us to win in 1990. March designed the first carbon-fibre Indycar for us. It passed the safety tests, but the other team owners got the rule changed — in December, no carbon monocoques. March added a skin of aluminium, and when a car is 70kg over the limit it can’t be competitive.”
A disgruntled Porsche called time after a very disappointing campaign — third at Meadowlands, pole at Denver — in which Fabi was outscored by team-mate John Andretti. He’d be back, but not before an unexpected upswing elsewhere.
A surprise selection by a TWR Jaguar team centred on Warwick, Fabi qualified well — three poles — impressed with his feedback and ended by winning the 1991 World Sportscar Championship. Warwick was victorious on three occasions to Teo’s once but was denied the points for the victory that they shared at Silverstone because he had swapped from his original XJR14 after a broken throttle cable delayed co-driver Martin Brundle.
“That Jaguar was fantastic: 750bhp, 750kg, lots of downforce. And the team was very well organised,” says Fabi. “I think that [boss] Tom Walkinshaw wanted Derek to win, but Derek had the tragedy of his brother’s death that season and for a few races, understandably, he was not 100 per cent.”
Fabi also finished third at Le Mans alongside Kenny Acheson and Bob Wollek in an XJR12. He disliked the event, however, even though — or perhaps because — it provided his only ride of 1992: eighth with TOM’S Toyota. The following year he finished runner-up, one lap behind his Peugeot team-mates.
Approaching 40, he knew that there could be no more slingshot returns to Europe, but Indycar’s pull remained strong. Two seasons with Jim Hall’s team from 1993, in Chevy/Ilmor-powered Lolas and Reynards, brought a clutch of fourths and ninth overall in ’94. He joined the Forsythe stump of its split with Green in ’95 and, again engineered by Herd, set pole at Milwaukee and was unlucky not to win at Cleveland; his Reynard-Cosworth emerged from the last round of scheduled stops with a four-second lead, only for a header to break almost immediately.
Replaced by the emerging Greg Moore, bar three races in 1996 as a substitute at PacWest for the injured Mark Blundell, that was that. “It was time to stop because it was no longer possible to race with the top teams,” says Fabi. “One day you have to start a new life. But I miss racing even now.”
He’s wistful, not bitter, his assessment of his talent disarmingly honest: “I was a natural skier; I had to work a lot harder to get results in cars. I needed the perfect set-up to be fast. My approach stemmed maybe too much from skiing: looking too much to the lap time and not so much on preparation for the race.”
Herd is more effusive: “He could have been a regular winner in F1. More than 20 GP winners drove Marches, so I have a feel for those who could do it. But Teo didn’t have the will to impose himself on a team like a Stewart or a Lauda. When everything was right, though, he was sensational.”