After a roller-coaster few years, Michele Alboreto’s Grand Prix career seemed set to stabalise with a promising new team. But as Adam Cooper heard, it almost finished his Formula One hopes.
In 1985, Michele Alboreto’s star was on the rise. The first Italian to drive for Ferrari for over a decade, he was on the podium eight times in the first 10 races, and fought with Alain Prost for the World Championship. Sadly, by the time he retired from Formula One nine years later, his reputation had been shattered. Years of driving uncompetitive cars had turned him from a potential world champion into an also-ran. But of all the less than competitive cars he turned out in, there is one in particular which really stands out…
Michele’s troubles began not in the season when he drove his bete noire but a good four years earlier when he left Ferrari to rejoin Tyrrell for 1989. A mid-season dispute with Uncle Ken saw him switch to Larousse, where he struggled with a recalcitrant Lola. The following year he made another bad move, joining a Footwork (aka Arrows) team hampered by an outdated Cosworth engine. In 1991 Footwork endured a disastrous association with Porsche, and despite switching back to Ford power, Michele failed to qualify seven times.
It seemed that Alboreto’s F1 career was over, but he held on to his job when the team switched to Mugen Honda power for 1992. In the middle of the season he enjoyed an incredible 12-race run which produced two fifths, two sixths, six sevenths, a ninth and just one gearbox-induced retirement.
Redeemed in the eyes of most observers as a steady veteran who could bring a car safely home, Michele thus had no trouble finding employment for 1993. He returned to Italy, attracted by the prospect of renewing his association with Maranello – albeit by proxy. His destination was Scuderia Italia, the strongest of the small continental teams which had sprung up during F1’s late ’80s boom.
Equipped with Dallara chassis, the team had been around for five years, earning respect by scoring a couple of third places. In 1992 owner Beppe Lucchini had done the impossible and attracted an unprecedented supply of customer Ferrari V12s. The package wasn’t very successful, but, undaunted, Beppe had big plans for ’93.
The sky was the limit after he landed the team’s first big sponsor in Chesterfield, a Philip Morris brand last seen at Surtees way back in 1976. He gained prestige by hiring an ex-Ferrari works driver in Alboreto, backing him up with the promising new F3000 champion, Luca Badoer. And he decided to abandon longtime chassis supplier Dallara and embrace British technology by joining forces with Lola, left in the lurch after a split with Larrousse. Despite a lack of active suspension and other trendy gizmos, the ingredients all seemed to be in place.
In its outrageous new livery, the Lola-Ferrari T93/30 certainly looked the business. Then Alboreto gave it a shakedown run.
“When the car was stopped in the pitroad, it looked fantastic!,” Michele recalls. “But the first time drove it I thought someone was playing a joke on me. I tried the car in Estoril, and after three or four laps I stopped and went into the garage. I said, ‘We have just got enough time to have a new car ready the middle of the season if we start today, because this one will never work!’ But unfortunately the budget was not good enough to think about a new car…” Alboreto knew the season was wasted before had even begun.
“In the beginning the intention was to have a good project, but in the end it was just an F3000 adapted to an F1 engine. That made me so the first time I saw the can It was big, heavy, no downforce – absolutely no downforce at all. I think it was the only Fl car of the modem era which worked on gravity, not aerodynamics! It was terrible just having to try and qualify the thing.”
With the entry list slimmed to 26, the maximum number of starters, that didn’t seem to be a problem, and Alboreto and Badoer had the back row to themselves at the Kyalami opener. Unfortunately for the team, the FIA brought in a new rule to keep standards up – the field would be restricted to 25, so there would always be one non-starter.
After scraping in and actually finishing in Brazil (second last ahead of Badoer) and Donington (last, six laps down), Michele failed to make the cut at Imola, Barcelona, Montreal, Magny-Cours and Silverstone. In between he somehow hauled the thing into the field in Monaco, only for the gearbox to break. Rising star Badoer missed out only at Donington and Monaco; perhaps because he didn’t know any better, he usually seemed to find more in the car than his disillusioned 37-year-old team-mate.
After Silverstone the FIA relented, and henceforth everyone could start after all. Michele finished at Hockenheim (16th, with no clutch) and Spa (14th), and squeezing every last bhp out of the V12, even managed to qualify a creditable 21st at Monza. In the race his suspension broke…
The Chesterfield people were not too impressed by the fiasco, and after Estoril, it was all over. The beleaguered team imploded, and decided not to bother with Suzuka and Adelaide. “It was a really bad season for me, but that happens sometimes. I never lost the confidence in myself. I knew that in this type of job if you don’t have the right car, there’s nothing you can do. You can be Schumacher, but need the car to be successful, and you have to build the team together. And when the team doesn’t believe what you say, there’s nothing you can do.”
For Badoer, then touted as the best Italian talent in years, there was to be no reprieve. He later had spells at Minardi and Forti he’s now Ferrari’s test driver – but he long ago lost any upward momentum he had.
“He was very, very good,” says Michele, “but he didn’t have a chance to show what he could do. It was sad because for me it was the end of my career, everybody knew who I was, I had already won races. Back in a competitive car, like at Le Mans last year,I can still show what I can do. But for him it was very sad because basically it decided his career.”
What was left of Scuderia Italia merged with Minardi, and Alboreto signed up for 1994. Against all the odds, the new car wasn’t disgraced. At Monaco he qualified 12th and finished sixth, and elsewhere he was often in the midfield.
“We were in a good position during the season, but unfortunately it was the sad season of 1994, when we had the bad accidents. I remember my sixth position in Monte Carlo with most pleasure – it was my last point in F1. And also my third place during the free practice in the morning in Brazil, and the fourth time in the warm-up with a Minardi! It was not bad.”
At the end of a tragic year, Alboreto decided to retire from F1, happy in the knowledge that his career did not finish with the Lola-Ferrari. But if Michele ever wants to relive that awful ’93 season, he can read the book; some poor fellow had the unfortunate idea of using the T93/30 for an in-depth study on the design and development of a modem F1 car…