Modena's Latest Thoroughbred

If ever there was a racing driver who ought to be in F1 on the strength of his name, it is Stefano Modena. The 23-year old Italian even comes from the city with which he shares the name, not so far from the Ferrari factory at Maranello. He first came to my attention a couple of years back at Monaco, where he pulled a Formula Three overtaking manoeuvre into La Rascasse hairpin in such an audacious manner that it has stuck in my rnind ever since.

On August Bank Holiday Monday, at the wheel of Mick Earle’s Onyx Racing March Formula 3000 car, he ran out a convincing start-to-finish winner of the second Birmingham Superprix, the only street race in England.

This event had been enterprisingly staged for the first time in 1986, and the organisers were in no way put off when the race was swamped in the slipstream of Hurricane Charley and had to be flagged to a premature halt. This year the weather Gods played fair and more than made up for the lousy weather of 1986. Modena led from start to finish in wonderfully sunny conditions, in front of an encouragingly large crowd.

Organisationally, Birmingham was run in suitably slick fashion. After an early delay to the practice day schedule, when dozens of bolts were found to be missing from various sections of guard-rail all round the circuit, the proceedings ran smoothly and without fuss. The circuit remains bumpy and restricted in places, but it was the consensus of both Jackie Stewart and Nigel Mansell that it could be made into a perfectly good Grand Prix venue without too much difficulty.

The previous weekend’s Brands Hatch F3000 race had raised hopes for another home win in Birmingham. At Brands, Julian Bailey had driven superbly, leading from start to finish in his GA Motorsport Lola.

Unfortunately Bailey could not repeat his qualifying performance on the street track, qualifying mid-grid, so it was reigning British Formula Three champion Andy Wallace in a similar Lola entered by Madgwick Motorsport who held fastest time for much of the second session, only to be pipped by Mauricio Gugelmin’s Ralt-Honda which took pole on the very last lap.

Modena took second place in the line-up, by virtue of being fastest in the second group of cars (qualifying had to be divided into two groups to accommodate the 35 entries), demoting Wallace to the second row alongside Olivier Grouillard’s March 87B. Roberto Moreno’s Ralt-Honda was fourth in its group after failing to get a clear lap, sharing row four with Gabriele Tarquini’s March 87B, behind third row men Pierre-Henri Raphanel in a March and Michel Trollé in a Lola.

The Ralt-Hondas certainly looked strong, but their prospects were dealt a blow when Gugelmin crashed his race car during the Monday warm-up session and had to start in the team spare. Then Moreno was pushed off the grid when his car developed a fuel-pump problem and was obliged to start from the pit-lane after everybody else, once the Honda V6 was coaxed into life.

At the start Modena simply ran away from the opposition, lapping smoothly and methodically all the way to take a fully deserved victory. It was probably just as well that he did not have to battle too hard because he was grappling with a gearbox problem, losing the use of third gear just after half-distance.

Wallace held second place from the outset, battling hard to fend off the two Ralt-Hondas, initially Gulgelmin and later Moreno whose climb through the field was quite the most electrifying aspect of the race, Modena aside. Moreno eventually hauled through to a strong third place and began pressuring Wallace relentlessly all round the circuit.

Then, with only a few laps left to run, the Englishman was caught out by a combination of the pressure and his Lola’s fading brakes. He skittered straight on at one tricky right hand corner and slid to a halt in the escape road. By the time he had spin-turned back into the battle, Moreno, Gugelmin and 1986 Birmingham winner Luis Sala’s Lola had gone through, leaving Wallace to content himself with fifth place.

After the race, Moreno did not mince his words, describing Wallace’s weaving tactics while he was running in front of his Ralt-Honda as “not acceptable”, although Nigel Mansell, sharing the television commentary job, felt he was doing just fine. Either way, the two F3000 men were at loggerheads over this matter.

Meanwhile, Bailey had retired early with a broken throttle cable and the other leading Englishman Russell Spence was left to put on a good, if unobtrusive, performance to finish eighth in his March 87B climbing through from the back row of the grid following a troubled qualifying session.

Modena, meanwhile, calmly and simply explained how happy he was to have taken the lead in the F3000 Championship points table again as the first driver to win more than one race so far this season (he triumphed at Vallelunga earlier in the year), although he would not allow himself any false optimism about prospects for the remainder of the year.

His whole demeanour reflected a dogged singlemindedness and commitment which put me firmly in mind of Ayrton Senna. His team boss Mick Earle tells me that is no illusion. “He eats, breathes and sleeps motor racing,” said Earle, “to the point where he will sometimes come to the workshop and sit watching his car being prepared. He is unbelievably committed.” It certainly looks that way. AH