A racer and a gentleman

Michele Alboreto loved his job. That's why he pounded on in F1 cars that could never do him justice, led him to sportscars and eventually a tragic death. David Malsher recalls his hero

Michele Alboreto of Ferrari rounds the first turn at Spa-Francorchamps Belgium 1986

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Wednesday April 25, 2001, had been a bad day at the office, and I drove home with Springsteen blaring out. Upon arrival, the phone was taken off its hook, the TV turned off and, for 10 hours, I was deaf to the world.

It was while travelling south on the M1 the following morning that I heard the news. At 06.00. Just as I approached Junction 15.

“Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo has paid tribute to the ex-F1 driver Michele Alboreto, who was killed yesterday testing a sportscar in Germany. He said: ‘Michele was an important driver in the history of Ferrari…” I forget the rest. My mind was uncomprehending.

By the time I’d reached the services eight miles on, it was comprehending. Radio off, I pulled in, in tears. I lit a cigarette and sat for 15 minutes listening to the cars rushing past.

Don’t tell me Michele wasn’t the greatest driver of his generation. I know that. But don’t tell me either that he didn’t have his days of greatness. May 19, 1985, was a ‘good day at the office’.

It was Alboreto’s second season at Ferrari, and he was confident. The opening rounds had proved the new 156/85 to be a big improvement on its predecessor. At Rio, the season-opener, he had taken pole position and finished second to Alain Prost’s McLaren. At a soaking Estoril, he was the only driver unlapped by a dominant Ayrton Senna. At Imola, he retired after setting fastest lap. Then came Monaco.

Having qualified third, he pulled a stunning fishtailing pass on Nigel Mansell’s Williams into Ste Devote at the start of the fourth lap, and was pressuring Senna on lap 13 when Ayrton’s Renault V6 blew. Alboreto was now pulling away, in the lead — and was, therefore, the first to discover an oil slick at Ste Devote five laps later. He shot up the escape road, kept the engine alive and turned round, but saw Prost slip past. Then he just went for it.

Tyrrell driver Michele Alboreto is congratulated by Diana Ross after winning the 1981 Las Vegas GP

Alboreto is crowned by Diana Ross after taking his debut Grand Prix win Caesars Palace Las Vegas in 1982

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On lap 23, Michele caught and passed the Frenchman’s McLaren, and again appeared to have the race in his pocket. But once again fate intervened. A left-rear flat just a few laps later forced him to slither into the pits. He dropped to fourth. He had it all to do again.

The Ferrari rocketed back out and began a series of mesmerising laps, a constant qually run. Time after time he grazed the Armco at the Swimming Pool; even the still photographs make you wince. Past Andrea de Cesaris‘ Ligier into third. Past the Lotus of Elio de Angelis for second. Only Prost to go…

He ran out of time. Despite recording a fastest lap more than 1sec quicker than anybody else’s, despite pulling off more passing moves than anyone else at this tightest of tracks, he finished 7sec short.

In Canada a month later, he led a Ferrari 1-2. And though team-mate Stefan Johansson believes he could have won had not team orders been imposed, there was not a ripple of animosity between them. Nor was there at the ‘Ring when `Albo’ burst his team-mate’s tyre in a first-corner collision. Stefan was stoical, Michele apologetic — and victorious.

He now led the championship by five points from Prost. But Ferrari’s fortunes plummeted thereafter. In the remaining seven races, a distant third, distant fourth and five consecutive DNFs were Michele’s lot. Johansson fared no better: “I think they had changed turbos earlier in the season, and the engine just got worse and worse. We had one of the quickest cars at the start of the year, the other teams caught up, we tried to find more power, and then the reliability went. By the end of the season we had neither.”

Alboreto had scored his final GP win, just five years into his F1 career. Ken Tyrrell had brought Michele into F1 in 1981, and the 23-year old Milanese repaid his faith by scoring the team’s last two wins: in Las Vegas ’82 and Detroit ’83. He repaid Ken in another way too: before leaving for Ferrari in ’84, he travelled to his factory in Ockham to deliver every member of the team a farewell gift.

Michele Alboreto sits in his Tyrrell in 1981 Italian GP

Alboreto eyes the times before heading out at the 1981 Italian GP

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You might expect such generous spirit to be quelled by the pressures of being an Italian at Ferrari, the first for over a decade. He alleviated a little of that pressure by turning in a dominant pole-to-chequer run at Zolder. But in a year otherwise red-and-whitewashed by McLaren’s Prost and Niki Lauda, Ferrari could easily have descended into chaos, with bitter recrimination between its team-mates…

It was never an issue, confirms Rene Arnoux, Alboreto’s partner that year: “Michele was a fantastic guy, and the atmosphere in the team between myself, Michele and Enzo was very good. It was not a good year for Ferrari but we all worked hard as a team. Whenever he was quicker than me, it was not a problem. And when he got good results, I would say, ‘Congratulations, I am very happy for you’. It’s very easy for there to be war between teammates, but with Michele and me it was impossible. He was a perfect man. It was the best relationship I ever had with a team partner.”

The Johansson-Alboreto combo was strong too, but on the back of that disastrous end to 1985 they were dismayed to discover the prospects for ’86 were hardly rosier: “When we were first shown the F186, Michele and I looked at each other, F***, this is going to be a long, long season’.” It was.

“F***, this is going to be a long, long season.” It was

Their misgivings over the scarlet humpback were borne out; it never looked remotely like winning a race, and in these circumstances Stefan, though still slower than Alboreto in qualifying, frequently raced harder for longer. The backroom politics were finally getting to Michele, and the fact that he was an apostle of Harvey Postlethwaite would soon put him out of step with Ferrari’s management: HP was being edged out for John Barnard, and Gerhard Berger would replace Johansson for ’87. Initially, Michele rose to that challenge, but just past midseason the Berger-Barnard axis gained preeminence, and during the remaining 18 months of his spell at Ferrari, Michele gradually fell off Gerhard’s pace. When it was announced that Nigel Mansell was arriving, we all knew who it was heading for the exit.

But Michele didn’t care. For one, he knew that, fully motivated, he was the equal of Berger. And for another, he reckoned he had a Williams deal in the bag. Having come close to replacing Nelson Piquet in Frank’s squad for 1988 — he’d re-signed with Ferrari mere days before it was announced that both the Brazilian and Honda were leaving for Lotus — all seemed in place for Frank and Michele to get their acts together for ’89. By the time of the Italian Grand Prix, though, the deal was off. For once Michele was livid.

Michele Alboreto splashes through the wet pitlane in Phoenix at the US Grand Prix

Alboreto found himself all at sea in the uncompetitive Footwork Arrows car, pictured here in 1990

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One man who’d never lost faith in him was Tyrrell, and initially the 1989 reunification worked. The 018 flattered its down-on-power Cosworth, and a fifth in Monaco and a third place in Mexico — beaten only by a McLaren and a Williams — suggested Tyrrell was in the ascendancy. It was, but it would not be taking Michele with it. In his quest to gain some backing for his cash-strapped team, Ken did a deal with Camel cigarettes; Michele was a long-term Marlboro driver. He felt compelled to leave mid-season and washed up at (Camel-backed) Larrousse! That’s never been satisfactorily explained.

But what he really needed was a psychological jump-start. Arrows provided one, but only after committing him to two years, 1990 and ’91, in the doldrums. The second of these started off with the ball-and-chain that was the disastrous V12 Porsche engine. There was, though, some hope on the horizon: Mugen’s Honda V10 of ’92. It wasn’t the last word in lightness or hi-tech, but it was reasonably powerful, reliable and, in Michele’s hands, did well in the back of Alan Jenkins’ FA13.

“I couldn’t believe how much pleasure he got just from driving. Even that car!” Luca Badoer

Says Jenkins: “That car was heavy and large, and its centre of gravity was too high, but it ran like a train, and we got some points — and six seventh places. Whenever we met in the subsequent years, Michele and I would talk about just missing out on those points finishes. We were so fed up about it.”

Such a revival season should have given Alboreto a guaranteed berth at Arrows for 1993, but a dispute with boss Jackie Oliver saw him leave.

“That was a pity,” sighs Jenkins. “Michele was the perfect gent, so polite. Even when one of our guys mounted his gear selector back to front, rather than make a big deal of it he just took me to one side and mentioned it. I said, ‘Oh shit, sorry about that’, and he replied, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve figured it out’, and drove off and carried on testing.”

Michele Alboreto in his Scuderia Italia at the 1993 German GP

Results went further downhill with the 1993 Scuderia Italia

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Alboreto needed similar patience in 1993 at Scuderia Italia. The team had joined forces with Lola and not even Ferrari V12s could help them. The T93/00 was an unmitigated disaster. Alongside reigning F3000 champion Luca Badoer, Michele showed well, but if it hadn’t been for the embarrassing ‘flame’ livery, the pair would have blended into the scenery. For Badoer, the only upside to a dismal season was partnering Alboreto. He speaks fondly of a team-mate 15 years his senior: “We spent a lot of time together: testing, practice, driving to and from hotels. I was only 22 and Michele was like a father to me. On track we would fight each other — there was no-one else to fight with the speeds we were going — but off track we were friends. It was a little strange, though, because back in the 1980s Alboreto was a famous name on TV in Italy, but now here he was, my F1 team-mate. I wasn’t surprised at how quick he still was, but I couldn’t believe how much pleasure he got just from driving. Even that car!”

The team dissolved before the season finished and most predicted this would be the end of Michele’s F1 career. Not so. He even tested for Benetton in the off-season as a potential candidate to be Michael Schumacher‘s number two. But in reality, his time in a top-line seat was gone. On the grid at Brazil in 1994, he was in a Minardi.

In his 14th F1 season, Alboreto had fewer reserves than most to rise above the calamities of that year. At Imola, one of his rear wheels broke free in the pitlane and injured some Ferrari and Lotus mechanics. A few days after that, Michele was attending the funeral of Senna, a man he had (unusually) despised when they’d been rivals for victory, but who, as Alboreto slipped down the grid over the years, had become a friend. And a few days after that, Michele scored his final F1 point: sixth at Monaco. Long before the season’s end, he decided to quit F1. The fun had gone, so had the desire. His 194th grand prix was his last.

A dreadful year in International Touring Cars followed, and then a brief spell in the inaugural season of the Indy Racing League aroused his curiosity. But what he really wanted to do was sportscars, and Reinhold Joest made that possible. In 1997, Michele took pole for the Le Mans 24 Hours and, with Tom Kristensen and that man Johansson again, went on to win.

“It was very satisfying,” says Johansson. “It felt like Michele and I had closed our circle of friendship. Twelve years on, and we were team-mates again, and had won together.”

Michele Alboreto celebrates on 1997 Le Mans podium with Porsche team mates Stefan Johansson and Tom Kristensen

Alboreto (far right) tasted victory at Le Mans ’97 with with Kristensen (second left) and Johansson in the Porsche LMP

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It also led to Alboreto’s relationship with Audi — who had employed Joest to run its factory team — and a friendship with compatriot and team-mate Rinaldo Capello: “You would never have known Michele had been a GP winner. He didn’t act like a superstar; he was so open and so friendly. And still quick.

“But because he was not doing the full American Le Mans Series, he was driving in the dark much less than the rest of us. Once he realised he had lost a bit of pace at night, he used to ask for an extra stint in the daylight and one less stint in the dark, so the car did not lose time. He didn’t have a big ego.

“I remember so clearly our last win together, the Sebring 12 Hours in 2001. He was so incredibly happy on the podium, like an 18-year-old scoring his very first victory. That is the picture I will always remember.”

“He never talked about retirement. He loved his job” Rinaldo Capello

It was a picture that flashed back to him with dreadful poignancy a little over a month later.

“I was on my way to join Michele at Lausitz that day. I was waiting at the luggage carousel when there was an announcement, ‘Mr Capello, please go to the information desk’. A few seconds later my wife called me and said, ‘I think Michele has had a crash. It’s on the news’.

“I tried his mobile number, then I called the doctor over at the track, and he told me what had happened. He said, ‘Please do not come to the track, go straight to the hotel’. I just couldn’t believe it. But then I got a call from Michele’s wife, Nadia, who asked if I could bring all his stuff home…” Suddenly, it sank in.

Michele Alboreto on his way to victory at 1997 Le Mans in his Porsche LMP1

Alboreto continued to pursue his love of racing throughout his life

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“We had become very close. Our wives were very good friends, too. But in all the times that we’d spent together, Michele had never once talked about retirement. All those years in motorsport, all those races — and still he loved his job.”

It would seem we can be sure that as Michele fired the beautiful Audi out of the pits for the last time, he did so with concentration, satisfaction and exhilaration. Just like he always had. That is some comfort to me. I hope it is to you.

Upon finally reaching work, I was confronted by a grimfaced editor. “Heard about Alboreto?” he asked.

“Yeah, this morning. How did it happen?”

“They say he got a puncture, car sat down on one corner, air got underneath and flipped it. He was doing about 200mph…”

The next few hours were spent answering e-mails from colleagues who knew what Michele had meant to me since watching that amazing drive of his in Monte Carlo in 1985 — I was an impressionable pre-teen at the time.

In the final scene of Rob Reiner’s beautiful film Stand By Me, Richard Dreyfus is seen typing: I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?

The same is true of heroes.