As I drive, each July, from Frankfurt airport to Hockenheim, it is my invariable practice to pull off into the rest area by the Langen-Morfelden crossing on the autobahn towards Darmstadt. At the far end is a tasteful memorial to Bernd Rosemeyer, marking the spot where the great Auto Union driver died, in January 1938, while trying to beat the Class C speed record just set by Rudolf Caracciola’s Mercedes. When the car went out of control, disturbed by crosswinds, it was travelling at around 270mph.
As a kid I read about Rosemeyer, and he became a hero to me. The Gilles Villeneuve of his era, he was ferociously fast in the risky rear-engined cars, and did it with high good humour. “Rosemeyer,” Raymond Mays once said to me, “was the most dashing racing driver there has ever been.”
The more I read, the angrier I became that he had died in such a futile way. Such as Rosemeyer and Caracciola were grand prix drivers, who strutted their magnificent stuff at circuits like Berne and the Nürburgring. Who cared about driving in a straight line on a two-lane autobahn?
Well, Adolf Hitler, for one. The Nazi Party, which helped fund both Mercedes and Auto Union, was preoccupied with prestige, and in the addled minds of some these Class C records were important. Therefore the two companies bent the knee. Less clear was why they had to risk the lives of their finest drivers in such a meaningless endeavour.
I’ll admit to having similar thoughts in April 2001 when I learned of the death of Michele Alboreto. After a long and very distinguished career, Alboreto died at the Lausitzring when his Audi R8 sports car suffered a tyre failure and vaulted a barrier. Alboreto, 44 years old, was killed instantly. At the time of the accident he had simply been conducting straightline tests, in preparation for Le Mans, a few weeks away.
Alboreto liked to win, of course, but his passion was for driving – for pleasure and success, not money
There was tremendous grief at Alboreto’s passing. A day or two later the Formula 1 community gathered at Barcelona for the Spanish GP, and in the paddock a great many folk were deeply saddened. Alboreto had been out of F1 for some years by then, but everyone remembered what a lovely fellow he had been. “Outside of the guys I actually worked with,” said Keke Rosberg, “there were two guys I thought exceptional, in every sense of the word. One was Elio (de Angelis) and the other was Michele. When I heard about his accident, it was like ripping open an old wound.”
Riccardo Patrese many times tried to persuade Alboreto to retire: “He had a thousand other things in his life, and he certainly didn’t need the money. But racing was something Michele just couldn’t do without…”
“He had a complete passion for driving,” said Gerhard Berger, his team mate for two seasons. “When I arrived at Ferrari, in 1987, he was the superstar, and I’m sure I didn’t make his life easy. But Michele was always a gentleman and we never had any problems. When we separated as team mates, we remained good friends. Maybe he should have stopped racing years ago, but he just couldn’t leave it. He died doing what he loved.”
Everyone said, and thought, the same thing. For Alboreto motor racing amounted to an addiction: unlike some of his generation, he was far removed from the make-your-money-and-get-out mentality.
While you wouldn’t quite put Michele in the category of ‘great’, on a given day he was capable of greatness, of that there’s no doubt. One such was the 1985 Monaco GP: after 18 laps he took a trip into the escape road at Ste Devote, which handed the lead to Alain Prost. Within seven laps he had caught – and passed! – the McLaren, but not long afterwards was into the pits with a deflating rear tyre. Rejoining fifth, Alboreto then drove on the limit to the flag, setting new lap records, and in the end he was second to Prost, after a quite sensational drive.
Through that season, in fact, Alboreto was Prost’s only real challenger for the World Championship. In the end he had to settle for runner-up, because the Ferrari wasn’t as good as the McLaren – and also, truth be told, because neither was Michele as good as Alain. No disgrace in that.
Once Alboreto was out of Ferrari, it was obvious that in F1 terms his career could only go downhill, and in those circumstances many drivers would have called it a day, or raced in some other category, pride intact.
Although a proud man, Michele would never have bought into that. He still loved driving, and he really wasn’t that concerned about what people thought. In 1994, his final season in F1, for example, he drove for Minardi, and if some thought that sad, well, that was their problem.
For a while Alboreto tried a bit of this and a bit of that – he competed in the first season of the IRL, for example. But then came what seemed like a whole new career, driving for Audi at Le Mans and elsewhere.
At the Goodwood Festival of Speed he drove an Auto Union, and really entered into the spirit of the thing, right down to wearing ‘period’ overalls and cloth helmet. “Look at me,” he said. “Like Nuvolari!”
One of the reasons I liked Michele so much was that he was the kind of racing driver who would know all about Nuvolari. He may have won five grands prix for Ferrari, but he was still a man who had heroes, and didn’t mind admitting it. In his young years he worshipped Ronnie Peterson, and adopted Peterson’s helmet colours of blue and yellow.
Alboreto also idolised Mario Andretti, whom he recognised as a kindred soul – a man who would race anything, anywhere, any time, and a man who retired, well into his 50s, only with the greatest reluctance.
“For me, Mario was the perfect racing driver,” he said. “I understand completely why he was the way he was. For some drivers, it’s F1 or nothing, but he wasn’t like that, and neither am I. In F1 I drove for Ferrari – and not long after I was driving for Minardi! I don’t look just for the glamour, or to be at the top. I like to win, of course, but I have a passion for driving – I drive for pleasure and success, not for money.”
And was the pleasure in driving as much as ever? “Unfortunately, yes!”
But were there gaps that once he would have gone through, and now backed off? “Unfortunately…no!” Alboreto was smiling as he answered, as if aware that, into his 40s, he should be a little more circumspect.
“I have less passion for women now than for cars! Old age, you see…”
He couldn’t help himself. Retirement was not even in his mind.
“That will come,” he said, “when I wake up in the morning and have to force myself to go to the track, when I feel I’m not as good as the other guys in the team. Under those circumstances, I wouldn’t want to be there.” Sadly, that day never came.