Not shy - or retiring

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Emanuele Pirro loves being the showman and he loves his racing – which is why his ‘early retirement’ from sports cars didn’t last long…

On the back of the handmade Italian helmet is a red heart, above it a Christian cross. Below are the words ‘Fosti con me nel pericolo e nella vittoria’ (You will be with me in danger and victory). They are evocative words, forever associated with one of Italy’s greatest racing heroes. “When I was a kid I saw this book about Tazio Nuvolari and I was fascinated,” says the man who owns the helmet. “From that moment I was sure I wanted to be a racing driver.”

The man is Emanuele Pirro, former Grand Prix driver and five-times winner of the Le Mans 24 Hours, the first man – along with Frank Biela and Tom Kristensen – to win the French classic in a diesel car. This is a man with a huge heart, a racer with a burning passion for the sport.

At the end of 2008 Pirro said what nobody wanted to hear. He was retiring from top-line racing to be an ambassador for Audi. But nobody believed him. Much as he loves his young family, would the Italian have been satisfied spending more time with his collection of ornamental frogs, perfecting his recipe for Saltimbocca alla Romana and walking in the Alps near his Monte Carlo home? Probably not.

“Yes, I know,” he grins. “But for some years Audi had been looking for younger drivers, planning for the future, yet Frank [Biela] and I kept on winning races. We had to cut the story short. Nothing is eternal; although I wasn’t ready to retire, I was still competitive. But Audi offered me some races in the R8 GT3 car and I thought, OK, today they make this offer, tomorrow maybe they don’t.”

But he misjudged the moment; the passion for racing was still too strong. Leaving Audi, where he won everything there was to win, was a wrench. It simply didn’t get better than the R8 and R10. Few believed he would stay away, but fewer could have predicted that he would return with a small, private team in a Lola-Judd with its ‘old-fashioned’ petrol engine.

“Last year I wasn’t a happy boy,” he says. “The GT3 programme didn’t go as planned, there wasn’t enough development, not enough testing. This was disappointing because I was an Audi driver and I wanted the continuity. So that was that, but I am still contracted as an Audi ambassador. Then suddenly in the winter I got a call from Lord Drayson. He was running a sports car team with the Lola-Judd in America and he wanted me for the long races. Wow! Thank you very much, this was exciting, but I needed time to think. I had no plans to drive a prototype again – the downforce is so high nowadays, the feelings are extraordinary. Cars like the Audi are so fast, so demanding and sophisticated. The GT cars are nice, but the prototypes are a completely different world. You need to be fit.”

How does the Lola compare with the Audi?

“I was surprised actually, because it’s a prototype but it’s a customer car, so it’s built in a different way to the Audi – no exotic materials, and more cheaply made because they have to sell them. The car is nice and efficient, easy to drive fast, and the speed we had at Sebring surprised even the Lola people. OK, you don’t get that extraordinary push I felt with the Audi diesel – that is something I will never forget. Now, with the Judd, there is more noise of course. Sometimes you don’t need huge resources and technology to produce a good car, and the Lola is a good racing car. But if Audi were to build a petrol-engined car now, I still think they’d be in a different league. Everybody blames the rules for the diesel cars always winning, but it’s not so simple – big companies like Audi have so much power in their technology and resources that they’d always be right there, whatever the engine. It may be unfair for privateers to race the works teams, but that’s how it is.”

Pirro is clearly happy with his decision to return to the sport he loves. The grin is wide, the eyes are twinkling.

“Wow, yes! Immediately after that call from Lord Drayson I went down to my gym, without even thinking, and started some serious training. I was fit already, but the workouts were not so meticulous. Then I started thinking, this must be a sign that I want to do this. So I learnt some more about the car and saw this was a healthy team, a healthy car, so I said OK, I’ll do three races – Sebring, Petit Le Mans and Le Mans. I knew I wanted it, but I wanted to make a professional decision.”

So, brief ‘retirement’ over, he headed for Florida without even testing the car. But this is the man who stepped out of the Audi R10 at Laguna Seca at the end of 2008 with tears in his eyes. The fire didn’t need much rekindling.

“Was really nice feeling, yes,” he smiles, “and I went to Sebring with an open mind. There were some question marks. Would I still be fast? I am older, you know. How good will the car be? But I had the desire. So I stepped into the car and after five laps I was doing a good time. In the race we fought with the Peugeots, got the second-fastest lap, and for the same enthusiasm,” says Pirro. “Not every driver is passionate, some are snobbish, a little cold, and these I do not admire. Formula 1 is sometimes like this and it wasn’t the best part of my career, because when I went to Benetton in 1988 I was racing for BMW in European touring cars, racing Japanese Formula 3000, testing the McLaren for Honda, and living in Japan. I wasn’t strong enough to realise it was all too much.

“In 1988 I did 108 flights. That’s a flight every 3.3 days. For sure that was a disadvantage at the start of my F1 career. But, you know, when they didn’t want me any more I still had the touring cars and I was happy. I have no regrets. Some drivers have 15 years in F1 with mediocre results but with great glory and a lot of money. That’s not for me. My success with Audi, my championships, my wins at Le Mans, that gave me so much pleasure, worth more than an F1 World Championship. I was winning races, and winning is what a driver wants to do. And hey, I’m still here, 48 years old, and still loving my racing. Maybe I could have done better in F1, but I don’t know…”

This may explain why Pirro is such big box office at historic events like the Goodwood Revival, where he has twice won the RAC TT Celebration race. From Audi to Lola-Judd to E-type Jaguar – it’s another world again, but still with the same passion.

“The cars of the 1960s and ’70s are for me the most beautiful, and this was when I was dreaming of being a driver. So you are racing a piece of history and the racing is good. It started when I was offered a Ferrari 512 – what a beautiful car – and then people asked me to race their cars. Maybe because I don’t spin or damage them, I don’t know, but there are cars that I always dreamt about racing when I was a kid, so that’s why I do it. At the Festival of Speed at Goodwood I drove a Matra… Fantastic.”

The Goodwood crowd adores Pirro. A racer and a showman, they love him for his laps of honour after the TT races.

“It all started with winning Le Mans when I stood up in the cockpit, with my arms in the air, and let the car coast over the line,” he grins. “They didn’t like it much and the ACO made a new regulation called ‘Pirro’s Law’, which bans celebrations like that. Funny thing was, I was having a glass of wine with Daniel Poissenot of the ACO at Monterey and he told me he had to punish me, but inside he thought it was great and a fun thing to do.

“Then, at the Goodwood TT, I was hanging right outside the E-type Jaguar on the lap of honour, helmet off, waving to the crowd all the way round and then leaping from the car as it rolled up to the line. It was so funny, because I was given a lecture by the stewards and they asked me – can you believe this – how rich was the car’s owner Bernie Carl, and how much would he pay as a fine? Yes, really. Anyway, they fined him £5000 and afterwards he told me he’d sent a cheque for £10,000 with a letter saying that he’d doubled the fine because next year, if Pirro won the race in his car, then he’d do exactly the same victory lap celebration. He sent me a copy which I have kept and framed.”

Every now and then you meet a man like Pirro. It’s one of the perks of the job. And then you remember why you too caught the racing fever. Bravo Emanuele! Motor racing needs people like you.