Andrea de Cesaris: The bigger picture

Andrea de Cesaris reckons the British press only homed in on the trip-ups in his 14-year, 10-team Formula 1 career. We flew to Rome to let him paint the wider scene

2012 Andrea de Cesaris portrait

Big breath. I have to go there. The matter has to be raised. So best get it out of the way, no point pussyfooting around the edges. So I look him in the eye, this man who retains a rather dubious record for starting the most Grands Prix, 208 to be exact, without a single victory. But he is smiling, I am pleased to see, clearly keen to have his say.

There’s also that rather cruel nickname that has stayed with him for so long. The cappuccinos will just have to wait.

“Yes, the English press, they give me this name de Crasheris when I was at McLaren. Yes, it hurt, but now I don’t care. And I will give you my side of the story,” says Andrea de Cesaris from the edge of his armchair. We are sitting in a plush hotel, in a smart part of Rome, and he has arrived by motorcycle, dressed in striped shirt, jeans and nicely made leather boots. The designer stubble provides only mild disguise.

“I have new things to tell you,” he says, “things I have not said before. For me, the English press never looked at the whole picture, you know?” We do know. His 1981 season with McLaren was not a success. He was 21 years old when he signed, a multiple karting champion, a winner in Formula 3 and an F2 front-runner with Ron Dennis’s Project Four team, all of which led to two F1 races with Alfa Romeo at the end of 1980.

I don’t think Ron ever treated me fairly. I had the old car… very little testing. Crazy.”

He was also a man with Marlboro connections. His father, a tobacco wholesaler in Rome, had supplied kiosks and introduced his son to Aleardo Buzzi, who signed the Marlboro cheques. He was, in many ways, a hot property.

“I had connections with Marlboro at a time when Ron Dennis wanted the company to continue its sponsorship,” Andrea says. “He was taking over from Teddy Mayer, and McLaren had been performing badly under Teddy. Ron needed good sponsorship, because he was building the first carbon-fibre chassis with John Barnard. So yes, he gave me a chance because I was important to Marlboro and Marlboro was important to him. I’d driven for Ron in F2, so he knew I could be quick.”

He leans forward, keen to make a point. “But I don’t think he ever treated me fairly. I had the old M29 for the first part of the season, very little testing, just 20 laps at Silverstone before my first Grand Prix with them. Crazy. All the effort was going into building the new car. Maybe I should have had an English manager. I am Italian, not so calm as the English, and a manager would have helped, for sure. It was an emotional time and the crashes were not all my fault. This is the truth. I mean, I was so young, I didn’t know the tracks, and I didn’t get the new car until mid-season. They seemed to sacrifice me, but never admitted as much. I had mechanical failures and there was the big accident at Silverstone during the ’81 British Grand Prix, which for me was unavoidable.”

De Cesaris and John Watson both had the new MP4/1 that day, and Wattie famously won his home GP. Ron Dennis was not so pleased, though, to see his other new carbon-fibre chassis buried in the bank.

“I was following John and could have passed him,” says Andrea firmly, “but I didn’t want to take any risks, so I kept close behind him. At the chicane Gilles Villeneuve spun, John locked his brakes and just missed him, but I had nowhere to go, just hit the brakes and slid into the accident in front of me. You check the video, you will see. It was crazy. The team blamed me, but this was not my accident. They said I should have left a bigger gap – but hey, I was racing, I was quicker than John that day and if I’d passed him he would have been the one to crash.

“OK, sometimes I was over-driving the car, but I had no experience and can now look back and see that maybe I should have done some things differently. That year was a nightmare. The press was against me and when I woke up in the morning I couldn’t see the sun, the light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t know how I kept my faith in F1, but I did. I tell you – I never give up.”

McLaren driver Andrea de Cesaris in the Jacarepagua pits for the 1981 Brazilian Grand Prix nearr rio de Janeiro

Brazil ’81: Marlboro backed De Cesaris right through — and almost got him a deal at Ferrari

Grand Prix Photo

Andrea is an emotional man, delightfully frank, but passionate and excitable. And this is when his famous facial tic surfaces. Perhaps McLaren International, as it was known during its formative season, was not the ideal launching pad for a young Italian rookie. He scored but a single point, in the old M29 at San Marino. The team signed Niki Lauda before the end of the year and de Cesaris was on his way to Alfa Romeo.

“I knew they’d signed Lauda, although they never told me to my face,” he says ruefully, “and I heard that Ron had said he did not like Italian drivers. I think he was referring to me.” Those who know Ron Dennis will be aware that he is not naturally drawn to the Latin temperament, preferring his drivers to take a more analytical approach to racing. “There was very little support for me, and I needed some in my first full season,” says Andrea.

“Alfa Romeo were like a family to me, very supportive, very honest with me. But perhaps the team was a bit too… Italian.”

“There were stories that the mechanics refused to repair my car after I crashed at Zandvoort, for example, but this was bullshit. The spare car was given to John, that was the deal, so I had no car. There were mistakes on both sides, but all I asked for was honesty. Now I don’t care, I can say these things and maybe people will understand. Anyway, when I went to Alfa Romeo they were like a family to me, very supportive, very honest with me. That’s the kind of team I needed around me. Carlo Chiti was a big character, a very good guy, but perhaps the team was a bit too… Italian.”

His two years with Alfa were his most successful, only reliability keeping him away from the podium’s top step. In 1982 he was on pole at Long Beach, then at Monaco he was on his way to victory until he ran out of fuel, letting Riccardo Patrese through to win. In Austria, a low point, he collided with teammate Bruno Giacomelli, but a new turbocharged engine was on the horizon and, when it held together, he scored several strong points finishes in ’83. He led comfortably at Spa, posting fastest lap before the Italian V8 let go.

“The Alfa Romeo was a good car, a potential winner, but reliability let us down too often,” he says. “It was a very Italian team, less disciplined than English rivals, and the car could have won races. Monaco and Spa were always my best circuits but the engine was unreliable. They could have been great seasons with Alfa Romeo, but…”

How d’you analyse 14 years in a few pages? We decide on significant snapshots from each of the remaining eight teams who signed Andrea.

From Alfa Romeo he moved to Ligier for two seasons, but that was straight from frying pan to fire. The French cars were not competitive, although a fourth at Monaco promised a lot before delivering not very much at all.

Then, at the fearsome Osterreichring in 1985, he had a huge accident, careering into a bank and rolling end over end across the grass. He emerged battered but otherwise unscathed.

“People claim I was fired by Guy Ligier,” he says, “but this is bullshit, too. Herbie Blash offered me a drive at Brabham. He said that Marc Surer was leaving, so I told Ligier I was going. Nobody knows this! Then Bernie Ecclestone had to keep Surer because he was a BMW driver, so I had finished with Ligier and Herbie told me the Brabham drive had gone away. That’s F1.” Such recollections are peppered with much laughter.

Andrea de Cesaris gets out of his Ligier after crashing in the 1985 Austrian Grand Prix

De Cesaris climbs out of the Ligier for the final time in the ’85 Austrian Grand Prix

Grand Prix Photo

In 1986 he found himself with Minardi. Money was tight and the Motori Moderni engine was not truly it and proper for F1. “We could not do a lap without a turbo breaking,” he says, laughing again. “That engine was so bad. This team was a disaster, with no money – the budget was about $200,000. Carlo Chiti was out of a job when Alfa Romeo closed the F1 team, but he found this guy in Florence called Mancini, a car dealer, whose job was to raise the money for the engine. For him it was just an adventure, like a crazy expedition to the desert or something. But Chiti built this Motori Moderni, a V6 turbo, and it was very unreliable. It was a terrible season, with no points at all.”

A Brabham drive did actually materialise in 1987 and de Cesaris soon impressed, with third at Spa behind Alain Prost and Stefan Johansson. The BMW engine was prone to failure, but when the car held together he was competitive.

“The engine was either on or off,” he says. “One minute you had nothing, then suddenly 1000 horsepower. It was exciting, yes, but difficult. Bernie got upset with me when I over-revved it changing gear in qualifying, which was easy to do because the revs went up so fast. Bernie said, ‘Yes, but Patrese doesn’t do this’. Then three laps later, in comes Riccardo with a blown engine. He’d over-revved it. Bernie made no comment.” More guffaws.

From the archive

From here it was on to Rial, a tiny outfit owned and run by Günther Schmid, the volatile man behind ATS wheels. There were seven employees, eight in all with designer Gustav Brunner. The car, outwardly a copy of the Ferrari, worked well enough with a reliable Cosworth V8 and a Ferrari gearbox. But there was one small problem. Too small…

“Yes, there was,” says Andrea. “When Gustav asked engine tuner Heini Mader how big the fuel tank should be, Mader told him 190 litres. But this was not enough. Many times I was running strongly but I knew I hadn’t got enough fuel to finish the race. Crazy. In Canada and Australia I ran out, even though I was cutting the revs to save fuel. But I was fourth in Detroit, without the clutch. In the end Gustav was fired, there was no money, we had no engineer and Schmid asked me to keep a logbook of the engine mileage, brakes, everything, like a company car. Then, at Monza, the steering wheel came away in my hands at the first chicane. I braked, turned in and the wheel just came off. Schmid did not believe me. I had to show him photos of me holding the wheel in the air. He was a strange guy.”

Then came the Dallara years, Andrea taking his Marlboro money to BMS Scuderia Italia. Early results were encouraging. While heading for a podium at Monaco, however, he was rudely punted off while passing backmarker Nelson Piquet’s Lotus at Loews hairpin.

“I tell you, I was so angry. He did something really bad and today he would have been disqualified. For two laps he held me up, blue flags everywhere, and at Loews I went up the inside and he turned into me. This was the one place I could do well in the Dallara. It was underpowered and after the race I asked him, ‘Why you do this to me, why?’ and he replied that he was sorry. Honestly, sorry was not good enough. He also told me he was ‘fed up with this f****** race’. He was a world champion, he was lapped, it was a dark period for him and he just didn’t care. I would have been on the podium, for sure.”

Andrea de Cesaris pictured in 2012

De Cesaris’ anecdotes are peppered with laughter

In Canada, towards the end of ’89, Andrea finished third behind Williams pair Thierry Boutsen and Patrese, driving a brave and skilful race in the rain. This was to be the last time de Cesaris stood on a Grand Prix podium. The following year he failed to score a single point and moved on to Jordan.

“I knew Eddie from my F3 days. He was smart, understood the way a driver’s mind works and knew how to get the best from me. If he thinks you can give him the edge, he will help you. If you’re not on the pace, he won’t even talk to you. So he was like a father to me – for him and Alfa Romeo I drove my best. I was comfortable and there was no pressure. And he knew I was good because I beat him in F3 when he was racing.

“The Jordan 191 was a good car and it was a good season, with many points, but at Silverstone the suspension broke at Bridge and I had a big crash. At Spa, you know, I could not believe what happened when the engine blew up – I was running second, not many laps to go, and suddenly…” He shrugs with frustration.

“My God, I thought, I look like an idiot next to this guy. I was side by side with a man who would win the world title seven times.”

“The oil tank was too small and I ran out. We were running a new type of piston ring that used more oil – but Ford hadn’t told us.” His team-mate that weekend, albeit briefly, was one Michael Schumacher, fresh from success in sports cars with Sauber. He joined Jordan after Bertrand Gachot was jailed following an affray with a London taxi driver.

“I was always quicker than Gachot,” de Cesaris says, “but then Schumacher arrived. In first practice at Spa he was four tenths faster than me, flat through Eau Rouge. My God, I thought, I look like an idiot next to this guy. I mean, I was side by side with a man who would win the world title seven times. At the hairpin he was three or four tenths quicker than me, for example, so I went out, went flat through Eau Rouge no problem, tried different lines at La Source, but still he qualified in front of me. In the race, of course, I went well and he was out on the first lap.”

A good season, then. He was ninth in the championship, more than he or Eddie had expected of a new team and a new car. The consensus at the time was that Andrea had driven with more of his head and less of his heart, the Anglo-Irish team exerting a calming influence. At the end of the year Jordan did a deal with Barclay and even his silver tongue could not talk its way into having two tobacco sponsors on the car. Something had to give and there were debts to be paid.

Andrea took his sponsorship down the road to Surrey, to a man who knew how to handle every type of driver. Ken Tyrrell had Ilmor V10 power for his 020, the car handled well and de Cesaris performed close to the top of his game.

From the archive

On his way to fifth in Mexico, battling back from a spin, he delighted the team by passing its former employee Jean Alesi, now in a Ferrari.

“Ken was a gentleman, an honest man,” Andrea says. “He had faith in me as a driver and supported me. I took him some sponsorship and we worked very well to get some good results in ’92. He told me I deserved a better reputation. And yes, passing the Ferrari was good. Very few people know that I could have gone to Ferrari before I went to Ligier: René Arnoux was leaving and Marlboro was keen to swap us over – me to Ferrari and Arnoux to Ligier. But Arnoux refused to move at first and by the time he did it was too late, I had signed for Ligier. That’s how it goes, but it was always my dream to drive for Ferrari.”

The 14th and final year of this extraordinary rollercoaster career led him back to Jordan, standing in for Eddie Irvine after the Ulsterman was banned for three races for triggering a big accident in Brazil. Andrea did two races, crashing out at Imola but scoring a strong fourth in Monaco, his favourite stamping ground. When Irvine returned, de Cesaris switched to Sauber to replace the injured Karl Wendlinger. After scoring points in France, he did a few more races before finally calling it a day and going windsurfing instead.

I love to surf the big waves, on a small board, and it was important for me to keep it,” he says. “When you leave F1 after so many years there is a big hole in your life, you miss the adrenaline, you miss the buzz, but I found it again with windsurfing. I still spend a big part of each year on the water, often in Hawaii, and the rest of the time I am a currency dealer. Not with millions and millions, you know, but enough to look after my own investments. I’ve been doing this for many years, because I did not trust the banks or the so-called professional managers. I prefer to make my own decisions with the money I have.”

It’s been a lively conversation, Andrea as animated with his hands and eyes as we all remember. Finally there is time for cappuccinos, plus a story involving Derek Warwick and Eddie Cheever that cannot be printed, and two hours are gone in an instant. In many ways de Cesaris remains an enigma – bouts of brilliance and bravery coupled with moments of madness and mayhem. Beneath it all is a man with a fierce passion, a charming individual who is happy just to have been a racer.