Student of the Sport
‘Bookish’, bespectacled Andrea de Adamich was studying law when he took up motor racing. A budding career ended abruptly at Silverstone 40 years ago, but today the pupil has turned teacher
Late at night on July 14 1973, Andrea de Adamich lay in a hospital bed in Milan, his legs both broken. Life as a Grand Prix driver had come to an abrupt and painful halt. Earlier that day, at Silverstone, he had come through Woodcote to find what looked like an autostrada pile-up. Jody Scheckter had lost control of his McLaren, causing the field to scatter in all directions. The Italian saw a gap, pointed his Brabham at it and thought he’d made it through, but he did not and that was the end. But what about the beginning).
Andrea Lodovico de Adamich was born into an aristocratic family, his ancestors some of the richest merchants and industrialists in Italy. But when their home town of Fiume became part of Marshal Tito’s Croatia, they had to flee and lost much of their wealth. Andrea was born in Trieste, a wartime baby, and brought up by his mother. The story starts when she gave him a Triumph TR3A, which he describes as a “very good gift”, to satisfy his competitive spirit.
“It was not so much the cars,” he says, “it could have been tennis or skiing. It was more the desire for competition, I wanted to race, to compete wheel to wheel.” We are sitting at his home in Varano de Melegari, where he runs a high-performance driving school, the Centro Internazionale Guida Sicura. “I took the TR3 to some hillclimbs,” he says, “and enjoyed it. I had some good results, beating the Porsches sometimes, especially in the wet. I looked different from the others. I was studying law and wore glasses, you know, and it was always the results I wanted, not just the taking part. It was a big jump from hillclimbs to racing and my mother was not at all pleased to discover I had crashed the Triumph, but I bought a Lola for €1000 and went into Formula Junior. My first race was at Vallelunga in 1963 and Jochen Rindt was there — we became very good friends. In ’64 I got an engine from the Pedrazzani brothers, who were building the best motors at that time. The Jolly Club also entered me in saloon events, in an Alfa Romeo Giulia, and then the Alfa works team took me on, so I could earn some money to pay for singleseaters. I won the Italian F3 Championship in 1965 in an old Brabham. That was a big moment for me, because I was up against some very good people from Europe.” Riding the crest of this wave, he joined Autodelta for 1966, won the European Touring Car Championship in an Alfa Romeo GTA and also had some promising results in the team’s T33 sports car.
De Adamich very quickly became a big name in Italy, but never had a great ambition to be a Grand Prix driver, least of all for Ferrari. That, though, is exactly what happened. In 1967 the Scuderia put him in a car for the nonchampionship Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama and for the ’68 season he was due to race full-time alongside Chris Amon and Jacky Ickx. But then, during practice for the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, came the first of the two huge accidents that were to interrupt a promising career.
“I was very young and didn’t really feel like a Ferrari driver,” he says. “It was probably a mistake to go there so soon, but I was one of the first Italians, along with Giacomo Agostini, to be supported by Marlboro. I didn’t feel emotionally attached to Ferrari. It sounds strange, but really it didn’t mean that much to me. I’d always felt a lot more comfortable at Alfa Romeo, which was much more like a family. At Ferrari Mauro Forghieri treated me as though I’d come from another big Formula 1 team, but I was very inexperienced and he didn’t do much to help me develop. He was more interested in Amon and Ickx, and made that very clear.
But I was quick in testing at Vallelunga and felt confident in my speed. But then came the crash at Brands Hatch. It could have been very serious, much worse than it was. I just lost the car under braking for Paddock Bend, a result of my inexperience. I hit the wall on the outside, right next to the marshalling post. That was lucky because the car caught fire, but they got to me very quickly. I didn’t know at the time, but I had broken two bones in my neck. The doctors said I was OK, but I wasn’t. Back in Italy they discovered the fractures and I was in plaster for months, drinking through a straw. It was very difficult to eat and it was a bad time — I missed so many races. The authorities tried to take my licence away. I think Ferrari was involved in that — the team was not happy with me at this point — but I fought and got it back. Then, over the winter, I won the Temporada series for Ferrari in Argentina, in the F2 Dino 166 and realised I had the opportunity to go to another team.” He went to McLaren for 1970, because the team had taken Alfa Romeo V8s and de Adamich was a natural choice. But the alliance was not a success: McLaren was not impressed with the engines and the partnership came to a halt at the season’s end. De Adamich took Alfa Romeo across to March for 1971, still without any success, and then used Ceramica Pagnossin sponsorship to land a drive with Team Surtees in 1972, driving a TS9B with Cosworth power. After another year without results he joined Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team for 1973, a campaign that concluded during that first-lap accident at Silverstone.
Unsurprisingly his fondest memories are stirred by his winning streak with Alfa Romeo, with whom he had always had a strong relationship and where he enjoyed the most impressive and successful phase of his career.
“Yes, it was a good period for Alfa and me,” he says. “Of course it was a team financed by the state, and in a way Carlo Chiti was a dictator inside Autodelta, but outside he had to toe the line, follow the politics of the time. So many really successful teams have been run by dictators, no? We are talking about the 1960s and there were good Italian drivers, but only Marlboro helped us. There was no state support and very few sponsors. In Italy today there is only Ferrari, and it doesn’t have Italian drivers. Now things are so bad we don’t have enough entries for a national F3 championship. In my time with Alfa Romeo, we had many Italians. When I won the European Championship with the GTA, we were winning everything, beating the Lotus Cortinas and the BMWs. My relationship with Alfa has continued right through my life and I was a director of the N Technology racing team that was created in 2003 to run racing programmes worldwide, initially with the Alfa 156 in racing and the Fiat Punto in rallying. That was another very nice period for Alfa Romeo, with many wins in many countries.” But back to Silverstone…
“It was the first time I’d driven the Brabham BT42, which replaced the old BT37,” he says, “and I’d had no testing in the car. I qualified 20th, with Jacky Ickx in the Ferrari just ahead of me, and he somehow got through the chaos on the first lap. Gordon Murray had made a very nice car, it was quite soft, and moved around a lot, but it was much better than it felt at first. We started on full tanks of course and I came down to Woodcote, slowing from about 170mph — there was no chicane then, remember. When I went into the corner I saw all these cars crashing in front of me. I couldn’t stop, but then I saw a gap and came off the brakes, thinking I could just about get through. But Jean-Pierre Beltoise’s BRM was hit by someone else and came straight across in front of me. I had nowhere to go and hit him, luckily behind the cockpit, and then my car just turned right and went straight into the pitwall. The car stopped and there was just this silence, and a dripping sound from the petrol tank, so I switched off the pump.
There was no pain, so I undid the belts and put my hands on the sides to lift myself out. But I couldn’t move one centimetre — the chassis was buckled and my legs were trapped. So I sank back down in the cockpit and the pain just exploded. It was terrible, just terrible, until the doctor came with some morphine. Marshals had to cut the car horizontally because the fuel tank was full and right next to me, so they couldn’t cut near that. I could see my right leg, going straight as far as the throttle pedal, but my foot was 45 degrees to the leg and my left knee was broken. I was concentrating completely on what it meant, because I had never broken any bones before. “It was half an hour before they could get me out. The BT42 had quite a short wheelbase, my legs and feet were very far forward, so maybe it would have been better in the BT37. Anyway, Bernie Ecclestone arranged for me to be flown back to Milan that evening in Lord Hesketh’s plane and on the way back it was very stormy, very bumpy and uncomfortable. I didn’t care, because I just wanted to get home, the pain in my legs was so bad. A friend of mine, Dottore Pelegari, an orthopaedic surgeon in Milan, had seen the accident on TV in Como and realised my legs would be bad. So he drove to Milan and was waiting for me in the middle of the night. Then I could relax. When I broke my neck at Brands Hatch I just wanted to get back in the car but, after this, I knew my right foot was never going to be perfect again. I thought, ‘I don’t want to do Fl any more’. I didn’t completely trust my foot on the brakes, so began to focus on a new life.”
By this time Andrea was writing articles for Autosprint and had been approached by Marlboro to oversee its merchandising sales and marketing.
It was the first time an Fl sponsor had embarked on a serious retail strategy and the fans were fighting over hats, caps and T-shirts. So began Marlboro Leisure Wear, run by Signor de Adamich. “Philip Morris wanted to distance itself from cigarettes,” he says, “so we started selling a different image all over Europe and later right around the world. In 1979/80 Carlos Slim invested in the licence for Mexico — he was not yet the richest man in the world. I stopped all my connections with motor racing and promised not to put helmet or overalls on ever again, but it was still a passion. I kept up to date with what was going on through my work as a TV commentator and journalist. I did a very good deal with Silvio Berlusconi, who went into battle with RAI, the state TV company, and he won the rights to Fl for his channel. My name became well known again throughout Italy because of my weekend F1 shows — like your Murray Walker. I was also working with Fiat, which had taken over Alfa Romeo, so I was very busy. This contract with Alfa Romeo led to the start, in 1990, of Centro Internazionale Guida Sicura, a driving school for people who had bought high-performance cars from Alfa Romeo and, later, Ferrari and Maserati. The biggest leap forward came in 1999 when I bought the former Riccardo Paletti circuit at Varano de Melegari, where Dallara is based. Before that we used Mugello and Fiorano so, over the years, I have spent a lot of time and money developing the business to provide a world-class facility for teaching the skills and techniques of high-performance driving. And today we have contracts with Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Abarth and Philip Morris. So we are very busy, instructing about 4500 people a year.”
Most of us remember Andrea de Adamich as the tall fellow who turned up in the pitlane, looking more like a student than a racing driver with those trademark black spectacles. Despite appearances, though, he was there for fun, for the sport, and not for money or the glory of his homeland.
“Yes, for me it was always the sport, the competition,” he says, “not like today when they start as boys in karts with a burning ambition to be world champion. It was never like that for me. I could have gone into politics, or business, but am only effective if I really believe in what I am doing. And I believed I had the talent to drive racing cars.” Now, like his ancestors, he has created a new life as a successful businessman. This is a man of enormous natural charm and brio. At 70 years old his energy, enthusiasm and fine attention to detail are remarkable. A de A, as he’s known locally, shows no sign of cruising around on a lap of honour any time soon.
All too quickly, it was time to leave Varano de Melegari. But there was one last surprise. From his huge collection of memorabilia, much of it stored in cardboard boxes, he produced a February 1969 Motor Sport with his Temporada Ferrari on the front cover. Now, more than 40 years later, he features once again.