The fact the wing mirrors fell off was the least of Gabriele Tarquini’s problems with the 1988 Coloni-Ford. Making it to the grid often proved much more irksome.
With his dark features and thick, curly, slightly receding hair, Gabriele Tarquini looked not unlike American comedian John Belushi during his time in Formula One. Sadly, the Italian’s machinery often provoked as much humour as the late actor’s films.
Tarquini is now one of the most popular and respected touring car drivers in the world, proving his talent was masked from 1988 to ’92 as he struggled with the Coloni, AGS and Fondmetal teams, leaving only a misleading record, probably never to be beaten, as the man who has failed to qualify for the most Grands Prix.
“I spent five years with bad cars,” he acknowledges, “so I have maybe two or three really bad ones to choose from, but! think the worst was maybe my first year in F1 with Coloni.”
The Coloni-Ford FC188 was the first effort in the top flight by the team with which Tarquini had spent the second of his three seasons in F3000. “Our results were not so bad,” he continues, “but the car was really heavy – it was 70kg overweight.”
Not only that, its technology lagged behind not only the all-conquering McLarens, but pretty much everything else. “This car was unbelievable,” Tarquini grins. “All the other cars used carbon brakes. It was 1988, and since I think ’85 everybody had used them. I had normal pads and discs.
“I remember Montreal. This circuit is very heavy for braking and the car was very heavy. After mid-race my foot was getting bigger and bigger, and when I finished the race my right foot needed a shoe two sizes bigger than usual! It was the power I needed to apply to the brakes that gave me the problems.”
That race was one of just four finishes the car achieved, when its gritty pilot dragged it home in its all-time best result of eighth place. It was a far cry from Monaco – Tarquini had managed to qualify, but there were doubts whether he would be able to start the race. For most unusual reasons…
“The car had a lot of vibration at Monaco and the wing mirrors kept breaking off. I got through pre-qualifying, but then in qualifying we lost maybe five or six mirrors. For the Sunday we had just two left, but we really had to take care in the warm-up because it would be impossible to start the race without mirrors. That would have been forbidden.
“So Mr Coloni (team boss Enzo) had a good idea. He linked the mirror to the inside of the cockpit using fishing line. I broke the mirror again, and because it was linked inside the cockpit it hit my helmet really hard on the straight. That was dangerous, but, because we hadn’t lost the mirror, we were able to start the race.
“After two laps I had no mirrors left, but fortunately for me the suspension broke after five or six laps so I stopped. With the McLarens and Ferraris so much quicker I would have been lapped three or four times – I would have really needed those mirrors!”
By the middle of the season it was proving almost impossible to pre-qualify the Coloni, but miracle man Tarquini managed to pull an astonishing lap out of the bag at Spa for the Belgian GP. Even more impressive when you consider that including the driver and team owner, the squad was operating on a staff of five.
“Mr Coloni thought it would be very difficult to pre-qualify in Spa. All I had was two mechanics and one chief mechanic. I broke the driveshaft after two laps and spent 40 minutes changing it. Fortunately I like Spa and have a special feeling for it. I had one set of tyres, went back onto the track and within two laps I was in. That was a miracle, because everybody else had been trying for the whole hour – I had done it in a total of four laps.”
Tarquini was lucky, in a way, to be part of a huge Italian contingent of drivers who broke into F1 in the late ’80s. “I didn’t know the tracks,” he recalls, “and for a young driver it’s very difficult, but everyone helped me. Sometimes I would have big problems in practice, and I remember in Australia I had just ten laps of Adelaide before final qualifying. I asked drivers like Nannini and Patrese to help me with lines and gear ratios. I was so slow compared to their Benetton and Williams they were happy to help.”
If anything, Tarquini’s next year with the French AGS team was even more of an eye-opener: “I only visited the factory for the first time when I went to sign the contract. They had to take the front wings off the two race cars to get them inside the garage, because it was so small. And at this time AGS had a really good car! I could run in the points sometimes, but all they had was this factory with a corrugated roof. My garage at home was larger.”
That JH23B gave the Italian his only World Championship point, but none of it would have been possible without Coloni. “I had driven for them once in Formula Three,” Tarquini says, “and for this reason Mr Coloni chose me for F3000. We had a year-old March but I went to the podium two times. I think he trusted me and that’s why he chose me for F1. It was my first year in F1 and all he gave me was $20,000 for my expenses, but I was happy to be there.
“When you start so badly and with so little help from engineers, money or mechanics it’s good for your character. In conditions like these I risked much to be quick over one lap just to qualify for races. Back then, it was a question of survival.”