Andrea de Cesaris by Bruno Giacomelli


Andrea De Cesaris died on Sunday after a road traffic accident in Rome. The 55-year-old leaves behind his wife Angela, a daughter, Stella, and many friends and ex-colleagues in motor sport. Sam Smith spoke to one of those who knew him best, his 1982 Alfa Romeo team-mate and fellow Italian, Bruno Giacomelli.


“He was like a little brother to me and I think he appreciated me looking out for him as a big brother too,” says Giacomelli. “We raced together for only one short season [when they both raced for Alfa Romeo in 1982], but we also competed as a team in a Lancia LC2 sometimes as well. Racing with him was always a pleasure.”

Giacomelli was much more than just one of the numerous team-mates that De Cesaris had during his 14-year F1 career that saw him compete in 208 Grands Prix.

“He was my friend. I only have good memories of Andrea,” says Giacomelli. “You know, he was a very kind and genuine person. A little like Gilles [Villeneuve] in that he had a very different personality from behind the wheel than he had out of the car. He was a good, honest person and fun to be around.”

Giacomelli was seven years De Cesaris’ senior and his death came as a terrible shock to him last weekend. Remembering his times with his fellow Italian, Giacomelli reminisces with genuine affection, detailing a relationship that began with the two Italians meeting first in the unlikely setting of rural Hampshire, when European F2 and the BP British F3 were on the same bill at Thruxton in March 1978.

Giacomelli having won the Silverstone round of the British F3 Championship in April 1976

“Andrea was just starting out in F3 [in a Tim Schenken-run Tiga Ralt] and I was with the works BMW-March team in F2,” says Giacomelli. “We were the only two Italians living in the UK and I remember meeting up with him occasionally and really liking him. He was very young then [19], but it was obvious he was quick and would make a nice career in racing.”

Andrea de Cesaris

Born: 31 May 1959 (Rome, Italy)
Died: 5 October 2014 (Rome, Italy)
Formula 1 career: 1980–1994
Teams: Alfa Romeo, McLaren, Ligier, Minardi, Brabham, Rial, Scuderia Italia, Jordan, Tyrrell, Sauber
Races: 214 (208 starts)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 5
Pole positions: 1
Fastest laps: 1

For De Cesaris a tilt at the Vandervell British F3 title in 1979 was on, again with Team Tiga, but this time with a March chassis rather than a Ralt. Despite six wins he lost out to Chico Serra in a season that included plenty of exuberant incidents, most famously with Nigel Mansell at Oulton Park in September, when the future world champion was hospitalised after the pair collided at Cascades.

Paired with Serra at Ron Dennis’ Project 4 for a full season of European F2 in 1980, Andrea stepped up to the plate and in a season that was dominated by the Toleman pairing of Brian Henton and Derek Warwick, he managed a win at Misano in his March 802. This paved the way for a promotion to the newly restructured McLaren F1 team in 1981, headed by his former F2 boss Dennis. First, though, came his Grand Prix debut at the tail end of 1980.

Alfa Romeo had endured a tumultuous and tragic 1980 F1 season. By the time De Cesaris made his debut at Montreal in October the team had endured the stark tragedy of Patrick Depallier’s fatal testing accident at Hockenheim. Giacomelli had risen to the task of leading the team through this bleak period magnificently and produced several heroic performances, notably a fighting fifth at Hockenheim just a week after Depailler was killed and then setting pole and leading the US Grand Prix comfortably until retiring.

De Cesaris in the 1980 Canadian Grand Prix

“1980 was a tough year and remember it was really my first full season in F1,” reflects Giacomelli. “Andrea came in to the team at Montreal and Watkins Glen and did well [he qualified eighth on his F1 debut]. I could see he was quick, but that he lacked real confidence. You know, when you look at the following season in 1981 when he re-joined Ron Dennis at McLaren, he had a lot of accidents. But he was learning in an English environment and he was still just 22 years old. Andrea was the kind of guy who really needed to be comfortable in the team and at McLaren at that age, and with what was going on within the team, I think it was not the right environment for him.”

From the archive: Rob Widdows interviews De Cesaris in 2012
From the archive: Paul Fearnley talks to Giacomelli in 2010
From the archive: The 1982 Monaco Grand Prix by Denis Jenkinson

De Cesaris could be wild and erratic. But his 1981 season in particular has been inflated wildly and the myth that he crashed in every Grand Prix is simply untrue. The facts are as follows: In the 14 races he competed in, he retired due to accidents or accident damage seven times. One of those was due to a puncture and the other was a legacy of Villeneuve’s famous carnage trigger at Woodcote. De Cesaris’ 1981 season is not unblemished but it was far from the over-exaggerated demolition that it has often been portrayed.

Giaocmelli’s single season as team-mate with De Cesaris brought little joy in terms of results but as a team the two bonded superbly. It was helped by the infamous drivers’ strike at Kyalami.

“We knew each other quite well already, but at Kyalami it was a good experience for the drivers to spend all that time together. Andrea was always a very positive guy and I have good memories of him at that hotel in South Africa playing around and having fun with the other drivers.”

De Cesaris leads Rosberg in Monaco

Monaco 1982 has gone into racing folklore. De Cesaris was about to break his Grand Prix duck on the greasy streets that afternoon in May. Yet he ended it crying on the guardrail when he ran dry of fuel, just as he climbed Massenet for the final time.

“It was an incredible race and I felt so sorry for Andrea,” says Giacomelli. “We both qualified well, I was third and then managed to get into second place behind Arnoux, but after five laps my driveshaft broke. I was very angry. But not as angry and upset as Andrea was at the end of the race!”

Later in the year, at the Osterreichring, Giacomelli and De Cesaris’ friendship was tested to the full when they collided at the start of the race.

“We didn’t speak for two weeks until the next Grand Prix [at Dijon]. Andrea was sure it was my fault, but I knew I had been innocent. Then in the paddock a photographer came with some photos of the start which showed he hit Daly’s Williams, which pushed him into me and into the guardrail. But you know the good thing about Andrea was that when he saw the pictures he turned to me and said ‘Bruno, I am sorry, you were right, I apologise to you’. As I said Andrea was very correct and honest and also not too proud to say he was wrong.”

By the end of ’82, Giacomelli moved on to Toleman while De Cesaris blossomed further, leading the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa and taking runners-up positions at Hockenheim and Kyalami in the competitive Alfa Romeo 183T.

“I stayed friends with him after 1982 of course,” says Giacomelli. “We used to spend time with Nelson Piquet, going skiing or just holidaying, particularly in Sardinia and also at Sestriere in the winter months.

“Andrea loved windsurfing and was very good. He competed in many competitions and usually won. It was something he could replace the feeling of racing in F1 with. He needed to compete and he did it very well in windsurfing. He travelled all over the world looking for the best places and conditions.”

Giacomelli and De Cesaris pay their own special tribute to Nelson Piquet at a skiing holiday at Sestriere in 1983 

“When I see this video I see the real Andrea. You can tell that he was excited and then became relaxed as we sang to Nelson. He took real joy in this. He was a lovely guy and I will remember him this way when I go to Rome for the funeral on Thursday. He had a wonderful life.”