INTERVIEW

A note in a notebook: Stefano Modena

At Monaco Stefano Modena scored his first Formula 1 points -- finishing third to the two McLarens. It was only his 14th Grand Prix. A look in the records reveals that there aren't many drivers who can match that statistic.

But such an achievement has had little effect on this star in the making...

I have an old notebook somewhere with the name Stefano Modena scrawled across its back page. I remember it well: I had been knocking around Europe with all the young Italian F3 heroes of the era: the Pirros, Capellis and Ravaglias. All had graduated from karting. When we talked about the sport, I always found out that they had finished second, third and fourth in karting championships.

One day I asked the inevitable question: 'So who won all these championships?'

"A guy called Modena," they said, "but he hasn't got any money."

I wrote the name down.

Stefano has had a meteoric career. Two and half seasons after his first F3 race, he made his Grand Prix debut for Brabham in Adelaide.

There were two seasons in the Italian F3 series (the second bringing victory in the one-race European F3 title).

A year later he had won the F3000 title and received the call from Brabham.

Then he ended up at EuroBrun and the great white hope had to drive a great white whale of a car. Faith in his ability was challenged by the cynics.

I didn't actually meet Stefano until he was in F3000. I came away impressed by his obvious ability -- but curious about this intense, tzigane, figure.

Wild-haired; sullen; restless; superstitious -- I had heard all the stories. But gradually that image faded away to reveal a determined -- yet gentle -- character. We talked at Monaco, on the eve of the race.

"We are a little bit, how do you say? Gypsies," he explained. "We go around for the races, then go from place to place. I've always been like that. I travelled a lot in Europe in karting and now it is the same.

"I'm resident in Monte Carlo, but I have a house at Weybridge in England and I spend a lot of time there. It's a nice house, very quiet, so I spend quite a lot of time in England. Sometimes I am in Italy with my parents at Modena.

"I haven't done many races in my career," he said. "I did 14 in my first year in F3, then 14 in the second, 12 in F3000 last year -- not many. Only 54, I think. My career is like this!"

An ambitious youngster then?

"No, not really. I never said I wanted to be a Grand Prix driver. I know that is very strange, but I never say I want to do this; I want to do that. I always think about what I am doing, In F3 I wanted to win, not necessarily the championship but the races. In F3000 it was the same.

"There were a lot of opportunities to come to Grands Prix, but I wasn't interested. It was not my world and I was not interested in the next step.

"When I had the results, okay, I started to think about F1. I like it now, it was very difficult to have a good position in F1, but I realised that the best solution was to do my best job and forget the rest."

The year with EuroBrun was like that-- very frustrating.

"When you realise you have to be in a team like that," he said. "You don't expect to be able to get any better or any worse. You don't think you will get a real nice race or a real nice position. You might be able to do something if other people have problems, but in your mind you realise that it will be like this all the year."

But did he learn a lot?

"Yeah," he smiled. "I learned the tracks; I am convinced I still don't know the circuits very well. When you visit a circuit a couple of times you go faster. Anyway I know where the corners are now -- more or less."

At the end of last year, with Brabham coming back to F1, Modena was an obvious candidate.

"The team has all the things to do the best job. No problem. I personally never think about being in a standard team, I always think about being in a very good team with big possibilities.

"It's very good. Martin Brundle is a very nice guy, a gentleman. We don't have a problem. Everytime I try to be faster than Martin and he tries to be faster than me. It is good to be in team with a good driver. All the time you have co-operation, hard work and competition.

"You do the best you can or else you become the second driver and it's not fun being a second driver. Martin and I have a good relationship, sometimes you are ahead -- not because you are faster-- but because you are luckier; the other guy might have broken the engine or whatever. It doesn't matter."

Luck? What of all the stories about Stefano's superstitions? How much of that is true?

"You make your own luck," he smiled. "You are the person who decides. If you want to crash you crash, not because you wear a different balaclava or whatever. You decide what to do with the car.

"I'm not very superstitious. In F3000 I wore my glove inside-out. Everyone thought it was a superstition, but what happened was that my glove wasn't too fantastic, the seam stuck out and was cutting into my hand so, I thought, I have to do something and I turned the glove inside out. It was fantastic."

And what about having his car on the right-hand side of the pit?

"At some circuits, like Imola for example, I asked Martin to move the car because I had been successful when my car had been on the right side before. It's not superstition, I like it there it has good associations.

"There is another story too: I always do up my own belts. People say that is superstitious. I had a bad experience in qualifying at Pau, I went off in the last minutes of qualifying and I nosed into the tyres. The marshals told me to jump out, so I got out. Then I realised the car was okay and I wanted to jump in again. I couldn't do up the belts and they didn't want to stay there with cars coming by. From that point I thought I must know how to do the belts because in a case like this, nobody will let you go without belts because it's dangerous. You have to do something."

All in all Stefano seems a much more relaxed person now. Does he feel it?

"Well, the team gives you the relaxation. The way you drive, the way you work and the position you are in makes you a little more relaxed. In front of us we have cars with more powerful engines. Our engines are fantastic, but we have less power.

"We had a hard time in Imola and Brazil, but I always thought we'd be in a position like this."

He may be more relaxed, but he has the same single-minded view that has been so noticeable in the his rise to the top.

"I think that the best way to go is the straight way. It's shorter and quicker. I don't do F1, so I can go to a bar and say: 'Hey, I'm a big star'. I',m really not interested in that. I like to have a quiet life because we have such a hard time in the car. To me this is a job just like a banker-man, an engineer or something like that.

"At races I like to concentrate on the job. I'm thinking about motor racing when I am doing it. There is a time time to relax and have fun and a time to work. I think you concentrate much better if you have little relaxation and then think about it again."

Modena is well known for his habit of visiting factories and watching people working on his car. In the past he has been known to spend whole days jut watching and talking to the mechanics. Why does he do that?

"I think in the Brabham team for example, there are 70 people in the factory. It's good for them to know who they work for. Some people never go to the races, they know all parts of the cars and never see the drivers and yet they work so hard, through the night whatever. So why not give them the possibility to speak to the driver. To me it's very interesting to have a good relationship with the people at the workshop, with the mechanics, to be able to laugh and joke. They understand much more then what I want in the car. It's a different way, but I like to be like this.

"I did the same in karting, had lots of friends at the factory. I loved karts, I continued to race for many years and then I stopped and decided to go to cars. I had won what I wanted to win in karts and it was finished. It was starting to get boring.

What about heroes? Has Stefano ever had anyone he really looked up to?

"No, not really. I try all the time to get something from myself, something of me. All the time I was thinking about me, I wanted to be Stefano Modena.

And what does Stefano Modena want?

"I want to win a Grand Prix. That's the first thing. To win a Grand Prix is very important. It would be nice, a good feeling. It is not important for me to drive for any particular team. I want to race with a good team: Ferrari, McLaren, Brabham or Williams whatever. I don't mind, just a good team, a team that can give me the car to win. That's all."

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