INTERVIEW

Stefano Modena

Stefano Modena will replace Jean Alesi at Tyrrell next season and there are many in Formula 1 who believe Stefano has just as much -- if not more -- talent than F1's current rising star.

Add Modena's skill to Honda V10 engines, Pirelli tyres and a new chassis to follow the revolutionary Tyrrell 019 and the potential for success is startling.

For the last two years the Brabham team has been a magic carpet for passing eccentrics. Brabham owners have come in all shapes and sizes -- and in curious combinations. It never fails to surprise what one will see next.

However, if you potter around outside the Brabham motorhome for long enough, you will see plenty of idiosyncracy of a more stable nature.

There will be the silver-haired Herbie Blash, smoking with a cigarette holder, looking like a bespectacled, but rather more cuddly, version of Noel Coward and talking with all the diplomacy of a cultural attache at an embassy garden party.

The cigarette-holder is a habit shared by the team's very own Italian princess, Sveva, who can never look anything but chic and who is always a picture of sartorial splendour.

Somewhere about, usually hidden away in a lengthy debriefing somewhere, is her fiance -- a wild-haired, bright-eyed, scruffy individual by the name of Stefano Modena.

A lot of people in F1 do not really know what to make of Modena. As Alex Caffi likes to be 'The Disco Kid', with the haircut of a french Foreign Legionnaire and John Lennon sunglasses, Stefano is easily spotted -- his shock of dark wild hair standing out in the neatly-groomed world of F1 corporate image.

Stefano is often written off as being moody, arrogant and superstitious. A bit weird. The reality is that many feel intimidated by him, which is strange because beneath the gipsy-like exterior is a gentle, funny and intelligent individual.

Stefano and Princess Sveva are shortly to get married although when and where is being kept a secret.

"I am like, how do you say, a frog!" he says, with a huge smile. "I marry a princess and maybe I turn into a prince!"

What few can deny is that Modena is quick, although he has had a low-profile F1 career to date. That will likely change when he moves to Tyrrell.

Stefano's rise to F1 was meteoric. He came from the Italian F3 series to win the F3000 title at his first attempt in 1987. In November the same year he made his Grand Prix debut with Brabham in the Australian GP at Adelaide.

Sadly for Stefano it was the wrong team to join at that moment. For 1988 Brabham withdrew from F1 and Modena ended up with the woefully inadequate EuroBrun outfit. It was not a very rewarding season.

When Brabham returned to F1 at the start of 1989 and Modena was immediately snapped up again. He showed well all season alongside the much more experienced Martin Brundle, finishing third at Monaco in only his 14th Grand Prix start.

To put that into perspective: Jean Alesi made the podium for his first time in his 11th race.

The ups and downs of Brabham, however, continued and over the winter things hit rock bottom. Brundle left the team, but Stefano stayed on. The entire 1990 programme was ruined by the legal battles and lack of money and all year Stefano has been struggling to be competitive.

The smarter folk in F1, however, had taken notice of Stefano. When it was thought that Sandro Nannini would leave Benetton for Ferrari Modena was immediately lined up to join Benetton. the deal fell through at the final moment, but within days, when Ferrari finally got its act together and signed Alesi, Modena was snapped up by the Tyrrell team.

Looking back over the last three seasons, Stefano is happy with his progress.

"The first year was frustrating," he explains, "but last year was quite nice. This year things have not been so good, but you must understand that in some teams there is a problem with sponsors or whatever. It's normal. This is F1 -- a team can be higher one day and lower the next."

In the case of Brabham, bitter ownership disputes and financial traumas left the team in an impossible position to compete in 1990. It has been a case of surviving the races and building for the future.

"I'm really sorry for Brabham," says Stefano, "because I think they are good people. We should do more, but we cannot do any testing. We cannot prepare the cars. We have to do everything -- try everything -- at the tracks. Sometimes we are lucky, sometimes we are not. At the moment we are taking the races as a test."

When this year's silly season began Stefano Modena's name was linked to many teams -- including Ferrari. Had he actually talked to anyone interesting?

"Nothing really serious," he explains. "I really never thought about Ferrari. For me it was such a long way to go."

The deal with Tyrrell came just a few days after disappointment when the Benetton deal fell through. The negotiations were quick and easy.

"Tyrrell contacted me and offered me a contract and I just accepted the opportunity. It was done in a very short time. They contacted me at the beginning of the week and it was announced at the end of the week.

"I think this is the best opportunity for me. Tyrrell is really competitive at the moment and next year, with the combination of Honda and Pirelli, I hope that it will be one of the favourites. I have no doubt that the Honda V10 will be competitive with the V12.

"I think I can win races," he adds. "My point is to win races. I am here for that. I haven't had the opportunity for it yet, but if I have the opportunity I will not miss."

More than anything, however, Stefano is looking forward to racing a truly competitive car.

"You always learn a lot more when you have a fantastic car," he explains. "When you have a good car you can really enjoy the qualifying laps. When you have a car with problems you have to try to do your best. I'm not happy because I always understand, when I have done my lap, that it was not the best because there was this corner or that corner.

"I remember the old times," he says with a sudden enthusiasm. "We were racing in karting and we were really qualifying -- just like F1.

"I had the best kart and the best engine. It was an enjoyable situation to get out of the corners and feel the engine pushing and feel the power. It was great to go into the corners and throw the kart in. That was a good feeling.

"Unfortunately," he adds, "I'm not in that situation now, but hopefully next year I will be."

The sudden burst of eloquence is over in a flash and it is followed by a more pensive moment.

"I love to be perfect," he says thoughtfully. "Unfortunately I am not. It's like normal life, you know, I try to be perfect, but it is not easy," and with that he smiles. "I think most of the people would like to be perfect but unfortunately not all can have that. That is the life that is F1. I have a big chance next year and I hope to have the situation where I do that.

"In F1 it is difficult to say who is the best. You can be the best in two years or 10 years time. You don't know. I feel strong now and I feel I can get a good result now."

When you look back through the record books you find that Stefano was the (itals) top man in karting -- usually a very good recommendation for a driver moving into car racing. You feel that he misses the kind of dominance he enjoyed in those days. It is the kind of dominance which Senna presently enjoys in F1 and with which you can push to new limits.

"The best feeling is to I do a qualifying lap and do the best that you can. It's when you don't make a mistake and the car is perfect. It's when you are going where you want to go.

"I also love it when you are leading and you can pull away from other people in a race. You are at the head and you can play with them."

Stefano's intensity and his single-mindedness, coupled with a slightly unworldly air has often led to him being compared to Senna. They were both top kartists and they both hurtled rapidly into F1.

"We have two very different characters," he says, very simply.

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