INTERVIEW

Nicola Larini

You could call him the "Comeback Kid" if he was a bit younger, but at 33 years of age (this week) Italian racer Nicola Larini is a bit too old for that. He has been involved in Formula 1 racing for the last 10 years but this year has popped up with the Sauber Petronas team and he looks like having his best season to date.

Born into a racing-mad Italian family Nicola grew up with the sport all around him. His father competed successfully in club racing in Italy and his uncle Massimo was good enough to win a place in the Alfa Romeo factory touring car team in the early 1970s. Unfortunately Massimo as killed in an accident during the Spa 24 Hours of 1973 but this did not deter young Nicola from starting out in the sport a couple of years later, racing motocross bikes at the age of 14.

He then switched to four wheels are followed the traditional route through karting and single-seater racing. He also revived the family connection with Alfa Romeo, signing up to drive touring cars for the company. Nicola arrived in Formula 1 in 1987 driving for the somewhat chaotic Coloni team at the Italian Grand Prix. He had a couple of years with the Osella team and made a breakthrough at the 1989 Canadian GP, running second in an uncompetitive car in pouring rain in Montreal. Both Ferrari and Ligier sat up and took notice. The Italian team put him under option for 1991-92-93 but he joined Ligier for 1990. Unfortunately his career suffered with the French team, although he rewarded the team's faith with a string of eighth places in the uncompetitive Ligier.

At the end of the year Ferrari decided to hire the then sensation Jean Alesi and Nicola was left to join the new Modena team, running a Lamborghini car and engine package, which was not very competitive.

Ferrari overlooked him again in 1992 - taking Ivan Capelli instead - but offered him a chance to test for the team. Deciding it would be pointless to go on racing in F1 in bad cars, he took up the offer and signed a racing deal with factory Alfa Romeo touring car team. Ferrari called him in to take Ivan Capelli's place in a couple of races at the end of that year after Capelli had been fired but then decided to hire Gerhard Berger for 1993. Larini stayed in touring cars, winning the German national title for Alfa Romeo.

When Alesi injured his neck testing for the 1994 season Larini again drove for Ferrari but tragically for his career his best result - second place at Imola - went largely unnoticed because of the death that day of Ayrton Senna. At the end of the year Ferrari decided that Eddie Irvine should partner Michael Schumacher.

"When Eddie signed for Ferrari at the end of 1995 I said to myself: "Maybe that's it. I'll never get back into F1 now." I felt it was finished and that the best thing to do was to concentrate on doing touring cars or sportscars or whatever until the end of my driving career.

"But now, here I am. Ferrari made an agreement with Sauber to supply them with engines and Jean Todt proposed that Sauber take me too. Sauber said OK. It is good chance for me and I'm very happy because the team is good, the engine is good, there is a good budget, a good car and great people. Getting into F1 nowadays is not easy. There are a lot of drivers looking for a drive, young drivers, some of them with a lot of sponsorship. So getting back into F1 is a good result for me and I am going to make the most of it."

In Melbourne Nicola was able to match most of Johnny Herbert's lap times but in Saturday's qualifying session he was accidentally punted off by Gerhard Berger as he was going for his final qualifying run.

"I was doing the times this morning," he said, "but when it mattered in qualifying I just didn't get the chance. Very frustrating."

In the race the comeback kid finished sixth to score a World Championship point first time out for the team.

"It feels absolutely great," he said. "In the final 15 laps my right shoulder was very sore and with no-one to race against I had too much time to think about it and no adrenalin running to help me forget how much it was hurting. But I was determined that I wasn't going to give up.

"I think we are going to be able to score a lot of points this year and maybe sometimes we can be on the podium. We have good reliability. We know that using the same tyres as the big teams will make it more difficult to stay on front of teams like Williams, Benetton, McLaren and Ferrari because they have really good packages but I think sometimes we will be able to do it."

It is a big change since he first came into Formula 1 with Coloni.

"It is completely different!. The best way to explain it is that when I came to F1 in 1987 the small teams in those days like Coloni were like Formula 3000 teams are today. Everything. The size of the teams, the budgets and the horsepower.

"In those days we were 15 Italian drivers in F1. There were too many of us really. We had 36 cars in pre-qualifying which was really difficult. I had to do that for three years. Last year there was only one Italian drivers and at some races there was no-one in the race. It was not a good time for Italy. This year there are four of us. Giancarlo Fisichella and I are in pretty good cars and so we cane make some good results. I hope that Vincenzo Sospiri and Jarno Trulli will get the chance to reach a good level.

"Giancarlo is very good. He was my team mate with Alfa Romeo so I know him well and the Jordan-Peugeot looks like a good package."

Larini's recruitment by Sauber was seen largely as being because of his knowledge and experience as an engine tester for Ferrari, something which Sauber Petronas Engineering needs as goes its own way developing the 1996 Ferrari V10 engines.

"It is true, I did thousands of kilometers with this engine," remembers Nicola. "I started to develop it - I remember it very well - it was October 1 1995 and I really did a lot of work on it for three months and then in the second week of February 1996 Michael Schumacher began to test. He did a very big amount of testing and so I did not have much to do in 1996. I never did any long runs - race distances - and each test was a couple of months apart so I began to lose the feeling of what it is to drive in F1 cars. I had done a lot of kilometers right from the beginning when I was developing the Ferrari active suspension system. I tested everything and developed many things but in 1996 I did not do much."

Is it true that a driver can forget how to be an F1 driver?

"The problem I had was that I was racing in touring cars at the same time I was testing for Ferrari and so sometimes I did forget how to drive in F1. It was only in 1996 I didn't do enough testing. Some seasons I did more kilometers in an F1 car than some of the drivers who were racing them.

"Switching backwards and forwards between F1 and ITC was not easy. At the end my Alfa Romeo was like an F1 car - in fact it was more than an F1 car because we used all the systems which were not allowed in F1. For me that was too much. The budgets were getting bigger and bigger and we had ABS, power brakes, flat bottoms and all the electronics. That was why Alfa Romeo and Opel decided to stop ITC.

"With ABS I had a problem because the drivers who brakes hardest with that system has the advantage. I was not used to braking like that in the Ferrari and I found it very hard to completely change my mentality because the F1 car didn't have as good a system as the touring car. It was all back-to-front. Sandro Nannini who did not drive F1 any more was better than me because he could use the brakes to the maximum. To be honest I preferred the German touring cars of 1993. There were still like touring cars."

Touring car racing is the only discipline in mainline motorsport in which Italy has had a World Champion since the 1950s - Roberto ravaglia having won the one and only World Touring Car title in 1987. People always say that the Italians are too volatile to win titles in these days when winning requires not just great driving skill but also a cool and analytical approach.

"I think that Italian drivers have driven bad cars, or if they have been in a good car - like Riccardo Patrese was - he was always in a team which had a bigger star and he could not win the championship because the team mate was more important and he had to support them. Being a second driver is not an easy thing to do so sometimes people get quite emotional. I don't have so much emotion like that.

"In fact," he smiles, "I am quite normal really..."

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