Features - Interview
MARCH 1, 1991
BY JOE SAWARD
Emanuele Pirro was a star in qualifying in Phoenix but in the race the Roman was less fortunate. It was symptomatic of a Formula 1 career full of highs and lows.
Early on Friday morning in Phoenix, Emanuele was worried about pre-qualifying. He had never done it before -- and he'd never been to Phoenix. It was going to be hard.
Eight hours later he was fifth on the provisional grid and smiling. It had been a great effort. By Sunday night things did not look quite as rosy. He had slipped to 10th on the grid on Saturday and his race had lasted just 16 laps before being sidelined with gearbox failure.
Bitter experience has left Pirro with a philosophical outlook on the ups and downs of his career.
"We still have to improve the reliability," he shrugged, "but we are going in the right direction. I was planning a very conservative race. I wasn't going to drive Alesi-style. The potential is there, you know. One poor result doesn't crack my optimistic view of the season ahead."
Optimism is something which Pirro has needed throughout his F1 career. Way back in 1983, when EP was a bright young Formula 3 hope, he had was tipped to go right to very top. But it never happened. He came close to deal with Brabham in 1986, but it fell through. A programme to contest four Grands Prix in 1987 with a Middlebridge-prepared 1986-spec Benetton-BMW fell foul of the regulations, so Pirro contented himself with touring car racing.
In 1988 he was hired by McLaren as a test driver.
"As far as I am concerned my F1 career began when I got the McLaren contract," he says. "When I started to test for the team I felt that sooner or later my chance would arrive. I think by having hard times it made me realise that you have to work hard. You either get the chance right away or you really have to work hard when you lose the way.
Does he feel he has been unlucky?
"No, I don't believe in luck. I think people make their own luck. That is actually condemning myself. I don't want to say I was too young, but now I am a lot stronger and lot more wise."
Much of that strength came from his time with McLaren. While Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost took the glory Emanuele spent many days pounding around Suzuka, testing for the team. Within the business, his reputation grew and suddenly he was besieged with offers of a Grand Prix drive.
"It was the summer of 1989 and I had an offer from Benetton alongside another from Larrousse. I went to Benetton."
It was the dream of every young driver, to go straight into a top F1 team. He made his Grand Prix debut in France and only narrowly missed out on scoring a point.
But the Benetton deal turned bad. The team was fragmenting as a new regime forced out the old team members. Pirro found himself stuck in the middle.
"If I have to judge that season I would say it was a negative one. I lost a lot of reputation and probably my mistake was not to stop everything else I was doing. It wasn't really my choice. I had contracts and I couldn't stop them."
Instead he tried to do everything at the same time, jumping on and off aeroplanes, flying around the world, testing here, racing there.
"My mind was full of things and my body was full of trips and nights missed," he remembers. "If I could go back I wouldn't have made the same choice. If I had known what was going on at Benetton I would have gone in another direction. But, you know, I don't like to think like this. The team gave me the opportunity. I am thankful for that. Now I am struggling to build up the reputation I used to have."
There were some strong performances and some points, but at the end of the year he was released by Benetton. He found refuge with Scuderia Italia in 1990.
"The time at Benetton was very bad for my confidence and last year also looked to be a difficult season. It wasn't. I regained a lot of confidence. I realised again that I was able to drive a F1 car quickly.
"The problem at Dallara was reliability. The competitiveness of the field was so high. I think if we had finished races we would probably be out of pre-qualifying now, but it wouldn't have made a huge difference in the championship classification."
"Usually you develop the previous years' car, but we cancelled everything. We started again. If you painted the new car white, you would not guess it was a Dallara. The car is especially sophistocated in the aerodynamics. Since Nigel Cowperthwaite joined the team he has been working hard on that. We had very good results in the wind tunnel and we were keen to see if the car would be good or not.
"If you look at Leyton House in recent years, I guess the designs have always given excellent results in the wind tunnel, but on the track they have seldom been very good.
"All our winter development on the new car was stopped by a few electronic problems with the engine. In the first test we couldn't even find out if the car was healthy or not. Then we went to Estoril and the car showed itself to be good. It is a very different car. It is very stiff and has a long wheelbase. In fact it has all the things that are not good for a street circuit. When I came here I wasn't really sure if this track could be good for us.
"Pre-qualifying was good and then qualifying was great, especially on Friday. On Saturday I had a few problems but I was still happy with the result. We did some testing on full tanks and we didn't have to change the car at all. We just put fuel in the qualifying car and we were ready to do a full Grand Prix distance. I think this is the proof that our car is going to be good at all circuits. It makes me feel very optimistic for the future.
"You cannot really hope to beat the big teams with the big engines. The Judd V10 engine is strong and it is good that it has come to power a good car. If we had had the engine last year we would not have been this far up. Overall our competitiveness is a lot higher. If we can get a record of finishing like other teams -- 60 or 70% -- I think we can score points.
"Anyway. I feel good. My motivation is high. I believe that the people who changed their minds about me during the Benetton season will change their minds again."