Features - Interview

NOVEMBER 1, 1990

Roberto Moreno


Roberto Moreno made a big splash in the Japanese Grand Prix, finishing second to Nelson Piquet in his first race for the Benetton team.

Roberto Moreno made a big splash in the Japanese Grand Prix, finishing second to Nelson Piquet in his first race for the Benetton team.

It was a mighty performance, but not unexpected for those who have followed the little Brazilian's racing career.

When he lines up on the grid for the Australian GP at Adelaide this weekend Roberto and Alain Prost will share the honour of being the most successful Australian GP driver in the field... They have each won the race three times: Prost in 1982-86-88, Moreno in 1981-83-84.

Moreno's wins came in the days when the Australian GP was a Formula Mondial race, held outside Melbourne at Calder, before the Thunderdome was built. The GP wasn't quite the same as it is today, but it wasn't easy: in 1981 Roberto beat Nelson Piquet and Alan Jones; in 1984 he beat Keke Rosberg and Niki Lauda.

And yet Roberto could not break into F1 with a good team. Small wonder he was crying with joy when he climbed out of his Benetton at Suzuka.

"Really everything has happened a bit too quickly for me to know how I feel," explains Roberto. "The biggest problem I had during the Suzuka weekend was the pressure in my head. I knew it was a chance in my life that I had to make the most of. I was going from day to day, trying to do my best everytime I jumped into the car. I had pressure to not make mistakes, to understand the car and how the team worked. I tried to follow Nelson (Piquet) and get his instructions. He told me a lot."

A few days before Japan Roberto had been facing the prospect of missing the race altogether. The unsuccessful EuroBrun team for which he has driven this year was closing its doors.

Down in Italy, however, Benetton driver Sandro Nannini was having a ride in his brand new helicopter. It crashed and Sandro's right arm was severed below the elbow. Micro-surgeons re-attached the arm in an 11-hour operation, but the likeable Italian driver's racing career was in the balance. Benetton turned to Moreno.

"I'd like to dedicate this race to two people," Roberto said after the race in Japan. "The first is Sandro Nannini. I am only here trying to continue the work he started this year. I'm not by any means taking his place. I am replacing him temporarily.

"The other one is Nelson Piquet. In 1978 he convinced me to race in Europe, found me a sponsor, showed me the way.

"He gave me everything but said: 'Once you learn English you find the road yourself'. I have finally got on the road..."

Roberto and Nelson go back a long way together -- almost 20 years.

"I first met Nelson in 1971," remembers Roberto. "He was 17 at the time, I was maybe 12. He was a mechanic in a motorbike shop in Brasilia. I had lived in Rio but my father got a job in Brasilia and the only way he convinced me to go and live there was if he bought me a motorbike. It was 50cc -- very small -- and I used to go to Nelson's shop very often just to watch him work, help him, clean bits and things like that. He quite liked someone to help him and he took me under his wing. He taught me everything he knew.

"I kept following him. I remember one day in 1972 or 73 he had blown an engine on his car so he came back, picked me up and we went in another car with a friend of his with a new engine inside. We changed the engine and then we started to drive back. Five miles down the road he said: 'I am getting tired, do you want to drive?'

"It was two o'clock in the morning. I was 13 or 14 and I wasn't big enough to look out of the window and reach the throttle. Nelson filled up the seat with old rags and clothes and I could just about see. We had a deal, every 200km I would wake him up and swap places because of police checkpoints.

"After half an hour driving I got behind this truck and I was stuck so I woke him up. He jumped into the driving seat and then he looked at me and said: 'Why did you wake me up?'

"I said: 'I can't pass the truck' and he said: You woke me up for that! He made me drive again. I was so tense but after about half an hour I finally passed the truck."

By this time the pair were good friends and they soon became karting team mates.

"Nelson had a spare kart which I used to run in. I quite liked it, and I got quite quick in testing. So I convinced my father to buy it. Nelson and I went racing together: I won in my class and he won in his class.

"After that he went off to do SuperVee and we went off in different directions. He was living in Sao Paulo, I was living in Brasilia. I started karting and in 1976 I was Brazilian Champion. Nelson won the SuperVee title and 1977 he went to Europe.

"At the end of 1978 he came back from England and convinced me that if I wanted to start racing I should start in England. He showed me the right way to start, the right people to meet and he even convinced one of his old sponsors to sponsor me. That was the only real sponsor I had.

"I came over to do Formula Ford. I was the driver, the mechanic and I used to tow the car on a trailer. Ron Tauranac was very kind. He let me use an old shed to work. I lived five minutes down the road in a bed and breakfast where I couldn't stretch my arms without hitting the wall. It was a nice house and they were good people and it helped me to learn English.

"A couple of good results convinced Ralph Firman (of Van Diemen) to take me as works driver the following year. I did some van driving for him to get money to live. We won 15 races that year, the British Championship and the Formula Ford Festival."

Roberto's success attracted the attention of no lesser person than Colin Chapman of Lotus.

"I only came back to Europe in 1981 because he gave me a F1 testing contract with enough money to come back."

Roberto raced in F3 but money was tight. He was more successful in Formula Atlantic, defeating Al Unser Jr in the Formula Atlantic race supporting the Long Beach GP at the start of 1982.

He found some money to do half a season of British F3 with Barron Racing and then came the opportunity to drive a Lotus at the Dutch GP, standing in for the injured Nigel Mansell. Roberto failed to qualify.

"I just want to forget that," he says. "It took me five years to come back. I wasn't the right man for the opportunity. I think with the ground-effect cars they should have given me some proper testing before I got in the car."

Roberto went back to America with Greg 'Pee-Wee' Siddle.

"We had a sponsor for a whole year of Formula Atlantic, "but at Long Beach the support race was changed to SuperVee and we lost the sponsor. We decided to go on and we went off and won the first race. With that money we did two more races and then we stopped. Then another team asked me to finish the year for them and Teddy Yip financed it a bit.

"I won four races in all and Michael Andretti won three, but everytime I won he finished second and when he won I didn't finish and I missed one race, so he won the championship."

At the end of the year it was back to Calder for another Australian GP victory.

For 1984 Roberto decided to head back to Europe.

"I borrowed money to go racing -- nobody knows this -- and I decided to go with Dick Bennetts. To do it properly. It was all agreed and I went testing with him and I met Ron Tauranac. He said: 'Why are you driving an F3 car. Why don't you drive for me in F2?'.

"Dick was good he allowed me to go and I gave back the money I had borrowed. Ron paid me to live and I had a season with Ralt. Unfortunately there was a little deal I had to put up with -- and I wasn't very happy about it -- they all tried to make Mike Thackwell win the championship. It was hard for me, young as I was, with all the fire to win, to accept that position. But it was still good for me, good experience. Ron was very good and he taught me a lot. In the end it was worthwhile.

"Ron was keen to run me in F3000 in 1985, but I had done a test with the Toleman F1 team at the end of the year in Portugal with Senna's car and Michelin tyres. With race tyres I would have qualified seventh for the GP. Capelli and Palmer were there, but I came out of it ahead. I was looking forward to getting the drive but in February I was told they didn't have any tyres. It was too late to get another drive so I was in the shit until March or April when Rick Galles called me up and gave me an Indycar drive for the road races. That was a very good opportunity for me. I was able to learn how a big team works and I was able to earn good money to stabilise myself financially. He invited me to do a full year in 1986, but unfortunately we had a problem with the wrong car and we didn't have very good results. I decided to come back and try to get into F1 again, driving in F3000 with Ralt.

"It didn't work very well," he recalls. "There were maybe four races when I was leading and in the last few laps something would happen."

At the end of the year, however, Roberto finally had another chance in F1.

"I did two races for AGS and in the second race we came out with a point -- a lucky one -- but we were there at the end. I settled to drive for AGS and then in February they told me they didn't have any money. Then I was in the shit again.

Roberto went to Bromley Motorsport in F3000. Gary Anderson, with whom he had worked at Galles, teamed up with Ron Salt and with help from Reynard's Rick Gorne the team began the year with virtually no money.

"Those three together made me race and win the F3000 championship. It looked impossible but we had money for Pau and winning there we raised enough to go to the next one."

Roberto won the title. Things were looking up for he had also begun to work as a test driver for Ferrari.

"I had a deal with Marco Piccinini. He would find me a sponsor to continue, which he did, and then he would put me into a F1 team and try and help me. In the third year I would have an option with Ferrari. In 1988 I went to Coloni but then Marco moved out of Ferrari and the whole deal changed. I just had to finish my year with Coloni but he ran out of money."

In the winter Roberto signed for EuroBrun. On paper the deal looked to be promising.

"The plan was for a Neotech engine, US$15million in sponsorship and a techncial centre in England. Two months after I signed we lost the sponsor and, bit by bit, we lost all the good people and the team went down hill. While the other teams tested and improved we fell behind. Walter paid from his own pocket to continue. He didn't want to close it down because there were a lot of people depending on him. He had EuroBrun to try and have some fun and in the end he only had worries.

"His son was born a few days ago and the next day he decided to stop F1."

It was then that the Benetton drive cae up -- out of the blue. But in F1 success is a momentary thing. You are only as good as your last result. As yet Roberto has no drive for 1991. There are a few possibilities, but nothing is settled.

"Hopefully, with a little bit of luck, I can get a good drive for next year," says Roberto. "I couldn't be more delighted than to stay with Benetton. There wouldn't be any other team which would make me happier. I still have a lot to learn, but it's easy to learn from Nelson."

Roberto will have to wait and see.