APRIL 28, 2001

Obituary: Michele Alboreto

I was in the departure lounge at dawn, waiting to get on the plane to Barcelona when the phone rang and I was told that Michele Alboreto had been killed testing an Audi sportscar at the Lausitzring.

I was in the departure lounge at dawn, waiting to get on the plane to Barcelona when the phone rang and I was told that Michele Alboreto had been killed testing an Audi sportscar at the Lausitzring.

And so I pulled out my computer and began to write an obituary - as I have done many times in the past, It is one of those things that one has to do in this business.

I liked Michele. He was what a racing driver should be. And he came so close to superstardom. He was the man who took the fight to Prost in 1985 and very nearly became Italy's first World Champion since Alberto Ascari - and he was driving a Ferrari as well.

Michele was a star when I was a new boy in Formula 1 and he was kind to me. He helped me out because it was in his interest to do so, but also because he was brought up that way. And over the years it was always good to see him. Like most racing drivers he was an oddball. He was quiet but could explode with fiery Latin passion. When he was away from the race tracks he kept himself to himself and lived a quiet life with his wife and his two daughters. He loved listening to blues music. He read science fiction books and had a passion for astronomy.

It may sound odd but the thing I liked about Michele was that he had a dark side to his character. He was not a schoolboy hero type. He could be the bad guy as well. I guess you could call it the killer instinct. Now he is dead everyone will write that he was a fine fellow but those who were at Pau in 1981 will tell you how Michele put Kenny Acheson over a wall and into some trees in the Formula 2 race there. The Ulsterman suffered serious leg injuries.

It is a sad fact that Michele's career peaked before he was 30. His early success with Tyrrell led him to Ferrari in 1984 and the Old Man of Maranello hoped that he finally had an Italian driver who could win a World Championship. In 1985 he nearly did it, but in the autumn Alain Prost pulled ahead and won the title for McLaren. For Michele it was never really the same after that. In 1986, 1987 and 1988 he battled on at Ferrari but the machinery was not up to the job. To make matters worse the young Gerhard Berger had arrived and Michele found himself being overtaken as the team's number one driver. He negotiated a deal with Williams but something went wrong - it was never really explained - and a furious Michele was left without a topline drive for 1989.

`"Everything was done by Hockenheim in July," he said later. "I didn't sign a contract because Frank said there was a

difficult situation with the team, but it was close enough to open a bottle of champagne with some mutual friends in a hotel room. From mid-July to September I had kept asking him to tell me if he had a problem because I had other good

opportunities. He continued to say "Absolutely, I want you. Keep quiet. Don't move because you will drive for me." I said OK. I trusted him. At the end of September he called me and said "I'm sorry Michele, I can't give you the drive." It put me in a very difficult situation."

In the end Ken Tyrrell came to his rescue but within a few months Tyrrell had added insult to injury by dropping Michele in favor of new boy Jean Alesi, who came with a pile of money from Camel. Michele was a Marlboro driver.

He ended the year driving for Larrousse.

But he never gave up hope and did a deal with Arrows to lead the team in its new relationship with Porsche and the Footwork company. History relates that this was a disaster. Michele bore it well although his sense of humor was somewhat taxed when he suffered some sort of mechanical failure going through Tamburello Corner at Imola (where Ayrton Senna would later die) and hit the wall, emerging with a gashed leg from a huge fiery accident. He took 14 stitches and hobbled for a while.

He stayed on with Arrows until the end of 1992 when steel baron Beppe Lucchini offered him what looked like another good chance with Scuderia Italia-run Ferrari-engined Lolas and sponsorship from Marlboro-related Chesterfield. Once again Fate was unkind. The Lola was no good and the team fell apart and in the end merged with Minardi. Michele went to Faenza. His last season in F1 was 1994. It was miserable. At Imola after Senna's accident a wheelnut fell off his car and he slewed into a group of mechanics.

At the end of the year Michele Alboreto said good-bye to F1 after nearly 200 Grands Prix. He had won five. He tried various other forms of racing in 1995, including touring cars and in 1996 briefly appeared in the Indy Racing League but it was, inevitably, to sportscars that he gravitated and in 1997 he shared a TWR-run Porsche with his old Ferrari team mate Stefan Johansson and Tom Kristensen to victory in the Le Mans 24 Hours.

He came back to the F1 paddock once or twice but never seemed to be very comfortable. And the memories of what had happened with Williams stayed with him. When he appeared on the stand at the Senna Trial his testimony against the team was damning.

"I am here to defend Senna's memory," he said. "Senna deserves the recognition that his death was not his fault."

They were worthy words but one could not help but remember what had happened in the past with Williams and wonder if that had perhaps played a part in his words that day.

This kind of passion was at the core of the man. It was the passion that drove him in 1976, when he was a student of technical design, to design his own racing car. The CMR was not a success in Formula Monza but it got him started. The passion remained with him.

"When I wake up in the morning the first thing that I would like to do is to drive a car," he told me once. "As long as I have this passion I will continue."

And so he did.