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Nearly Ascari's successor



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Michele Alboreto


Tyrrell-Cosworth 011


Caesar's Palace


1982 Las Vegas GP


Atmo-David slaying Turbo-Goliath? What would you expect on a Mickey Mouse circuit…

The 1982 Las Vegas GP saw young Italian Michele Alboreto welcomed to the Grand Prix winners' circle and since he would repeat the trick at the 1983 Detroit GP, in the process gaining Tyrrell's and Cosworth's last victory, he was a star in the making. Both Tyrrells 011 and 012 were the best since the P34 six-wheeler, and certainly the best atmospherically powered F1 car in a growing turbo field. With the nimble machine Alboreto shone on twisty tracks and street circuits, upstaging many established name. It came as no surprise that Michele was sought out for Ferrari in the same way Jean Alesi was picked after repeating the Atmo-Tyrrell phenomenon in the dying days of the turbo.

Still, the Italian gentleman's F1 career - which was extended beyond reasonable and non-embarrassing length - never really took off in the way his first wins predicted. And again, just as with Alesi, the guilty party is easily found: Michele and Jean's prolonged stays at Ferrari were during a Maranello era spent deep in the doldrums. Michele did mount a serious title offense. Challenging for the crown in 1985, it is hard to believe Alboreto took his final win during that same season, at the "Neue Nürburgring". Amazingly, the Ferrari team never won until late in 1987 when Berger managed to take two wins and effectively took over as team leader. The 1988 season was spent in the shadow of the dominant McLaren team and only the lucky win at Monza late in 1988 for Berger where one "desert fox" named Jean-Louis Schlesser came in the way of leading Senna and destroyed the perfect season for the McLaren team. But by that time Michele was already on his way out.

Alboreto took the usual trail on his way to Formula One. During the late seventies he drove in minor formulae like Formula Italia and Formula 3. He had much success and finished runner-up in the 1979 Italian F3 series and won the Euro series in 1980. During 1980-'81 he was also part of the Martini Lancia Group 5/Group 6 sportscar team and he won a race at Watkins Glen in 1981 in the little Lancia barchetta. He also contested the Euro F2 series for Minardi and won the Misano round.

Invariably shining during his busy schedule, Alboreto had made quite a name for himself. So Ken Tyrrell, always lurching around for talent, was keen to sign the young Italian for his GP team, which had reached an all-time low during 1981. With backing from Imola Ceramiche and talent to spare Michele quickly took Tyrrell out of his misery, culminating in a big sponsorship deal with Italian perfume company Denim and a surprise end-of-year win on the Ceasars Palace parking lot in Las Vegas. Still two-timing in sportscars he also won three races in the fast but fragile Martini Lancia LC2. In 1983 the Tyrrell fairytale continued with Benetton sponsorship and a win in the motor capital of the world, Detroit. But when Michele left for Ferrari and Benetton chose to go with Pavanello's Alfa team, the Tyrrell team quickly went from bad to worse, enjoying some joyful spells with Bellof, Brundle and Alesi and introducing the anhedral wing in the process, but generally they were the disappointment of the season - no lucrative engine deal with Renault or Honda or sponsorship from Braun or Nokia could stop the rot. Tyrrell would never win a race again and after 1998 the Tyrrell name disappeared from the sport.

Meanwhile at Ferrari, Alboreto scored three more wins - one in 1984 and two in 1985 - taking his tally of GP wins to five. The last one at the Nürburgring saw Michele possibly rob team mate Stefan Johansson of a win when he nudged the Johansson's rear tyre with his front wing, on the way into the first corner. When Michele's Ferrari contract wasn't renewed he looked elsewhere and in July he received an offer from Frank Williams. They reached an agreement. He hadn't signed yet but said, "It was close enough to open a bottle of champagne with some mutual friends in a hotelroom." Still worried, Alboreto later asked Frank to confirm his position and he was told, "Absolutely, I want you. Keep quiet and don't move because you will drive for me." By the end of September he was told he could't drive for Williams. Typical Williams driver management, that.

It put Michele in a difficult situation and he actually thought of retirement. It would have been the easy way out and his family pushed him hard to quit. But he admitted, "When I wake up in the morning the first thing I want to do is to drive, so as long as I have this passion for racing I will continue."

Early 1989 Alboreto gave his views on the development of the 639/640 Ferrari: "I am not a technician and happy to admit it, but I have seen many racing cars in my time and I think this is a bad car. That gear change system is just a bad idea, which isn't going to offer any advantage. I am extremely happy I will not be driving it and to be honest I feel sorry for Nigel Mansell."

Oh, what midjudgement. As Mansell went on to win the opening race of the season, Alboreto rejoined Tyrrell, Michele's personal agreement with Marlboro providing him with his salary. Still, the lack of budget should have had Michele worry before signing for Ken. By mid-season, and through showing no form at all, he was out of a job - much in the same way Nicola Larini was later canned at Sauber. At Monaco, Michele was told to use the old 017 car because the second 018 was not completed. Palmer was chosen to drive the new monoshock 018. He would have to wait until Saturday for the 018 and decided not to accept this. The result was a personal boycott of Thursday practice. Understandably, this lack of professional behaviour did not go down well with the team, and his eventual 5th place in the Monaco race didn't help much.

Then Ken Tyrrell found some Camel sponsorship prior to the French GP: with a personal Marlboro contract providing for Michele's salary, this spelled trouble for the Italian. He was told to quit his Marlboro contract. Alboreto decided against it and left the team. No one could foresee his successor would mimick his career path.

Then Michele was dealt another blow when Marlboro refused to arrange another drive. He was simply told he didn't belong to the Marlboro fold anymore since he wasn't driving in F1! Later on in the season he drove some races for the Larrousse team. But in Hungary he cut a chicane during qualifying and broke two ribs in the process. The rest of the season was really painful and so he concluded that this had been the worst season of his career.

For 1990, things looked on the up again: Michele did a deal to join the promising Footwork-sponsored Arrows team. This was to be a transition year for the big break would come in 1991. The team had secured Porsche works engines and had good finances from Japan. But seldom promise has not been lived up to in this amount than with the disastrous Footwork-Porsche project. Soon the overweight Porsche engines disappeared and the team had to rely on Hart-sourced DFR engines for the rest of the season.

Thanks to their Japanese connections the team got a supply of Mugen Honda V10 engines for 1992. The FA13 was pretty and reliable and Michele did score points on several occasions, while six times he finished just outside the points in 7th place. From now on Alboreto's GP career was taking a definitive downturn. It's best to leave the horrible Ferrari-engined BMS Lola unmentioned while for 1994 Alboreto concluded his GP career with perennial backmarkers Minardi after a record of 194 GP contested and five wins.

So what next for Michele? The usual retirement home for GP drivers of course: the US of A. But he did a year in the German DTM series before he went overseas. He then signed for Andy Evans' Scandia team and was one of the starters in the inaugural IRL race at Walt Disney World in Florida on January 20, 1996. That year IRL was run to 1995 CART regulations and he drove a Ford-powered Reynard 95I. He also did his Indy 500 debut in 1996 and after starting 12th his gearbox gave up after 43 laps. Michele's Indy career ended after a single year after which his career was spent in sportscars. His Scandia contract allowed him back into a Ferrari once again, driving a 333SP in the IMSA series. He also did Le Mans one-offs for the Joest Porsche team, and this resulted in a glorious Le Mans win with former team mate Stefan Johansson in 1997.

For 1999, he was back with Joest, now driving the V8 Audi R8 sportscar, entering both at Sebring where he finished 3rd, and at Le Mans where he finished 4th after lots of gearbox trouble. His once black hair turned grey but he still retained his passion for racing. Turned 44 years of age, and very much a mainstay of the Audi Le Mans steamroller, he wasn't thinking about quitting. He even tried to persuade his old Ferrari mate Gerhard Berger away from BMW management to go Audi sportscar racing with him and Stefan Johansson - the three ex-Ferrarisketeers they would have made. Sadly, the Audi R8 would be Michele's death, as a freak tyre blow-out caused his R8 to smash into the wall during practice for Le Mans 2001 at the ill-fated Eurospeedway Lausitz.

Michele was also a witness in the Senna trial. This was his view: "Senna's swerve to the right makes me think it was a mechanical failure. The situation at Imola was not exceptional. We've raced in much worse conditions than that. I hope this trial helps us to understand what happened to Senna, because we didn't understand it at the moment. Mechanical failures are normal, given the strain of races. People always aim to go to the limits, but no engineer can ignore safety." Alboreto added however, "You can't take the sport to court. It would have been better if the investigation into Senna's crash had been carried out by the sporting world."

Reader's Why by Enoch Law & Jamie McGregor

Many drivers possibly take their first Grand Prix victory as children daydreaming in a car park. Michele Alboreto, however, the son of a kindergarten teacher, did it in real life by winning the season-ending 1982 Las Vegas Grand Prix, held in the car park of the Caesars Palace hotel, on a track which was monotonous at best and excruciatingly dull at worst. It had the track design from hell, and perhaps more pit crew than spectators. In doing so, Alboreto gave Tyrrell its first win for several years, and marked himself as a man to watch.

His early career had seen him take the Italian Fiat Abarth championship in 1978, and be runner-up in Italian F3 in 1979. 4 wins saw him secure the European F3 title in 1980, and this landed him a drive for Giancarlo Minardi in F2, and 12 races for Ken Tyrrell in F1 for 1981. In those 12 outings he failed to qualify twice and retired five times, but he had done enough for wily old Ken to predict that he would win a race the next year.

Staying with Tyrrell for 1982, he was to be partnered by Slim Borgudd, but money was running short and the Swede wasnt delivering, although Candy sponsorship kept them going, and the 011 chassis delivered Michele a string of consistent points-scoring finishes. By the end of the season, Borgudd was replaced by Brian Henton, while aerodynamic improvements had made the Tyrrell a very competitive package, and Denim Musk sponsorship had cured Tyrrells financial woes for the last two races.

Going into the last race of the season at Las Vegas, Alboreto was sitting outside the top ten in the drivers championship with 16 points, while all eyes were on Keke Rosberg, who was leading the title chase. The Finn needed to score one point, while John Watson needed to win with Rosberg out of the points.

Despite all the hype, the race fizzed. The Renaults of Prost and Arnoux were on the front row with Alboreto a superb third, while Rosberg was 6th and Watson 9th. As it turned out, Arnoux's engine expired while Prost suffered a tyre imbalance which meant that, under braking, he was being shaken like a Bloody Mary (according to Automobile Sport, anyway). Alboreto thus took the lead on the 52nd lap out of 75 and never looked back. While Watson came a distant 2nd, Rosbergs calm drive to 5th netted him two points and the championship. The nine points for Alboreto, though, lifted him to equal 7th in the title with 25 points.

In the future, he would win once more for Tyrrell in 1983 (Kens last ever victory) before transferring to the spiritual home of every Italian driver, Ferrari. A solitary win in 1984 was backed up by victories in Germany and Canada in 1985 which saw him lead the title chase for several months before eventually succumbing to Alain Prosts supremacy.

This was the beginning of the end for Michele; the pressure of being a good Italian driver in the scarlet car was too great. A fruitless 1986 in a poor car was followed by two seasons in which he was totally outdriven by Gerhard Berger, and increasingly unwelcome at Maranello.

While expecting a Williams drive in 1989 (which eventually went to Thierry Boutsen), he returned to Tyrrell, scoring a fine 3rd in Mexico, before a mysterious fall-out with boss Ken saw him move to struggling Larrousse for the second half of the season.

A move to Arrows in 1990 was no better, while 1991 with Porsche engines was about as low as he could go. Or so he probably thought. For after an Indian summer with a resurgent Footwork/Mugen in 1992, he hit rock bottom with BMS Scuderia Italia Lola (using Ferrari engines) in 1993, when he was consistently outpaced by F3000 graduate Luca Badoer. His final season in F1, in 1994 for Minardi, saw him score one point at Monaco, but he became disenchanted by the tragic events of that year.

Since then he has raced in the DTM for Alfa Romeo, the IRL in 1996, and sports cars for Ferrari, Porsche and Audi, winning Le Mans in 1997 with Stefan Johansson and Tom Kristensen. 1999 saw him race occasionally in the ALMS, his best being 3rd at Sebring with Rinaldo Capello.