Category Archives: The Driver Files

The Driver Files: JJ Lehto

IN A NEW regular series, I will be profiling the careers of those drivers who won races and championships and those who either didn’t get the luck, or just failed at the top level of motorsport.  All drivers featured will have competed between the years 1991-2011.

The next driver on the list is JJ Lehto, who had some natural speed but lacked luck, consistency and has fallen on hard times especially since his F1 career ended.

JJ Lehto’s best season came with Sauber in 1993 (ESPN)

NAME: JJ Lehto

TEAMS: Onyx (1989-1990), Dallara (1991-1992), Sauber (1993-1994), Benetton (1994)

POINTS: 10

GP STARTS: 62

BEST FINISH: 3rd (1991 San Marino GP)

THE Finns have produced three Formula One world champions in Keke Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen.  JJ Lehto was another Scandinavian who seemed to have been born with natural speed but luck and injury seemed to be against him.

Lehto won junior formula titles in Britain and Scandinavia but struggled in the international Formula 3000 series in 1989 racing for Pacific.  Fourth place at the event in Pau was the only highlight.  However Lehto was in Formula One by the end of the season, competing for the Onyx team.  He took over from Bertrand Gachot but failed to pre-qualify for his first event in Portugal and didn’t make much of an impression in the other events.  He stayed on for 1990 but by now, the team were in dire financial difficulties.  He recorded only one finish, 12th at the San Marino Grand Prix as both he and Gregor Foitek always struggled to get out of pre-qualifying.  The team folded shortly after the Hungarian race and it left JJ out of a drive and at this time, a danger he might be quickly forgotten about.

A test for Ferrari though before his Onyx days came back to him when he signed up to drive for the Scuderia Italia or Dallara team as they better known.  The close links between the two at the time helping with Lehto being signed up alongside Emanuele Pirro.  Once again, finishes were at a premium thanks to poor reliability but out of the five times he got to the chequered flag, there was a memorable result at Imola.  In mixed conditions, he kept his cool to record a shock podium finish where others fell off the road.

He stayed on with Dallara for 1992, with Pirro replaced by Pierluigi Martini.  Sadly, there were no points but more a more reliable car and some creditable qualifying performances.  Seventh at Spa was his best result.  Dallara went bust and Lehto was a free agent again.  The new Sauber team snapped him up for 1993 and this was his most consistent and best season.  He qualified sixth on the team’s debut in Kyalami and finished fifth in wet conditions.  Another fourth place followed at Imola although he didn’t get along well with Karl Wendlinger, his team-mate.  Crashing into him on the first lap in Monte Carlo didn’t help relations.  As the season drifted towards its end, he got involved in more incidents with other drivers and Sauber decided not to renew his contract.

Flavio Briatore noticed something and put him into the Benetton team alongside Michael Schumacher for 1994.  Luck deserted him when he sustained a serious neck injury thanks to a testing crash at Silverstone.  He was forced to sit out for the first two races and returned at Imola.  Still struggling with his neck injury, JJ’s qualifying effort of fifth was excellent.  However he was seriously affected by the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger and he had his own lucky escape on raceday when he stalled his car and was ploughed into by Pedro Lamy in the Lotus.

He lost a certain third place in Barcelona thanks to a late engine failure and raced well to a point in Canada but injury and a loss of confidence saw him rested by Briatore in favour of test driver Jos Verstappen.  He returned to Benetton for two races when Schumacher was banned by the FIA for the black flag infringement but struggled still and a final shot at Sauber in the final two races didn’t work out.  Looking tired and confused after a traumatic campaign, Lehto was finished in F1.

He moved into sportscars afterwards and actually won the Le Mans 24 Hours twice, for McLaren in 1995 and Audi in 2005.  He was an expert commentator on Formula One for Finnish Television and there was an unsuccessful season in CART in 1998 and he has fallen on tough times in recent years.

In June 2010, Lehto was involved in a boating accident in Finland, killing a passenger and leaving the Finn with injuries.  He faced charges of reckless driving and driving under the influence of alcohol at the time of the accident.  Last December, JJ Lehto was sentenced to two years in jail, found guilty on two charges of homicide and drunk driving of a boat.  He denied all the charges and has served intention to appeal.

NEXT TIME ON THE DRIVER FILES: One of the most experienced drivers on the Grand Prix grid, Riccardo Patrese.

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The Driver Files: Jan Magnussen

IN A NEW regular series, I will be profiling the careers of those drivers who won races and championships and those who either didn’t get the luck, or just failed at the top level of motorsport.  All drivers featured will have competed between the years 1991-2011.

The next driver featured is the Dane who came with big potential and left with relatively little to show for his efforts midway through 1998, Jan Magnussen.

Jan Magnussen’s one-off drive for McLaren in 1995 was a rare highlight (Global F1)

NAME: Jan Magnussen

TEAMS: McLaren (1995), Stewart (1997-1998)

POINTS: 1

GP STARTS: 25

BEST FINISH: 6th (1998 Canadian GP)

NOW 38 years old, Jan Magnussen was one of Denmark’s highest hopes but in Formula One, it all went badly wrong.  This isn’t to say that he wasn’t a bad driver, sometimes things don’t go according to form and plan.  A real shame for a driver who threatened great things in his junior career.

Magnussen came into Formula One with a huge reputation, especially after dismantling the competition in the 1994 British Formula 3 Championship.  Competing for Paul Stewart Racing, he beat Ayrton Senna’s record of 13 wins in a season.  Once he won the second event at Donington Park in April 1994, the title trophy might as well been awarded to him.  Jan won six of the first eight races and ended up with a final total of 14 wins from 18 starts.  Magnussen ended with a total of 308 points, a massive 125 points clear of his nearest challenger, which was Belgian Vincent Radermacker.

Magnussen did some testing for McLaren in 1995 and when regular driver Mika Hakkinen went down with appendicitis, Magnussen was drafted into the team for the Pacific Grand Prix in 1995.  He actually did fairly well, having a good dice with Rubens Barrichello’s Jordan throughout and finished a creditable tenth, just behind team-mate Mark Blundell.  After some touring car racing in 1996, Jan got his big break with the new Stewart Grand Prix team.  Having raced in Paul Stewart’s F3 team, he was seen the perfect fit to partner the experienced and versatile Barrichello in 1997.

The season was always going to be a learning experience and Magnussen’s confidence took a severe hit.  No points in 17 races and not many finishes either, as the Ford engine often tended to blow up rather than survive to the chequered flag.  Seventh in the wet Monaco Grand Prix was his best result and ninth at the season finale in Jerez was a solid effort, having raced the Benetton’s and Olivier Panis in the Prost for most of the event.  The Dane’s best race came at the A1-Ring, where he qualified an excellent sixth and ran as high as fourth, ahead of Heinz-Harald Frentzen and David Coulthard amongst others.  Magnussen slipped to tenth after the team put him on the wrong pit strategy and a broken driveshaft eventually ended his race.

1998 started even worse, when he took himself and Ralf Schumacher off on the third lap in Melbourne.  He was miles behind Barrichello in the same car, qualifying slowest in Argentina, 21st at Imola and 20th in Barcelona.  Stories about his future continued to put Magnussen under pressure, so crashing into Barrichello at the first corner at Imola didn’t help matters.  By the time of the seventh event in 1998, Magnussen had to deliver a brilliant performance and another dismal qualifying effort in Montreal, again in 20th left him fighting against a huge tidalwave.  His race was highly impressive, running fourth and keeping a consistent pace throughout.  Although he got some luck in the amount of retirements in Canada, he scored a championship point in sixth.  Sadly the damage had already been done and Jackie Stewart replaced him with Dutchman Jos Verstappen for the rest of the season.

Since his F1 rejection, Magnussen has turned into an almost complete motorsport competitor.  He has raced in CART, Danish Touring Cars and more predominately in sportscars.  At Le Mans every year since 1999, his best finish at La Sarthe has been fourth in 2003 and 2006.

Sir Jackie Stewart once said Jan Magnussen was the greatest young talent since the early days of Ayrton Senna.  Sadly his Formula One experience turned into a forgettable, rather than a memorable time.

NEXT TIME ON THE DRIVER FILES:  Flying Finn JJ Lehto, who has fallen on hard times of late but had spectacular natural speed. 

The Driver Files: Jean Alesi

IN A NEW regular series, I will be profiling the careers of those drivers who won races and championships and those who either didn’t get the luck, or just failed at the top level of motorsport.  All drivers featured will have competed between the years 1991-2011.

Next to be profiled was an enigmatic and often moody, yet spectacular Frenchman who had only one moment of glory to show for his 200+ events in the sport, Jean Alesi.

Jean Alesi celebrates his one and only win at the 1995 Canadian Grand Prix (MotorsportRetro)

NAME: Jean Alesi

TEAMS: Tyrrell (1989-1990), Ferrari (1991-1995), Benetton (1996-1997), Sauber (1998-1999), Prost (2000-2001), Jordan (2001)

POINTS: 241

GP STARTS: 201

BEST FINISH: WINNER (1) – (1995 Canadian GP)

JEAN Alesi was one of Grand Prix racing’s leading stars in the 1990s.  He was awesome in the rain, often searing fast on a flying lap and put in some spectacular performances against the odds.  Therefore, for someone who drove for Ferrari and Benetton between 1991 and 1997, it seems staggering to think that the Frenchman only ever won one Grand Prix in his entire career.  Alesi had some rotten luck and also had his off days.  Plus he was never shy to criticise anyone if he was unhappy with the setup of his car.  An emotional character who was always committed and in many’s eyes, deserved more but for some dodgy career moves.

Alesi was a rising star from an early age and was actually into rallying rather than motor racing in his early days.  He graduated through the French motorsport system which was thriving at the time and won the F3000 championship in 1989.  Tied on points with compatriot Erik Comas, Alesi’s three wins including at Pau and Birmingham were enough to give him the title as Comas could only win twice.  This followed a French Formula 3 title in 1987.

By now, Jean’s big break in Formula One had already arrived.  Ken Tyrrell gave him his debut at the 1989 French Grand Prix, replacing the experienced Italian Michele Alboreto.  He finished a stunning fourth on his debut and further points finishes at Monza and at Jerez meant despite only contesting eight races, Alesi finished in the top ten in the drivers championship.

1990 was his first full year in F1 and Alesi stayed at Tyrrell, now partnered by Satoru Nakajima.  At the season opener in Phoenix, he wrestled his car to fourth on the grid and then took the lead at the first corner.  He easily resisted the challenge of Gerhard Berger’s McLaren and then went on to have an entertaining dice with Ayrton Senna for the lead.  Senna overtook him but the Frenchman was not daunted and cheekily repassed the great Brazilian on the very next corner.  Senna eventually overwhelmed him but Alesi’s star was born with a brilliant second place.  A fine second placed finish in Monaco backed up his talent and although there were some iffy performances in the second half of the season, 13 points was enough for ninth in the championship.

Tyrrell were keen to hold onto him, especially with Honda engines coming onboard.  However Williams signed a contract with him although Alesi’s preferred destination was with Ferrari.  Nigel Mansell’s decision to leave Ferrari opened the door for Alesi to get his dream move.  He would be partnered alongside three-time world champion Alain Prost.  Surely it was a match in heaven.  However 1991 was a disaster as Ferrari entered a period of being in the doldrums.  Alesi retired nine times, often because the car let him down.  Third placed finishes in Monaco, Germany and Portugal reminded everyone of his skill but with little reward.  Prost was fired before the season’s end after describing the 1991 Ferrari as a ‘truck.’  Williams went onto dominate the 90s so had Alesi gone with his head over his heart, he could well have been a multiple champion.

Ferrari continued to struggle in 1992 and 1993 and Jean’s frustration began to show with regular mistakes creeping into the car’s abysmal reliability issues.  A fine second placed finish at Monza in 1993 was the only highlight of a dreadful two seasons.  The Ferrari 412T1 in 1994 was a marked improvement, taking Alesi to podium finishes in Brazil, Silverstone and in Japan after a thrilling dice in the rain with Mansell.  1994 also saw his maiden pole position at Monza of all places but gearbox failure in the pits whilst 12 seconds ahead of eventual race winner Damon Hill robbed him of certain victory.  The final year with the Scuderia brought more consistent results although he still could not better fifth in the drivers championship.

There were second place finishes in Argentina, San Marino and Britain and fine performances led to nothing from Japan in a trademark Alesi surge through the field, Spain with a blown V12 engine and again at Monza, as wheel bearing failure denied him another potential success on tifosi homeland.  Alesi broke down in tears after this event.  However there were no such issues at the Canadian Grand Prix.

Having qualified fifth, Alesi snatched third from his team-mate Gerhard Berger when the Williams of David Coulthard spun off on lap three.  He eased past Damon Hill and on his 31st birthday, looked set for an excellent second place finish.  For once, lady luck was shining on Alesi and dominant race leader, Michael Schumacher suffered a gear selection glitch that lost him a full minute.  Driving the famous No.27 in Montreal, the number Canadian hero Gilles Villeneuve had in his Ferrari days, Alesi took the chequered flag at his 91st attempt.  His Ferrari ran out of fuel on the slowing down lap to complete his lucky day.  However after all the bad luck in his career, no-one could deny Jean his deserving moment on the top step of the podium.

With Schumacher moving to Ferrari for 1996, Alesi and Berger moved from Ferrari to double champions Benetton.  Fourth in the championship with 46 points, Alesi’s best total for any season.  There were eight visits to the podium but no wins, although the crazy Monaco Grand Prix was his until wheel bearing problems intervened, AGAIN!  Alesi’s relationship with Flavio Briatore was always a strained one and a kamikaze attempt to take the lead from row five at the start of the 1996 Japanese Grand Prix saw him destroy his Benetton B196 on the exit of turn two.  Briatore was furious, as it allowed Ferrari in to finish second in the constructors championship and claimed that Alesi had crashed on purpose to help his former team.  From that moment on, he was damaged goods at Benetton and 1997 was not much better.  At the season opener, Alesi blatantly ignored constant pit calls to come in for fuel and ultimately grounded to a halt, out of petrol.  ITV commentator Murray Walker summed up the mood in the Benetton pit during the race, as they looked absolutely furious at Alesi’s refusal to come into the pits.  He said; “Oh Jean, you’ve got a major problem when you get back to the pits sunshine.”  There were second placed finishes at Montreal, Silverstone and the Nurburgring and another pole position at Monza but Jean’s time was up with Benetton and he jumped ship to Sauber.

Partnered with Johnny Herbert, Alesi cleverely moulded the team around him and drove out of his skin in 1998 to often qualify the car in the top ten and run strongly in the race.  He survived the Spa carnage to finish third, pushing the two Jordan’s all the way to the finish.  Fifth in Argentina and Monza plus sixth at Imola enabled Jean to outscore Herbert by 9-1.  1999 was more disappointing, with some shambolic performances such as qualifying 21st for the German Grand Prix!  When another mechanical problem cost him a potential fourth place in Budapest, the emotional Alesi announced he was leaving Sauber at the end of the year, frustrated with lack of progress and more preferential treatment that paydriver Pedro Diniz seemed to be getting.  Mind you Diniz outscored Alesi in 1999, so the team had a point.

A link-up with former Ferrari team-mate Alain Prost at his team for 2000 was a disaster.  There were no points, with ninth and last at the Nurburgring being his best result.  There were 12 retirements, the Peugeot engine kept blowing up and the car was a slow as a Morris Minor.  In Austria, Alesi committed the ultimate crime by driving into his rookie team-mate Nick Heidfeld, two weeks after Heidfeld had hit him at his home race in Magny-Cours.  He was happier in 2001 with a customer Ferrari engine and there were superb drives in Monaco and Montreal to gain much-needed points for the ailing Prost outfit.

When Jordan mysteriously sacked Heinz-Harald Frentzen on the eve of the 2001 German Grand Prix, Alesi decided to leave Prost, much to Alain’s annoyance and join Jordan.  It led to a brief reunion with Eddie Jordan who had Alesi in his F3000 team during 1989 when he won the title.  Sixth place at Spa and seventh on his 200th GP start at Indianapolis were the best results as Alesi fought to retain his drive for 2002, alongside one of his best friends in the paddock, Giancarlo Fisichella.  However Honda’s insistence on placing Japanese backed Takuma Sato in the car meant Alesi made a sudden decision to retire from racing on the eve of the Japanese Grand Prix.  Sadly he was involved in a scary accident on lap six with Kimi Raikkonen, when the Finn’s rear suspension broke on his Sauber and Alesi t-boned him.  Amazingly both drivers walked away.  The DNF denied Alesi a record of finishing in every single Grand Prix in 2001.

Jean has continued to race since his F1 retirement, spending four solid seasons competing for Mercedes in the DTM series, winning four races including two at Donington Park.  He competed at Le Mans in Fisichella’s Ferrari team in 2010, finishing fourth in class and is an ambassador for the Lotus Formula One team.  Later this month, Alesi will attempt to qualify and compete for Newman Haas at the legendary Indianapolis 500.

Jean Alesi was one of the greatest mysteries in the 1990s.  He only won one race but won many fans around the world for his aggressive and charging driving style.  With a bit more luck and better career judgement, who knows what career he could have carved out for himself in Formula One.

NEXT TIME ON THE DRIVER FILES:  The most dominant British Formula 3 career led to a loss of confidence and the sack from a three-time world champion.  The struggles of Dane, Jan Magnussen

The Driver Files: Marc Gene

IN A NEW regular series, I will be profiling the careers of those drivers who won races and championships and those who either didn’t get the luck, or just failed at the top level of motorsport.  All drivers featured will have competed between the years 1991-2011.

Next to be profiled is one of the first Spaniards to reach the Grand Prix grid before the Fernando Alonso era, Marc Gene.

Marc Gene using all the kerbs at Spa during his solid debut season for Minardi in 1999 (RichardsF1)

NAME: Marc Gene

TEAMS: Minardi (1999-2000), Williams (2003-2004)

POINTS: 5

GP STARTS: 36

BEST FINISH: 5th (2003 Italian GP)

IT SEEMS odd to think of a time when Spain really had no interest in Formula One.  Before Fernando Alonso burst onto the scene, motorbikes dominanted the landscape of the country.  The race in Barcelona was sparesly populated and that didn’t really change when Marc Gene entered the sport.  Gene was a fighter and has proven to be successful in other formulas, notably in sportscars.  Like so many others before and after him though, Formula One wasn’t a great success.

Gene came into F1 with the underfunded Minardi team in 1999, replacing hopeless Argentine Esteban Tuero.  Before his Grand Prix break, Gene’s highlight of his junior career was winning the Open Fortuna of Nissan championship in 1998.  Marc was paired in Formula One alongside Luca Badoer and actually needed special dispensation to start his first event in Australia.  The season was a real struggle but Marc kept his nose clean and was a regular finisher to the chequered flag.  He qualified 15th in Germany, ahead of both Saubers and Johnny Herbert’s Stewart and beat Alessandro Zanardi’s Williams fair and square to ninth place in Malaysia.

Minardi’s moment of fortune came at the unpredictable 1999 European Grand Prix.  Badoer looked set for fourth place before mechanical gremlins struck.  Gene made some smart strategy calls and held off Eddie Irvine’s Ferrari to finish sixth and take the team’s first championship point since 1995.  More importantly for Minardi, it meant they beat BAR in the constructors championship and earned extra bonuses in travel money and prize rewards which were badly needed.

Gene continued with Minardi into 2000 with another Argentine no-hoper Gaston Mazzacane alongside.  Again he got the most out of a difficult car and embarrassed some big names in qualifying during the season.  This time there were no points but solid eighth placed results in Australia and Austria; the latter saw him beat Pedro Diniz’s Sauber and the Benetton of Alexander Wurz.

With Paul Stoddart buying the team in 2001, Gene moved onto a testing role with the BMW Williams team.  He drove in place of a concussed Ralf Schumacher at the 2003 Italian Grand Prix, qualifying a phenonemal fifth at short notice.  He even led the race for a lap and finished a solid fifth to keep the team ahead at the time in the cosntructors championship.  In 2004 Schumacher Jnr was sidelined for several races by a back injury sustained in a heavy crash at Indianapolis.  Once again Gene deputised but this time, with less success.  He qualified eighth and finished a distant tenth in France, despite setting a quicker lap than Juan Pablo Montoya in the race.  Silverstone was more of a struggle, starting 11th and finishing 12th.  Gene was replaced by Antonio Pizzonia for the German Grand Prix and has not raced in Formula One since.

At the beginning of 2005, Gene signed a testing contract with Ferrari but his racing career in F1 was over.  Today he is a pundit on the Spanish broadcaster LaSexta for Grand Prix.  His Ferrari testing contract expired at the end of 2010, but Marc has had a successful time at the Le Mans 24 Hours for Peugeot.  He finished second in 2008 alongside Jacques Villeneuve and Nicolas Minassian.  A year later he drove the final stint and together with Wurz and David Brabham, won the classic event to end Audi’s domination at Le Sarthe.

Marc Gene is another example of getting the best out of some poor car equipment and little out of a better car in Formula One.  Nevertheless his technical feedback and honest approach to racing made him a worthy addition to any backmarker team or leading constructor in a testing capacity in F1.

NEXT TIME ON THE DRIVER FILES: The mercurial and grumpy Frenchman who offered glimpses of form but infuriated many, Jean Alesi

The Driver Files: Satoru Nakajima

IN A NEW regular series, I will be profiling the careers of those drivers who won races and championships and those who either didn’t get the luck, or just failed at the top level of motorsport.  All drivers featured will have competed between the years 1991-2011.

The next entry was a breakthrough driver and gave Japan its first sight of the sport, which has continued to grow ever since.  A pioneer for Japanese motorsport; Satoru Nakajima.

Limited success, but Satoru Nakajima's time in F1 was big for Japan (datsun)

NAME: Satoru Nakajima

TEAMS: Lotus (1987-1989), Tyrrell (1990-1991)

POINTS: 16

GP STARTS: 74

BEST FINISH: 4th (1987 British GP)

BORN from a farming family, Satoru Nakajima had a passion for motorsport from an early age.  His success in Formula One was largely modest but he set the path for a flux of Japanese drivers like Ukyo Katayama, Takuma Sato and his son Kazuki to have all appeared in the sport.

Nakajima dominanted the Japanese Formula Two series but was a very late entrant into F1 at the age of 34.  He debuted for the famous Lotus team in 1987, part of a new package which included Honda engines and Camel tobacco sponsorship.  Nakajima drove alongside Ayrton Senna in his first season and was determined to be known for his own qualities rather than just a pay driver.  Of course, he couldn’t compete with Senna but he showed flashes of natural speed.  Scoring a point in only his second event at the 1987 San Marino Grand Prix was a good start and Satoru was part of a Honda grand slam at Silverstone, finishing fourth behind Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet and Senna.  A further point in the inaugural Japanese event at Suzuka sent his home supporters mad and he finished a creditable 12th in the championship, having scored seven points in total.

As Senna moved onto McLaren and the bitter rivalry with Alain Prost began, Nakajima stayed with Lotus for 1988 and was partnered by the defending champion Piquet.  The season started prominsingly with a point in Brazil but Nakajima’s shock failure to qualify for Monaco was the beginning of the end for the Lotus Honda partnership, compounded when Piquet crashed in the race on the first lap.  Satoru was never a fan of street circuits and he repeated his Monaco abscence on raceday by failing to make the cut on the temporary and dreadful Detroit circuit for the United States round.  A spate of retirements and mistakes followed in the remainder of the season and it was a case of second season syndrome.  Nakajima scored just one point all season and that was in the first race.

As Honda focused on their dominance with McLaren, Lotus decline had begun.  The team had to take the heavyweight Judd engine for 1989 and the failure of Nakajima and Piquet to qualify for the 1989 Belgian Grand Prix was the first time that the British make had no car on the grid in 30 years.  He failed to qualify in Monaco again and Canada but it came good at the season finale in Australia.  Watched by a massive Japanese audience, Satoru benefited from the filthy conditions in Adelaide to finish fourth from 23rd on the grid.  In a race where staying on the circuit was a notable achievement, he set the fastest lap on lap 64 too.

Two lacklustre years at Tyrrell followed for Nakajima.  He paired up with Jean Alesi for 1990 and scored three sixth place finishes in the USA, Italy and once more on his Japanese homeland at Suzuka.  There was a brief link-up with Honda again in 1991 as Stefano Modena joined Satoru.  Fifth in Phoenix was his only highlight of 1991 although a mechanical problem robbed him of fourth in another wet race at Imola.  He announced his retirement from Formula One at Hockenheim and bowed out with the minimum of fuss.

His F1 career ended but involvement with motorsport didn’t end there.  Satoru worked closely with Honda and helped develop their engines for use in the CART and IRL series over in America.  He managed the brief career in F1 of Tora Takagi in 1998/1999 and he owns the Nakajima Racing entry in Japanese Formula Nippon.  He helped Tom Coronel and Ralph Firman to titles in this competition.  His son Kazuki raced for two seasons with Williams in 2008 and 2009 and today, Satoru still owns his own team in Formula Nippon with both of his two sons competing in the series.

Success in Formula One was limited for Satoru Nakajima but his impact put Japan firmly on the Grand Prix map for good.

NEXT TIME ON THE DRIVER FILES: Moments of glory at the Nurburgring and Monza in a largely unspectacular career and a Spaniard on the grid before the Alonso days, Marc Gene.

The Driver Files: Juan Pablo Montoya

IN A NEW regular series, I will be profiling the careers of those drivers who won races and championships and those who either didn’t get the luck, or just failed at the top level of motorsport.  All drivers featured will have competed between the years 1991-2011.

Next to receive treatment in the Driver Files was a dynamic Colombian who always spoke his mind and gave Michael Schumacher more than a headache on one occasion.  This is the career in Formula One of Juan Pablo Montoya.

Montoya competing in Monaco 2006, one of his final races in the sport (zimbio)

NAME: Juan Pablo Montoya

TEAMS: Williams (2001-2004), McLaren (2005-2006)

POINTS: 307

GP STARTS: 94

BEST FINISH: WINNER (7) (2001 Italian Grand Prix, 2003 Monaco Grand Prix, 2003 German Grand Prix, 2004 Brazilian Grand Prix, 2005 British Grand Prix, 2005 Italian Grand Prix, 2005 Brazilian Grand Prix)

THE motorsport career of Juan Pablo Montoya has been an unrivalled success.  He has adapted to many forms of racing and is one of the leading stars competing in America today.  His experiences in Formula One were frustrating at times to witness.  On his day, Montoya would be almost untouchable and he certainly rattled Michael Schumacher more than once in the dominant Ferrari days.  There were other days where a daft error saw him get deservedly punished or he just didn’t seem to bother.  There was a lot that happened during JPM’s six years in Formula One.

Before the F1 chance came Montoya proved himself through karting and junior series competitions in Britain, finishing fifth in the 1996 British Formula 3 championship.  In 1997, Juan Pablo made the step upto international competition by contesting the F3000 championship for the RSM Marko team.  He won his second event on the Pau circuit and finished second in the championship at his first attempt, missing out on the title to Ricardo Zonta.  He came back the following year and despite some silly basic errors, won the title for Super Nova against Nick Heidfeld.  Montoya also enjoyed some testing for the Williams Formula One team in the same campaign.

With Williams desperate to attract more sponsors, Sir Frank Williams placed Montoya in the competitive CART series for 1999.  He would race for Chip Ganassi whilst Alex Zanardi made the nightmare move in the opposite direction.  Seven wins in his debut season, but some criticised his aggressive approach and he never got the hang of street circuits.  Going into the finale on the Fontana Speedway in California, Montoya trailed Dario Franchitti but got the result he needed to win the title on countback of wins and become the youngest driver at 24 to win the championship.  The celebrations were marred by the tragic death in the race of one of Montoya’s close friends on the CART scene, Greg Moore.  JPM stayed in CART for 2000 but with a switch of chassis and engine combination, he wasn’t a factor for the championship due to unreliability.  He did win in Milwaukee though and dominanted the Indianapolis 500 to win the prestigious race at his first attempt.  With all the boxes ticked in America, Formula One beckoned.

Jenson Button was loaned out to Benetton to make space for Montoya in the BMW Williams team.  2001 was similar to 2000 as his car was unreliable and a few rookie errors such as crashes in Monaco and Canada meant the Colombian only saw the chequered flag on six occasions.  There were plenty of highlights in his debut season though.

He passed Schumacher for the lead in stunning fashion in just his third event in Brazil and made his mark from an early stage.  Had it not been for a piece of idiotic driving from Jos Verstappen in taking him out of the race, Montoya would have won.  His first finish was second place in Barcelona having started a distant 12th.  As the season progressed, Juan Pablo began to get a measure on Ralf Schumacher and should have won at Hockenheim where he took his maiden pole position.  A refuelling rig problem and subsequent engine failure denied him glory in Germany.  There were no mistakes at Monza though, as he held off a stiff challenge from fellow South American Rubens Barrichello to win his first race. Again, celebrations were at a premium as the Monza race was held only days after the 9/11 atoricities.  Another technical problem robbed him of victory in Indianapolis where Schumacher was stylishly passed again.  He finished sixth in the drivers championship with 31 points.

That tally improved to 50 points and third place in the 2002 drivers championship but it was a distant position as Ferrari romped to the title.  The BMW Williams combination was a match for the F2002 on Saturdays and gave Montoya seven pole positions.  In fact, he set the fastest ever average speed for a lap at Monza.  However the Ferrari tended to have the edge on raceday and Montoya couldn’t compete with Schumacher and Barrichello.  There were run-ins with the German in Malaysia, becoming the first ever recipient of a drive-through penalty in the process and in Brazil.  There were no wins, second in Australia, Spain and Germany were his best finishes.

Williams came out with a worse package at the beginning of 2003 and Montoya struggled with chronic oversteer and early reliability issues.  He threw away victory in the season opener in Melbourne with a clumsy spin and crashed out in Brazil.  A rotten engine failure in Austria lost him another victory chance and left JPM a distant seventh in the championship.  His season turned around with a decisive win around the streets of Monte Carlo.  After this, Montoya strung together a run of seven successive podiums which included thrashing the opposition at Hockenheim to win by nearly a minute.

By now the Williams was the fastest package and the championship was potentially his.  Unfortunately he blew his chances at Indianapolis.  A poor start was followed by an amibtious attempt at passing Barrichello on the third lap.  The contact left Rubens in the gravel and the race stewards gave Montoya a drive through penalty for the incident.  He couldn’t recover and sixth place that day ended his hopes.  Schumacher took his sixth title and with the likes of Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso on the scene, Montoya’s place as Michael’s successor began to look under threat.  A radical design of a ‘walrus’ nose backfired in 2004.  Montoya’s relationship with the team was strained and he had already agreed to move to McLaren before the championship even begun.  Juan Pablo could only manage fifth in the championship but signed off his career with Williams in style by winning the team’s last race upto now; the 2004 Brazilian Grand Prix.

The partnership with McLaren in 2005 got off to a nightmare start.  He fractured his shoulder during an incident whilst playing ‘tennis’ in Spain and it forced him out for two races.  Other misdemeanours followed on his return.  He brake tested Ralf Schumacher and caused a four car practice shunt in Monaco, sending him to the back of the grid.  The chance of winning in Canada disappeared when he stupidly missed the pitlane red light and was promptly disqualified.  Montoya’s form improved in the second half of the season as he won brilliantly at Silverstone, Monza and in Brazil.  He finished fourth in the championship with 60 points.

The end of Montoya's career in Formula One at Indianapolis 2006 (crash.net)

By the start of 2006, it soon became clear that Montoya was growing tired of Formula One.  Fernando Alonso had already been signed by McLaren for 2007 and his performances started to decline.  He spun out in Spain, made several errors in Australia and was hopelessly uncompetitive at the Nurburgring.  Third at Imola and second place at Monte Carlo were plus points but his relationship with Ron Dennis was now beyond repair.  At Indianapolis, he triggered a pile-up at the second corner by hitting his team-mate Raikkonen and spinning the pair out.  The incident also ended the races of Jenson Button, Nick Heidfeld and Scott Speed.  A week later, Montoya announced his was moving to the NASCAR series for 2007 and on July 11 2006, McLaren Mercedes confirmed his shock departure from the sport with immediate effect.

The NASCAR journey began with third on his debut at the Talladega Superspeedway.  He has won two races in the NASCAR Sprint Cup and finished eighth in the series overall in 2009 and he won the 24 Hours of Daytona in both 2007 and 2008.  He is happily married to Connie and has three kids.  Today he still competes in NASCAR for the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team.

Juan Pablo Montoya had a lot of talent in Formula One but he wasted his best opportunity to win the title and he didn’t have the required qualities to win the ultimate prize in motorsport.  However, by winning the Monaco Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500 and 24 Hours of Daytona, Montoya is a born winner and he did provide plenty of excitement in his time in Formula One.

NEXT IN THE DRIVER FILES: The first Japanese driver to ever compete in Formula One, Satoru Nakajima. 

The Driver Files: Bertrand Gachot

IN A NEW regular series, I will be profiling the careers of those drivers who won races and championships and those who either didn’t get the luck, or just failed at the top level of motorsport.  All drivers featured will have competed between the years 1991-2011.

The fourth driver featured in The Driver Files will be best remembered for a high-profile incident off-track which led to the big break for a certain seven time world champion.  Profiled is the Belgian, Bertrand Gachot.

Bertrand Gachot had a great time with Jordan...until his conviction in 1991 (Richards F1)

NAME: Bertrand Gachot

TEAMS: Onyx (1989), Rial (1989), Coloni (1990), Jordan (1991), Larrousse (1991-1992), Pacific (1994-1995)

POINTS: 5

GP STARTS: 47

BEST FINISH: 5th (1991 Canadian Grand Prix)

BERTRAND Gachot had a mixed career in motorsport, often driving for perennial backmarkers at its highest level, Formula One.  His peak came in 1991 and who knows what would have happened to a certain Michael Schumacher if Gachot hadn’t had an altercation with a London taxi driver.

Gachot’s main success in junior formulae was winning the British Formula Ford Championship in 1986.  He came runner-up in the British F3 series in 1987 to Johnny Herbert and there were strong second place finishes at Silverstone and Vallelunga in a single F3000 season, driving for Spirit Racing in 1988.  However in an era where there may have been more chance of getting into Grand Prix racing, Gachot certainly was not one of the leading stars in feeder categories.

Born in Luxembourg in 1962 Gachot is firmly known for his Belgian roots but did change his nationality to French in 1992.  In an interview a year earlier, he said; “I am not really one nationality. I feel very much a European, but today I have to accept that a united Europe is not yet a reality.”  This quote alone probably sums up Gachot’s Formula One career – acceptance that he would never quite reach the top.

He made his Grand Prix debut for the Onyx team in 1989, but his debut season was a real struggle as he was often a regular faller in the pre-qualifying stage on a Friday morning.  His first start and finish came in the 1989 French Grand Prix, with a 13th placed result.  12th at Silverstone a week later followed, but Gachot lost his drive to J.J Lehto before the season was out and he switched to fellow stragglers Rial for the final two races, failing to qualify on both occasions.

1990 was a total disaster with the switch to Coloni almost finishing off Gachot in Formula One.  The car was pathetic, starting with a Subaru engine that had no hope of ever making it past pre-qualifying.  A switch to Ford power from Hockenheim onwards didn’t help and Gachot only started getting past pre-qualifying when his former team, Onyx and the EuroBrun team folded before the season’s conclusion.  He failed to start a single event in 1990.

Despite his shortcomings so far Bertrand was signed up by Eddie Jordan for his debut season in F1.  1991 was looking hugely promising for all parties and Gachot matched his vastly experienced team-mate Andrea de Cesaris for much of the first half of the season.  He started Jordan’s first race in Phoenix when de Cesaris failed to pre-qualify and finished their first event too; a creditable eighth place result around the streets of Monaco.  He was a superb fifth in Canada, backing up de Cesaris fourth place result and scored points at both Silverstone and Hockenheim too.  The Hungarian Grand Prix might have brought an unspectacular ninth place race finish, but Bertrand did set the fastest lap ever at the time around the Hungaroring during the race.  During this period Bertrand was a shock winner of the 1991 Le Mans 24 Hours, alongside Johnny Herbert and Volker Weidler for the unfancied Mazda team.  His career though was about to tumble to its lowest point.

The previous December Gachot had been involved in an altercation with a London taxi driver at Hyde Park.  In the fracas that followed, Bertrand sprayed CS gas into the face of the driver who pressed charges.  Although CS gas in the UK is illegal to use, many in Formula One at the time believed that Gachot’s had only used the action in self-defence, so a fine or suspended sentence was more likely.  It was a surprise then when he was sentenced to six months in jail for possession of the gas and 18 months for causing grevious bodily harm.  The sentence was handed out immediately before the Belgian Grand Prix.

He served two months in prison before an appeal was held and although his conviction wasn’t completely quashed, he was released on October 15 and flew to Suzuka in the hope that his contract with Jordan Grand Prix was still valid.  In his absence, Eddie Jordan had hired Michael Schumacher and given the legendary German his big break before his controversial switch to Benetton.  Roberto Moreno was parachuted into the car on a stopgap basis and the young Italian, Alessandro Zanardi had raced in Barcelona.  As Gachot admitted in an interview to Joe Saward in October 1991, he was disappointed with Eddie Jordan’s lack of support; “That disappointed me a lot, it was a drive which I thought was mine, but he didn’t want to do it because he had commitments with other people. He decided to interrupt the contract. I don’t know what the grounds were but I have had enough of lawyers and things like that. I’m not going to look into that. It’s going to be my advisors who will do that. I don’t want to get involved.”

When Eric Bernard unfortunately broke his leg during qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix in 1991, a vacancy opened up at Larrousse.  Gachot snapped it up, but failed to qualify for the final race in Adelaide.  He stayed with Larrousse for 1992 and scored a sole championship point in Monaco, but had some run-ins with team-mate Ukyo Katayama during the season too.  Fourth at Le Mans in 1992 and an unsuccessful season in IndyCars followed before his involvement with the new Pacific team in 1994.  He only finished two races in two seasons for the fledgling team in which Bertrand was involved behind-the-scenes with its existance too.  When he stepped aside for no-hopers such as Giovanni Lavaggi, it was clear that Pacific were struggling for cash and they folded at the end of 1995.

Apart from a couple of sportscar outings, his career in motorsport was over as a driver, but Gachot still has contacts within Formula One and is concentrating on his business interests nowadays, which include energy drinks beverages.  Bertrand Gachot made some bad decisions in his time within Formula One, but many believe he got a rough break from justice in 1991 too and it stalled a promising and successful year upto that point.  He always kept fighting though and that is always a solid quality to have.

NEXT IN THE DRIVER FILES: The dynamic, fiery Colombian who gave Michael Schumacher more of a fight than most in the dominant Ferrari days, Juan Pablo Montoya.

The Driver Files: Jos Verstappen

IN A NEW regular series, I will be profiling the careers of those drivers who won races and championships and those who either didn’t get the luck, or just failed at the top level of motorsport.  All drivers featured will have competed between the years 1991-2011.

The third driver featured in The Driver Files is the popular Dutch racing driver who spent many years floating in the midfield of Grand Prix racing, Jos ‘The Boss’ Verstappen.

Jos Verstappen never shyed away from a challenge in Grand Prix racing

NAME: Jos Verstappen

TEAMS: Benetton (1994), Simtek (1995), Footwork (1996), Tyrrell (1997), Stewart (1998), Arrows (2000-2001), Minardi (2003)

POINTS: 17

GP STARTS: 106

BEST FINISH: 3rd (1994 Hungarian Grand Prix)

FLAIR, charisma and drama, Jos Verstappen didn’t do boring and his career certainly produced plenty of those three words.  Sadly, there was a lack of ultimate success with two podium finishes and only 17 points to show for his lengthy career that spanned nearly a decade.

Having been successful in his native Holland through karting, Jos made the move into car racing in 1991 and won the German Formula 3 championship in 1993.  In September 93, he startled the world of motorsport with an incredible two day test for Footwork at the Iberian circuit, Estoril.  He set consistent laptimes that would have put him tenth on the grid for the 1993 Portuguese Grand Prix!  The standard had been set and suddenly, Verstappen was a wanted man within motorsport.  Eventually, the colourful Flavio Briatore signed the Dutchman up as Benetton’s test driver for the 1994 season.

His chance came earlier than expected when no.2 driver J.J Lehto broke his neck in a pre-season testing shunt at Silverstone.  Verstappen’s debut was memorable, but the 1994 Brazilian Grand Prix was for the wrong reasons.  He spent most of the weekend off the road in practice and qualifying and on lap 34 of the race, was involved in a terrifying multiple accident.  Dicing with Eddie Irvine, contact was made, which launched the rookie over the top of Martin Brundle’s slowing McLaren Peugeot.  Martin was struck on the head by an errant wheel from the Benetton but incredibly, Verstappen emerged unhurt.  He spun off at the next race in Aida and by then, Lehto had recovered from his injuries.  However, the Finn was inconsistently erratic and after qualifying a dire 20th for the Canadian Grand Prix, Benetton ‘rested’ him and gave Verstappen the seat back for the French Grand Prix.  He crashed in qualifying for the Magny-Cours event, destroying the television monitors on the McLaren pitwall in the process.

After spinning Michael Schumacher’s race car into the gravel during qualifying for the German race at Hockenheim, Jos had survived the first corner fracas to be challenging for fourth place when he came in for a routine fuel and tyre stop on lap 15.  No-one will ever forget what happened next.  Approximately three seconds into the stop, fuel escaped from the refuelling rig and doused the Benetton, before the car went up in a bull of flame.  Mechanics dived for cover in desperation to put the flames out.  Unbelievably, Verstappen only suffered minor burns and looked completely unfazed by the whole experience.  In fact, his strength in character to bounce back and score his maiden podium in the very next race at the Hungaroring was a superb effort.  He followed that up with a podium result at Spa, albeit in the stewards room when team-mate Schumacher was disqualified for a technical infringement.  Fifth place at Estoril followed, but too many first lap incidents cost Verstappen his drive to the more dependable Johnny Herbert for the final two races of a dramatic 1994.  Only Lewis Hamilton’s rookie season in 2007 can probably rival with the amount of drama Verstappen’s did back then.

Loaned out to Simtek in 1995, he showed his geninue talent by qualifying 14th, ahead of both Ligiers and Mark Blundell’s McLaren in Argentina.  In the race, he ran sixth before gearbox problems ended his race premateurely.  Simtek went bust after the Monaco Grand Prix and Verstappen spent the remainder of the season testing for Ligier.  Back in the cockpit for 1996, he showed well at Footwork now owned by former Benetton principal Tom Walkinshaw.  He finished sixth in Argentina, ran in the points before technical problems intervened in the rain of Brazil and spun away fifth in another wet race in Barcelona.  Sadly, his 1996 would be remembered for being crazy enough to start on slicks on a wet track in Monaco and a serious crash at Spa when his suspension failed.  The former saw him slide into the barriers on the first lap and the latter left him with a neck injury which affected the rest of his racing career.

A wasted year with Tyrrell followed in 1997 and nine races at Stewart during 1998 brought very little in terms of results.  With career momentum having stalled, Jos ended up as a test driver for Honda’s return to racing as a Grand Prix team.  The plan was to spend 1999 testing, before returning to race in 2000.  Tragically team boss Harvey Postlehwaite, who worked with the Dutchman at Tyrrell, died from a heart attack at a test session in Barcelona in May 1999.  Honda decided to go down the engine route for a return and it left Verstappen in limbo again.

Undeterred, he returned full-time with Arrows for 2000.  He showed his excellence in mixed conditions by qualifying eighth at Silverstone, running sixth at the Nurburgring before suspension failure and finishing a stunning fifth in Canada.  Best finish was fourth at Monza, battling Ralf Schumacher and Ricardo Zonta for a place on the historic Italian podium.  This result was achieved in the dry too!  Placing 12th in the drivers championship, hopes were high for 2001 but the Asiatech engine disappointed.  Despite that, Jos charged through from 18th on the grid to run a sensational second in Sepang, only narrowly missing out on points.  He ran second again in Austria and claimed the final point with an aggressive pit strategy.  There were embarrassing moments too, such as ramming Juan Pablo Montoya out of the lead while being lapped in the 2001 Brazilian Grand Prix.

Dropped by Arrows in favour of Heinz-Harald Frentzen for 2002, Verstappen took a sabbatical before returning with the minnows of the sport, Minardi for 2003.  Ninth in Canada was his best result and he was fastest in wet Friday qualifying at Magny-Cours.  Paul Stoddart wanted to keep him for 2004, but realising his prime had gone, Jos turned his back on Formula One at the end of the season.  Since the rocky F1 ride ended, Jos competed in the inagural A1GP series for Team Holland and has competed at Le Mans on two occasions.  Issues with his personal life including allegations of assault recently have effectively brought his racing career to a premature end.

Jos Verstappen left his mark on Formula One and the sport was never dull when he competed.  He was a competitor who tried hard and was never scared to push his machinery to the limit and beyond.

NEXT IN THE DRIVER FILES: Plucky Belgian Bertrand Gachot…whose misfortune led to the break for a certain German…

The Driver Files: Stefano Modena

IN A NEW regular series, I will be profiling the careers of those drivers who won races and championships and those who either didn’t get the luck, or just failed at the top level of motorsport.  All drivers featured will have competed between the years 1991-2011.

The second driver featured in The Driver Files is another Italian driver whose promise never got fulfilled, Stefano Modena.

The 1991 Tyrrell was the peak of Stefano Modena's F1 career (RichardsF1)

NAME: Stefano Modena

TEAMS: Brabham (1987, 1989-1990), EuroBrun (1988), Tyrrell (1991), Jordan (1992)

POINTS: 17

GP STARTS: 70

BEST FINISH: 2nd (1991 Canadian Grand Prix)

MANY Italian drivers have tried their luck in Formula One over the past 20 years.  There are some who have not had the chance to prove themselves in decent equipment, such as Gianni Morbidelli and Alessandro Zanardi.  Then, there are those who had the car at their disposal and blew their big chance; Ivan Capelli and Giancarlo Fisichella spring to mind.  One driver whose promise never got fulfilled was Stefano Modena.  Two words finished off his career, Jordan-Yamaha!

The 1992 Jordan Yamaha partnership is akin to McLaren’s turbulent partnership with Peugeot in 1994.  They never got on and along with Mauricio Gugelmin, Modena could only wonder as his talent was wasted and in the end, so was his F1 career.

Before this horrendous season, Stefano had been forced to work hard and shown what he was capable of on occasion.  He won the F3000 championship for Onyx at his first attempt in this category in 1987.  It led to a one-off event for Brabham at the 1987 Australian Grand Prix, as Riccardo Patrese had left early to replace the injured Nigel Mansell in the all-conquering Williams Honda package.  He qualified a respectable 15th, ahead of both Tyrrell and Lola cars, but wasn’t quite ready for the physical challenge of Adelaide’s streets and had to retire after 31 laps.

When Bernie Ecclestone announced that Brabham were withdrawing from the sport, Modena was forced into a move to the uncompetitive EuroBrun team for his full debut season in 1988.  It was a real baptism of fire.  No points and the embarassment of being excluded from two successive race meetings.  He missed a weight check in Monaco and was thrown out of the event in Mexico for his car having an illegal rear wing.  Stefano managed to record five race finishes with the limited resources; the best being 11th in Hungary.

Under new owners, he moved back to Brabham for 1989 but the Judd engine turned into an unreliable nightmare, so Modena was going to be fully prepared for later disasters.  There was another exclusion for coming in underweight after qualifying at the Italian Grand Prix.  However, when the Brabham package worked in Monaco, Stefano showed what he could do.  Although team-mate Martin Brundle was robbed of a deserved podium by battery problems, his Italian team-mate stepped up when the team were feeling low and grabbed his maiden podium.  Alongside Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost on the Monaco rostrum, Modena had made his name, but still craved a better package.  Fifth in the 1990 season opener on the streets of Phoenix was his sole reward the following campaign, as Brabham’s BT59 package took the team backwards.  As their financial problems started to unravel, Modena’s stirring performances began to make him hot property in the paddock.  In fact, he was mentioned in the rumour mill as a potential replacement for the retiring Mansell at Ferrari.  Eventually, the lure of Maranello persuaded Jean Alesi away from Tyrrell and it was to Stefano’s benefit, as he moved to Tyrrell for 1991.

Alongside Satoru Nakajima, Ken Tyrrell’s wise negotating skills saw his car armed with the best engine around at the time, the works Honda V10.  With major sponsorship from German electrical company Braun, 1991 looked to be the season where Stefano Modena could become a leading star in Grand Prix racing.  In fairness, the relationship started rosy.  He finished fourth in the USA, ran third at Imola before mechanical problems intervened and then, a magnifcient front row starting position in Monaco.  On raceday, he held off Patrese until an engine failure in the tunnel saw his race cruelly end and take Patrese out too.  Even Senna mentioned after qualifying how impressed he was with Modena’s efforts.  If Monaco was desperately unlucky, Canada was more fortunate.  With frontrunners such as Senna, Prost and Alesi dropping out through reliability gremlins, Stefano inherited second place when Mansell’s Williams stopped on the final lap.  It was his landmark result but didn’t lead to better things.  Only one more point, in Japan followed.  Honda withdrew support for Tyrrell, Nakajima retired and Modena moved onto Jordan for 1992.

The writing was on the wall when he failed to qualify for the first race in South Africa.  A pitlane start in Mexico followed and he didn’t even last a lap in Brazil.  If the engine wasn’t failing spectacularly, the gearbox was breaking instead.  Modena failed to qualify for three more events and his morale was zapped.  The package was pathetic and frankly should have been put in the scrapyard as soon as it raced.  The frustrated Italian didn’t record a finish until 15th at the Belgian Grand Prix in August!  A small improvement in the last two races saw Stefano score a point in the Australian Grand Prix, but he was damaged goods and left the sport unsurprisingly for pastures new.  He carried on racing in German and Italian touring cars with mixed results for a number of years after the F1 adventure.  The tragic death of his good friend and fellow Italian Michele Alboreto in a sportscar accident in 2001 prompted Modena to retire from competitive action.  Since then, he has acted as an advisor and done occasional tyre testing work for Japanese tyre manufacturer, Bridgestone.

Stefano Modena never quite delivered on what he had, but he was a victim of one of the worst cars to have ever left a Grand Prix factory!  Sometimes, that’s the way it goes in the harsh world of Formula One.

NEXT IN THE DRIVER FILES: The Dutch boss that is Jos Verstappen! 

The Driver Files: Erik Comas

IN A NEW regular series, I will be profiling the careers of those drivers who won races and championships and those who either didn’t get the luck, or just failed at the top level of motorsport.  All drivers featured will have competed between the years 1991-2011.

The first driver featured in The Driver Files is the Frenchman, Erik Comas.

Erik Comas had a frustrating career in Formula One (Speed TV)

NAME: Erik Comas

TEAMS: Ligier (1991-92), Larrousse (1993-94)

POINTS: 7

GP STARTS: 59

BEST FINISH: 5th (1992 French Grand Prix)

ERIK Comas was part of the former French generation.  He came through the junior ranks alongside the likes of Eric Bernard and Jean Alesi.  In fact, Alesi only narrowly pipped him to the F3000 championship in 1989.  Erik bounced back to win the title the following season, adding to success in winning the French Formula 3 title in 1988.

With a proven record in junior formulae, Erik had forged himself a strong reputation and was signed by a Ligier team in 1991 that was going through a period of severe decline.  He was never the most exciting or vintage competitor, but had the ability to get the job done.  The 1991 Ligier Lamborghini was not a good car, proved by him failing to qualify for his first event in Phoenix.  Thierry Boutsen, a Grand Prix winner with Williams was his team-mate and he struggled too with a poor chassis.  Comas did well to match his more experienced team-mate, but neither driver scored a point.  Erik’s best result in his debut season was 8th placed in a carnaged Canadian Grand Prix.

Ligier switched to Renault engines in 1992 and things improved for both drivers.  This season turned out to be Comas’s peak in his F1 career.  He finished seven of the first nine events and came in the points on three separate occasions.  His best ever career result was a fifth place performance at his home event in France.  Sixth in Canada and Germany meant he finished equal 11th in the drivers championship, with four points.  However, his working relationship with Boutsen took a nosedive as they took each other off in two separate races; (Brazil & Hungary).  Both were fired at the end of the season, to be replaced by English duo Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell.

Before that though, Erik had a lucky escape during practice for the Belgian Grand Prix.  He had a mammoth shunt at the flat-out Blanchimont corner, which knocked him out.  Boutsen drove past the wreckage, but Ayrton Senna bravely stopped his McLaren, got out of his car and rushed to his stricken colleague.  He held Comas’s head still until the paramedics arrived.  Luckily, he only suffered concussion but his race weekend ended there and he never finished a race for Ligier again.

Staying loyal to French teams, Erik moved to Larrousse for 1993, partnered by the French no-hoper Phillipe Alliot.  He scrambled sixth place at Monza and qualified an excellent 11th in France, ahead of Riccardo Patrese’s Benetton and Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari.  However, the accident in Belgium the previous season seemed to have knocked any forward motions in his form.  As Larrousse’s finances seriously declined, Comas went backwards and plugged away through 1994, when he was partnered by many team-mates, including Olivier Beretta, Yannick Dalmas and Hideki Noda.  If anything, his career will be remembered more for a crazy incident on the fateful Imola weekend.

Following Senna’s serious accident, a member of the Larrousse team clearly didn’t realise the situation and allowed Comas out of the pitlane underneath a red flag.  He screamed through the flat Tamburello bend and was lucky to be flagged down without clobbering the medical helicopter or track officials.  The scenes were so distressing for Erik, he didn’t feel like taking the restart.  Although he got blamed for exiting the pits, it seemed like a team communication issue was the main fault.  Nevertheless, it was a ridiculous move and just added to the nightmare that was Imola 1994.

Comas managed sixth place finishes in Aida and at Hockenheim, but said during the year that he would retire from Formula One if he would end up being outqualified by a Simtek.  In Spa, David Brabham managed this and the Australian gloated afterwards, telling media; “I wish Erik a very happy retirement!’  He was replaced by the end of the season, with Jean Denis Delatraz taking his seat for the season finale in Australia.

Since Formula One ended for him, Comas spent several years competing in GT racing in Japan, as well as focusing on driver management, promoting further French talent.  He suffered from ill health in 2006 and effectively retired from all forms of racing.  Today, he runs Comas Historic Racing, which is a service that provides customers to pay and drive historic rally driving cars.

Erik Comas ended up having a frustrating Formula One career, which promised much after success in junior formulae, but ended with little joy.

NEXT UP IN THE DRIVER FILES: An Italian whose career ended thanks to one of the worst chassis/engine combinations in history – Stefano Modena