Throughout the history of automobile racing, there have been the nice guys and the not so nice guys, the guys who go out and get on with the job and the aggressive ones, and Enzo Ferrari has had a few in his time. However, anyone who was around the circuits in the 1980s could not fail to like Michele Alboreto who was one of the nicest guys in Formula 1 but whose almost shy character masked an ability not only to drive fast but to win Grand Prix Formula 1 races.
Born in Milan in December 1956, Curly-haired Michele tended to be quiet and unassuming, never appearing to push himself forward but he had great talent as a racing driver. He was also stylish at the wheel whether it be in a Tyrrell or a Ferrari grand prix car or a Turbo-Lancia in sports car racing.
I got to know him when he first came on the scene when a successful Italian real estate agent, Gianpaolo Pavanello set up a Formula 3 team in 1979.
The team, which he called Euroracing, ran that year with the unknown Michele Alboreto driving a March 793 Formula 3 car powered by an Alfa Romeo engine. Indeed Pavanello had a very close partnership with Alfa Romeo and went on to run Alfa’s return to Formula 1 racing.
Alboreto, after a shaky start to the season, began to pick off all the other promising drivers in the Italian Formula 3 Championship but then started to really show his talent winning at Misano in the final round at the Enzo and Dino Ferrari circuit at Imola.
By now he had caught the eye of Count Vittorio Zanon who at the time was head of the Toro insurance company in Turin and Zanon was there to help back him in his racing career. Vittorio Zanon, who was later to die of cancer, loved motor racing and as well as having a remarkable collection of historic cars – including one of the Lancia D24 sports cars – he and his cousin, Count Ghugi Zanon financially helped promising drivers.
In 1980 Pavanello ran Alboreto in the European Formula 3 Championship that ran alongside some of the Grand Prix races and Michele was to win the Championship outright.
Because the races were run alongside the grands prix it was quite common for the Formula 1 team owners would look out for new talent. In Alboreto’s case he caught the eye of Englishman Ken Tyrrell who was so impressed he signed him up to a three-year contract in Formula 1.
Michele made his grand prix debut in a Tyrrell 010 at Imola in 1981.
In his second season with the team he won his first Grand Prix, the Caesars Palace Grand Prix in Las Vegas, and in 1983 won the US Grand prix in Detroit.
During 1981 he also drove for the factory Lancia team in the World Sports Car Championship with the Lancia Monte Carlo Coupe Turbo.
Le Mans 1981 Alboreto at the wheel of the Lancia Monte Carlo Coupe he shared with Eddy Cheever to finish 8th overall but winning the Group 5 under 2 litre class.
The following year, 1982, he raced the Lancia Martini Spyder version seen here at Nurburgring and in 1983 continued with Tyrrell when sponsored by Benetton winning his first grand prix at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas that year.
Enzo Ferrari was keen to sign Alboreto and as soon as the Tyrrell contract came up for grabs at the end of that season Enzo signed up Alboreto. Incredibly, Michele became the first Italian to drive in Formula 1 for Scuderia Ferrari in some ten years and it was a mark of the respect Enzo Ferrari had for the meek Alboreto and he was to stay with Scuderia Ferrari for five seasons. His best-ever season in Formula 1 was his second with Scuderia Ferrari in 1985 when he finished second in the World Championship.
In only his third race with Ferrari he won the Belgian Grand Prix held at the short Zolder circuit that year and was to finish 4th in the 1984 World Championship.
The following year he did even better and finished second to Alain Prost. Indeed he was leading the Championship in the early stages and won the Canadian and German Grands Prix but then had a run of mechanical failures, including two turbo breakages, which allowed Prost to win the first of his four World Championships.
Alboreto left Ferrari at the end of the 1988 season where he finished 5th in the World Championship but continued to race in Formula 1 with Arrows, Scuderia Italia and finally with Minardi in 1984 retiring at the end of that season. It was said at the time that Alboreto got tired of the arguments within the Ferrari team and with the arrival of Gerhard Berger he decided to move on.
By this time Alboreto had done a lot of sports car racing particularly in the early 1980s with the Lancia Turbo cars at Sebring and Daytona and in 1996 he took up an invitation from Dick Simon to race the Scandia Ferrari 333SP taking second place at Sebring. That same year he took his Rookie test at Indy and qualified on the fourth row for the 500in the Scandia/Simon car but retired.
Alboreto had a major personal sponsor in the AGIP petrol company in Italy but when they ended the contract Michele looked around for other cars to drive.
In 1997 he raced a Joest Porsche at Le Mans and won the race alongside fellow former Ferrari F1 driver Stefan Johansson and Tom Kristensen. By now he was 41 years of age but was clearly still enjoying his racing and in 2001 was brought into the Audi team and won the Sebring 12 Hour race with an R8.
A month later he was asked to do some testing of the R8 at the Lausitzring in Austria. When flat out on the straight the car swerved and smashed into a wall killing Alboreto instantly. A full investigation was carried out by DEKRA and Audi and the conclusion was that he had appeared to suffer from a slow puncture that finally led to a full blow out at high speed on the straight.
Later that year Giancarlo Fisichella dedicated his podium finish in the Italian Grand Prix to Alboreto as Alboreto had been the last Italian to finish on the podium in the Italian grand prix.
Alboreto, then, was not the usual image of the Italian racing driver, he was not patrician like Luigi Musso, affable like Ricardo Patrese or amusing like Arturo Merzario, he tended to keep out of the limelight and was almost shy.
In conversation, he would open out and smile but as soon as he took the wheel he was simply brilliant and did not always need the best car to shine, the mark of a great driver. He should be remembered more in the long list of prominent Italian drivers and is certainly remembered by the Grand Prix Drivers Club members who raced against him.