Piercarlo Ghinzani's Formula 1 struggles
Piercarlo Ghinzani achieved the racer's dream by making it to the heights of Formula 1. But it was a journey fraught with political and performance difficulty
The draw of Formula 1 is unparalleled in motorsport. It’s the pinnacle and, as such, the target for so many aspiring drivers – it’s always been that way. But having made it, staying on the grid can be just as great of a struggle. Where success may beckon in sportscars, some are willing to endure the poor results, the bad luck and constant pressure in order to extend their stay in the premier class. Piercarlo Ghinzani knows that sacrifice more than most.
Getting a foot in the door
It was with European Formula 3 Championship success in 1977 that Ghinzani thought himself ready to graduate to the top flight. He had seen Nelson Piquet, the man he beat to the title, move to Britain, establish a relationship with Bernie Ecclestone and sign for Brabham. Having also kept Alain Prost at bay on occasion during his junior career, Ghinzani was assured of his ability and set his sights high.
'In ’77 I went to Enzo Ferrari,' says the 65-year-old, who runs a team in both Italian F3 and Porsche Carrera Cup Italia.
'He said: "Piercarlo, I know you’re a good driver, you’re fast, you’ve won but I’m sorry I cannot give you work because my door is closed to Italian drivers".'
Still hounded by the Italian press and held responsible for the death of Lorenzo Bandini at the 1967 Monaco Grand Prix, a chance for a dream move to Ferrari was extinguished.
'The situation was down to luck, I didn’t have a chance,' he reflects. 'I was always the same but sometimes things just worked out better.'
With the immediate path to F1 blocked, Ghinzani reassessed and signed for Euroracing where he dominated the 1979 Italian F3 season. Despite winning seven of the 15 races and comfortably beating Michele Alboreto to the spoils, achieving his goal of racing in F1 would elude Ghinzani for yet another season.
An alternative route
For 1980 he switched to the World Sportscar Championship with Lancia. However, from this sideways step his fortunes soon changed.
'This was my chance to be in F1. I have to have F1 in my life.'
'When I was at Lancia there was a mechanic who at the same time was working for the Osella F1 team. Vincenzo Osella [the team’s founder] called me in ’81 when he had lost a driver at Imola.'
Miguel Angel Guerra was sidelined with a broken wrist and ankle and it seemed a place in F1 was finally Ghinzani’s. He took his chance and performed well, but it was not to be. Jean-Pierre Jarier was chosen by the Italian outfit to complete the season and was then retained for 1982. And yet, for a deal with a pharmaceutical company, Ghinzani’s fortunes would change.
'In ’83 Osella took a nice sponsor in Kelemata and they called me and tell me: "If you want to come do all the season we can start working together." I gave a good impression as a test driver and showed I was reliable and could understand the car.
'This was my chance to be in F1,' he says. 'I have to have F1 in my life.'
Ghinzani's finest season
It was the 1984 season that firmly put Ghinzani on the map. He suffered a potentially fatal crash in the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami when the rear suspension failed at 180mph. Hitting the barriers, the car erupted into flames. A month in hospital followed but just four rounds later he was occupying the mirrors of Ayrton Senna’s Toleman during the infamous rain-hit Monaco Grand Prix. Ultimately his engine dropped a cylinder and he fell off the pace, but the performance signalled Ghinzani’s ability in equalised conditions.
Three races on, he finished fifth in the Dallas Grand Prix – a race held in such extreme heat that the surface broke apart – to score his sole points across eight seasons in F1. It was a strong year and again Ghinzani had his sights set on a top drive.
'I had a meeting with Frank Williams but he said to me: "I’m sorry, Piercarlo. I have a car free but, because in England I am like the Ferrari, I must put in the car an English driver".'
'In this case it was Nigel [Mansell]. Thankfully Nigel did a good job.'
As another competitive seat passed him by, Ghinzani raced with Osella and Toleman for 1985. Benetton looked like a possible escape route but Gerhard Berger arrived with the backing of BMW. It was an eventual 1500bhp (in qualifying trim) combination that Ghinzani had no political or performance match for.
'Arnoux got out of the car and was speaking really loudly. "This engine doesn’t go, it’s got no power, it’s a s**t engine!"'
Only once did he see the chequered flag in 1986 and so for the following year he moved to Ligier. As was often the case with Ghinzani’s luck, it was politics that established a glass ceiling over any hopeful progression.
'[Rene] Arnoux was real trouble when he raced with me at Ligier,' he says. 'I was working all winter in Balocco at Alfa Romeo’s circuit. They were starting in F1 with the turbocharged engine. We went to Imola for free practice and I remember Arnoux was in the car when the engine stopped.
'Arnoux got out of the car and was speaking really loudly. "This engine doesn’t go, it’s got no power, it’s a s**t engine!”'
And with Italian journalists watching on, it spread across the media and the bosses caught wind. With that Alfa canned the engine programme. Pigeoned-holed two rounds in the 1987 season, Ligier had to perform a cut-and-make-do mating of a Megatron engine to the chassis which ultimately killed any pace.
After an ill-fated year with Ligier, Ghinzani moved to the small German outfit Zakspeed and he looks back at what might have been.
'That was a peculiarity. They were really good with the touring cars but couldn’t understand single-seaters because they didn’t do aerodynamics. In touring cars it was the engine that was important but in F1 it was the aerodynamics that you needed to understand. They didn’t have space for aerodynamics on the car and so the car was not competitive.'
Ghinzani had yet again attempted another route to move up the grid, but to the same outcome. With no hope of rising up the pecking order, he decided to move on from F1.
'For the troubles in pre-qualifying it was a motivation for me to stop racing. It was just so difficult.
'The big problem was the money because you arrive and you had to start the race because the sponsor would not pay if the car was not on the circuit. This was a really big responsibility for the driver because otherwise the team couldn’t afford to pay the mechanics or the expenses.
'It was a really bad situation when I didn’t get beyond pre-qualifying. It was a really bad moment. For that reason I made the decision to stop racing.'
After, he made fleeting appearances in the WSC, most notably and fittingly, winning the 500km of Kyalami.
But despite his stint in F1 marred by the troubles of never finding his big break Ghinzani still crafted a legacy – retiring as Osella’s longest serving driver.
He realised the dream of so many and made it to the most prestigious grid in the world. Putting a racing driver’s self-belief aside, there were flashes of excellence that could well have paved a way to a podium-contending or perhaps even race-winning seat.
For Ghinzani, it wasn’t to be. But in an era of F1 where driver rotation was far more common than the Helmut Marko-operated revolving door at Toro Rosso, there’s something to be said for lasting as many seasons as he did.
More than that, though, Ghinzani defected from F1 under his own terms. The demoralising effects of carrying a team that struggled to pre-qualify took its toll.
An eight-year stint in the top tier may not have grabbed the headlines nor hit the highest of highs, but Ghinzani respected the prestige of F1 and paid it diligent and enduring service.