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Andrea de Cesaris 1959-2014

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The 1991 Belgian Grand Prix is usually solely remembered for being Michael Schumacher’s F1 debut. Qualifying 7th at a circuit he had never driven on before, his race lasted half a lap after he burned the clutch out of his Jordan. But what isn’t remembered is that over the course of the race, his new team mate worked his way up into 2nd place, and was closing on race leader Ayrton Senna, whose car was ailing, before he suffered his own technical failure just three laps from the chequered flag.

It was the closest Andrea de Cesaris would ever come to winning a Formula One race in the latter half of his career. The Italian, whose career overlapped with Mario Andretti and Rubens Barrichello, started a record 208 races without standing on the top step of the podium at the highest level. Many have dismissed him as a talentless crash-happy pay driver, but in that one race he demonstrated that this was a fallacy. Of all the drivers in F1 history, he is arguably the driver whose reputation was unfairly tarnished the most, preventing him with the shot at the front of the field he deserved.

Andrea’s breakthrough year was 1979, when he finished as the runner-up to Chico Serra in British Formula Three. The following year, he graduated full-time to Formula Two with Ron Dennis’ Marlboro-backed Project Four team, finishing 5th in the standings in a season marred by the deaths of two drivers, Hans-Georg Burger and Markus Hottinger. After winning the penultimate round at the Misano circuit in Italy, he was called up to race in the last two F1 grands prix of the season in North America by Alfa Romeo; here, De Cesaris benefited from both being Italian and backed by Marlboro, who sponsored the struggling manufacturer.

He retired from both races, the first due to mechanical failure and the second due to an accident, but he had shown enough promise to pick up a seat at McLaren, though it’s fair to say this reward owed much to circumstance: the Marlboro links were again key, along with his Formula Two team boss’s takeover of the team. Unfortunately, this was an opportunity that had come too soon. He crashed 18 times over the course of the season, earning the nickname ‘De Crasheris’, which would stain his reputation for the rest of his career. He finished in the top six only once, picking up a point at Imola, but also finished a further twice inside the top eight. Nonetheless, with John Watson winning a race for the team and performing consistently well, this clearly wasn’t acceptable.

De Cesaris was thus replaced by the returning Niki Lauda for 1982, but found his way back to Alfa Romeo. Though clearly a backwards step, Alfa were more competitive than two years before. At Long Beach, Andrea put the marque back on pole position for the first time since 1951 and led much of the early stages before being overtaken by Lauda and then crashing out. At Monaco, he could have won if the team had given him a small amount more fuel; instead, he ran out right at the end and was classified 3rd, giving him his first podium finish. But the season petered out with unreliability and the occasional mistake, with just one further points finish at Montreal.

1983 would be slightly better, with two 2nd-place finishes at Hockenheim and Kyalami, but he was robbed of a possible win at Spa, first losing the lead after a poor pit stop and then losing everything else with a mechanical failure. Such was the frustration of driving for Alfa Romeo – the cars had promise, but rarely saw the end of a race.

Instead, De Cesaris switched to Ligier, who were switching to turbo power for the first time with Renault units. Having had a disappointing 1983 season, this was the French team’s attempt at bouncing back, and Andrea was to lead their charge. Alas, there would be more of the same for the Italian, picking up the team’s only three points of the season; again the car was unreliable, and he made more mistakes. Going into 1985, the pressure was on. He was paired with the vastly-experienced Jacques Laffite, and although De Cesaris finished 4th in Monaco, his driving became increasingly erratic, culminating in a huge crash at the Osterreichring from which he was lucky to escape unhurt.

After another retirement at the next round in Zandvoort (though this time due to a turbo failure), he was fired by the team and replaced by Philippe Streiff. His F1 career looked in serious jeopardy, but Giancarlo Minardi gave him and his Marlboro money another chance. Sadly, it was another disastrous season in an underpowered, overweight car. He finished just one race all year, and even failed to qualify at Monaco, though the majority of the retirements were car-related.

1987 saw him move on again, this time joining a Brabham team Bernie Ecclestone had grown tired of. In the team’s last season before being sold, Andrea made the best of another bad situation, finishing on the podium at Spa. He finished just one other race all year, though, and the team was mothballed for 1988, leaving him in the wilderness again. Salvation was to be found at the new one-car Rial team, run by fiery ATS owner Gunther Schmidt. Again, it wasn’t a particularly quick or reliable car, but he snuck into 4th place at Detroit, a considerable achievement in the circumstance. He lost two further points finishes at Montreal and Adelaide due to running out of fuel.

He was clearly at the top of his game, but Schmidt was not an easy man to get along with. Instead, yet another move beckoned, this time to Scuderia Italia. Over his two seasons at the Italian minnow team, he again proved he had the ability to run at the front, picking up a fine podium in his sixth race for the team in Montreal. But the Dallaras weren’t especially quick or reliable, and the podium would be his only points finish for the team. 1990 was a particularly difficult year, with no points and another stack of retirements. It was as if he was stuck in Groundhog Season.

But 1991 would finally give him a car his ability deserved. Jordan were moving into F1 from Formula 3000, and signed up De Cesaris to lead the team, alongside Bertrand Gachot. The pair performed well, Andrea in particular. For once he managed to string together a series of good results, with four points finishes in five races between rounds 5 and 10, including two 4th places at Montreal and Mexico City, before the heartache of Spa. All in all, he finished in the top 10 eight times, enough to give him 60 points on the current system, although in reality it was only worth 9.

However, Jordan’s first-year success had come at an enormous cost to the team, who lost a vast amount of money and their Ford engines. De Cesaris switched teams with promising Italian Stefano Modena to join Tyrrell, who seemed to also be on a downward curve after an underwhelming 1991 season. But despite having Olivier Grouillard as his team mate, he shone in adversity once again, with another seven top 10s and 8 points. His best finish came at Suzuka, where he finished 4th.

The result was Tyrrell were able to attract a manufacturer to supply them for 1993. Unfortunately, this manufacturer just happened to be Yamaha. The team’s renaissance was stopped in its tracks, scoring no points. De Cesaris, for all his excellent performances over the previous two seasons, was now left completely out in the cold for the first time in his F1 career. Despite developing a reputation amongst team of being a steady hand on the tiller, it looked as if he would fall just short of 200 grands prix.

However, he would get two more chances. The first came at Jordan; when Eddie Irvine was banned for “initiating” a huge accident at Interlagos, Eddie Jordan first turned to Aguri Suzuki, but when he disappointed at Aida, the Irishman turned to his 1991 team leader, who jumped into a promising Jordan 194 for the ill-fated San Marino Grand Prix. Despite retiring from that race, he would finish a remarkable 4th on the streets of Monte Carlo a week later, providing a minor positive news story for the beleaguered sport. With Irvine returning for the next race, it seemed as if he was going out on a high.

But Karl Wendlinger’s accident that weekend had left a vacancy at Sauber, and De Cesaris’ good performances led Peter Sauber to call him up to fill the seat from Canada. But despite being armed with a quick car, Andrea was outshone by rookie team mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen, and finished just one race, popping up in 6th at Magny-Cours. After the European Grand Prix at Jerez, the change was made – JJ Lehto, exiled from Benetton, was brought in for the last two races. De Cesaris snuck out the back door while no one was watching.

At 35, and after 208 races (the second-highest total at the time, well before the days of 20-race seasons), Andrea called it quits. Instead of moving into sportscars as other contemporary veterans did, though, he moved into currency dealing and windsurfing. His final racing appearances came in the Grand Prix Masters series in 2005-06. In the first race at Kyalami, he finished an impressive 4th after showing good pace in the build-up, but he failed to build on this in the championship’s last two races.

His premature death at the age of 55 has come as a great shock to the F1 community at a time when it is awaiting news on Jules Bianchi’s condition in Japan. It seemed as if Andrea had finally settled down after a frenetic career and would have a long retirement. Sadly, it was not to be.

But while many of the obituaries will focus on the crashing, the truth is De Cesaris is a driver who drove some of the worst cars in F1 history, both in terms of pace and reliability, and yet averaged over 1.7 points on the current system. By the second half of his career, he was a solid, dependable driver, an able leader of struggling teams and capable of phenomenal results in poor machinery. There is a reason why he was such a cult hero in F1 circles. The guy had talent, but never picked up the results his ability deserved. Hopefully it is this he will be remembered for.

Images used in the spirit of fair use

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Written by James Bennett

October 5, 2014 at 22:55

Posted in F1, F1 drivers, F1 history

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