Stefano Modena: A great lost talentWritten by 'Αγγελος Φωτσεινός
Translated by Giannis Binas
When Alberto Ascari was conquering the 1953 title, no one of his compatriots could imagine he would be the last Italian world champion.
Date of 1st publication: 12/05/14
A whole generation of young and very promising Italians was lost in vain in the ‘60s mainly in non Formula 1 races, while Ferrari’s withdrawal from sportscars in the ‘70s was the tombstone of the next batch.
Michele Alboreto’s move from Tyrrell to Scuderia in 1984, made the tifosi bubble over with enthusiasm for they expected they would finally witness the fulfillment of the “Italian dream” once again.
Even though Alboreto’s 2 first years were encouraging, he didn’t live up to the expectations in the next 3 seasons he was present.
At that time, there was no other driver at the grid that interested Enzo Ferrari.
Commendatore though, had distinguished a young compatriot of his, with an impressive path in lower categories.
His name: Stefano Modena.
Born on the homonymous city on the 12th of May, 1963, he began his career from the “big school”, the go-karts, in 1975, aged 12.
3 years later, he conquered at the circuit of Mondercange of Luxemburg, the world kart championship at the Junior A category.
In 1980, he was proclaimed champion at the Italian 100cc category championship, a title he retained in 1981 (a year that he also conquered the 100cc Torneo Industrie).
His Karting career reached an end in 1984, when he conquered the European 100cc category championship.
In the same period, he completed his studies and competed in some Formula Panda races (Italian single-seater league, below Formula 3).
It was time in 1985, for the Italian Formula 3 championship.
In a learning first season, racing on behalf of Euroteam, he gathered 5 points and finished 15 overall, and also competed in the supportive Formula 3 race in Monaco, where he finished 5th.
In 1986 he vigorously returned to success, adding to his palmares (in the Formula 3 context) the following distinctions: the European cup that was held in Imola, the 2nd place in the race of Monaco, the pole position in the race of Macau as well as the 4th place (with 3 wins and 5 podiums) at the Italian championship.
It was high time for the youthful Italian to move to the top supportive F1 league, the F3000. Certainly, Euroteam had neither the resources nor the organization to compete in the specific championship, so Modena had to cooperate with another team for his new effort.
With Marlboro’s precious financial aid (which aided almost every Italian driver that raced in F1 until the middle of the 90s), he secured a seat in one of the most organized, the British Onyx.
With 3 wins (Vallelunga, Birmingham, Imola) and 40 points, the 24 year old Italian won the title at his first year.
His impressive appearances were already the subject of discussion among the Formula 1 team bosses in the paddocks and his distinction as the world champion was the capstone of the positive opinions on his driving skills.
Enzo Ferrari saw a compatriot with shiny potential, while the Italian press went so far as to compare him with Gilles Villeneuve and Ayrton Senna.
The ‘Modena’ hype had fascinated Italy, with the hot-headed tifosi looking forward to his F1 debut.
The F3000 title, together with Marlboro’s support, constituted almost certain the presence of the hopeful driver in the 1988 grid.
The much expected debut in the pinnacle of motorsport eventually came sooner than estimated by those in the know.
Modena debuted on behalf of Brabham at the Australian GP that was marking the end of the 1987 championship. He replaced Riccardo Patrese, who, after the permission of the owner of Brabham, Bernie Ecclestone, was covering the place of the wounded Nigel Mansell at Williams.
The young Italian was immediately thrown in the deep: his first contact with an F1 single-seater (as he hadn’t performed any testing either with Brabham or with any other team in the past) took place in a circuit with that he was seeing for the first time. On top of that, he had BMW’s turbo engine behind him, one of the most difficult in drivability terms engines.
Based on the particular parameters, the 15th position in qualifying was excellent, while his appearance in the warm-up was more surprising, as he found himself 3rd!
On completion of the warm-up, Ron Dennis offered him the test driver’s seat at McLaren, for 1988, with the main workload being the evolution of Honda’s V6.
Modena however, refused the offer, since he wanted to race full-time and the position was covered by his compatriot, Emanuele Pirro.
His first race ended on the 31st lap, for a cause that nowadays seems unusual, if not unacceptable for a Formula 1 driver: exhaustion.
Considering, though, the huge difference of the pace between a Formula 1 race and an F3000 race and the fact that Modena entered practically ‘unprepared’ (he had his first taste of an F1 single-seater on Friday and 2 days later he was racing!), it appears normal that he couldn’t physically endure.
Another driver might not have had a second chance, watching his dream disappear at its birth.
But Modena’s appearance in F3000 alongside the fore mentioned circumstances of his debut, secured that any assumptions on his dynamics would be drawn next year.
Ahead of 1988 then, his stay at Brabham was more than certain. What wasn’t certain was Brabham’s… presence in the grid.
You see, Ecclestone had shifted his interest towards managing Formula 1’s commercial rights, leaving the once major team in God’s mercy.
The situation at the faultering team was tragic and the last thing to trouble Ecclestone at that time was its fortune.
Modena tried during the winter testing for Benetton, which, however, didn’t have any vacant driver’s seat but only a test driver’s.
On the other hand, 2 small Italian teams that were about to debut at the sport, were offering him a driver’s seat.
The Italian chose the latter, as it was an effort that relied extensively on Euroteam’s human resources, that is, on former associates of his.
EuroBrun’s effort had both of the 2 classic characteristics that escorted all teams that tried to enter the sport those years: very few resources and inadequate organization. Hence, the goals were straight away clear and limited: qualifying to the race and as few accidents - mechanical issues as possible, in order to not… empty the already poor pocket.
Thus, Modena entered the qualifying arena, and, admittedly, he did a pretty good job: 10 qualifications in 16 races (best result, the 11th place at the Hungarian GP).
It’s worthy to mention his consecutive disqualification at Monaco and Mexico, due to an underweight car and illegal wing, respectively.
At the Australian GP of 1988, 1 year was passing from the Italian’s debut in F1. The prevailing news at the paddocks was the selling of Brabham’s assets (that hadn’t competed in the 1988 championship) by Bernie Ecclestone to Walter Brun, co-owner of EuroBrun.
A very important move, which revealed that, ahead of 1989, EuroBrun’s project would be based on better foundations, at least in terms of facilities.
So, the next year was to begin with the same drivers’ duo (Stefano Modena – Oscar Larrauri) in a more focused effort.
All these proved to be false hopes though. Soon enough, Brun, facing the danger of losing his team’s successful WSC (World Sportscars Championship) program too, sold Brabham’s facilities to the Swiss investor Joachim Luhti.
The latter brought back Brabham to the grid after one year’s absence. Martin Brundle, 1988 WSC champion, covered the one cockpit, while for the other one, Luhti asked Modena from Brun, a request that was accepted.
That way, the young Italian returned to the team with which he debuted.
The absence from the grid for 1988, in combination with the presence of 39 (!) drivers in FIA’s participation list, meant that Modena and Brundle wouldn’t only fight to qualify, but to pre-qualify as well!
In contrast with 1988 however, Modena possessed a car that could easily make it to the 26 qualifiers.
He managed to qualify in every race (in Italy he didn’t take part, even though he qualified, since the check after the qualifying session revealed an underweight car.
ΒΤ58’s notorious unreliability led him to 10 retirements out of 15 races, but the year was marked by a great performance in Monaco.
The end of the qualifying session at the principality, found the two Brabhams very high in the rakning: Brundle was 4th and Modena 8th in a great day for both of them.
At the following video (4:58 onwards) the 2 Brabhams’ efforts in pre-qualifying:
The Pirellis they were using worked properly in the race too, with Brundle heading to 3rd place and Modena following at his heels.
The Brit had to enter the pits for a new battery and was confided in 6th place in the end.
Of course, that meant the other Brabham was promoted to the 3rd place, with Modena conquering the first podium of his career.
That was also his only finish in the points for that year, which brought him to 16th place overall in the drivers’ championship.
It is noteworthy, besides his podium, that he made request to his team’s people to change the… side of his garage for the GP of Imola (move it to the right side and change Brundle’s to the left).
As you can see, Modena was highly superstitious and that wasn’t even his only precautionary action, as he was wearing 1 of his gloves inside out and did not allow anyone to fasten his seatbelts!
He attributed these “characteristics” to incidents that had occurred in F3000, not accepting the term “superstitious”.
In 1990, he expected a better season than 1989, when, besides Monaco, he didn’t have any other points finish.
The year started very positively (5th place in the American GP, first race of the year) but evolved to a very disappointing one: in spite of his valiant attempts, Modena didn’t manage to score any other point.
He was 16th on the championship once again, but for 1991, his expectations were, rightfully, better.
For that reason, he left Brabham and moved to Tyrrell, which seemed a much better option: Ken Tyrrell had secured Honda’s V10s that McLaren had used in 1990 and had sealed a large sponsorship with Braun, subsidiary of the multinational Gillette.
Modena’s name was hot on the rumor mill for Alain Prost’s team-mate at Ferrari, in case Scuderia lost the fight with Williams for Jean Alesi.
The French, eventually ended up at the Italian team, and Modena would be his successor at “uncle Ken’s team”.
The experts’ expectations for 1991 were high.
Tyrrell 020 was an evolution of the much promising 019; she was powered by the top engine and had a great talent behind the steering wheel.
Comparison with his compatriot, Michele Alboreto, who was the last winner on behalf of the tea, (Detroit 1983) was unavoidable.
The 1991 championship began from Phoenix, where last year, Alesi in the cockpit of 019, was contesting for the win with Ayrton Senna under even terms, eventually finishing 2nd.
The 020, however, didn’t possess the same capabilities for winning. Even so, Modena with a mature appearance finished 4th.
He finally seemed to have a competitive single-seater at hand and his psychology was peaking: he wasn’t intimidated by the consecutive retirements in Interlagos and Imola, which came after splendid drives, as one of his favorite races was following; Monaco.
At the streets of Monte Carlo, he had conquered, 2 years ago, his only podium and he was targeting to repeat it.
The qualifying result proved that his goal was not unrealistic.
With a great lap, he found himself at the first row, just behind the specialist, Senna.
He was comfortably second in the race, until the 42nd lap, when Honda’s V10 didn’t endure and breathed its last.
Patrese too fell victim to the Japanese engine’s failure, as he was at Modena’s heels and had an exit after slipping on oil dropped by Modena’s engine:
The “restoration” for that “injustice” came at the next race, in Canada. There, fortunately, the engine made it to the finish line and the Italian completed the race in 2nd place, taking advantage of the retirement of the leader, Mansell, just a few meters ahead of the checkered flag.
Modena is at the best point in his career and everyone expected even better results during the second half of the season.
But they reckoned without their host: Tyrrell fell back in terms of evolution and Honda’s engines proved fragile in another 3 races.
That had as a result only one more finish in the points (6th place in Japan), a disappointing performance, at least.
In spite of his remarkable appearances throughout the year, Modena watched his efforts being rewarded with just 10 points that brought him 8th on the drivers’ championship.
Dissapointed with Tyrrell’s low competitiveness, he signed for the next year with the big surprise of 1991, the newfound Jordan.
1992 was about to be the most decisive year on Modena’s future.
29 years old, he knew that with a good season, he would head straight forward to a big team.
Instead, if the year didn’t unfold as he anticipated, the doors of the big teams would be shut for ever: he was, more than ever, in need of a car that would bear fruit, namely points and podiums.
His ally to this effort was Jordan 191, the evolution of the successful 191.
Compared to 1991, there was a key difference though, which both Modena and his team-mate, Mauricio Gugelmin, were not aware of.
The excess to the budget at the first year of the Irish team to the sport, meant they were flat broke and unable to buy even the engines!
Eddie Jordan chose Yamaha’s V12 engines because they were… free: no team was going to pay for engines overweight, weak and unreliable.
And since Yamaha’s V12 was clearly larger than Ford’s V8 that 191 was using, there was a draft adjustment to the engine cover so it could fit.
In short, Jordan 192 was an 191 evolution, “dowered” with more weight and worse balance (due to the Japanese engine).
Under that scheme, it was reasonable for Modena to be betrayed by his theoretical ally.
The season started like a distaster: non-qualifying at the Kyalami race, something that hadn’t happened to him since 1998.
His spirits tumbled; at the most crucial point in his career, he was driving a tragic single-seater.
His driving couldn’t remain unaffected: plenty of mistakes, consecutive bad appearances and his image had nothing to do with what he had shown in the previous years.
He retired in 3 more races (Spain, Germany, Italy), while in the rest, he could, very well, be absent.
The only times he reminded his good old self came at the last 2 GPs, in Japan and Australia.
He finished 7th in Suzuka and 6th in Adelaide, which was his only presence in the points throughout that season.
It was also meant to be the last one, as both him and Gugelmin waved goodbye to Formula 1.
2 very promising drivers watched their careers shutter in just one season…
Modena was at his lowest, both driving and psychologically.
His F1 career was past and had to chase its rebirth in another league.
Thus, he decided to move to the Italian touring car championship, where he raced in 1993-1994 for Euroteam (meeting again his old associates) in the cockpit of an Alfa Romeo 155.
In 1995, he moved to the corresponding German championship, where he remained until the end of 2000, when he hanged up his gloves for good.
Throughout that time, he didn’t manage to show anything special: he only had some flashes, justifying all those who claimed that he was never able to overcome the misfortune of 1992.
He was the first one of a series of hopeful compatriots in the 90s, that watched their careers evolve disproportionally to their credentials, and, as generally accepted, the most talented one.
Based on the statistics, he is nothing more that “another driver from Italy, who raced in the 80s – 90s” without achieving any distinctions.
But the statistics don’t always tell the truth – and Modena, who is currently employed as road tire developer for Bridgestone, is one of the most capable drivers that competed those years: a great talent that was, sadly, lost.
He was always going well at the Principality of Monaco; he married a princess; but never made it to becoming a “prince” of Formula 1…
Active years: 1987-1992
Races: 81 (70 participations, 11 failures to qualify)
Wins: 0, best result: 2nd place (Canada 1991)
Pole positions: 0, best result: 2nd position (Monaco 1991)
Teams: Brabham, EuroBrun, Tyrrell, Jordan
- Stefano Modena
- Alberto Ascari
- Michele Alboreto
- Enzo Ferrari
- Gilles Villeneuve
- Ayrton Senna
- Riccardo Patrese
- Bernie Ecclestone
- Nigel Mansell
- Scuderia Italia
- Walter Brun
- Oscar Larrauri
- Joachim Luthi
- Martin Brundle
- Alain Prost
- Jean Alesi
- Ken Tyrrell
- Mauricio Gugelmin
- Eddie Jordan
- Alfa Romeo