“There’s not a day I don’t rue the fact I never won a race. But you could win the title and it would depend how you did it. Questionable tactics leave a scar in your mind. That must grind on you every day. I don’t have that.”
In an eight-year F1 career taking in 79 starts and stints at Ferrari and McLaren, Stefan Johansson never won a GP. But he came away with his integrity intact
Stefan Johansson lived on London’s Fulham Road for several years and yet he’d never set foot inside the magnificent Michelin House across the road. It’s a strange omission – one that F1 Racing is happy to put right with lunch in the building’s excellent Bibendum restaurant – because the Art Nouveau style appeals to a former racing driver with a taste for classical architecture, ne art and the business of manufacturing his own wrist watches.
Time has never stood still for this cheerful Swede who struck the perfect balance between driving quickly and enjoying life in and out of the cockpit. It’s one of the travesties of the sport that he never won a grand prix in more than 100 attempts. But you don’t get to drive for McLaren and Ferrari if you are short on talent. These days, Johansson puts experience gained across a broad motor-racing spectrum to good use when managing drivers, competing in a erce commercial market in top-of-the-range watches and racing sportscars whenever he gets the chance. He turned 58 in September. You’d never know it to see him; only his wonderful stock of racing stories gives the game away. Maurice Hamilton: I was thinking as we came in that you used to live in this area. Stefan Johansson: Right across the road. I had a two-bedroom apartment on the fth oor. Jacqueline Bisset was my upstairs neighbour back in the days when she was a famous movie star. She was going out with some Russian ballet dancer and the ghts they used to have were absolutely legendary in this neighbourhood. MH: You must have been doing well because this is a very smart area. SJ: We’re talking 1984 and, back then, this area was crap! There was absolutely nothing here, but then Conran moved in, followed by other high-end stores, and the place just took off. Chanel, which you can see over there, used to be a raggedy old carpet store. MH: My rst memory of you was driving like a crazy man at Monaco in 1977. Everyone was talking about this kid with the black helmet in the Argo F3 car. You were sideways everywhere. SJ: Yeah, I finished fourth and got banned. MH: What, from Monaco? I mean, you weren’t dangerous – just very spectacular. SJ: I’d qualified really well and everyone was tripping over themselves trying to get by. There’s me, fresh from Sweden with no experience whatsoever; my first time in Monaco. I got a letter from the Automobile Club saying I was not welcome back. I can’t remember what happened afterwards, but it was sorted out pretty quickly. MH: It was a private entry, if I remember rightly; you were very much on your own. SJ: It was crazy. I left Sweden in my Mercedes van, which everybody had in those days, to drive down there. I’d been working night and day the whole week to get the car ready. I had to leave for Monaco on my own because my dad – who helped out at the races – and my mechanic had to work at their day jobs.
I was so tired, I could barely keep my eyes open. Driving through Denmark, I was literally ghting to get to the port. I could see the ferry about a mile down the road and I guess I must have relaxed because I fell asleep. Luckily, I didn’t hit anything. I got on the ferry thinking there was no way I was going to be able to drive the two days or whatever to get to France.
About an hour into Germany, there’s this guy hitchhiking at the side of the road. I said: “Do you know how to drive these things?” “Yeah, mate. No worries.” Turns out he’s a Kiwi and a racing fan who wants to get to Monaco. So he jumped in and started driving. I got in the back and slept for about ve or six hours. His name was John Goodwin, a really good guy, and he ended up being my mechanic for the whole year. MH: I also remember the nal of the UK F3 championship in ’79 because, being from Northern Ireland, I was supporting Kenny Acheson. He’d led the championship all year and you were suddenly on a roll and nicked it from him in the last race at Thruxton. SJ: I remember it well. We switched from a March with four races to go and Ralt were way superior. But I had to win every race and get fastest lap to win it by one point. That’s exactly what happened. MH: It’s an interesting example of how you can dominate all year, lose by one point and yet still be a good driver, even if people overlook you for not winning the title. SJ: Exactly. Kenny was fantastic but, on the day, the circumstances weren’t right. You get to a certain level and there’s so little between everybody that it comes down to nuances. It’s particularly evident in F1 today, because of how the cars are. Certain cars suit certain driving styles. Fernando Alonso, for example, is able to adapt. But Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen had a real hard time in 2014. It’s about feel; that last little thing to give the confidence on entry to corners. That leads to over-driving and then you go even slower. It’s a ne balance. MH: I hear what you say but, going back to Kenny, would you say he was too nice a guy? SJ: Yeah – but I’ve accused myself of that, too. I think I was too nice because, to be world champion, you have to be a bit of a bastard. MH: Saying that, do you think perhaps Ayrton Senna went too far the other way in his completely single-minded approach? SJ: I do, insofar as he was obsessed with Alain Prost. I wonder what would happen today if a driver suddenly took it upon himself to be judge and jury and take another driver off with the whole eld behind him [as infamously happened between Prost and Senna at the 1990 Japanese GP]. They’d ban you for life – and rightly so. Can you imagine if Prost’s rear wing had landed on the track? It would have hit somebody, caused a chain reaction and taken the whole eld out as they went into the corner, at in fth. And they did nothing about it. I’m often asked who’s the best driver. For that reason, Senna’s not even in my top ve. He’s probably the fastest. But you can never consider him the best. MH: Okay, you’re not single-minded to that extent. Perhaps I should say you’re more of an opportunist, always looking for the deal. Your attitude would appear to be: it ain’t gonna come to you, you’ve got to get out there. SJ: Definitely. Whatever you’re talking about in life, you’ve got to work for it. If you sit and wait, it’ll be a long wait. MH: Saying that, was jumping into the Shadow for your F1 debut in 1979 perhaps a step too far? Talk about getting thrown in the deep end. SJ: There I was in Argentina, I’d never tested the car and the seat was being made in the pitlane. F3 was the fastest series I’d ever driven before rst practice. All my heroes were there: Jonesy [Alan Jones], Carlos Reutemann, Mario Andretti; every one of them. I spent more time looking in the mirrors than I did at the road. The car was a handful: it was an education, for sure. MH: After that, I take it the deal with Ron Dennis for F3 in 1979 made a lot more sense? SJ: Absolutely. I’d been talking to Ron over the winter. It was an easy decision to make. MH: As, I’m sure, was being asked to drive for Spirit-Honda in F1 in 1983. This was Honda using a small team to dip their toe in F1 water. SJ: It was. The rst race was the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch. We were quick all weekend and then the engine blew up after about three laps. No one could get heat into the tyres – it was freezing cold – but the Spirit weighed a ton and was blistering the hardest tyre we had while everyone else was on the softest. We had more grip than we could ask for. It had looked good… and Ferrari took notice.
“It was freezing cold, but the Spirit was blistering the hardest tyre. We had more grip than we could ask for”
MH: We’ll come back to Ferrari. Before that, you and Spirit were left in the lurch for 1984 when Honda went off to Williams. How did you cope? SJ: I drove anything I could get my hands on, which is the advice I still give to every driver I work with. You learn something every time you sit in a car. More than anything, you learn racecraft. I think that’s lacking with the young kids today because they don’t get enough driving. They’re in formulae where there’s no real hard racing. I did F2 in Japan, I did Group C with Joest, touring cars – whatever. MH: I take it you wouldn’t necessarily agree with a 17-year-old going straight into F1? SJ: I really don’t know what to say because it’s connected with how the whole of F1 has changed. The cars are so… weird, if that’s the right word. I don’t think they’re challenging enough. A proper race car should be a beast to drive. These guys arrive in Abu Dhabi for their rst test and they’re a couple of tenths off Alonso’s or Vettel’s qualifying time. That just shouldn’t happen. MH: You mean, referring to the cars, you need to stand at the edge of the track and go: “Wow!”? SJ: That’s what I mean. Like watching Senna qualifying; you’ve got to take your hat off and say it was just magic to watch. Senna’s steering was not pointing straight for one second around Monaco. Now you watch the on-board camera and the car is hardly out of shape. The only thing that seems to happen is they’ll lock up and miss the apex if they go a little bit too deep. MH: Going back to ’84, I came across a story about you driving a Porsche 935 at Sebring. Can you repeat it because I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading? SJ: Reinhold Joest called me, last minute, and said he’d got this Colombian driver [Mauricio de Narváez] who was paying a lot of money to do Sebring and would I be part of the team with Hans Heyer? Hans and I were on the same ight leaving Frankfurt on the Monday because practice started on Wednesday with the race on Saturday. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. A re-routed ight, engine problems… we landed at Miami and had to drive through the night on Friday, arriving at Sebring at about 9am – and the race started at 11am. I’d never been to the track, never seen this car before, and, once again, I’m having a seat tting in the pits.
The Colombian guy qualified about 40th out of around 80 cars. He did the first stint and then Hans started motoring, picking up a few places. Then it was my turn – and all I knew of the track was the rst left-hander, because I could see it from the pits. That’s when I discovered this car was a monster; a beast. It had almost 1,000bhp, no aero, big fat tyres and a exing chassis. But the worst part is the diff was 100 per cent locked.
At the time, Sebring was an incredibly wide airfield track with no reference points at all. I was trying to follow some of the cars, but I wasn’t up to speed. When you lift completely and turn to the right, the car will basically straighten up because of the locked diff, which feels like you’re turning left. I had Minis passing me; I was all over the place; it was an hour of absolute torture.
Hans had to tell me how to drive these things and this track. After five or six laps of the next stint, I was getting the hang of it to the point where I was doing the same lap time as the leaders. Sometimes you get an incredible rhythm and I ended up doing the last four stints. Little by little, I picked them off. With 15 minutes to go, I passed Hans Stuck for the lead, and we won.
Everyone on the team was over the moon. I go from parc fermé to the podium and they say: “Er, who are you?” We hadn’t had time to sign in and they didn’t have a clue who I was. The other two were on the podium but the officials wouldn’t let me join them. I had to fight my way up there! MH: The line in the story that really struck me was that you’d gone through all this, you’d won the race – and yet all you could think about was the first F1 race of the season which was taking place on the same weekend in Rio. SJ: It’s true. That result mattered and yet it didn’t matter because all I wanted was to be in F1. MH: And your patience was rewarded when Ken Tyrrell asked you to deputise for Martin Brundle, who had been injured in Dallas. But that was a Cosworth car, right? SJ: It was the only normally aspirated car in the eld, but it was another chance for me to make my mark. Once again, thrown in at the deep end, no testing, straight into the first session at Brands Hatch – and I outqualified Stefan Bellof. MH: That was quite something because he was recognised as a huge prospect. SJ: I outraced him too; in fact, I did at every race. That’s all you can do, beat your team-mate, who, in this case, was a phenomenal driver. Ken was fantastic to drive for. There was no pressure and he made you feel good. That was important because it builds your confidence. It was such a family team. Nora [Ken’s wife] used to make sandwiches in the hotel before we went to the track in the morning. Imagine that now!
“The Old Man asks: ‘Are you hungry?’ I say: ‘I’ve never been more hungry in my life.’ Mr Ferrari nods. Marco says: ‘You’re in’”
MH: Then you had that fantastic drive in the Toleman at Monza when Ayrton was benched because of a contractual row. Next thing, in ’85, you’re at Ferrari. Tell us how that came about. SJ: That drive in the Spirit at Brands Hatch had put me on their radar. But what really got Ferrari interested was a great result with the Toleman in Portugal. I was dicing with Niki Lauda the whole race, and outqualified Ayrton on the first day.
I had a two-year contract with Toleman but, it’s amazing when you think about it now, they couldn’t get tyres and couldn’t take part in the rst race of 1985. So, I’m back in the Tyrrell again, thanks to always being ready. Ken had benched Bellof for some reason and I was in Brazil as a spectator. At something like 8am on the Saturday morning, Ken asked if I had my gear with me. “Of course!” “Right – you’re driving!” Next thing, Ferrari and René Arnoux fall out and I get the call.
I met [Ferrari team manager] Marco Piccinini at the Savoy in London and basically agreed all the terms in principle. I called Alex Hawkridge – because I was still contracted to Toleman – and he said: “You’ve got to take it, I’m not going to hold you back, this is the opportunity of a lifetime.” He was very gracious and let me go.
On the Tuesday before the next race in Portugal I’m told I have a secret meeting. I’m picked up at Bologna airport and go, not to Maranello, but the former Ferrari factory in Modena. It’s just an old building with a lot of dust and some old cars. We walk through the corridor. No lights are on, but shafts of afternoon sunlight are coming through the windows. There are pictures of Nuvolari, Ascari, Fangio; all my heroes. I’ve got goose bumps just walking through there. Then we come to what was the Old Man’s office. It’s long and narrow and all you can see is this familiar silhouette. It’s only Enzo Ferrari himself! The whole thing is like a Fellini movie: absolutely unbelievable.
Piccinini and Piero Ferrari are also there. Marco is doing the translation and most of the talking. The Old Man asks me one thing: “Are you hungry?” I’m sure what to say. As it happens, I’m absolutely starving after travelling all day, so I think I say: “I’ve never been more hungry in my life.” Mr Ferrari nods. Marco says: “You’re in.” That was it. We went back to the factory that night and I had to jump in Michele Alboreto’s seat and did about ten laps at Fiorano. Then we ew to Portugal and I was straight into rst practice as a works Ferrari driver. The whole thing was like a dream. MH: Did you think: ‘nally, after all my hard work, I’ve arrived’? Or, did you think: ‘never mind the sentimental stuff, the pressure is on’? SJ: I didn’t think about the pressure so much then; that came a little later. It’s no secret
that every driver aspires to drive the red car one day. It’s the ultimate. But of course, then you arrive into that F1 situation with politics and all the other funny stuff that starts happening. MH: Which you hadn’t really experienced before. You’re talking about the Italian media and so on? SJ: Well, the media was part of it. But this wasn’t Ferrari’s best period. There were factions within the team and I never gured out a way to navigate through all that. Prost said the same: you make one friend; you make two enemies. MH: Did you see much of the Old Man? SJ: All the time. Every day we tested at Fiorano, we had lunch with him. It was brilliant. Of course, you want to be a champion but life goes far beyond what you do on a racetrack. My memories of being with him are outstanding. He’s the most extraordinary human being I’ve ever met. MH: That’s quite a statement. Did you get the feeling he was a real racer? SJ: Absolutely. One hundred per cent passion, like it is for all of us. MH: Did you ever feel he was trying to catch you out or play games with his drivers? SJ: No. He loved his drivers, but we had the sort of dynamic you get when guys are together and talking, not just about racing, but life in general. They were good times with great memories. MH: And then you had that wonderful race at Imola, your second with Ferrari. Is it fair to ask if winning it would have changed everything? SJ: Yes, it would. It was so frustrating because, if I ever did everything right in a race, that was the day. I had been super-quick in practice, but then the oor came off in qualifying – which we only discovered later – and I had no downforce. I was all over the place and qualified 15th. But I knew I was quick. Harvey Postlethwaite was my man and we laid up the game plan. I knew what I had with the tyres and we had the data number on the fuel. I stayed on that the whole time, so I knew I was going to make it to the end – and I was catching everyone. When you race, your mind is like a computer; it’s on full alert and you work everything out. I wish I could think like that all the time, because it’s amazing. It’s the state of mind you’re in. It’s magic. That’s why I still race, because I love it. MH: But you didn’t love it so much one lap after taking the lead… SJ: There was this little crack on the inlet manifold, which was sucking in air. So, the engine was compensating, pushing more fuel in to have the mixture the right way. Otherwise we would have made it comfortably. MH: There were just two and a half laps to go when you ran out. Never mind a win in Italy, it would have been a grand prix win, period. How did the rest of the year go? SJ: It was up and down. The car was difficult to drive and wasn’t easy to get right all the time but, overall, it was quick. Michele still had a shot for the title until quite late. In Canada, I had to obey team orders, otherwise I would have won there, for sure. At the Nürburgring, I was on the front row and felt I should have won that race, too. Michele hit me at the start and cut my rear tyre. Then he won it, but I’d been quicker than him all weekend. As the season went on we had more and more problems. Then the engine started to lack performance; we qualified 15th and 16th for the final race in South Africa: it was a disaster. MH: What led to the move to McLaren? SJ: The 1986 Ferrari was hopeless. My only objective was to beat Michele in the championship, which I did. I’d been talking a fair bit with Ron Dennis. McLaren won the title in 1986 and when the chance came up, I felt it was the right thing to do. The timing was bad, but I was better off at McLaren than at Ferrari because they remained in the dumps. Saying that, the McLaren was one of the most difcult cars they’ve ever had – even Prost said it was a bitch to drive. It was very nervous; very edgy. You needed a lot of condence to go quickly. Ron had already done the deal with Senna, but he had to wait a year. So it was in everybody’s best interest that I didn’t do too well. I ended up doing about 35 laps of testing the whole year. That was it. MH: I suppose there must have been massively different cultures between Ferrari and McLaren? SJ: As different as could possibly be. Ron, let’s face it, moved the goal posts for everybody and set the standard every year.
“In 1987 Ron had done the deal with Senna. So it was in everybody’s best interests that I didn’t do too well”
MH: Would you say you were at Ferrari towards the end of what you might call the romantic era when the Old Man was still alive? SJ: Definitely. I’m happy I was there in that era. It’s a life experience I’ve taken with me. MH: So after McLaren, where do we go? Ah, Ligier! Talk about one extreme to the other SJ: Oh man! At lunch one day, Michel Tetu [Ligier designer] was thinking out loud and mentioned splitting the fuel tank: one half in front of the engine, the other half behind. Someone said: “Oui.” And that was it! Arnoux and I used to joke that the only thing that kept the car on the ground was the chief designer, Newton, because he invented gravity. MH: And then Onyx. SJ: That was a great. If you look at what we did with the resources we had, and how late it all came together, I don’t think anyone, to this day, has even come close. We nished third in Portugal and came close a couple of other times, too. Don’t forget, we had to do pre-qualifying at every race. Talk about pressure, because all the cars in pre-qualifying were quick. If you made it through, you were just junk for the rest of the day because there had been so much pressure on the rst morning. The Onyx was designed by Alan Jenkins: it was a great car and looked fantastic. It was the best feeling I’ve had in any of the teams in F1 because it was such a tight operation and everybody fought so hard to make it happen. After driving for AGS and Footwork in 1991, I’d sort of had enough, which is why I started looking at America. I loved it there. MH: What did you like about it? SJ: The racing is fantastic. To this day I believe that IndyCar is the best racing in the world. It goes right down to the wire in almost every race. But when the split came, everything went sideways and then I started my Indy Lights team. MH: I bet you saw life from a different angle when running a team. SJ: It certainly made me appreciate team owners a lot more than before. When you’re a driver, you’d knock the front wing off and come in and start shouting at them to hurry up and t a new one. As a team owner, you see the car coming down the pitlane and think: ‘Shit! There’s another 35 grand.’ You have a completely different take on it. But the thing that doesn’t change is that you always want to win. MH: How do you look back on your career as a driver? You’ve had a fantastic time, but is there any sense of frustration? SJ: I’ve been blessed. If you can do what you love every day of your life, you can’t complain. But we all have big egos, otherwise you won’t get far in this business. I can’t deny that there’s not one day I don’t rue the fact that I never won a grand prix or that I didn’t become champion. On the other hand, you could win the title and it would depend how you did it. You have a life away from what happens on the race track and questionable tactics will leave a scar in your mind. That must grind on you every single day. I don’t have that. MH: In other words, you’ve enjoyed a hard career – but it’s been fair. SJ: Exactly. I’m not complaining. MH: It’s been great hearing about it in your usual inimitable style, Stefan. Thank you so much. Thanks to Fiona McFall at Bibendum. For bookings and enquiries visit www.bibendum.co.uk
Johansson racing the tricky Spirit-Honda at Brands Hatch in 1983 – the drive that brought him to the attention of Ferrari
Johansson in his second and final season with Ferrari, testing the F186 at Rio de Janeiro in 1986
Racing the “very nervous, very edgy” McLaren MP4/3 in Monaco 1987 as a clear number two to Prost