Why I Love...
Repeat Le Mans-winner Emanuele Pirro on the thrill of his debut race
‘Three laps from the finish the rain intensified and I spun in a river of water. Only then did I realise I’d amassed a 15 second lead! As I walked back to the pits I couldn’t stop crying’
I loved my first car race, I can remember it as though it was only yesterday. Racing is in my blood. I began in karts and when I reached the age when I could start motor racing I had two things in my favour – the success of older kart drivers such as Elio De Angelis, Riccardo Patrese, Andrea De Cesaris and Eddie Cheever helped me to get started, plus the Fiat Lancia Group, which was very supportive of Italian drivers, had just launched the new Fiat Abarth Formula.
The first season was 1980. The design was based on limited -budget racing using the Lancia Beta engine and gearbox. The cars were all delivered together during March at Mugello, a circuit that intimidates even the best. Power was in the area of 150bhp.
I had just won the Italian karting championship for the second year and this gave me a limited budget, sufficient only to join a team which had never entered circuit racing before. The question I couldn’t ignore was whether I was good enough to make a career out of motor racing? I could not be just average.
I was very nervous ahead of my first race. I qualified 8th out of 52, started on the second row of the second heat, and finished in second place. This earned me the chance to start from the second row for the final.
Then it began to rain, heavily. I’d never driven in the wet before and I thought it could spell disaster for me. To make matters worse, I had to skip the fifteen minutes of extra practice time agreed by the race director because my rain light was faulty.
By the time it was fixed the other cars were already on the grid and so I had to complete my formation lap alone. The car was sliding about everywhere and the situation seemed hopeless.
When the flag went down I found myself leading along the straight and into the first corner. I had no idea where to brake. As I came out I was still ahead, a position I maintained for the next few turns. Behind, all was a huge blur of spray. Because no-one had passed me I thought there’d been a massive accident.
Three laps from the finish the rain intensified and I spun in a newly formed river of water across the track. The car stopped, buried in a sand trap facing the oncoming cars. Only then did I realise I’d amassed a 15 second lead! As I walked back to the pits I couldn’t stop crying, fully expecting everyone to be angry. In fact, they were totally excited by my performance. I then won the next race and went on to take the championship.
That first race was so important. It helped me to answer my question: could I hope to succeed as a racing driver?
Pirro about to embark on a fateful drive at Mugello in his Fiat Abarth Formula