GRR

The two-time karting champion who beat Michael Schumacher

24th August 2020
Rob Widdows

Nothing, it seemed, would interrupt Andrea Gilardi’s journey to the Grand Prix grid. Twice a World Champion in karts, an F3 podium in Monaco, Marlboro support for F3000 and beyond, talent to spare. He was, however, never in the right place at the right time. The story starts in the summer of 1985.

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It’s a roasting hot day in Northern France, the stage is set for the climax of the Junior Kart World Championship on the Maison Blanche circuit at Le Mans. On pole position is young Italian hotshoe Gilardi, seeking a second consecutive world title. Alongside him are two other teenagers, one from Kerpen and one from Dumfries. All three had won their heats, desperate to catch the eye. The race report from that weekend sums up what happened next:

“At the start Schumacher tagged onto Gilardi and squeezed in front of McNish. Schumacher desperately tried to get into an overtaking position but Gilardi looked in absolute control, the pair opening up a small gap to McNish. In the closing stages Schumacher gave all he had but Gilardi held him off and took the flag, a worthy retainer of the title. Schumacher looked bitterly disappointed but on the day didn’t have enough to stop the flying Italian who’d won his last ten races on the trot.”

So, Andrea Gilardi stood atop the podium, World Champion for the second time, and the first driver to win the title two years running. He was already dreaming of repeating the feat in a Grand Prix car. On the steps below him Michael Schumacher and Allan McNish dreamed the same dream, little knowing they would see little of their Italian rival along the way.

Born and brought up in Alessandria, he started karting when he was ten years old, supported and managed by his Father Enzo who had connections with Angelo and Achille Parilla who built the DAP karts raced in Europe by Ayrton Senna. Enzo Gilardi and the brothers Parilla looked after Senna when he first came to Europe to race karts, Andrea treasuring his memories of the Brazilian. “My Father and I travelled to the kart races with Ayrton from 1980 to 1982, and as a boy I worshipped him. He was my hero, I had a picture of him on my bedroom wall, and of course we knew he was some kind of genius on the track.

“My first World Championship season was in1983 and everyone was talking about this German boy called Michael Schumacher whose Father was the circuit manager at Kerpen. I was fourth there but then I won the title in 1984 at Laval, beating both Michael and Mika Häkkinen. Then in ’85 I won it again, fantastic you know, and I thought, ok, I am on my way, I have beaten Mika and Michael, I dream now of Formula 1.”

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The first of many setbacks came just weeks later. Out for a blast around Alessandria on his new 125cc motorcycle Andrea collided with a car, broken bones and a head injury keeping him out of racing for many months.

“I spent three months in bed with broken bones in my legs, my arms and my hands, plus a big bang on the head. While I was in hospital Michael Schumacher was racing his kart at Parma, he’d heard about my accident, and a post card, one of his first publicity pictures, arrived with this kind message.

“Dear Andrea,” he wrote, “All best wishes for a good recovery and convalescence. It’s a shame you’re not here. Come back soon, and in good health. Good luck, yours Michael Schumacher.”

All was not lost, however. Graduating to F3, and a podium in Monaco, put him back in the headlines. Marlboro had been watching seven young Italians under the banner of the  ‘Marlboro-Alfa Romeo Challenge”, the winner of which would be given a seat in F3000 with Crypton Engineering who had won championship with Luca Badoer. And, guess what, Gilardi won the challenge outright, putting him on the path to Formula 1.

“So Marlboro and Alfa, they come to me, and they give me 20,000 dollars towards an F3000 drive… but it was not enough to secure a seat, and I spent  a lot of money looking for another team. There was always politics, and like all politics in Italy, it was a mess. There was really no support for young drivers, no media interest. OK, there was Marlboro, but otherwise it was tough to get money for a young Italian driver beyond Formula 3. Ferrari still don’t take any Italian drivers. I think this is because Ferrari is more important than its drivers, the problem is never the car. The Scuderia is like a religion in Italy but team has not been good for Italian drivers.”

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Motor racing history is littered with ‘ifs and buts’, but surely no story has as many ifs and buts as that of Andrea Gilardi. Often in the right place, sometimes at the right time, and occasionally in the right car, he never managed to get all three together.

“I really have only one big regret. In 1991 Toms Toyota made me an offer for the Japanese Formula 3 season in ’92. They were also taking Tom Kristensen and Jacques Villeneuve, two friends and rivals. Jacques and I were on the same plane home from Macau and he said to me ‘I’ve decided to do it, I will race for them next season, and you must come too, we’ll find a place to live so we won’t be all on our own in Japan.’ But I wasn’t so sure, and I turned the offer down. That was a bad decision but I have so many happy memories of my early success. I don’t dwell on what I might have done with the talent I was given.”

If you’ve enjoyed this, perhaps you’ll like ‘Stefano Modena – the potential F1 champion who deserved much more

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