Ruggero Melgrati

What got you interested in motor racing?

I was born in Monza! I was born just before the Grand Prix (5 Sep 1961). I was still in the hospital there when the Von Trips tragedy took place during the race, 5 days later, and my mother later told me about the ambulances arriving to carry  wounded spectators.

But the first image printed in my mind were the three Gulf Porsche’s, led by Pedro Rodriguez, sliding sideways fully committed, flat out, at the Ascari turn – this was before the chicane was built later in the ‘70s, of course, and I was a fan from there. When I was younger, I also used to enjoy basketball, but I was hooked on racing.

Unfortunately, I – sadly - got used to tragedy when it came to birthdays – I’d often celebrate them at the Grand Prix. Jochen Rindt died on my 9th birthday and Ronnie Peterson, of course, just after my 17th birthday.

You raced, and beat Ayrton Senna in 1981 in a karting event in Parma - how obvious was it at that time, that he would go on to be so successful ?

Because you could see in his eyes he was fully addicted on karting and motorsports. He had determination and concentration to study and find all the solutions to succeed in every single event. Nothing else mattered, Non-one else was like that.

I do also remember that Senna and I were battling at each race in the morning to register first, in order to get number.17 on the kart, it was our preferred number.

You're on the website as virtue of your one-off appearance at Dijon in 1988 in Formula 3000. How did that one-off come about?

Very difficult weekend, in retrospect, a poor decision.

Massimo Monti was the driver of Pavesi team in 1988. He crashed the ‘not so good’ Ralt chassis in Monza the race before. Dijon was the last race of the season and he decided not to drive and he got married.

So, Luciano Pavesi, the owner of the team, and also owner for the team for which I drove the Euro F.3 season in 1984, called me the week before the race and asked me if I was interested to drive. However, I’d hadn’t had experience with single seater cars since Macau 1984 and there would be no testing possible before the Dijon weekend.

I answered ‘Yes’ because it was a weekend without any IMSA races but now I wish I’d said no!

In that year there was only 90mins of free practice on Saturday morning and then qualifying in the afternoon. Free practice would help me, considering the fact I couldn’t test. But unfortunately that morning, the free practice was cancelled because of FOG!!

To be fair, Luciano asked me if I was still sure and ready to drive. He would have accepted my decision to step back and withdraw the car from the race if I wouldn’t go further, but I confirmed I would like to try.

You can imagine and understand now why I couldn’t qualify the car for the race!

Sadly, none of the media came to me, to ask me “how was it out there and why I couldn’t qualify?” but everybody (Autosport,Autosprint,etc) wrote not nice and unfair notes regarding my return to single seaters and strong criticism on my failure in qualifying.

What are your memories of your fellow drivers on that event ?

About my fellow drivers, well I quickly realized that they were doing an excellent job going fast and that I was their mobile chicane. They were overtaking me everywhere, anywhere …. Hah! I still remember very well where and how fast Moreno overtook me in turn 1.

At the end of less than a hour only, in a desperate attempt to get the car qualified, I did try hard to follow a faster driver (don’t remember who) but I span out and broke a front suspension arm on a rail and that definitely ended up for me,  a very, very short weekend of racing.

Was there never the opportunity to race in F3000 in 1985 onwards, or in 1989?

Well, there is a very long story of a lost opportunity to race F.3000 in 1985 and F.1 in 1986 with a very well- known sponsor. Maybe I’ll expand more another time, but very briefly, I was very close to signing for the F.3000 season with Pavesi in 1985. Then I had the budget for F.1 in 1986 but the company that owned the brand that was officially sponsoring me since F.3, sold that particular branch of the company a few days before I signed the deal and it all went in a mess for me and I couldn’t race in 1985 in any championship.

Unexpectedly, Giorgio Stirano called me on behalf of Martino Finotto, proposing to me an opportunity to drive in Le Mans in C2 with the 2nd Alba car co-driving with Loris Kessel and Jean Pierre Frey and I accepted.

I did only 6 laps in practice and that was enough to record the 2nd fastest on the grid in C2. Then Frey crashed the car before the race and I didn’t start but….before leaving Le Mans, Finotto and mostly Carlo Facetti were so enthusiastic about my driving attitude that I was already signed by Finotto to race Daytona 24 in 1986 and this is how it all began for my successful US career.

During your long career of racing, who would you say is the best driver, or drivers, you've competed against?

Easy to say: Mike Wilson and Ayrton Senna.

Most of your co-drives have been with Martino Finotto. What makes him such a good co-driver? Is he the best you've had, or do you have any other favourites?

I met Finotto when he was already 53. Everybody was considering him a gentleman driver, a rich man who was addicted to women, but not a top driver.

Well, in truth, he started racing at 37, and at 40 he raced at the old Silverstone circuit in Touring Cars with a BMW, got pole, and then won the race. So, he had talent.

Well, for me, he was “the perfect one” to share a sports car with: experienced, reliable and with a “chronographerpace” in long-distance races. He was also very intelligent, strong with maths and a very good strategist. Also, although it doesn’t affect his driving he’s a wonderful chef, cooking Italian food with style and taste!

Other good mates I drove with were definitely Carlo Facetti and Chip Robinson. Some others were good: Fermin Velez, Parker Johnstone, Dominic Dobson, Costas Los, Wayne Taylor. All very good drivers, but not as much as Finotto.

You now run an interior design furniture company - tell me a little more about that - what inspired you to go into that business and what do you specialise in?

It is a 5th generation family business, in business since 1896 in Lissone – the city next to Monza – which is the Italian and European (in my opinion) capital of furniture. My first time in the showroom came about when I was 5yrs old!!

So, it is in my blood and I love interior design and decoration, so if you ever need nice furniture for your home, you know who to call, ha ha!

Finally, what made you decide to come back racing in 2014, and do you have any more plans to race again ?

It’s difficult to summarise, but I’ll try. First, I did never take the decision to quit for good. I always had in the back of my mind, to come back some day where I left, in the US.

On my 50th birthday, a close friend of mine  said (when trying a glass of Spumante): “Why don’t You try to come back racing at the 50th Daytona 24 hours next January (2012)?”.

Great idea!  50th Anniversary of the Daytona 24 Hours – I would be 50 years old – what a double celebration! I did start some talks in winter at Roar Before Daytona and met Bernhard Muehlner, and that almost got me a seat in his car with Davy Jones but it didn’t work out in the end.

Two years later, March 1st 2014, this year he called me and told me “I have a seat for you, this time, at Sebring 12 Hours: “Are you ready to drive?” You know what my answer was! Now, yes, after driving at Sebring, I feel I am still fine and competitive in racing. I think I’ll get some more chances to race this year and certainly for the Daytona 24 Hours in 2015.


Interviewed by Richard Jenkins May 2014

Where Are They Now: Ruggero Melgrati