Stefano Modena interview
by Richard Jenkins
Stefano Modena’s Formula 1 career never materialised quite as many thought it would when he stormed to the 1987 Formula 3000 title. Nonetheless, he had quite a few highs before leaving Formula 1 in 1992. He has worked with Bridgestone’s tyre development team as a test driver and branding expert for nearly twenty years. Somewhat surprisingly, there’s hardly any – if any – interviews with Stefano in English about his career, so it’s with great pleasure that the first interview in 2019 from oldracingcars.com is with this popular, fast but occasionally enigmatic driver.
RJ: What sparked your initial interest in the sport?
SM: My father. He was racing in go-karts and he was a very smart technician with a lot of passion for motorsport. I was enjoying going every Sunday racing with him, and when I got to the right age there was the swap between him and me. From there on, he became my technician and advisor. So most of the racing career success I had is thanks to him.
RJ: What do you remember about the first time you drove a racing car in.. Formula Ford was it?
SM: It was not a Formula Ford, it was a Formula 2000 and I found it heavy!!! It did not transmit any good feeling to me. Actually I found it complicated with these three pedals to manage, a gearbox lever, no… I did not like it! I was coming from karting with open air driving and two pedals to manage, no gearbox, only a steering and a lot of technique on how to drive. That for me, was, and it is yet, a pure thing to drive, but not cars; those were complicated at the start.
RJ: You made a rapid rise up the racing ranks with a really strong 1986 Formula 3 season moving you up very quickly into Formula 3000. Other than the car, what changed for you personally as a driver to make 1986 such a good season?
SM: 1986 was my second year in Formula 3 and the experience made me achieve some better results. Actually I could have achieved good results as well in 1985, but the car I had at that time was terrible. I mean not generally, but in relation, for example, to my team mate’s car. Unfortunately we discovered this only by coincidence at the end of the season.
Moving up to Formula 3000 was just due to a strong performance during the Marlboro drivers test at the end of 1986 in Le Castellet. Although I won the Formula 3 Championship and a few races in the Italian Formula 3championship, I do not think that those were the reasons making me moving up in Formula 3000 with Onyx.
Maybe a strong contribution to the move was the pole position I did in Macau, which nobody was expecting, but I’m still very much convinced that the first foot into the Formula 3000 was thanks to the test done in Le Castellet.
RJ: 1987 saw you win Formula 3000 in some style; what was your main highlight of that season (other than winning the title itself?)
SM: Living in England! That was an experience!
Living in England and being close to the team by going every day in the workshop made me be accepted by them and made me be a trustable person on who they could rely. I guess it contributed to the success and not only my one but to them too!
RJ: What was it like to work with Mike Earle and the Onyx team?
SM: It was a step into the future for me. The team was very professional in every way and Mike was the real leader of it. They were the real professional kind of people and I was the gypsy! The combination was just the right one to catch the title. It was like the surgery and the creativity together. Also in the paddock you could easily perceive the image and imprinting that the team had versus the other ones; it was really a step toward Formula 1. Mike was also my car engineer so the relation with him was very strong. He was a demanding person, getting very upset when I made a mistake but he was well experienced to manage the situations, including and especially, my impetuosity.
RJ: Your Brabham drive in Australia 1987 came about due to a chain-reaction following Nigel Mansell’s injury in Japan. How, specifically, did it come about? Did you approach Brabham or them you?
SM: The request to take the place of Patrese in Australia came through Marlboro. I came to know that was Bernie Ecclestone in person who requested my attendance in Australia. Everything happened fast, by telephone, without any meeting or agreement. I took the flight to Australia with my wife; I got there and I met Herbie Blash (team manager), Sergio Rinland (designer) and the mechanics and got a beer with them, The day after that it was into the car for the first free practice, as simple as that, it could appear!!!
RJ: You had a difficult debut as you got accustomed to a number of things including the turbo-charged engine. What was the biggest difference, for you, from Formula 3000 to Formula 1?
SM: It could have appeared that way…. In fact the power and the weight of the car/pedals/steering… it was too much, everything was heavy. In the race I stopped because I was exhausted, I could not go ahead for another lap without compromising the car and probably myself too. I was not prepared to such a change.
During the free practice the team had to work on trying to make the car drivable for me instead of looking for the best set-up; they just let me have a car that I could drive. So… we managed to control the power by reducing the turbo charge to 2.5 bar. For the pedal weight, especially the throttle one, there was no way to convince BMW to reduce the return spring on the turbo charge, so the mechanics had to work like hell to adjust the driving position to a better and more comfortable one, and despite all this the pedals were still so heavy it caused cramps up on my right leg and forcing me to stop during the race.
RJ: How close were you to a full-time Benetton drive in 1988. You tested for them pre-season but was there any more openings to drive for them?
SM: No, there was no option to drive for them even before to do the test. It was just a way to let everybody see that they were looking for a driver but in reality they knew already who was going to be their one.
RJ: In hindsight, Eurobrun wasn’t a great move but it was an understandable one considering your relationship with them (or rather Euro Racing) in Formula 3. Was that your only real driving opportunity; if not, where else could you’ve have gone?
SM: Well it was a slightly different organization than the team I raced for in Formula 3. It was my only possibility, yes. The other one was to repeat the F.3000 championship with all the risks it could have taken. Looking back, I can say that it was not a great season but it helped me to learn the Formula 1 world a bit.
RJ: You were a veteran of the old pre-qualifying days in Formula 1. How difficult was it to be motivated to get through that stage of qualifying so relatively early in the morning?
SM: I liked it! It was a morning shock that helped the team and me to be focused on the objectives. It reminded me my old times in go-kart qualifying.
RJ: What was Martin Brundle like as a team-mate, both on the track and away from racing?
SM: Nice person, honest, helpful, kind and experienced especially on the race preparation. I liked him. I always got on well with him.
RJ: Brabham in 1989 and 1990 saw two frustrating years for you for many reasons; mainly reliability issues. What did you enjoy most about driving the BT58 which you had marginally more success with?
SM: At first I’ve got to say that the Brabham team was for me, the ONE! The ONE I loved most!
For me it was the real first Formula 1 team with which I was going to do my real first Formula 1 season so… I was really into it!
I remember the spirit inside there… Wow! It was something special! Just the kind of scenario I would always loved to have in a team, a kind of harmony and professionalism, amazing!
Yes, we had lots of technical problems but at those times everybody had such problems and Brabham at that time was considered a small team without any car manufacturing brand behind them, so it was even more difficult to equally compete against the big teams, but the passion; the spirit, I will never forget!
The car was very easy to drive and easy to set up at a good speed level so in all, easily manageable. It was a sort of car with which I could push at the limit at all times, it was a forgiving car, so also in terms of driving it was a challenge that I liked.
The 1990 season car was not as good as the previous model for many reasons; starting from a new gearbox, to ending to a different suspension geometry that never gave us the possibility to set the car up in the best way.
RJ: What are your main recollections about the 1989 Monaco Grand Prix when you finished an excellent third?
SM: It was actually a boring race until the last lap and the podium! Because of a mistake in qualifying (I touched the rail), I started 8th on the grid and I did the entire race at 70% of the potential of both the car and myself. Monaco was like that at those times. If you were starting from the first two rows you could push and enjoy the race otherwise you had to be patient and wait for the others to get off! That was my strategy till the last lap…… where I pushed like hell and did by far my quickest lap of the race! It was a kind of “demonstration”. Other than that, there was the podium and the gala dinner, nice to be there!
RJ: You always had a reputation of spending a lot of time in the factory and with the mechanics; what advantages, if any, did you feel that gave you when it came to race weekends?
SM: Yes it is correct! I always spent a long time in the factory with engineers and mechanics, as a first thing, for consideration of their work and secondly because I learned a lot from them; how to behave with them; how to deal with them; how to say things to them; this all made the communication during the race weekends quicker, easier and more efficient.
Unfortunately it was not easy and the same with all teams but I did work hard to get close to everybody!!!
RJ: You’ve occasionally described David Brabham as your favourite team-mate; why is this?
SM: To be honest I had a good relation with all the teammates I had in Formula 1. With David we may have spent more time together or occasionally with our wives therefore we became to know each other a bit more.
RJ: You then moved to Tyrrell in 1991 which had numerous highs and frustrating lows. Before I go over some of them; what was Ken Tyrrell like to drive for?
SM: Honest, charismatic, passionate, straight, demanding, kind, a real gentleman!
I’ve an amazing memory about him and his wife Nora. Outside from the business I appreciate them for their quality of life, always looking for special things to do whether those were places, hotels, restaurants, no matter; I found Ken and Nora in the most unexpected places I went.
RJ: One of the best performances I remember from you was back in 1991 at Monaco. You qualified on the front row and being very competitive before an engine failure. You always did well at Monaco, but why did it come together so well that weekend?
SM: It was a combination of factors; I had a full clear lap in qualifying with no other cars on the track, I had a good powerful balanced car, good qualifying tyres and that was it! Monaco with a Formula 1 car, well, it reminded me a go-kart track where I always found myself confortable to push.
RJ: Your best result ended up being 2nd in Canada one race later. In all honesty, how much did you laugh when you saw Nigel Mansell had stalled when waving to the crowd?
SM: I did not laugh, I actually only found out some time afterwards that he was waiving to the crowd before the end of the race! Never do that……!!!
By the way, it was another race where I took it “with the hand brake half on”. We were not competitive like in Monaco and the best way to get to the end was just to be patient and wait for what comes next. I really did not like racing that way, but it was the only logical thing to do! Obviously as for Monaco in 1989 be on the podium was something!
RJ: Were Jordan your only option for the 1992 season? Also, at the start of the year, Jordan were on a high due to their 1991 debut season. By the end of 1992, they were nowhere. What, in your opinion, went so wrong with the team/car that year?
SM: Probably not but….. I totally misjudged the potentiality of the team and I believed that it could have been a good package. It was not…. evidently, but it was too late when I realized!!! As to what could go wrong... all you can imagine!!! It was like going back to Formula 3000. Anything I could say about this question would only be a way to generically denigrate people, which is not correct because there were a few good fellows there, so I do prefer to pass over that sad period without making a list of things that did not work.
RJ: You ended up moving to touring cars thereafter. What attracted you specifically to touring cars or was it a practical decision made by what was available to you?
SM: Exactly, it was something available at that moment because, I will be honest; there was really nothing attractive in Touring cars!
That said, DTM in Germany, in which I raced between 1994 and 1996 was different. That was a great period with good cars and a lot of challenges. At that time the mechanical and technological aspects were even higher than in Formula 1. That was a good and enjoyable experience.
RJ: Were there any other disciplines of motorsport you were interested in? Did you ever consider racing in America or sportscars?
SM: No, both were too dangerous for me at those times. I mean CART was a possibility, but racing versus the walls and not the other drivers was just unacceptable for me.
RJ: Your decision to stop was due to a number of factors but I learnt that the death of Michele Alboreto in a testing accident in 2001 was one of them. What are your favourite memories of Michele?
SM: Yes, that accident and then few months later the one of Christian Peruzzi (who for me was a great friend), contributed to the decision. Another thing was the impossibility to race with a competitive car. I was tired to race just simply for racing.
We used to go out for dinner with Michele and our families when not racing and with Michele we had so much fun, he was an entertainer with so many particular anecdotes to tell. A kind of young Ken Tyrrell, wise, honest, brave! A friend!
RJ: If you had to pick only one highlight of your racing career, what would that be?
SM: I thought about this question a lot, but I do not have one coming clearly out of the box!
It could be something I did in karting. I mean… in those periods it was tough competing against all potential drivers that in cars went on to do so much.
RJ: What racing car did you enjoy driving the most?
SM: A few: March Formula 3000, Brabham BT58, the Tyrrell Honda and the Alfa Romeo 155 DTM.
RJ: For those who don’t know, you’ve had a longstanding relationship with Bridgestone and their tyre development. What interested you in doing this originally and what do you enjoy most about this role?
SM: I began to collaborate with Bridgestone back in 1978, testing and developing for them go-kart tyres for the European Union market. I raced with their tyres until 1986, both in karts and also I won the European championship in Formula 3 on those tyres. Then there was a kind of break until 2001 when I decided to stop racing. At that time I still had good contacts with them and they offered me to start a new collaboration in the road cars tyre development.
At the beginning, it was just a way to carry on a collaboration and a job, but I then discovered a world in doing road tyres development. People do not know what kind of work there is behind a tyre. People just do not understand how important is a tyre for their daily life. I found this job fascinating, especially having to develop tyres for car manufacturers. There is not one car manufacturer asking for the same tyre to perform the same in the World. They all have their own particular requests and developing tyres for more than one is a daily challenge. Nowadays I don’t do this kind of job anymore, I moved on the branding & marketing department, but I miss those times.
RJ: Do you still follow the sport today? If so, what do you most enjoy about it?
SM: I do follow Formula 1 races occasionally. Very rarely, I also read racing cars magazines and sometimes I read some news on the internet.
I do enjoy, when this is possible, looking the on-board camera focused on the steering wheel. From those images I can understand if a car works good or bad and/or how the characteristics of the cars are. Because I can then figure out, and what subsequently interests me, is about the driver technique.
Many Thanks to Stefano for his time and memories. Interview done via email on the third of February, 2019.
Picture credits are as follows: (All used with permission)
2 & 3 Vincenzo Zaccaria; 26 October 1986, European Formula 3 at Imola.
4 Vincenzo Zaccaria; 13 September 1987, Formula 3000 race at Imola.
5 Vincenzo Zaccaria; 1st May 1988, San Marino qualifying at Imola.
6 Vincenzo Zaccaria; 23rd April 1989, San Marino Grand Prix practice, Imola
7 LAT; start of the 1991 Canadian Grand Prix.
8 Francois Belley; Michele Alboreto, Canadian Grand Prix, Montreal, 1985.
Last updated by Richard Jenkins on 4 Feb 2019.
All text is copyright Richard Jenkins 2019.