When you think back to the Alfa Romeo 155, one name will pop straight into your head. Gabriele Tarquini.
An ex-Formula One driver, with 37 grand prix starts to his name, Tarquini has been a touring car titan for more than two decades – with his technical prowess and a no-nonsense driving style being key attributes.
The popular Italian won the BTCC in his debut season in 1994, in extremely controversial circumstances. After Alfa Romeo, he raced for Honda for a number of seasons, before going on to win 2 World Championships for Seat and Hyundai & is still racing in the World Championship today, at the grand age of 57.
We sat down with Gabriele to discuss his time in the BTCC.
Gabriele, thanks for joining us at 1990sBTCC.com today to talk about your BTCC career. After a single seater career and 36 Grands Prix under your belt, how did end up racing touring cars?
“Well, I have always loved touring cars race since my first touring car race in 1987. When I was racing in F1, I was involved in touring cars as well. For me, Formula 1 cars are the best cars to drive, Touring cars are the best cars to race!!”
You moved to the BTCC with Alfa Romeo in 1994 – how did that move come about?
“I started racing in touring cars in 1987 with an Alfa 75 turbo in the very first season of the World Touring Car Championship. Then, after some seasons with BMW in the Italian series, I moved back to Alfa Romeo in 1993 with the first front wheel drive touring car that I raced.
My first season with the 155 was in the Italian Championship, but the car was not very competitive against the BMW at the start of the season because it was too young. During the season, the car improved and I was able to win some races. Giorgio Pianta, who was the boss of Alfa Romeo, decided to move in the best Touring Car series at the time, the BTCC.”
Alfa Romeo came to the championship with a raft or aerodynamic additions to the 155, which caused a huge amount of controversy – did you expect there to be as much arguing about the wings as there was?
“Everybody was very surprised about our performance at the beginning of the 1994 season and they tried to slow down the speed of the Alfa 155 Silverstone.
However, the aerodynamic additions on the car were only a small part of the good performances, but was the most visible one.”
How much of a difference did the wings make to the car? How much faster do you think it made the car?
“Honestly? Rear wing made no difference, we raced and won without the rear wing extended in many races.The Front wing made a medium difference, but the secret of this car was the front differential.We introduced this differential, which was a mix of hydraulic and mechanical, then everybody copied us after this season.”
You made an instant impact on the championship, winning all five of the first five races. Did you expect to make such a perfect start in the series?
“No, it was a surprise also for me! I didn’t know the UK tracks and we had to do a lot of preseason testing in order to be ready for the season start.”
At Oulton Park, things came to a head – Ford and Vauxhall were leading the protests against your cars and your team’s response was to pack up and leave the circuit before the weekend started. How did you view this sitation at the time?
“The Alfa Romeo bosses decided to stop the BTCC campaign at Oulton Park after the decision that was made against us about the aerodynamics. For me and all the team, it was very frustrating, but we agreed with it.
One of my biggest memories was to come back to the BTCC after that and win again.”
It’s one of the most iconic images of the BTCC Super Touring era, your Alfa Romeo barrel rolling as Murray Walker shrieks, “It’s TARQUINI!” What do you remember of the crash?
“Well, I remember that Knockhill was a nightmare track for us, since the first test there we were very slow. This was probably because I didn’t have good feeling with the track and so a winning car was in the middle of the pack.
I was fighting to try to score some points for the championship but a Renault Laguna, Harvey I think, touched me in a very slow corner and I started rolling over!
This was all in front of the Fiat president, who was for the first time watching a BTCC race!”
You end up winning the 1994 BTCC title at Silverstone, by 76 points. Do you think you still would have won the title, had Alfa Romeo been running the aerodynamics in the retracted position for the whole season?
“Yes, I think so. However, probably with less gap to the other drivers though.”
For the 1995 season, you left the BTCC to race in a variety of championships, mainly the Italian Supertourismo Championship. Did you have any offers to stay in the BTCC, or was this your decision?
“After winning the BTCC, my decision was to stay with Alfa Romeo and to follow Giorgio Pianta to ITC.”
You returned to the BTCC at Oulton Park for a guest drive in a third Alfa Romeo – just how different were the 94 and 95 Alfa Romeo 155s?
“I think the biggest difference was that all the other cars in BTCC now used the same differential we introduced in 1994 and they increased the performance because of it.
Alfa thought that we could continue winning with the 1994 spec car.”
After the Silverstone Grand Prix support meeting, Prodrive decided to drop Simoni in favour of bringing you back to the team for the rest of the season. What were the reasons behind this move?
“Ahh…. the problem in 1995 was not the drivers performance, but the car. Alfa Romeo was very involved in the DTM series and 90% of the money was dedicated to the German series, that cost 10 times more than class 2 BTCC cars.
They decided to stop developing the 155 Silverstone because again, they were thinking that we can continue winning with the 1994 car spec.”
Did you enjoy the 1995 Alfa Romeo 155 as much as the 1994 car?
Just the week after the final BTCC meeting of the season at Silverstone, you ended up back in Formula 1, racing in the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring. Did you enjoy your final Grand Prix outing? How did that drive happen?
“For 1995, I was Tyrrell’s third driver and when Katayama had a huge crash in the Portugese GP, I was called up to replace him.
I remember that the race was very difficult for me, because my previous race in F1 was 3 years before..”
Who was your toughest BTCC team mate?
“Giampiero Simoni was very helpful for me in 1994, but later on in 2000, I shared the same car with very good drivers like Tom Kristensen and James Thompson.
Actually, James is one of my best friend in Motorsport.”
You raced for Honda and Alfa Romeo in the BTCC, but did you ever have any other offers from other manufacturers in the BTCC?
“Yes, after my 1994 win in BTCC, I had many offers from other teams, but I prefered to stay with Alfa Romeo.
Before I signed with Honda and Prodrive in 1997, I was very close to signing with Williams to drive the Renault Laguna.”
With the ITC collapse at the end of 1996, you race for Honda in the 1997 and 2000 BTCC seasons, with a handful of guest appearances in 1999. Honda were quick during the Super Touring era and won a lot of races, but never quite made that step up to win the championship – why do you think that was?
“Honda and the Accord was a very good car in those years, but Honda’s BTCC strategy was not very good.
They changed preparation teams and key personnel a lot and for me, this was the biggest problem that cost us a title fight.”
Was there any BTCC Super Tourer that you would have liked to have a go at driving, but never got to?
“No – look, in my long racing career, I have raced with the best cars and drivers. I cannot have any regrets!!!”
Thanks to Gabriele for giving up his valuable time to speak to us about his time in the BTCC.