Vincenzo “Vince” Sospiri has a pitiful record as an F1 driver. Every other record shows him as one of the greatest drivers of his generation. A domineering karting champion, he took the accolades of Schumacher and Senna, beating the former convincingly in multiple series. He won Formula 3000, F1’s main feeder series at the time. He won the World Sportscar Championship twice. The teams he managed have won championship across multiple disciplines. In F1, however, he is a reject, with only one half-finished weekend at the doomed MasterCard Lola team to his name.
|Date of Birth||October 7th 1966|
|Teams||Mastercard Lola (1997)|
|Best result||DNQ (Australia 1997)|
Early Years and Karting Glory
Vincenzo was born in Forli, in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy that contains the famous Imola circuit. After beginning his official karting career in his early teens, he quickly rose to stardom, first across the region, then the country, then the continent. His success was astronomical, in fact: two national junior championships in 1982 and 1983, two national pro championships in 1984 and 1986, before winning the European Intercontinental Championship and the World Karting Championship Final and the World Championship 100cc class title.
When looking back on this, Michael Schumacher famously commented that his two idols in the racing world were second Ayrton Senna, and first Vincenzo Sospiri. Sospiri remembers competing against the future world champion well.
1987-1990: Formula Ford and the Festival
Inevitably the Italian moved onward and upward after his karting domination. Sospiri’s destination was Britain, and with his entourage he moved to London in 1987 to start a professional career in the heart of motorsport. For the next three years he raced week-in, week-out in a variety of championships, with the central focus being on British Formula Ford, Esso, and British Formula Vauxhall. In 1988 he was already up to speed, winning eight races in Formula Ford in his first full season, with another three in the Esso championship.
Vincenzo was continuously on the upward career trend. Some might argue that his greatest moment in racing came at the end of that year at the Formula Ford Festival.
Indeed, Sospiri’s win at the Festival was not only remarkable in context, but it was a brilliant strategic move to get noticed. More than half a decade of championships in karting had done its part for his reputation, but had not filled the Italian’s wallet.
For 1989 he moved immediately up to British Formula 3, which turned out to be a mistake, as he found no success or happiness that year. It was very probably a case of moving upward too fast, and so another two years followed in Formula Vauxhall, this time at the European level. He finished runner-up in 1990.
1991-1993: The Learning Years
The stop-gap option paid off for Sospiri when, in 1990, he was snapped up for a one-off race in Formula 3000. His first race was a total shock to come to him, and of course in his youth he accepted it with less than a moment’s thought. Emanuele Naspetti was absent because he was doing double-duty with Italian Superturismo, as he attempted to win both titles simultaneously, and Eddie Jordan rang Sospiri up in the summer of 1990 for a quick “shakedown” at Jerez before racing in anger there.
Sospiri passed the test, and after finishing 8th in his first F3000 race he was invited back for the season finale, again in Naspetti’s place. Here he failed to qualify, but it was no matter when Eddie Jordan decided to keep the Italian on a full-time basis for 1991.
Frentzen and Irvine, Jordan’s two lead drivers, left and were replaced by Sospiri and a certain Damon Hill. While Jordan’s focus was now towards his brand-new F1 constructor, the Brabham-owned Middlebridge took over the running of the F3000 team. Sospiri himself locates the difficulty of this year as stemming from the Lola chassis, which had just won the previous season but was awful at handling its tyres under the new regulations, and was defeated tremendously by the Reynards. Aside from a podium and a few points it was slim pickings for either of the two drivers, and a growing year for Vincenzo.
Here Sospiri refers to the season finale, where Hill was given that much better Reynard chassis, much to Vincenzo’s chagrin. When attempting to lap his teammate in the race, Hill was repeatedly blocked by Vincenzo, who rammed him off the track no less than three times. It permanently ruined the Italian’s reputation with both Hill and Jordan, and would damage his standing in the paddock for some years to come.
Hill had sponsors where Sospiri didn’t, and so Brabham picked up the Brit for 1992 to achieve better things. Sospiri instead dropped a tier down to Italian Formula 3. A win and a few podiums out of the ten races were all part of a wilderness period, as he built up his entourage of supporters and sponsors to give F3000 another shot.
1993 started very stressfully, as it was only within a week of the F3000 series starting that Vince, as he was now known, found a drive with Mythos.
“The car wasn’t even painted in time.”
By the time he was needed, Sospiri had not even met the team and had done no winter testing, so the whole year was an uphill struggle to reap rewards. Two podiums were glorious moments that Vincenzo thinks “put me back in the shop window for Formula 1.” The speed was there, and that was what mattered. However, on the downside there was simply not effective enough of a chassis or a team to back him.
The most famous moment of this time in Vincenzo’s career saw him and Olivier Panis hit while the Italian was passing the Frenchman for the lead. As a racing driver, Sospiri takes no blame for the incident, citing a clumsy gear change, and sheer bad luck on Panis’ part with turning into him, that took both cars out the race. Passions were flared and a smart mechanic dragged Vincenzo into the paddock to avoid a punch-up in the pitlane. It was a moment that could have yielded the Italian his first win, and instead became another black mark on his record.
1994-1996: Knocking on F1’s Door
The Simtek F1 team were interested in hiring Sospiri for 1994. They took him round the Estoril circuit on an off weekend, but the problem was simply money. The money wasn’t there and Simtek needed it, and so they hired Roland Ratzenberger instead. As Vincenzo didn’t have it, his only option was to continue treading water and to find some kind of financial means of moving upwards. That money did arrive in often bizarre and rejectful circumstances.
“Basically at the end of 1993 I bumped into Taki Inoue, who was my friend since 1988 in Formula Ford. He called me and said ’Look, I have a sponsor as I want to do F3000 and I want to make a team’.”
As Vincenzo’s friend and benefactor, Taki generously used the money to sway the Super Nova team to take on the both of them for the year. David Sears, rolling in the cash and with at least one very talented driver under him, was happy with the arrangement, and it netted Sospiri three podiums during the season. It was such a close season, even without any wins for Vincenzo, that he was going into the finale at Spa-Francorchamps with a genuine shot at the title. Tragically, a heavy accident in practice took him out of the whole weekend. Vincenzo broke his hand in three places and was out of the running.
Super Nova were more than impressed. Again Vincenzo’s teammate moved up to F1, although the team recognised his talent and kept him on for 1995.
“Taki was quite funny to work with. He was a really nice guy and he wanted to learn, although he never had the talent to do it. We did everything from scratch, I and Taki were getting paid to race…which was the biggest chance of my career.”
Ricardo Rosset was to partner Sospiri now, and between them they were a dominant pairing. Five wins out of eight races, three went to Sospiri as did the title. Rosset was the money man with the tighter contract, as Sospiri had waived on any immediate signing to hold out for a potential 1995 F1 contract. While Vincenzo greatly respects Rosset’s ability as an “incredibly fast driver”, it was also Rosset who got the lion’s share of the mechanics and engineers.
Vincenzo was therefore choppy in the races, and imperfect in qualifying. He never started a race better than third, while his first win at Barcelona occurred after a collision with a rival during the race. It was his overall race pace that was so good, more often than not leaving him standing on the podium on Sunday afternoon.
The Italian looks back on these years fondly, calling the cars fast enough to hit the back of the F1 grid. He had broken his winning duck, and indeed had gone straight to the title with a race to spare. In the paddock at Silverstone he would meet the woman he would marry and start a family with. Now his motivation was through the roof and his insistence on making the F1 grid now quite unstoppable. Bad news came quickly, however.
A fellow racer, Marco Campos, died tragically at Magny-Cours where the season finale was being held. Shortly thereafter, Sospiri’s best hope of an F1 seat for 1996 disappeared. He had been in advanced talks with Ligier to join the team, and had even partaken in a test at Mugello, but again money played a part.
“My Japanese sponsors, who had offered four million dollars…took a long time to decide, and when we were ready to sign the contract we got a phone call saying Pedro Diniz had got the drive as his sponsors had brought eight million dollars.”
Sospiri took the only opportunity that came: a testing role with Benetton, though back in the day when that meant something. Vince was treated to 26 days in total over the year, and even came close to a one-off in Monaco in place of a sick Jean Alesi.
He got an offer for another year of testing in 1997, but Mastercard Lola came in with an offer for four years that was too good to refuse.
1997: From a DNQ to the Front Row
The MasterCard Lola project was a disaster worthy of its own article, and currently its story comprises the forum’s most valuable thread. Lola had talked for some years of moving from title sponsorship to their own full works status, and planned to do so in 1998. In short, greedy title sponsor MasterCard pushed the project a whopping year ahead of schedule, with disastrous consequences. The new team had set out a plan to win the championship in their fourth year, and Sospiri was going to be part of that project with his luxurious four-year contract.
Like Super Aguri ten years later, the Lola engineers had three months to prepare everything, and Vincenzo was announced in mid-December alongside his old F3000 teammate Ricardo Rosset from two years prior. The car, without the planned V10 engine, instead ran the Ford 3.5 litre Zetec that only Forti were daring to touch the previous season, so the two drivers got just over eight laps of testing done between them (due to engine blowups) before the car arrived at Albert Park for the season opener.
The team weren’t kidding themselves, Vincenzo least of all. He knew the car was quickly made, that it had not seen a wind tunnel, and that 1997 would be a growing year for everyone involved. However, balance and electronic issues meant that the car was impossible to handle, paradoxically both draggy and lacking downforce. Broadly continued to be positive to the press, however:
“I think we will have some small problems, but I hope [they’re] as small as possible.”
At Australia, the inevitable happened. While beating Rosset comfortably, Vincenzo was unable to qualify, as the “doomed” chassis was 113% from the pole time by the end of qualifying – barely faster than the F3000 cars the two had driven together.
The FIA had reprimanded the team following this embarrassment, while Lola management desperately tried to placate sponsors. MasterCard had cold feet and had not even paid up yet, while the F1 team was threatening to pull the entire Lola company under in debt. Vincenzo had not been informed of these latest developments, occurring as fast as they did, and he travelled on his own to São Paolo regardless. Upon entering the Interlagos paddock, he was handed a newspaper that informed him the Lola project was bust.
The turnaround in fortune was vast. Sospiri’s talent was finally getting him somewhere, and while Lola left him deflated, the nascent Indy Racing League revived him. That year’s May, after only a day’s test, Sospiri blasted his car around the Indianapolis circuit to land himself on the front row. It left the crowd and the pundits in astonishment, that someone with no oval experience could adapt and succeed so quickly.
He ended the 1997 Indianapolis 500 in 17th and was promptly called back for further stints at the end of the season with Team Scandia. The highlight of the year was by far his near-win at Pikes Peak, scuppered only by late-race traffic as he homed in on the lead.
There was further experimentation for Vince as he accepted invitations to drive in Formula Nippon, although a brief spin-out at Fuji and a 15th at Suzuka were his only results in the series. The Italian made the decision about his future: F1 was where he wanted to be. He declined multiple offers for full-time drives in IRL for 1998, and instead returned to Europe.
1998-2000: Two Sportscar Championships and One Stubborn Racing Driver
Unable to find a seat immediately on the F1 grid, Sospiri found success instead in sportscars. He joined the International Sports Racing Series (now the International Sportscar Championship), where along with Emmanuel Collard, he proceeded to show his prowess in another discipline. Driving the Jabouille-Bouresche Ferrari, he and Collard were absolutely dominant throughout theyear, with six wins from eight races. At the Le Mans round, for example, he ended the race three laps ahead of second place, while his rivals floundered throughout the Sunday. Sospiri and Collard entered the 24 Hours of Le Mans that year along with Jean-Christophe Boullion, though the trio retired with transmission trouble.
The dream team continued their magic run into 1999, where they were only slightly less dominant than the previous year. A hat-trick of wins started the year, with a near-unbroken succession of podiums all the way to the end of the season. Sospiri was now a two-time world sportscar champion. His other forays included the Daytona 24 Hours race in 1999, from which he retired along with teammates Jan Lammers and Franz Konrad. His second run at Le Mans had him in the works Toyota along with Collard and Martin Brundle, the latter of whom put it on pole. Sadly that race ended in retirement too.
While F1 remained Vincenzo’s goal, so many opportunities arose to him. He contested four CART races for Dan Gurney’s legendary All-American Racers towards the end of 1998. Sadly, despite having a beautiful Eagle chassis at their disposal, the team were little more than a testbed for Toyota America and Sospiri did not star. He dabbled further in endurance racing, trying American Le Mans races such as the Sebring 12 Hours in 2001.
However, from late 1999, Sospiri’s career was put on hold indefinitely. Late the previous year (the author has never ascertained the origin), Vincenzo damaged his shoulder. Being a racing driver, he did not seek treatment until it was far too gone in terms of damage. After a year of taking painkillers and hiding his issue, he was put into surgery to have the shoulder treated, and though it was successful, recovery was slow, and the damage was permanent.
It meant that the Italian could no longer manage the high G-force necessary to manage any high-pressure race. His stamina left him, and so too did his motivation. After a few British GT races into the early 2000s, Sospiri’s career was very suddenly and very definitively over.
2001-present: Vincenzo Sospiri, Team Owner
It was not doom and gloom for long, however. Vincenzo was eventually convinced by friends and colleagues to start his own team, along with his father and long-time colleague David Sears from his F3000 days. This project was got off the ground in 2001, with Euronova under the management of the three. Sospiri describes the early years as “a little like a joke”, going from Italian F3000 to Formula Renault to F3000 over a space of time, as it started to professionalise. Vincenzo himself worked in driver management, operating the radio to the drivers and helping to set up the car.
His biggest aim for the team was that it opened more doors in different places. Vincenzo has been skeptical of the domination by one-make series like Formula Ford, and has tried to make simpler pathways from karting to single-seaters, as a reflection of the struggles in his own early career. As a result, his concentration has always been young and perhaps obscure talent, such as when in 2012 he hired a 16-year-old Sergey Sirotkin for the Auto GP championship, the youngest age of any driver in the series’ history. Sergey rewarded him with two wins and six further podiums.
The biggest names to have sat in Euronova’s cars have been Jérôme D’Ambrosio, Vitaly Petrov, Robert Kubica, and Antonio Giovinazzi: “Giovinazzi’s debut in single-seaters was with one of my cars.”
The single seater operation migrated towards GT racing in the mid-2010s, where it was renamed Vincenzo Sospiri Racing. They have won a whole variety of Italian and European GT championships, as well as Auto GP, and Formula Abarth.
The Italian explains this move away from single-seaters as a result of his growing inability to open doors to the top series such as Formula 1: ”Over the years I realised that the opportunities for young people to enter Formula 1 were almost non-existent, and I did not like giving false hope to the drivers, their families and their sponsors.” GT racing, conversely, offered security and opportunity to make a living for those drivers, and now Vincenzo Sospiri Racing finds itself immersed in the GT world, in the world series as well as the Italian national series.
“Sportscars I did try, but it felt almost like testing. For me, when you get a chance to race in Formula 1 or near to Formula 1, anything after that is not as exciting as being in Formula 1 … It was the right decision because it was an F1 seat.”
Vince Sospiri’s talent speaks for itself when considering what he achieved even in his truncated racing career. He was highly praised for his natural talent, though in his case it was the timing, and perhaps his temper, that went against him. Would he have ever received a full-time F1 drive in 1998, for example? Probably not, and the testing would not have satisfied him, seeing as that was apparently all he was offered.
He was very much a driver’s driver, and along with Senna and Schumacher, countless drivers have remarked on Sospiri’s talent, such as his compatriot Alessandro Zanardi, who called him “cold-blooded and warm-hearted”. While Vincenzo was touched by Michael Schumacher’s flattering remarks, he wishes the world champion had perhaps made those remarks to Flavio Briatore in 1996 when it could really have made a difference. In his own words, however, it wouldn’t have “suited” Schumacher to have a talented driver in the opposing Benetton.
“I always wanted to become a Formula 1 driver, and we had done everything we could with the money we had.”
In retrospect, Vincenzo was also taken in by the allure of racing in the States as opposed to Europe. The closeness of the crowd, the accessibility, the greater element of danger, are all positive points he believes European racing could greatly benefit from. It was also clear that, despite his decent results in the cameos he made for the different series, not much beyond open wheelers really excited him to get behind the wheel. Perhaps without his accident that might have changed, but the accident happened and Vincenzo called it a day without the room for choosing what kind of driver he wanted to be. Regardless, his ability to win almost any series he jumped into ranks him among the most naturally gifted drivers of his era.
Sources: driverdb.com; oldracingcars.com; insidef2.com; lamborghini.com; f1forgottendrivers.com; snaplap.net; autosport.com; Formula One Famous Failures; Lola: all the Sports Racing and Single-Seater Racing Cars 1978 to 1997; Ferrari 333 SP; blitzquotidiano.it; historicracing.com; the-race.com; motorsport.com; formulascout.com; automobilsport.com; formulapassion.it; monzainpista.com; essaar.co.uk