F2 Graduates: Vincenzo Sospiri
The old phrase if you at first don’t succeed you must try and try again is very apt to describe Vincenzo Sospiri’s F3000 career who’s F3000 career was a triumph over adversity.
The Italian’s F3000 journey began in the summer of 1990 at Jerez where he was called up by defending champions, Eddie Jordan Racing to replace the absent Emanuele Naspetti throwing the young Sospiri into the deep end.
“It was quite a big challenge because I was doing Formula Opel/Vauxhall at the time and then Eddie Jordan said there’s a car available for Jerez alongside Eddie Irvine and Heinz Harald Frentzen. They arranged a shakedown and then we went straight to Jerez.”
1991 saw Sospiri signed up for a full season alongside the 1996 World Champion Damon Hill. However, it was a team in transition as Jordan concentrated on his fledgeling Formula 1 operation with Brabham owners Middlebridge running the team.
“Eddie Jordan was very good with me but the team wasn’t owned by him, it was owned by Middlebridge who was also a very good team.”
“We were hampered by the differences in chassis between Lola and Reynard. The Lola had won the championship previously but the new tyre regulations came in and the Reynard chassis coped better with them. That made it quite hard as neither I nor Damon couldn’t achieve the results we wanted.”
“I finished second at Hockenheim and got some other points finishes but that was it.”
Hill would later find a drive with Brabham the following year in Formula 1, Sospiri talks of his memories of partnering the Brit.
“He was a brilliant driver, very fast and a special person. Unfortunately, I ruined our relationship at the end of the year by doing some stupid things that I regretted”.
“As a driver, he was incredibly fast as he could get in a car and hit the lap time straight away plus he was a really nice person and very well educated.”
Due to budgetary issues, Sospiri had to step down to Italian Formula 3 for 1992 despite finishing eighth in the championship. However, he was back and ready to go for the 1993 season with the brand new Mythos Racing team.
“It was a big challenge to join a new team. I signed a week before the first race, so when I signed with the Mythos team we went to collect the chassis and drove straight to Donnington. That’s also a reason why the car wasn’t even painted in time.”
“I didn’t do any testing in the winter and I went straight over to race, I didn’t know the team too so it was another big challenge but we did really well that year.”
1993 saw Sospiri score two podium finishes In his first season back in F3000;
“I think that season put me back in the shop window for Formula 1. I knew I was fast I knew I had the speed I needed, but unfortunately, I never had the right management or machinery and going through up and down.”
That season also included a run-in with series champion Olivier Panis at Nogaro which very nearly turned into a brawl after an on-track incident.
“Panis was very lucky I didn’t see him as the mechanic spotted him coming down the pits before i did, so he took me away”.
“I didn’t do it on purpose, I tried to make a pass for the lead and unfortunately I selected third gear instead of second and I spun as I had locked the rear tires and I chose to go to the inside to avoid the pack and he went on the outside and my car was stuck on the outside and we hit each other and broke the rear suspension so we had to retire.”
“I saw him very late he was in front of me, he tried to hit me but then eventually he was on the floor.”
Despite hopes of a Formula 1 birth with Simtek in 1994, Sospiri headed back to F3000 with another new outfit Super Nova Racing backed by the Japanese schools business Nova and run by David Sears son of British Touring Car legend Jack Sears.
Sospiri would be paired up with Japanese pay driver Taki Inoue who was famed for his antics on and off the track during his short but wild racing career as Inoue’s sponsorship backing helped Sospiri race for 1994 due to the pair being friends going back to Formula Ford.
“Basically at the end of 1993, I bumped into Taki Inoue who was my friend since 1988 in Formula Ford and he called me and said look I have a sponsor as I want to do F3000 and I want to make a team.”
“So we went to speak to David Sears who accepted our proposal as we had a big budget and we did everything from scratch, I and Taki were getting paid to race for Super Nova which was the biggest chance of my career.”
“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. Although, he always tried his best and with the sponsors he managed to get into Formula 1. He didn’t too bad in some of the races he was actually quite competitive.”
In his first season at Super Nova, the Italian bagged three more podiums only only for that elusive win to allude him, something which frustrated the Italian.
“It was hard as we had a couple of chances to win a race but we couldn’t do it and I remember coming into Spa that season being part of a group of four drivers all on the same amount of points who could win the championship.”
“However, I had an accident at Spa and broke my hand in three places meaning I couldn’t start the race or win the championship that year. It was frustrating as I knew I could win but not everything was in my favour.”
With Inoue leaving F3000 for Formula 1 for 1995 it would mean that Sospiri would stick around for Super Nova for his fourth season to be paired up with Ricardo Rosset.
Super Nova’s package turned out to be the one to beat as they won five out of the eight races that season with Rosset and Sospiri trading wins.
“Riccardo was a brilliant driver, a really nice person and incredibly fast. We were always working together and sharing data. He signed before i did as I wanted to make the move to Formula 1. I signed very late with David Sears and Riccardo wanted my mechanics and my engineer so I got Taki’s crew. They were great guys and we had a fantastic season which saw me win the title.”
“It was a proper championship, 1995 was the last true season of F3000 before they changed it in 1996 to a one-make formula.”
“In 94-95, the F3000 cars were incredible to drive, very heavy, strong and powerful. At some events we would have almost qualified for the back of the Formula 1 grid.”
Sospiri would finally break his duck in Catalunya with the Italian making it back to back race wins, in Pau just under a month later.
“It was incredible. It was something special for it to happen to me at last after fighting for so long to achieve my goal.”
After a nightmare Hockenheim meeting which saw Super Nova lose its unbeaten record, Sospiri took victory at Spa before wrapping up the title in Estoril with a round to spare.
“It was pure relief to the win the championship. I had waited for so long and it was a big release but it was also a huge motivation to find a seat in Formula 1 which I almost got.”
The season finale at Magny Cours ended in tragedy as nineteen-year-old Brazilian rookie Marco Campos was killed in a horrific crash after his Draco-Lola ended upside down causing Campos head to strike the top of a concrete barrier leaving him with injuries that he would never recover from.
Sospiri remembers the sombre mood at the time in the paddock after the crash.
“It was a really sad moment, I didn’t know he had a big accident till I came into the pit lane. It was a real contrast in emotions as I was happy I won the title but at the same time sadness knowing that a competitor had lost his life.”
Despite his championship win, Sospiri’s hopes of a Formula 1 birth for 1996 took a huge blow when he was pipped for the second Ligier seat by Forti’s Pedro Diniz who brought backing from the Parmalat group.
“Well, basically we had a deal to get into Ligier. Me and David Sears were working very hard to get backing from Japanese sponsors who had offered four million dollars.”
“The Japanese sponsors 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 to the team.”
“Once that seat was gone there was no drive left so I become a test driver with Benetton.”
With no drive for 1996, he would then make the leap up to Formula 1 a year later with the disastrous MasterCard Lola operation.
“It’s a nice car for me as it was my first Formula 1 car. It was light like an F3000 car but it wasn’t competitive. It was made by computer and didn’t hadn’t even seen a wind-tunnel.”
“It was a very late project but Lola had to do it to get the sponsors together, they said in the first season we won’t be competitive.”
“I signed a four-year deal and although there were a lot of nice things on the table they weren’t there, in reality, dooming the project and after that, the project stopped and I didn’t want to race anymore after that.”
“I then got a call up from America from Team Scandia to do Indy. I thought to myself, why not there nothing on the table in F1 so I went straight to Indianapolis.”
Despite never making a Formula 1 start Sospiri looks back with fondness on his time in F3000 which included the moment where he met his future wife in the paddock at Silverstone.
“My best memory was at Silverstone in 1995 for the first race weekend of the season as that’s where I met a beautiful girl who would later become my wife!”
“She was like an angel, that gave me two good memories from 1995 along with the title. She became part of my life and we had kids.”
In 2012 Sospiri was revealed to be one of the inspirations of Michael Schumacher’s karting career alongside the late Ayrton Senna after the German gave an interview to an F1 Racing in 2012.
Sospiri sees a tremendous amount of similarities between Michael and his son championship leader Mick.
“You can see straight away from the attitude and the facial expressions that it’s the son of Michael. The way he also concentrates on his job he’s very determined like Michael was.”
“He’s a young guy who is trying everything to achieve what his father did and you can see he’s trying very hard. Plus he’s got a lot of talent as well.”
“Michael and I did a lot of races together in karting, Formula Ford and Formula 3. We respected each other a lot and I wish he had explained to Briatore who I was at the time when I was Benetton test driver.”
“I believe Mick will make it to Formula 1 and like his dad I believe he will challenge for success”.
After brief spells in the IRL and sportscars, Sospiri moved up into team management where he runs a successful GT team.
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* Image Credit: Motorsport Images