It’s almost as though you fell into racing.
The story behind it is that BMW’s sporting director, Dieter Stappert told me they wanted me in the team, “however, really you should do Formula 3 but we can’t offer you that. We only have an involvement in Formula 2”. This was at a time when two of my friends had been killed, one was Markus Höttinger, who was a good friend and the other was Hans Georg Bürger who was killed at Zandvoort, whom I knew really well as he was another Renault 5 man. Dieter said “you know what the dangers are, your are totally inexperienced, I’m prepared to take the risk, are you?” Are you kidding, of course I wanted to do it – no guts, no glory! I ended up in a Formula 2 car very clearly not knowing what I was doing.
After that you went on to become the first ever F3000 champion. That was a good series.
It was such a relief, because in Formula 2, when I was finally fast enough and good enough to win races and maybe even the championship in Formula 2, by then the BMW engine was totally out of date and it was impossible to win without a Honda. Formula 3000 was such a great hope, because we had the Cosworth engine, so everyone had more or less the same engine, but we still had a variety of chassis, like March or Lola and a Ralt and whatever else. It was a great championship because it was very clearly a mini-Formula 1 with no engine disadvantage, which was pleasing.
When it comes to your F1 career, it’s fair to say the list of teams you drove for doesn’t feature any of the big ones: there’s Osella, Zakspeed, Arrows and RIAL, but there were some really funny characters involved like Guenther Schmidt for example.
Guenther, I never fell out with Guenther, although he fired me at the end of the year simply because he thought the Marlboro sponsorship I brought to the team was not my part of the budget, but his part of the budget. I told him it was mine and eventually he got angry. As an example though of what an incredible guy he was, years later I was racing at the Miami street circuit in IndyCar and I remembered Guenther had a house in Boca Raton so I called him and he was over the moon and he invited me over for coffee and he asked if he could sponsor me! He was a true racing enthusiast but a bit too emotional occasionally.
One of your highlight races, talking of RIAL must have been with that team at the ’89 US GP. You went from last to fourth at Phoenix street circuit.
When you look back, it was obviously my best result in Formula 1, but it wasn’t really very satisfying. I was very fit and it wasn’t a problem for me (Phoenix would always feature very hot weather) and in the race, I was one of the few drivers who had decided not to hit either another car or the wall! That’s why I ended up P4. I was very angry that I didn’t finish third, because bloody Eddie Cheever in front of me had an almost dead car but it didn’t actually break until after the line, so I was a bit pissed off even though it was my best result. The car was so bad, it was not a very satisfying race, unlike the Austrian Grand Prix in ’86 when I finished in the points for the first time. That was very satisfying because I achieved more than the car was capable of.