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F2 success, F1 disaster



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Beppe Gabbiani (Michael Bleekemolen)


Surtees-Cosworth TS20 (ATS-Cosworth HS1)


Watkins Glen


1978 US GP (qualifying on 30 September 1978)


From all the fast Italian youngsters coming through the feeder categories back in the seventies, Giuseppe Gabbiani's F1 record is perhaps the most disappointing. Although the ex-karter never won a title, his natural speed was never in doubt. But given a break in only the poorest Grand Prix teams of the time Gabbiani - with a well-to-do background no less - could not make his mark in F1.

Not many racing drivers win their first car race. Yet this is what Beppe Gabbiani managed to do at Paul Ricard in 1977 in his Chevron-Toyota. To make the accomplishment doubly impressive was that this wasn't your ordinary local F Ford event, this was the first round of the 1977 European F3 Championship - some race in which to start off a motor racing career. At Monza and Croix-en-Ternois followed two second places and at Knutstorp Beppe took third: a fine debut season indeed.

Progressing to F2 the following year, taking over Trivellato's now underperforming Chevron-Ferrari from Lamberto Leoni, Beppe soon had an F1 drive lined up - which was lucky since in F2 he was going nowhere with the Ferrari-powered Chevron B42. The jump to F1 meant a welcome diversion and it also meant that in terms of meteoric rises to F1 Gabbiani was a seventies equivalent of Jarno Trulli, emulating the accomplishment of his contemporary and rival Elio De Angelis.

Sadly, Beppe got involved with a Surtees team that was down for the count. In blatant disarray following Big John's illness and main man Vittorio Brambilla's dramatic Monza crash, the team became a shopping center for rent-a-drives towards the end of 1978, its final season in F1. The No.18 Durex car had been a rather unclimactic mount for Rupert Keegan, that is in terms of results, since he hurt himself badly in practice for the Dutch GP, having suffered a similar fate at Long Beach where he also was a non-starter. After a short try-out for F2 star Brian Henton at the Austrian GP, where Brambilla scored Surtees' last point, Italian 'Gimax' (a.k.a. Carlo Franchi) was next through the revolving door, continuing Keegan's run of DNQs in his single Grand Prix appearance.

Surtees truly went through a rough patch here: after losing Keegan at Zandvoort, Brambilla was next at Monza, the Gorilla of said track becoming involved in the startline confusion that became the cause of Ronnie Peterson's tragic death. Enough is said about the blame unjustly laid at Riccardo Patrese's feet by a ex-World Champion covering up his own tracks. The fact that the reigning Champion backed his old rival's stance and stirred up action among his fellow drivers to ask for a ban on poor Riccardo is even sadder. Suffice to say that Ronnie died because of a series of questionable actions by the organizers (the starter comes to mind first) which all worked together as a catalyst of the racing accident between Peterson and Hunt. You could even say he didn't die because of all that but through the complications that set in when in hospital - in any case, Riccardo wasn't to blame. Meanwhile, in the mêlée right after the chaotic start Brambilla had nowhere to go. After the dust had settled Vittorio was wheeled away with a severe concussion which kept him out of action for over a year. He was lucky that by then Alfa Romeo hadn't forgotten the man who brought them strings of sportscar wins in the legendary T33 and gave him a job as the tester for Alfa's secretive F1 project.

At Surtees, it was all change for the final two races, having lost both Keegan and Brambilla within two races and 'Gimax' not proving satisfactory at Monza. In the first car, a young René Arnoux got a new lease of F1 life following the debacle at Martini. Arnoux's team mate for Team Surtees' North American farewell tour was another F2 star named Beppe Gabbiani, making it an all-new line-up for the last two shows. But whereas Arnoux managed to put the TS20 on the grid twice, Beppe failed to do so.

For the then 21-year-old Gabbiani it had been a typical case of too much too soon - very similar to Michael Bleekemolen's premature entry into F1, the other driver in our picture competing on European F3 level while being a Grand Prix driver as well. So in 1979, both men wisely returned to their rightful level of racing. But it had been an imposing experience for Beppe as the Italian fought to regain some the shooting-star form that preceded his disastrous F1 foray. Trying to prove his point in his March-BMW 792 he overdid it on many occasions, making him try even harder - causing him to fall off the road more often yet again.

The downward spiral hit its lowest point at the Gran Premio Dino Ferrari, the non-championship race held at Imola the week after the Italian GP. Entered for a one-off in a rented Shadow his practice sessions were a shambles, eventually leading to his withdrawal prior to the start.

Fortunately he got into his strides before the season came to a close. With two second places at Mugello and Misano, and a third at Hockenheim, he made amends for a poor 1979 season, ending up a shared fifth in the championship table with Rad Dougall (a typical case of "Whatever happened to?") and Steven South. Still he was looking around for a drive come the start of 1980 as his early-1979 antics had hardly left an impression with the leading F2 team bosses. Fortunately, in the course of the season he was picked by leading team Maurer but again the results stayed out, a sixth at Zandvoort his only noteworthy result in a season dominated by the works Tolemans of Henton and Warwick.

With a new F1 contract in hand for 1981 he probably couldn't care less. It had been three years since he last raced in the top category and following a promising but unreliable debut season with Italo-American Eddie Cheever Osella seemed poised for a serious two-car assault and mid-grid positions. Beppe's tough luck was that the FA1B was a major league dog of a car, as not only Gabbiani but also Piercarlo Ghinzani, Miguel Angel Guerra and Giorgio Francia were to find out. Ghinzani (on his debut) and Guerra managed to qualify once each, the Argentinian cruelly held from a more substantial GP career when a first-lap crash at Imola caused him to break his ankle and wrist, putting him out for the rest of the season.

Imola was also Beppe's best showing of the year, the Italian qualifying in 20th position but retiring after a collision with Michele Alboreto. Before that, he had taken the last place on the grid in the season opener at Long Beach. At the next event at Zolder, he qualified 22nd but had to retire with a broken engine. As far as Grand Prix starts go, that was the end of the road for Gabbiani. Still he completed the full season, at Monaco switching starting numbers with Ghinzani. The No.31 brought him nothing but an everlasting string of DNQs, all the way down to Caesar's Palace. Conversely, veteran Jean-Pierre Jarier, joining the team mid-season, was able to get the car into each and every race Gabbiani failed to qualify for, even scoring some solid finishes with it.

That usually spells end-of-career for a GP driver and for Gabbiani it was no different. But at least this time his downgrading to F2 brought more success, as he rejoined Maurer to face the challenges of his mercurial team mate Stefan Bellof. While the fast German won the two opening rounds, Beppe got the upper hand on several occasions later in the year, in the end finishing just seven points behind Bellof in the championship, as Maurer lost ground to the Marches of Corrado Fabi and Johnny Cecotto in the course of the season.

Switching to the crack Onyx March team 1983 was to become his season-of-seasons. After five races he was leading the championship by a country mile, having secured four of them. He was in the running for the title until midway through the season but he eventually got totally swamped by the more powerful Ralt-Honda RH6/83 machines of Jonathan Palmer and Mike Thackwell, the former taking the championship.

A possible 1983 F2 title might have meant a third ticket into F1. As it was, the disappointment of seeing the title slip through his fingers after a terrible mid-season dip was such that Gabbiani never really featured in F2 or F3000 again.

Today, Beppe is still involved with motor racing on a lower level. In the nineties he has been a mainstay of the local Italian 3-litre sports racer scene which in 1998 expanded to a European-wide level as its regulations were adopted to form the "B-class" CN (Classes Nationales) category in the new International Sports Racing Series. Alongside fellow veteran Arturo Merzario, Beppe did the occasional ISRS outing in one of the class-conquering Centenari-Alfa Romeo cars run by Henri Pescarolo's La Filière team.

In 1999 Gabbiani seriously re-entered the international scene with the Conrero team which fields a Mader-engined Riley & Scott MkIII in the Sports Racing World Cup (the former ISRS), in 2000 co-driving with Bolivian Paco Ortiz, fellow sometime F2 racer Felice Tedeschi and 1999 SR2 class winner Angelo Lancelotti.

Reader's Why by Frank de Jong

Beppe Gabbiani, side by side with Michael Bleekemolen. Two new drivers in F1, with not much of a future in Formula One before them. Probably, both drivers lacked that little bit extra. But apart from that, both men are born racers, their careers spanning from more than 20 years (Gabbiani) to nearly 30 years (Bleekemolen). Guiseppe "Beppe" Gabbiani (Italian, January 2, 1957) started his career in karts, in 1969, which was exchanged for a Euro F3 drive in 1977. After winning the first round, 3 other podiums meant that he had a decent first year. He moved to formula 2, driving a Chevron-Ferrari, and finishing 5th in Vallelunga. The big chance came when he was asked to fill the vacant seat of Vittorio Brambilla, who was injured in the tragic Italian Grand Prix. 2 DNQ's meant that this did not work out. 1979 he returned to F2, driving the dreadful March 792, in a year that most other cars were probably even more dreadful (it must be - otherwise, Surer could not have been champion...). Two seconds and a handful of other top-six placings were his reward. 1980 saw him racing the Maurer, with one sixth place and a lot of bad luck. In 1981, he was drafted in the Osella Formula One squad, hardly the big chance, but a F1 seat anyway. He qualified three times (out of 15 races) but never even reached the finish. Back to F2, back to Maurer, in the mean time a top-level F2 team. No win, but a lot of podiums and point-finishes meant fifth in the championship. Onyx signed him up, again in F2, in 1983, and he had a storming start of the season. He won four of the first five races, but managed only one other points finish. Third in the championship was his farewell to F2. After that, he raced for Lancia and Toyota in Group C, and these days he still races Touring cars and ISRS.

Michael Bleekemolen, on the other hand, (Dutch, October 2, 1949) wasn't exactly a young hotshoe when he entered the world of Formula 1. He, too, started with karts (in 1968), and drove Formula Vee from 1971 to 1974, switching to Formula Ford in 1975. In 1977, he and most other top Dutch FF drivers switched to Formula Ford 2000, with slicks, wings and all of 130 horsepower. F&S properties, his sponsors, were having great plans, wanting to launch a Dutch alternative to the talented Jan Lammers. Already running Boy Hayje (after F3 in 1976 now racing John MacDonalds March 761 in F1), they wanted to "go for it". MacDonalds Marches (yes, two of them, the second car was for Fin Mikko Kozarowitsky for a short time) were put to rest in mid-season, so Howden Ganley (of later Tiga Fame) could modify them. When first suggestions came that Michael would race the second car in the Dutch Grand Prix, one couldn't believe it. Straight from FF2000 into Formula 1? Impossible. Even the license would cause a problem. Nevertheless, Michael tested in yet another MacDonald March (British F1/F5000) a few weeks before his debut. He did not do any stupid things, so the license came and Michael could try to pre-qualify. But the cars were miserable, and John MacDonald even was arrested by the police because of some mystic arrangements. No wonder Hayje and Bleekemolen did not qualify. He went back (or forward? We're talking about a FF2000 driver!) to a works F3 drive with Chevron, and raced against... Jan Lammers, in the Racing Team Holland Ralt. Michael had a decent season, winning once and having some podium finishes. At the Dutch Grand Prix, he took a seat at ATS, not qualifying, but impressing Günther Schmid, who kept him for the remainder of the season. (Incidentally, Lammers raced for Schmid in 1980 and 1981...). He qualified for the US Grand Prix, but after 22 laps his F1 career was over. He returned to F3, finishing a (very) distant second in the 1979 Euro F3 championship behind Alain Prost. He had a few F3 outings in 1980 and 1981, before switching to one-make racing for Renault (racing sometimes against - Jan Lammers). He still competes with Renaults in national and international racing, and his two sons try to improve on their father's career. Michael was without doubt a talented driver - but having a family and his own company at a young age deprived him probably of the last tenth of a second in laptime; the difference between a good and a top driver.