The opening months of the 2001 race season were bleak. In February, there was the death of NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt. In March, one of the best sports car drivers of his generation, Bob Wollek was knocked off his bicycle and died as he headed down the I-98 back to his hotel in Sebring, following practice for that year's 12 Hours.
The winning car in that race was an Audi R8 driven by Laurent Aiello, Dindo Capello and Michele Alboreto and, just five weeks later – 10 years ago today – Alboreto, too was dead. The Audi he was testing at Lausitzring picked up a puncture, got airborne and struck a barrier at fearful speed.
Not only did his Audi colleagues and fellow sports car drivers mourn, but so too did Alboreto's former rivals, teammates and those with whom he'd worked. It's a measure of the man that his death affected so many of his Formula 1 rivals. The sorrows of Alain Prost, Keke Rosberg, Gerhard Berger and Stefan Johansson reflected those of a generation of F1 fans. A fierce competitor on track, Michele had remained a gentleman out of the car.
He spent the sunset of his racing career in sports car racing, and its relaxed atmosphere must have reminded him of F1 in the era when he was just a fan. In the early '70s, a teenaged Alboreto would bravely stand amid the Ferrari-mad tifosi at Monza, waving a Swedish flag in support of his hero Ronnie Peterson. Blue and yellow would adorn Michele's crash-helmet throughout his career, and his appreciation of the sport's history grew ever deeper. As an Audi driver, Michele loved the opportunity to drive prewar Auto Unions. As a fan, he was humbled to meet Richard Petty. And as a racer, he was in awe of Mario Andretti's accomplishments and longevity in the sport. Michele could empathize with Mario over that unquenchable desire to go racing.
The 1982 Las Vegas Grand Prix was Andretti's final F1 race, and also Alboreto's first win, capping his sophomore season with Ken Tyrrell's team in perfect style. He'd go on to score some significant wins this side of the Atlantic. The following season, in Detroit, he'd score Tyrrell's final win and also the 155th and last for the Cosworth DFV engine (RIGHT). Two years later, in his second season at Ferrari, “Albo” led teammate Johansson to a 1-2 finish in Montreal during a championship challenge that would eventually dissolve in blown turbos and engineering disarray.
Michele's fifth grand prix win, at the Nurburgring, would be his last. He spent the remaining nine seasons of his F1 career in a variety of cars whose competitiveness swung to every point between good and disastrous.
He came back to the U.S. in 1996-'97, racing for Scandia/Simon in the nascent Indy Racing League and also in IMSA, in the glorious Ferrari 333SP. That reawakened his taste for sports cars and in Europe he signed with Joest Racing, a deal that culminated in Le Mans 24 Hours glory with Johansson and Tom Kristensen in 1997. When Joest became the works Audi team, Michele was able to take the 2000 Petit Le Mans with Allan McNish and Capello, and then that sad Sebring win.
It would be nice to record that Alboreto won his last ever race, but just three days before he died, Michele was at Monza in a Lamborghini Supertrophy race, sharing a Diablo with former skier, Luc Alphand. The pair of them finished second.
On reflection, perhaps it's appropriate that Michele spent his final weekend at a track where, in five seasons as a Ferrari driver, he'd carried the hopes of a nation. The accident on the following Wednesday robbed his family, Italy, Audi and the sport of a very good driver and a fine man. Ten years on, he's still sorely missed.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the May 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.