Formula One at the Olympics
Tomorrow, the 2012 Olympics will be officially opened and, later this summer, former Formula One driver Alessandro “Alex” Zanardi will be taking part in the Paralympics. However, the Italian is not the first Formula One driver with Olympian links – seven others have gone before him, taking part in sports as diverse as bobsleigh, shooting and sailing…
Arguably the most successful member of the select group of Formula One drivers to have also competed in the Olympics is Alfonso de Portago. The millionaire playboy dabbled in many sports, even twice participating in the Grand National at Aintree. Yet it was in motorracing that he was most successful. The Spaniard raced for Ferrari in the World Championships on five occasions, his best result being second place at the 1956 British Grand Prix – a shared drive with Peter Collins after the British driver retired with oil pressure issues.
Before that, however, he also formed Spain’s first Olympic bobsleigh team for the 1956 Winter Olympics. He had had only two or three practice runs in Switzerland before buying a pair of thousand-dollar sleds and recruiting some cousins from Madrid. With de Portago steering, the inexperienced two-man bob finished an impressive fourth, missing out on a medal by just 0.16 seconds and stunning the establishment. Meanwhile, the four-man bob finished 9th. He may have gone on to more success but was killed in the Mille Miglia the following year in an accident that also claimed the lives of his co-driver and ten spectators – five of them children. Indeed, it was a tragedy that the Mille Miglia itself would not recover from.
De Portago was not the only bobsledding-Formula One driver. Boris “Bob” Said and Robin Widdows only competed in one World Championship race each and neither finished. American, Said participated in the first Formula One US Grand Prix in 1959 but spun off on the first lap while Widdows faired little better in the British Grand Prix nine years later – ignition problems in his Cooper ending his race. Nine years separated their brief Formula One careers but the pair came together at the 1968 Winter Games in the Bobsleigh Fours. It was the Briton’s second Olympics and it was Widdows who was to come out on top, finishing eighth and 0.72 seconds ahead of the tenth-placed American.
The Winter Olympics was to provide another Formula One driver. Divina Galica began her sporting career in skiing, competing in three Winter Olympics from 1964 to 1972, captaining the British Women’s Olympic Ski Team in the last two. After finishing 8th-place in the giant slalom in 1968, she went one better four years later putting her amongst Britain’s most successful Olympic skiers. However, a guest drive in a celebrity race at Oulton Park was to set her off on a second sporting career. After stints in karts, Formula Two and the Formula One-ish British Shellsport series she entered that year’s British Grand Prix, making Galica one of the select group of women that have taken part in the World Championship. The other notable fact was that she entered using the rarely used number 13 on her car. It didn’t prove to be lucky though, and she missed out on qualifying for the race. Two years later she tried again, racing for a Hesketh team that was nearing it’s end. The car proved to be uncompetitive and again Gallica failed to qualify. Remarkably, Galica was to return to the Winter Olympics in 1992, taking part in speed skiing – a demonstration sport at that year’s Games and one that makes even Formula One look tame: 200 km/h in a car is one thing… on skis it seems positively insane.
If the bobsled is the nearest thing to a Formula One car on ice, sailing is probably the nearest Olympic event to Grand Prix racing on water and it was to sailing that two drivers would turn their hand. Prince Bira of Siam and Roberto Mieres had competed in Formula One in the early 1950s, competing against each other on a number of occasions as their World Championship careers overlapped. Bira’s heyday had come before the war but both had recorded a number of fourth places in the World Championship. Bira’s last, at the 1954 French Grand Prix was the most dramatic. It was the début of Mercedes’ W196 which would be the outstanding car for the immediate future. Despite three Mercedes, three works entries from Ferrari and Gordini and four from Maserati, including one for Mieres, Bira qualified sixth in his privately entered Maserati 250F. He initially held that position but as cars began to drop out he soon found himself in third and the nearest challenger to the two remaining W196s of Fangio and Karl Kling. When it began to rain Bira briefly dropped back to fourth with problems with his goggles but soon regained the podium position. And that’s the way it looked as if it would finish until he ran out of fuel on the penultimate lap.
After their motor racing careers wound down, both Bira and Mieres switched their focus to sailing, with Prince Bira representing Siam in four summer Olympics in various classes. However, it was in the 1960 Games that the two were to meet again in the Star class. On this occasion it was the Argentinian Mieres who would come out on top, his seventeenth place narrowly beating the member of the Siamese royal family who finished nineteenth. Technically, Prince Bira’s best finish in the Olympics had come four years earlier when he’d been twelfth – but in truth he had been some way behind the rest in a field of twelve boats.
The final Formula One Olympian is Ben Pon, son of Ben Pon Snr, the ‘father’ of the VW campervan. The Dutchman’s only World Championship outing ended in an accident violent enough to persuade him to never race single-seaters again: Crashing into an earth bank, his Porsche flipped over, throwing Pon out of the cockpit. Despite this, he continued to enjoy quite a successful sportscar career, notably winning his class at the 1961 and 1967 runnings of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. His Olympic outing at the 1972 Games in Munich proved less dramatic: shooting in the skeet, Pon finished a disappointing 31st.
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There have been a few of near misses but two men in particular stand out. The first is Jackie Stewart, who narrowly missed out on representing Britain in clay pigeon shooting at the 1960 Olympics. The failure was to have a profound effect on his career and the Scot switched his focus to driving – three World Championships later, shooting’s loss was Formula One’s gain.
The second is the Marquese Antonio Brivio-Sforza, an Italian nobelman who listed the 1933 and 1935 Targa Florio and 1936 Mille Miglia amongst his victories. He also finished third in the 1935 Monaco Grand Prix and the following year’s German Grand Prix. Meanwhile, he was also active in the bobsleigh, representing Italy at the 1936 Winter Games were he finished 10th in the four-man bob and 12th in the two-man event. Of course, this all preceded the Formula One World Championships, hence missing out on the list, although as a member of the FIA, he did participate in its launch in 1950.
Which brings us to Alex Zanardi. The Italian had two spells in Formula One, the first predominatly with a Team Lotus in its final death throws, producing a solitary points finish and which was interupted by a long recovery period after a huge crash during practice for the Belgian Grand Prix. After a phenomenally succesful spell across the Atlantic in CART, taking two Championships, he returned to Formula One with Williams. It was a disappointing season and the following year Zanardi returned to CART which was to end with a horrific accident at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz in which the Italian lost both legs. Despite this, he returned to racing with a specially adapted touring car. Now, he’s taken up handcycling, and will be eagerly eyeing a medal as he represents Italy in this summer’s Paralympics.
Images copyright IOC, LAT Photographic