Remembering the Formula 1 'Indoor Trophy'
Despite its ultra-slick image, there was once an event F1 held in a car park in Bologna that attracted a ragtag group of backmarkers and young hopefuls.
When most people think of Formula 1 they see images of high-tech engineering and glamorous locations. The cars are works of art, sculpted and spotless, and the drivers represent the best in the world. In short, they see a prestige product. They do not see F1 cars driving around a drizzly car park in Bologna.
But the Formula 1 Indoor Trophy, which took place between 1988 and 1996 in the northern Italian city, provided exactly that spectacle. The event was part of the annual Bologna Motor Show, held each December since 1976.
If racing F1 cars indoors sounds impossibly dangerous, that's because it is. 'Indoor' is a total misnomer, with event actually taking place outside the show on a temporary circuit. It is difficult to get a handle on why it was christened Trofeo Indoor Formula 1 in the first place, though it's certainly an attention grabber.
The outdoor aspect brought its own set of challenges, of course. While driving indoors might have been cramped, it would have avoided the climactic pitfalls that are inevitable in December. Outdoors, the event was fully exposed to the elements. A wet surface and the driving problems that this entails were a regular feature.
And despite having more space than an indoor circuit, the track was still short at just 1.3km (most modern F1 venues are between 4km and 6km) and marked largely by tyres and temporary curbing. It was certainly not in keeping with the slick, Hollywood-inspired image of Formula 1 that Bernie Ecclestone spent the best part of 40 years crafting.
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Given the track conditions, it would not have been an easy job to navigate an F1 car around such a track. For optimum results you would want the best drivers of the day – Senna, Prost, Schumacher – driving machinery provided by grand prix giants like McLaren, Williams or Ferrari.
They all had better things to do, however, such as celebrating world titles or bitterly complaining about losing them. So for the first edition in 1988, a bunch of backmarkers turned up in less-than-stellar cars. The money on offer was decent and they probably fancied a chance to scrap for wins, rather than the back row of the grid.
That's not to totally denigrate the initial attendees. Minardi in particular had become darlings of the sport by the time they bowed out in 2005. Then again, the FIRST team turned up in '88 with an old Formula 3000 car that was nowhere near the pace.
Driver-wise there wasn't a great deal to get excited about either. Six of the seven entrants were Italians, with Spaniard Luis Pérez-Sala the lone foreigner in his Minardi. You have probably never heard of Fabrizio Barbazza, but he was there in a EuroBurn, while the slightly more recognisable Gabriele Tarquini took the wheel of the thoroughly ill-advised FIRST entry.
The format was a straight knockout, which provided great entertainment for the crowds who'd packed their raincoats and squeezed into temporary grandstands. The competitors first contested quarter-finals, with the winners plus the fastest loser making it to the semis. The final saw the aforementioned Pérez-Sala face Alex Caffi. The local crowd must have been thrilled when Caffi crashed and the Spaniard beat all six Italians to take the inaugural title...
Perez-Sala won again in 1989 in another less than stellar field, but the quality did pick up thereafter. In 1991 the once great Lotus team entered the Trophy. Now fallen on hard times, they fielded rising British driver Johnny Herbert. He won the 1992 event, which boasted the best grid to date, with future Champ Car and Paralympic ace Alex Zanardi and five-time grand prix winner Michele Alboreto both contesting the Trophy.
Young drivers were now becoming the norm at the event. In 1993 Rubens Barrichello won for Jordan, and in '95 former F3000 champion Luca Badoer gave Minardi their fourth and final Trophy win (Badoer later became a minor joke in F1 circles, but was considered a solid prospect at the time).
The 1996 event boasted perhaps the most talented grid to date: youngsters Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella would both go on to find F1 success, while more impressive still was the presence of the reigning Monaco Grand Prix winner Olivier Panis.
The Frenchman didn't fare all that well, however. He was eliminated in the preliminary round, leaving Fisichella and Trulli to face the very average Tarso Marques and utterly hopeless Giovanni Lavaggi respectively.
Fisichella eased through, but Trulli crashed and allowed Lavaggi – often included in discussions of 'the worst F1 driver ever' – a brief moment in the sun. Or December drizzle, as the case may be.
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Unsurprisingly, Fisichella won to become the final Trophy winner.
You could suggest that 1996 saw the Trophy at its best: giving young talent a chance in proper F1 cars. That year Trulli and Fisichella both drove Benettons; they would go on to become mainstays of F1 over the next decade, with Trulli conquering the Monaco Grand Prix in 2004 and Fisichella winning three races for Jordan and Renault.
Imagine something similar now: Charles Leclerc in a Ferrari taking on Esteban Ocon's Mercedes for a spot in the final, or the Scuderia's Antonio Giovinazzi wowing the local crowd against Red Bull's Pierre Gasly. That might seem fanciful, but as a spectacle it sounds great. It wouldn't solve the problem of young talent not breaking into the sport, but it would give them a little extra exposure and seat time in a grand prix car.
As for Bologna, F1 has not disappeared entirely from the Motor Show. Ferrari regularly appear at the event, with the red cars running demo laps and pitstops for the crowds. At last year's display Fisichella – now in his forties and retired from F1 – got behind the wheel. Somehow, we all end up back where we began eventually.