What it’s like to replace your “F1 idol” at Ferrari

Alain Prost’s Ferrari years were perhaps the most traumatic time of his illustrious career and culminated in him being fired by the Scuderia. And while the story of his enforced exit has been well documented, his replacement for the final race of the 1991 season was far less heralded, and extremely unlucky not to have scored a podium finish on his high-pressure substitute appearance.

What it’s like to replace your “F1 idol” at Ferrari

Prost endured a rare winless season off the back of his 1990 title near-miss that his nemesis Ayrton Senna had ensured at their (second) infamous Suzuka clash. McLaren and Williams simply built better cars than Ferrari in ’91, and even Benetton’s soon-to-retire Nelson Piquet lucked into a win in Canada at Nigel Mansell’s expense.

Prost scored just five podiums, compared to five victories the season before. Then came Suzuka, the penultimate round of the championship…

As reported by Autosport’s Nigel Roebuck, Prost’s post-Japanese GP quote after his fourth placed finish was thus: “It was like a horrible truck to drive. No pleasure at all.”

Alain Prost, Ferrari 643

Alain Prost, Ferrari 643

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Prost had said this due to failing shock absorbers, which caused the steering to feel incredibly heavy. His words weren’t aimed at the car itself, but what it felt like to drive due to a component failure. But Maranello was swift to act, and fired him on the eve of the final race of the season in Adelaide.

Prost believes he was fired for “political reasons” that were linked with him wanting to be more involved in the off-track decision-making process to move the team forwards. He since quipped that the guys who sacked him were themselves “fired two weeks later!”

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With the then-three-time world champion suddenly finding himself on the dole, Ferrari turned to its test driver, Gianni Morbidelli. Although he was racing for Ferrari-engined Minardi at the time, Morbidelli was on vacation when his friend and former team boss Guido Forti called with the good news of his upgrade to what was still a top-three team.

Morbidelli’s success in Italian Formula 3 and the European Cup at Misano led to him being signed to a three-year Ferrari test driver contract. He was 23 at the time, and had only made 18 Grand Prix starts for BMS Dallara and Minardi when his big chance came. Imagine the pressure, as well as the honour, of an Italian being called up to drive for Ferrari…

Gianni Morbidelli, Ferrari 643

Gianni Morbidelli, Ferrari 643

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

“I’d already got to work with Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell in testing, which was like a dream for a young driver,” says Morbidelli of his test role. “Prost was my idol! Then one day I got to replace him at Ferrari...

“I was in my very early twenties. At that time, drivers didn’t arrive in Formula 1 at such a young age, like today, so it was a brilliant experience. Racing for Ferrari was an incredible moment for me.

“I only got the call, while I was on holiday in Port Douglas, to say I would be driving for Ferrari, not Minardi, at 11 o’clock on the Tuesday night before the race weekend.”

Helmets of former Ferrari drivers Alain Prost, Jean Alesi, and Gianni Morbidelli, Ferrari

Helmets of former Ferrari drivers Alain Prost, Jean Alesi, and Gianni Morbidelli, Ferrari

Photo by: Sutton Images

Morbidelli pretty much had the journey to Adelaide to think about what lay ahead, and it was clear it still hadn’t sunk in by the time he arrived.

“To replace Prost, my favourite driver, I had to ask the pitwall on the radio during practice: ‘Am I dreaming?’

“My testing experience meant I knew the car very well, and I qualified eighth alongside Jean [Alesi, his teammate].”

Gianni Morbidelli, Ferrari 643

Gianni Morbidelli, Ferrari 643

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

Morbidelli did little wrong during his single taste of being a Ferrari F1 racer. Despite diabolical weather conditions on raceday, his steady approach brought the car home in the points – his first half-point of the 8.5 he’d score in F1 in a career that spanned 67 starts.

“It was, in many ways, a very unlucky day for me because of the weather,” he says. “It rained so much that it was the shortest grand prix in Formula 1 history [hence the half-points awarded]. It was very dangerous; there were many incidents and it was impossible to see the track.

“I can honestly say I did my best that day. If I had finished on the podium, maybe Ferrari would have given me a contract for the next year? Life would have changed for me. Sometimes you have to be lucky in life, and things are never simple.”

Gianni Morbidelli, Ferrari 643

Gianni Morbidelli, Ferrari 643

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Gianni Morbidelli, Ferrari 643

Gianni Morbidelli, Ferrari 643

Photo by: Motorsport Images

After just 16 laps, and a series of hefty crashes, the race was halted and not restarted. But his half point for sixth doesn’t tell the full story of what might have been had the race run even one more lap…

“I actually crossed the finish line in third place, behind [Ayrton] Senna and [Nelson] Piquet, but they put me back to sixth place because of the red flag rules,” reflects Morbidelli. “Morally, I was third, but you have to accept what life throws at you. I was doing a job I had great passion for, with the biggest team in the world, so I think I can be satisfied with what I did.

The grid lines up ready for the start in the very wet conditions

The grid lines up ready for the start in the very wet conditions

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Marshalls get Nigel Mansell's Williams FW14 Renault chassis off the track after his crash into the wall, when he aquaplaned on lap 16

Marshalls get Nigel Mansell's Williams FW14 Renault chassis off the track after his crash into the wall, when he aquaplaned on lap 16

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“Who knows what would have happened if it had stopped raining and we had restarted? Maybe if the race had gone on another two laps I’d have crashed into the wall, like Jean did!”

Morbidelli would get the Australian GP podium finish he felt he was owed four years later, driving for Arrows.

“I felt I was in credit with the circuit – I had my revenge!” he laughs. “In a way that was an even greater moment for me, because we were in a very bad financial situation. Working with Alan Jenkins and Jackie Oliver was fantastic, so it was such a great feeling to achieve what we did together.”

Gianni Morbidelli, Footwork FA16 Hart, Mark Blundell, McLaren MP4/10B Mercedes-Benz

Gianni Morbidelli, Footwork FA16 Hart, Mark Blundell, McLaren MP4/10B Mercedes-Benz

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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