Sports Commentary: “The Record Doesn't Tell the Story ”

de Cesaris II
Courtesy of Jack Cobourn
This trading card depicts Andrea de Cesaris finishing fourth in the 1991 Canadian Grand Prix. De Cesaris finished ninth in the final season standings.

BY

MANAGING SPORTS EDITOR

In sports, there are three kinds of people who get remembered for their play. First, there are the legends, people who do great things and are noted for it forever. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the guys who are remembered for being awful, like the batter who pops up every time he goes for a home run or the boxer who gets knocked out three seconds into the first round.

But then there is this middle group, the ones who are remembered not because of their greatness or failure but because they did everything they could to do their best. The boxer who loses a tough decision after 15 rounds of slugging against Muhammad Ali or the sacrifice bunter who helps his team win Game 7 of the World Series are these kinds of people.

Andrea de Cesaris was one of those guys. De Cesaris, who died in a motorcycle crash on a highway in Rome Sunday, Oct. 5, went 208 Formula One races without a win, the most out of anyone. In a 14-year career, he drove for ten teams, scoring points for nine of them.

But these are just the Wikipedia highlights of a career. You see, de Cesaris was a cult hero to many because of that will to win. And boy, did he come close, leading the 1983 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps after a restart until his engine failed. A year earlier, he had been leading the United States Grand Prix West at Long Beach, Calif. from pole position before Niki Lauda, the eventual winner, caught and passed him 15 laps in.

De Cesaris was also known for his poor driving skills early on and had a nickname in his early years of “Andrea de Crasharis” because of the many shunts he had. One famous incident was in the 1985 Austrian Grand Prix, where he was fired by his team owner after a wild accident in which his car flipped over.

But it isn’t those “almost” moments, or the accidents, that sell me on de Cesaris being a memorable driver, it’s that he was able to take terrible cars and push them to do things most drivers couldn’t do. The best example of this is his determined drive in the 1988 U.S. Grand Prix in Detroit. Driving an awful Rial, which by some miracle he qualified 12th, he drove a determined race to finish fourth, one lap down. To prove how incredible this drive was, the team only scored another fourth the next season with a different driver before shutting down.

In 1989, de Cesaris drove for the BMS Scuderia Italia team with varied, memorable results. For one thing, after an accident on the narrow Monaco Grand Prix course with Nelson Piquet, he got into an argument and began shouting at him, causing a traffic jam. However, three races later, in Canada, he scored his final podium by finishing third.

His career had one more turn of good fortune, when in 1991, he joined the brand new Jordan team. He was instantly successful, scoring the team’s first points in Canada with a fourth place. But it was at Spa, eight years on from his good drive in the 1983 Belgian Grand Prix, that de Cesaris had another “almost” moment.

de Cesaris I
Courtesy of Jack Cobourn
This trading card shows Andrea de Cesaris when he drove for Tyrrell in 1992. He had a best finish of fourth in Japan that year.

In a race that saw the debut of Michael Schumacher, the most successful driver of all-time, de Cesaris was in a fine second place and hunting down the injured McLaren-Honda of Ayrton Senna for a certain victory, when his engine failed due to oil loss with three laps to go. I have seen many failures during races but to be so close to victory and have it snatched away must be killer.

De Cesaris retired in 1994 and became a currency trader and competitive windsurfer. When the Grand Prix Masters series for retired Formula One drivers began in 2005, de Cesaris surprised all by being the most fit when he arrived for the first event. He lived up to his luck, finishing fourth after another determined drive.

There aren’t many “cult heroes” on the Formula One grid anymore, Pedro de la Rosa being the last that I really remember cheering on, but the sport needs drivers like de Cesaris, men who want to win, and will just about do anything to prove that even with a terrible car, they are still a threat. It seems the mold was broken with de Cesaris, and the sport is poorer for it.

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