The French races and the escape from Alcatraz

Translated by this website

Alcatraz Island is in the San Francisco Bay and has become famous for being the site of a maximum-security prison. Extremely dangerous inmates or those who had already tried to escape from other prisons were destined for Alcatraz.

Alcatraz has given its name to many hotels and nightclubs and inspired several films. While Beppe Gabbiani, a former F1 driver (and not only) was telling me a story of his, but I was also reminded of the famous film of the 70s, “Escape from Alcatraz”, which starred Clint Eastwood in the part of an inmate who together with two companions managed to escape from the invulnerable prison… When Beppe Gabbiani raced, there were many circuits in France. In the Upper Normandy region, there was the semi-permanent circuit of Rouen. Between 1952 and 1968 it hosted five editions of the French Grand Prix valid for the Formula 1 world championship, as well as some races valid for the motorcycle world championship.

Inaugurated in 1950, it was built based on a shorter route, which existed even before the Second World War. It was located near the village of Les-Essarts, southwest of Rouen. It was very fast and demanding and was considered like that of Spa-Francorchamps. The most feared part of the circuit was the downhill stretch after the finish line that led to a fast corner, the Six Freres, which tested the drivers’ courage. Few were able to face it without taking their foot off the accelerator. Dan Gurney was the only one to win two grand prix in Rouen. In 1968, Jacky Ickx won with the Ferrari 312, the first F1 single seater equipped with a flap, as the aileron was called. During the first laps of that race, the Frenchman Jo Schlesser lost his life, crashing right at the Six Freres with his Honda, which following the impact caught fire like a bale of straw soaked in petrol. After the fatal accident, Formula 1 left the circuit, considering it too fast and dangerous. In the middle of Six Freres, they built a chicane.

Among the entrants to the 1978 Rouen Grand Prix, I remember (without wanting to hurt anyone) Bruno Giacomelli, Piercarlo Ghinzani, Elio de Angelis, Beppe Gabbiani, Gianfranco Brancatelli, Eddie Cheever, Piero Necchi, Jean-Pierre Jarier, Derek Daly, Manfred Winkelhock, Keijo Rosberg (known as “Keke”) and Giacomo Agostini, former champion of two wheels in the mood to try his hand, like his other predecessors, on four wheels. In 1978 Agostini was Gabbiani’s teammate in the Trivellato Racing Team, which used a Chevron B42 chassis. Beppe enjoyed himself very much. He was counting on his ability to tame the car and on his great desire to compete and excel. Perhaps for these reasons he was a bit listless in setting up the vehicle. He knew how to put together a series of extraordinary laps, but as soon as he accused a loss of concentration, difficult to maintain, he made some mistake, sometimes irreparable. Beppe had many friends among his colleagues, not just compatriots. He did not feel inferior to anyone, and he never considered that hypothesis. He highly esteemed Patrese, De Angelis, Fullerton, Goldstein, Mombelli, Prost and Rovelli. His reference was Piero Necchi. A few years ago, in an event of historic grand prix cars, I recognized Beppe Gabbiani by observing his helmet (what a good time when the helmet identified the driver…) just as he was preparing to enter the track. He was driving the Lancia Marino, a ’54 formula 1 built in a single model by Marino Brandoli from Modena. With that car, Brandoli had participated in the Naples Grand Prix of ’57. Starting from the fifth row, he retired on lap 10 due to overheating problems.

Beppe had the privilege of driving it. He is intrigued by certain cars because he wants to understand, at least get an idea, of how the drivers of the time raced. In these cases, he puts his adrenaline on the sidelines and mentally inserts a “box” mapping, believing that, in these performances, competition is out of place. Gabbiani retains a good dose of enthusiasm and a pinch of healthy madness. They also call him “Crazy Horse”, since Enzo Ferrari, who had followed a Formula 3 race in Varano de Melegari, declared in an interview that the kart drivers were crazy, particularly “the Piacenza”, clearly referring to him. Beautiful women, cigarettes and good wine, combined with a nice temper, made Beppe Gabbiani a sort of Italian James Hunt.

A few days ago, participating in a meeting between enthusiasts in which the guest of honor was Fabiano Vandone, many memories of the past surfaced. Elio de Angelis was also mentioned. The Roman gentleman driver is often remembered for having given his life to the cause of the infinite passion he had for racing. He was seriously injured while trying to improve on the Paul Ricard circuit the futuristic Brabham BT55, nicknamed “sole”, it was too low. Gabbiani and de Angelis were friends. So, at the first opportunity, I asked Beppe to also tell me something about Elio. He told me about the days spent with him and other drivers around the European tracks. He remembered the times when both competed in Formula 2 and Formula 3. In 1978 they competed in Rouen, on the seventh round of the European championship. Elio raced for Giancarlo Minardi’s Everest Scuderia, Beppe for Trivellato Racing. With their Chevron-Ferraris they didn’t get a good result. Instead, the previous year, they both raced in the Formula 3 European Championship.

Moving from one circuit to another, they stayed in hotels located near the tracks. When they went to the small French circuit of Croix-en-Ternois, where the ninth round of the 1977 European championship was to take place, Beppe and Elio took a room on the second floor of a small hotel not far away. Giulio Pernigotti, a former kart champion from Voghera, accompanied them. Elio was nineteen and Beppe twenty. Gabbiani had grown up with Pernigotti. When they went to the circuits that the boy did not know, he would say to him harshly: “Do you like the track? No?! It doesn’t matter, the race is here!” So, Beppe, who loves the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, learned to like each track. The evening before the race in Croix-en-Ternois, after dinner, Giulio Pernigotti accompanied the two young drivers to their room. “Well, you have to rest because tomorrow will be a busy day”, he told them. He then he left the room and, after locking the door, walked away. Beppe and Elio looked at each other, startled.

In a moment they found themselves in the shoes of two inmates. Almost resigned, they began to smoke a cigarette. “I used to smoke cigarettes and go crazy for beautiful girls. I never disdained a good glass of wine” – Beppe specifies – “Elio, on the other hand, was a calm, composed boy: he drank coca cola, never alcohol, every now and then he lit a cigarette. I was carefree and I had a great desire to have fun, to meet girls. That evening it was as hot as in August. I couldn’t bear the idea of being locked in that hotel room all night”.

“The room had a small terrace, and we went there to smoke the last few puffs of cigarettes. We realized that, about a meter from the terrace, there was the external security staircase. Pernigotti had locked us inside but hadn’t noticed the external staircase”. With the spirit that animates two young guys and makes two “inmates” accomplices, they went down the ladder. Elio had a car at his disposal, he set it in motion, and they left for an unknown destination. They would go back to the room by going up the external staircase without making any noise, so as not to wake up the good Pernigotti who was sleeping soundly, believing them to be under lock and key. “There was almost nothing around Croix-en-Ternois, a small town in the North of France with a few hundred inhabitants, where at seven in the evening there is no more soul around”.

“We went to a bar, then to another place, looking for girls and a new pack of cigarettes. Elio sipped fresh coke while I drank a glass of wine. Late at night we hadn’t met a girl yet, so we looked for a nigth club. We found one in a town not too far away and entered the place. It was strange to see two young people like us in such an environment. There, unfortunately, the youngest woman was close to fifty and elderly customers were seated at the various tables. After a first drink, I walked away from Elio to head back to the bar counter. Waiting to be served, I looked around: Pernigotti with some mechanics were sitting at a nearby table. ‘But look at these two criminals!’ Exclaimed Pernigotti in Vogherese dialect. But he didn’t get angry, and we laughed at him. The next day Elio and I won the two heats. We were going fast. Elio, with his Ralt set the fastest lap, but he had a problem and did not finish the race. With the Chevron B38-Toyota I finished second behind Derek Daly and ahead of Nelson Piquet”. On the way back, with Croix-en-Ternois far behind them, their thoughts were already on the next race, in the Italian championship, in Misano Adriatico.

© 2014 Formula Passion • By Enzo Frangione • Published for entertainment and educational purposes, no copyright infringement is intended.

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