Stefan Johansson, a cry of joy broken at a lap from glory



Stefan Nils Edwin Johansson was born in Vaxyo on September 8, 1956. His father, Roland, passed on his passion for racing to his son, who took part in some amateur races on weekends, while during the week he dedicated himself to repairing cars.


However, Stefan binds his sporting life first to Hockey, a sport in which he even manages to reach the second division in the following years, and only at the age of eight does he make his debut driving a Kart, participating in races only at the age of twelve years, the minimum allowed to participate in the latter.


The young man competes in the kart category for seven seasons, touching several times the title of champion of the Swedish series, until in 1973 he graduated Scandinavian champion, simultaneously conquering the sixth final place in the Karting world championship.


In 1975, at the age of nineteen, he made his debut on Formula Ford, a very important preparatory championship that saw some of the greatest talents in World Motorsport pass, and the following year he already won the national championship in the category.

Stefan learns fast, and in 1976 he also starts racing in national Formula 3, as a guy who has ties to Swiss designer Jo Marquart helps Stefan get an Formula 3 chassis for 1976, but the Swede can only afford to do sporadic events, before participating in the European championship in 1977, but without obtaining significant results. But he still wins the Swedish title.


Now focused on his career as a racing driver, the Swede moves to Great Britain in 1978, and thanks to the help of two sports journalists with whom he shares a home, he manages to get a job for 1979 with Derek MacMahon's team in English Formula 3:


"I basically slept in the car for two years, dragging a bed here and there. Sometimes, even I couldn't afford to eat, because I had to choose whether to put food in my stomach or gas in the car to get to the next race. But when you're young you can do these things. I've never felt in trouble, and that's what I did. Then I met reporters Ian Phillips and Chris Witty, who shared an infamous house on Buller Road in darker Kensal Green. Ian and Chris did a good job, and for 1979 I ended up in Derek MacMahon's Formula 3 team with a Chevron B47, alongside Bernard Devaney and Eddie Jordan".


The first half of the season, however, is very disappointing, especially due to a Chevron B47 chassis not very congenial to the Swedish driver, but as soon as the team starts to use the March chassis, Stefan demonstrates his class, collecting the first success at Silverstone.


"The B47 chassis didn't perform well, but when we moved from mid-season to the March 793 I won at the Silverstone circuit and would have won at Cadwell, but the head gasket burned out".


In 1979, Stefan won the English formula 3 championship and at the same time landed in Formula 2, at the wheel of a March BMW, after being hired by Alan Docking; the Swede collects two victories, including one at the Hockenheimring, considered to be among his best performances, after a long comeback that ended on the last lap with a difficult overtaking against the race leader Manfred Winkelhock, and at the end of the year he will be fourth in the standings.


During this period, Stefan has a first contact with Ron Dennis, who offers him a fleeting appearance with the Shadow, but it is in 1980 that the real debut of the Swedish driver arrives at a Formula One Grand Prix, aboard the DN11 initially. destined for Beppe Gabbiani. Shadow had already contacted the Swede a few months before the start of the championship, offering him a seat if he was able to scrape together some sponsors: such a tempting opportunity cannot fade so easily.


Thus, in a few days Stefan obtained the support of AGA AB, a Swedish oil company, and the support of some Argentine companies, thus guaranteeing participation in the first two world championship races scheduled in the 1980 Formula 1 World Championship, or in Argentina and Brazil.


The debut in Buenos Aiers, however, is not lucky: despite the constant improvements in the two days of practice, Stefan is not able to qualify. The Shadow DN11 is not a competitive car and it is also quite difficult to drive, especially with a track in poor condition:


"Until the last minute they were trying to sell the place to Beppe Gabbiani or Renzo Zorzi, but the money never came. So here I am, for the first time, in the pit lane between my heroes, like Andretti and Reutemann. I've never been close to an Formula 1 car in my life. The car was, to put it simply, a disaster, and there was no way I or my teammate David Kennedy could qualify it. All I could do was look in the mirrors and try to keep away from everyone".



Given the disappointing results and the lack of budget to continue the World Championship adventure, Stefan returns to racing in British Formula 3 for the following two years, although a curious fact involves the Swede in July 1981. In fact, Johansson is entered on the second March, but he will not take part in the qualifying tests.


A sensational return to Formula 1 will come in 1983, when the Swedish driver makes his debut at the wheel of the Spirit at the Race of Champions, a Formula 1 race, not valid for the world championship, held on Sunday April 10, 1983, at the Brands Hatch circuit, in the United Kingdom. Immediately, during practice, the time set seems very good, and the classification sees him rise to second place. This is also because:


"It was so cold that no one could warm the tires, but our car was so overweight we were consuming the hardest compound Goodyear had available".


The Spirit, however, more than a Formula 1 car, is a simple Formula 2 with a chassis adapted for racing in the top flight, and even if its performance gives comforting signals, the car is plagued by a great fragility. In fact, in just one weekend the team broke three engines.


For this reason, Stefan will not be able to confirm the good times set in free practice and will close the qualifying practice only twelfth, as due to the reliability problems of his car he will only be able to make one fast attempt. In the race, his reliability will still limit his qualities, forcing him to retire after only four laps.



The difficulties will continue even in the official races: although Johansson will manage to qualify regularly in the middle of the grid, in the race his car will not allow him to reach the finish line easily, with the exception of the Dutch Grand Prix, where the Swede will finish seventh. As if that were not enough, the team at the end of the season will lose the supply of Honda engines, which will prefer to divert all its efforts to Williams, and the Swede will find himself without a steering wheel.


The world championship adventure seems to have definitively ended for Stefan, who divides his efforts between Formula Nippon and Sport Prototype races, until the call comes from Ken Tyrrell, who hires him to replace the injured Martin Brundle in his 012. An excellent relationship was immediately created between Ken and the Scot, but after four races the results obtained were canceled due to the story of the lead balls inserted in the tanks to bring the car back within the regulatory weight limits, and the collaboration was interrupted.


"Sometimes established riders found Ken difficult, but for a boy like me he was wonderful. As a father, his arm around my shoulder gave me the confidence to get the best of myself. I only drove five races for him, but it gave me a lot of knowledge that I didn't have, little things that were really important, like tackling a race, or the right way to warm up the tires. At the time everyone was talking about Stefan Bellof as the prodigy boy, but in my first race, at Brands, I passed him in qualifying: then I was eliminated in the first lap. I finished eighth in Austria, ahead of Stefan. So the Tyrrell was disqualified due to tank ballast. But Johnny Cecotto did not return after his Brands Hatch crash, so I found myself a Toleman driver at the Italian Grand Prix. "



Stefan is then contacted by Toleman, who is looking for a replacement for Johnny Cecotto, who was injured during practice for the British Grand Prix. The Swede then went aboard the TG 184, making his debut in Monza. After a disappointing qualifying, in the race the skilled Swedish driver manages to recover several positions, crossing the line in fourth place, despite a problem with one wheel bearing.



As the season progresses, Stefan's performances remain at a good level until the end of the championship. At Estoril, for example, he is in sixth position, until a contact with Niki Lauda makes him lose his wing, causing him to fall in the standings and forcing him to a long comeback that led him to mark the third fastest lap in the race. In Portugal, Stefan even takes the whim of qualifying in front of his team boss, Ayrton Senna, in the first test session, conducted under the flood, before the second session overturned the standings:


"At Estoril, in qualifying on Friday, I was fourth fastest, while Ayrton Senna qualified sixth. He just couldn't accept that someone could beat him in qualifying with an identical car. He had torn him apart, he thought there would be. should something be wrong with the car".


The Swedish driver closed the year with three points obtained and a contract renewed also for the following year. The 1985 season, however, begins in uncertainty for Johansson: Toleman loses the supply of Michelin tires, and failing to get a different one for the start of the season, Stefan finds himself again without a steering wheel, by which time the seats for the teams the best are already all busy. This, despite Enzo Ferrari had already contacted him towards the end of the 1984 championship:


"Enzo Ferrari had seen the Monza and Estoril Grand Prix on television, as always, so I received a phone call offering me a test contract at Maranello. But René Arnoux and Michele Alboreto were well placed there, so it wasn't about racing. Also I had tested the new Toleman, which was fantastic; Rory Byrne was a genius".


The Swede agrees again with Tyrrell to compete in the first Grand Prix of the season, which later ended in seventh position, but the return of Stefan Bellof, who had resolved the contractual disputes with the Scottish owner, puts him out of the team and without any prospects for the season.



At the umpteenth door closed in his face, and without the situation with Toleman having been clarified, the Swede receives a phone call from Marco Piccinini, who offers him a contract to replace Renè Arnoux at Ferrari.


"A week after returning from Rio I received a call from the Ferrari team manager, Marco Piccinini, telling me he was flying to London to meet me. I met Piccinini at the Savoy Hotel, where he told me to get ready. The following Tuesday, he arrives. another phone call: come to Maranello immediately, the Elder wants to see you".


"I go straight to Heathrow and take the plane to Milan. An assistant meets me at the airport and takes me not to the new factory, but to the old factory. It was practically abandoned, completely silent, without lights. We walk down a long dark corridor, the Late afternoon light filters through dirty windows. The photos of my missing heroes, Nuvolari, Ascari, Hawthorn, von Trips, look at me from the walls. I got goosebumps".


"At the end of the passage I enter a room and inside are Piccinini and Ferrari's son, Piero Lardi. Sitting at the back of the room, in the darkness, is the Old Man, so I only see his silhouette. It was like a movie. di Fellini, with him the master of this little drama, who orchestrated everything. Piccinini and Lardi talked about everything, while the only question the Old Man asked me was: Are you hungry? I was actually starving because, from excitement, I hadn't eaten all day. I tested a 126 C4 turbo at Fiorano the next day, and the next day I flew to Estoril to compete in the Grand Prix of Portugal. After only fourteen Grands Prix for four different teams, having never done a whole season for anyone, I was a driver of the Ferrari".


Toleman remains unaware of the negotiations between Johansson and Ferrari, so much so that while Stefan's engagement is disclosed to the press in Maranello even before the meeting with the driver who is coming from Milan, the British team is in London, through Chris Witty, says that the English team will be present in Portugal with drivers Johansson and Watson, but will not participate in the Grand Prix. Obviously unaware of the conclusion of the negotiations between the Swedish driver and Maranello, Witty goes on to say:


"At the Estoril we will try to reach an agreement with Pirelli to finally have the tires. We have not announced our retirement to FISA".


In Paris, in fact, no Toleman telexes arrive at FISA: neither for the flat rate in Portugal, nor for the renunciation of the world championship. This is because the regulation of the International Federation provides for a fine of twenty thousand dollars for each driver and for each Grand Prix (and ultimately the exclusion from the world championship) against a team that, having registered at the beginning of the year, renounces to Take part in a race.


This is the great opportunity for Stefan, who without even hesitating accepts the offer, making his debut on the 156-85 already in Portugal. With Ferrari, Stefan highlights all his talent, winning the first point of the season at the Imola circuit, thanks to the disqualification of Alain Prost, at the end of an extraordinary and unfortunate race.


In fact, at Imola, the Swede manages to win the love of the fans and journalists for him, who will almost compare him to Gilles Villeneuve, making a wonderful comeback from fifteenth place, which leads him to lead the race up to three laps. from the end, when, due to incorrect management of the team, he runs out of petrol, however he is classified in sixth position.


Having started fifteenth, the Swede manages slowly and in the inattention of all, since the eyes are on Alboreto, to regain a fifth place on the twenty-fifth lap, but the gap of 31 seconds from the leader of the race Senna, does not suggest that he could become a protagonist or even the winner.


On lap 40, when there were twenty to go and all the leading riders are moderating their pace for fear of running out of gas, Johansson starts to push, so much so that if you compare his lap times with those of Senna and Prost you he discovers that the Swede is faster than a second and sometimes even a second and a half.


When Johansson reaches third place, from the Ferrari pits, instead of managing the race, they decide to display some signals to make him accelerate. The people, the two hundred thousand Imola present, are all standing. But on the fifty-seventh lap Stefan stops with the pump no longer drawing gasoline, while the audience falls silent, and then takes it out with Prost running towards the finish line.



The start of the season continues with two second places in Canada and in the USA, in Detroit, where in the penultimate lap he slows down a lot due to a disintegrated brake, and a splendid comeback in the French Grand Prix, which leads him to close in fourth position, close to the podium.


But despite this, the relationship between Johansson and Ferrari is not always idyllic, given that often, in the Ferrari pits, when Postletwhait is missing, the conversation between the Swede and the technicians is always quite tiring, and often from the outside it seems to witness a mime recital, in which mimicking suspension, steering and valves is not exactly easy.


The results, however, are good, and therefore on September 20, 1985 the renewal of the contract for the following year is announced, dispelling the rumors of a probable arrival of De Cesaris or De Angelis:


"Engineer Enzo Ferrari received the two drivers yesterday, thanking them for their daily intense work, ensuring that the manufacturer is working hard in every sector to make competitive cars available to them that are worthy of their merits".


However, Ferrari introduces a new engine late in the season, which has serious overheating problems due to an inadequate oil recovery system and problems with the turbines begin to arise.


Furthermore, at the end of the season Stefan risks not participating in the South African Grand Prix due to the protest of the various national sports federations against apartheid, but in the end he still manages to take part in it finishing fourth.


At first, in fact, the general secretary of the Swedish automobile federation, Mert Metslow, in a statement specifies that Johansson will not be able to race with the Swedish driving license, but when Stefan comes to the decision to renounce the driving license issued by the federation of his country to take another in England, obtains the permission:


"If Ferrari goes, I'll go too".


For 1986 Ferrari declared that it could not fight for the title, so for this reason Johansson found himself in a position to be able to fight on equal terms with his teammate, as he was no longer considered second driver.


According to the drivers, the new F1-86 has a high top speed, but it totally lacks downforce when entering and exiting corners, which is why it is very difficult to drive. At the start of the championship, Stefan only gets a fourth place in Imola and a third place in Spa, collecting six retirements in the first nine races.


Indeed, the climate is so heavy that before the race in Detroit, there is a small problem in the warm-up for Stefan Johansson, who having forgotten his gloves and helmet in the motorhome, after waiting a few minutes, is forced to ask Mansell to lend him his.


In perfect timing with all the market rumors surrounding the British and his possible arrival at Maranello, Ferrari fans admire the F1-86 driven by a driver with his appearance for a moment in disbelief, before discovering what lies beneath it. ambiguity.



The second part of the season is noticeably better, with the Swede winning three more podiums in Austria, Monza and Australia, not experiencing any retirement in the other races, thus closing the season in fifth place, his best result so far.


"Every time we did the tests at Fiorano, lunch was arranged in the house inside the track. The Old man loved to talk, with Piccinini who translated. He was always the same: he talked for five minutes about the chassis and all the work we were doing for fix the handling, then talked for twenty-five minutes about the engine. It was all about the engine, he didn't give a damn about the rest. As long as the Ferrari had more power, he was happy. Then he would stop talking about cars and start asking about the girls you were dating. He wanted real details, then he would tell stories of when he was a lively kid. Piccinini, doing all the translations, blushed more and more. I spent two difficult years in Maranello. I had to learn to manage politics and fighting. At Ferrari everything was always on multiple levels: you made a friend, then you have two enemies".


"It was mostly me and Harvey Postlethwaite against the others, but it was a fantastic experience, the best you could have in racing. It wasn't a good time for Ferrari then: when Michele and I took our first look at the 1986 car, we looked at each other thinking: it's going to be a long season. It felt wrong, cumbersome and clumsy. It was fast on the straight but didn't have a lot of downforce, so it was crap in the corners. When I was driving for Project 4 in Formula 3, they had this little room upstairs called The Fishtank with three guys sitting there: John Barnard, Alan Jenkins, Steve Nichols. All three were extremely talented, and they designed a carbon fiber Formula 1 car that none of us knew anything about - now they were all at McLaren".


"When I was in Ferrari, I kept telling the Vecchio how much work in the wind tunnel they were doing. Ferrari would say to Lardi and Piccinini: What are we doing? What happens next? They take the best wind tunnel they can buy, they hire John Barnard and they drive me away".



However, in 1987 the Swede was left behind by Ferrari and hired by the McLaren team thanks to the support of Marlboro. The contract is one year, as Senna is expected to join the team in 1988, resulting in Stefan's departure.


However, the new MP4/3 is a rather nervous and less competitive single-seater than the Williams FW11B, which is why the fight for the title is in fact restricted to only the drivers of the Grove team.


However, the start of the season is positive: in the first three races, Stefan climbs the podium twice, scoring a double at the Belgian Grand Prix with teammate Alain Prost, while in Imola he crosses the finish line in fourth place, even if he will remain very disappointed with the result because a problem with the wing forced him to make an extra stop without which he could have fought for the victory.


In the Austrian Grand Prix, Stefan will be the protagonist of a singular accident, when he will hit a deer at 240 km/h during free practice, breaking a rib; the Swede, despite the injury, will still participate in the race, finishing seventh. despite this, the season continues with two second places in Belgium and Germany, and two third places in Spain and Japan, surrounded by various points finishes in the other races.



In 1988 Stefan broke his contract with Marlboro, signing with Gitanes in order to get a job at Ligier. The French car is certainly at a much lower level of competitiveness than the cars with which the Swede has raced in recent seasons, but the lack of prospects force him to be satisfied.


The season is an ordeal, Stefan continually accuses reliability problems and for the first time is a victim of the pre-qualifiers, which prevent him from participating in the race on six occasions. The new JS31, despite having a decent top speed, suffers from a certain lack of torsional stiffness, which is why cornering behavior is often unpredictable and the car itself was difficult to steer. Furthermore, Tetu himself, designer of the team, had made several mistakes in the design of the car.


The Swede will only see the finish line four times, in Brazil, Belgium, Australia and Mexico, ending the season with no points scored. For 1989 Stefan makes an agreement with Onyx, a team founded by Mike Earle, already known to him since the days of Formula 2, which attempts the world championship adventure thanks to the funds made available by the Belgian financier Van Rossem.



It goes without saying that the start of the season is along the lines of the previous season, but as the races continue, the overall situation of the team improves significantly. In fact, Stefan gets a fifth place in France, while in Portugal, with a risky strategy that did not involve changing tires, he will be able to take his car up to the third position, climbing on the podium for the last time in his career.


The situation within the team, however, will suddenly worsen following the loss of interest of Van Rossem and the abandonment of Earle and Alan Jenkins, pushing the Swedish driver out of yet another Formula 1 team the following year.


In fact, in 1990 Stefan took part in only two Grands Prix before being fired on the spot by Onyx itself, due to the Swedish driver's unwillingness to offer to race for free the following year.



In 1991 Stefan is hired as a tester driver by McLaren, and at the same time he runs the last season in Formula 1 the first two Grands Prix of the season after having agreed with AGS to race with the JH-25 single-seater.


During the season he will subsequently be hired by Footwork, to replace the injured Alex Caffi, once again finding himself a car that he is unable to qualify for, except for the Canadian Grand Prix, a race in which he is in any case forced to retire.



With this result, his adventure in Formula 1 ends, this time for real. However, Johansson's career is not only linked to Formula 1, as the Swedish driver also achieves some success in prototype sports races, a category in which he has been racing since the early 1980s.


In particular, with the 333 SP of Maranello he conquers the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1997 and a third place at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1998, and will obtain several successes with the prototypes of Reynard, Audi, and Porsche.


Defined by many colleagues as an eclectic person, since he finished his career as a pilot he has dedicated himself to the production of luxury watches, designed by him personally, and to painting. In the latter case, according to the Swedish driver, the event that led him to approach art was the death of his friend Elio De Angelis, with whom he was on excellent terms.


Andrea Rasponi

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