Michele Alboreto, runner-up in the 1985 Formula 1 World Championship for Ferrari, has died after a testing crash in an Audi R8 sportscar at Germany's Lausitzring on Wednesday.
Alboreto, who won five Grands Prix in 194 F1 starts, was endurance testing in preparation for Audi's defence of its Le Mans 24 Hours crown. The car is reported to have gone off the 11km test track, adjacent to the main two-mile oval circuit, which comprises two straights and two steeply-banked curves.
The car hit the Armco and rolled several times at approximately 16:30 BST (17:30 local time). Rescue crews were on the scene of the accident within two minutes, and a helicopter landed there a few minutes later, but nothing could be done for the Italian.
His car came to rest on the wrong side of a metal barrier, and he is believed to have died from head and neck injuries.
In a statement, Audi sports boss Wolfgang Ullrich described the 44-year-old's accident as an "incomprehensible tragedy", adding that, "we will do everything in our power to find the reason for this accident. But right now, our thoughts are with Michele's wife Nadia, his two daughters and his whole family."
Audi stressed that the chassis involved in the tragedy had 'already completed thousands of test kilometres on numerous circuits without any problems'. No possible cause for the accident has been stated so far.
The Lausitzring opened last year, at a cost of £98million, and will host a round of the FedEx Champ Car series in September on its two-mile oval course.
Alboreto made his F1 debut in the 1981 San Marino Grand Prix driving for Tyrrell. He scored two wins for the team, including the final GP triumph for a Cosworth DFV-based V8 engine at the 1983 Detroit GP.
But it was with Ferrari that the genial Italian became a hero to his countrymen. Alboreto won three GP wins for the Prancing Horse (the last Italian to do so) and is still fondly remembered by the tifosi for his efforts in the 1985 season, when he finished second in the points to Alain Prost's McLaren.
"Michele Alboreto played an important role as a driver in the history of Ferrari," said the Prancing Horse's president Luca di Montezemolo. "He was intelligent and paid a great attention to the technical problems involved in the development of the car.
"His death has been a hard blow to take and has filled me with a deep sadness. Michele continued to race, driven on by an irrepressible passion, proving that in our sport which is totally involving, risk is always around the corner."
Alboreto's F1 career ended at the end of 1994 after several seasons with mid- and back-of-the-grid teams, including Footwork, BMS Scuderia Italia and Minardi.
After that, he proved himself a capable endurance racer. His sportscar triumphs included victory in the 1997 Le Mans 24 Hours for Joest and a win in this year's Sebring 12 Hours with Audi. The 2001 season was Alboreto's third with the Ingolstadt marque.
"His extensive experience was a significant factor in the successful development of the Audi R8 racing sportscar," said Dr Franz-Josef Paefgen, Chairman of the Board of Management of Audi AG. "His calm and thoughtful manner enriched the entire Audi Sport team. His great passion for motorsport never dimmed throughout his long and successful career.
"We are mourning the loss of a great driver and a great person."
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