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Friday favourite: When Italian partners ruled the world with BMW

Roberto Ravaglia collected touring car championship titles for fun in the late 1980s and early ‘90s with BMW. During that time, he made a strong impression on a driver who would go on to carve out his own legend at Le Mans. Emanuele Pirro opens up on his favourite team-mate

Roberto Ravaglia, BMW M3

Emanuele Pirro is most closely associated with Audi due to his five Le Mans 24 Hours victories between 2000 and 2007 coming with its R8 and R10 machines. Those followed touring car successes for the brand during the previous decade, claiming successive titles across the Italian and German super touring series from 1994 to 1996. But it’s from Pirro’s prior spell with BMW at the Schnitzer team he raced for on-and-off between 1985 and 1993 that he chooses his favourite team-mate.

Roberto Ravaglia, his old rival from karting, Formula Fiat Abarth and Formula 3, had made the move into touring cars in 1984 with Schnitzer while Pirro continued on the single-seater ladder in Formula Two. Pirro shared a car with Ravaglia for the first time at the Nurburgring the following year, placing fourth in their 635CSi after two outings with Dieter Quester, and the duo went on to forge a successful partnership over the coming years.

Pirro supported Ravaglia’s 1986 European Touring Car and 1987 World Touring Car Championship title bids, occasionally partnered him in the 1988 ETCC as Ravaglia made it three in a row, and together with Fabien Giroix they won the Nurburgring 24 Hours for the Bigazzi team in 1989. There were sporadic appearances too as part of Schnitzer’s entry into single-driver events that invariably featured Ravaglia as a focal point, with Pirro triumphant in the 1991 and 1992 Macau Guia races.

That Venetian Ravaglia is also Italian is irrelevant in his choice, Rome-born Pirro stresses. He spent several years based in Britain racing for Onyx, which he believes expanded his horizons.

“I consider myself very international, therefore the fact that I mention Roberto is just a coincidence,” he tells Autosport in between regular interruptions from well-wishers in the Imola media centre prior to the recent World Endurance Championship round at which he was the honorary starter. “We are still very good friends and we speak regularly.”

Pirro first dipped a toe into the waters of tin-tops while still focusing on single-seaters in Formula 3000, and quickly recognised “that this is a very cool way of racing”. Keen for more in 1986, he signed up for all the ETCC rounds that didn’t clash with F3000 and wins soon followed.

Pirro and Ravaglia (left) formed a fruitful partnership, although Ravaglia as number one had the option to jump in another car as he pleased

Pirro and Ravaglia (left) formed a fruitful partnership, although Ravaglia as number one had the option to jump in another car as he pleased

Photo by: Sutton Images

He and Ravaglia saw the chequered flag first at the Nurburgring and Jarama while, together with Gerhard Berger, they led the Spa 24 Hours until alternator trouble demoted them to third in the closing stages. Dropped scores ultimately secured Ravaglia the crown over TWR Rover driver Win Percy.

Reflecting on their period at Schnitzer with Berger at the recent Goodwood Members’ Meeting, Pirro says, “Those days were probably the best days of our career – high quality of track time and leisure time."

His enjoyment continued into 1987, when Pirro became a full-timer in the WTCC and the ground-breaking M3 took over from the 635CSi, as Roland Ratzenberger and former F3000 rival Ivan Capelli joined Schnitzer while Berger concentrated on F1.

Friday favourite: Capelli picks his top team-mate

“With Roberto, we spent many years at Schnitzer with other people, and we had just a very good time,” says Pirro. “We spent so many wonderful moments. It also includes tough times; probably the good times are told better than the bad times. The hurdles are probably more than what people can think of, and this contributes to creating something very special.”

"One was doing the majority of practice, doing the car development and set-up in function of both, then the other one would jump in for the last few minutes just to verify"
Emanuele Pirro

Pirro and Ravaglia grew to recognise what the other liked and both bought into the idea that the best-performing car would be a compromise of their preferences. They also trusted each other’s input implicitly, to the extent that they typically alternated in doing the bulk of practice running when sharing the car for long-distance races.

“One was doing the majority of practice, doing the car development and set-up in function of both, then the other one would jump in for the last few minutes just to verify,” he says. “We were optimising the development time, otherwise if you split it 50/50 you can’t continue making progress with the programme.”

As BMW’s lead driver, Ravaglia had the freedom to jump into whichever car was ahead at the pitstops. For 1987, Pirro and Capelli usually started while Ratzenberger filled in the gaps. The former was initially paired with the late Austrian, a situation Pirro admits “I wasn’t super happy with because I wanted to be with Roberto”. But things changed naturally.

After sharing with Ratzenberger at the Monza season-opener, where all the new M3s were booted out of the results for a body panel infringement, Ravaglia hopped into Pirro’s car at Jarama when he’d stormed into an unassailable lead. Thereafter, Ravaglia predominantly continued with karting sparring partner.

Pirro initially shared with Ratzenberger in 1987, before Ravaglia made clear that Pirro was the man he wanted to partner

Pirro initially shared with Ratzenberger in 1987, before Ravaglia made clear that Pirro was the man he wanted to partner

Photo by: Sutton Images

He was due to climb aboard at Dijon when Pirro suffered an engine failure while leading shortly before the pitstops, prompting a switch back to the Capelli car. But red flags for rain meant Ravaglia didn’t complete 30% of the distance to meet the threshold for points, ensuring he and Pirro remained level-pegging until the WTCC visited the new permanent circuit at Brno.

There a prop shaft failure for Pirro meant Ravaglia could jump into Ratzenberger’s car (with Capelli away on F1 duty for March at the Austrian Grand Prix, Markus Oestreich was the man in reserve) and ultimately finished fourth. That cost Pirro the chance of sharing the title that Ravaglia won by one point, but he says the Schnitzer team “always made me feel a big part of the success, so I never felt like he was a privileged guy”.

“Every strong relationship is based on respect,” says Pirro. “Also the balance between giving and getting should be close to zero. This is how you keep increasing the level of relationship. Whether it is advice, a lift to the hotel, a joke, a meal.

“Especially in the motor racing world, the feelings when you are a driver are so strong that every small thing counts. You have to be really careful that this balance is really close to zero, otherwise quite easily it can go one direction or another, and then something breaks up.”

More favourite team-mate stories:

But with Ravaglia it never did. He headed to Japan for 1988 as McLaren-Honda’s test driver and also contested its domestic F3000 series, yet continued to race for Schnitzer when his schedule allowed. He was paired with Ravaglia for the Nurburgring and Nogaro rounds, but the former was a dropped score and the latter was after he’d already secured the title, having switched to sister cars when Pirro’s mount was delayed by early damage at Vallelunga and engine woes at Zolder.

Following a three-year F1 stint with Benetton and Scuderia Italia, Pirro returned to tin-tops in the 1992 DTM and shared a car with Ravaglia for the final time at the following year’s Nurburgring 24 before joining Audi for 1994. But even when representing different manufacturers they remained on good terms – Pirro invited Ravaglia to a social dinner at his house prior to an Italian championship race at Vallelunga.

“When you are not the junior anymore, you can have really split competition and relationship,” he says. That isn’t to say that when pitted together on-track there was any quarter given: “Even your best friend when you’re out there is a competitor, there is no mercy.”

Ravaglia and Pirro remain friends more than 30 years on from their spell as team-mates

Ravaglia and Pirro remain friends more than 30 years on from their spell as team-mates

Photo by: Jeff Bloxham / Motorsport Images

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