Solid character, solid results
- Mattijs Diepraam
- 8W May 1999 issue
- Christian Danner - And this guy was a F3000 champion..., by Mattijs Diepraam/Geza Sury
- Chico Serra - Better luck in stock, by Rainer Nyberg
1983 Belgian GP
A driver better suited to the endurance environment he entered into after a long and, well, satisfying GP career, Thierry Boutsen could be described as the eighties' steady campaigner par excellence. Never one to overcook it or set the world alight with a storming qualifying effort, the Belgian nonetheless pleased team bosses on race day by delivering consistently for over a decade, refining the art of taking the car home to perfection.
His subdued outward appearance matched the lack of thrill in his driving style and was highlighted by his cool under pressure, best remembered by Thierry holding a train of cars - led by Ayrton Senna - on the twisty Hungaroring to score his finest victory.
It was on these occasions so typical of Boutsen that we understood why as a kid with no racing background this lanky Walloon wanted to become a racing driver instead of a bank manager. But as Emilio de Villota showed, even bank managers can have a twisted need for speed.
Boutsen's F1 debut came on the same track he said goodbye on, at home at Spa. Replacing Chico Serra, Thierry retired due to suspension failure after having qualified a handsome 18th, while his first season really got underway in Motown, Boutsen transforming a terrific 10th in qualifying into a promising 7th at the chequered flag. This was typical Boutsen style, for Thierry averaged maybe one retirement by driver error per season - at most. 1988 was the classic Boutsen season, the Belgian outpaced on sheer speed by young new team mate Alessandro Nannini but consistently delivering on Sunday afternoons. His four podiums, finishing best of the rest to the all-conquering Senna-Prost steamroller, took him to third in the final driver standings, very much in the same conservative way Elio De Angelis had stolen a march on the remaining opposition in the previous McLaren-dominated era.
Boutsen's farewell to F1 was inevitable once Frank Williams realized he needed top-notch chargers for his Renault power instead of picking up the left-overs with second-rate driver crew like Boutsen and Patrese. With Mansell rejoining, the francophone Belgian signed for Ligier, always a guaranteed ticket for experienced campaigners to leave F1 in a slow and painful way. The chance to join Jordan in 1993 looked okay but young Barrichello was in a reputation-killing mood that season while Thierry was nowhere that first handful of Grands Prix.
And thus the idea arose to turn the 1993 Belgian GP into a symbolic event for the nation's best driver since Jacky Ickx. Ten years on, the Spa race was just as uneventful for Boutsen as his debut there, Thierry untypically retiring on lap 1 with a broken gearbox. After that, an up-and-down endurance career followed, initially as a Porsche works driver. In 1998 and 1999 Boutsen was involved in Toyota's Le Mans project, the 24 Hours his only race of the season. In the 1999 edition Boutsen hoped to be where he was in 1998 after about 23 hours of racing, but no avail. Boutsen retired immediately afterwards.
Reader's Why by Mo Caraher
Here we see Thierry Boutsen in his F1 debut for Arrows, at his home race at Spa no less!
All the pieces were in place for the Belgian fans: the Belgian GP had returned to Spa for the first time since 1970, and an eager young local lad was set to race for the perpetually promising Arrows squad. Boutsen came to F1 with a reputation as a scrappy racer, who fought hard in Formulas Two and Three, scoring second place overall in each of those junior series. He represented, perhaps, a new Belgian racing hero, the first bright light since Jacky Ickx retired (to sports cars) after the 1979 season. Paralleling this was the return to Spa, and an attempt to move forward after the tragic death of Villeneuve at Zolder the previous year.
In Boutsen the Arrows team had found a driver to build around, after enduring a parade of has-beens and never-wills masquerading as F1 drivers. The ever changing drivers' line up at Arrows was matched only by their schizophrenic liveries, which seemed to change from race to race! Once arriving, Boutsen stayed with Arrows until the end of the 1986 season, a partnership which peaked with a fine second place at Monaco in 1985. Never a threat to win in those days, Boutsen employed a conservative and consistent style that would result in the occasional points-scoring drive.
Only when he moved to Benetton in 1987 did he begin to score more regularly, reaching the podium three times in 1988, leading the Benetton team to third overall in the constructors championship. Snapped up by Williams for 1989, Boutsen finally came good, winning in Canada and in Australia and helped the Williams crew to (a distant) second place. Despite another win in 1990 Boutsen was forced out of the Williams camp to make room for Mansell, and Thierry's career began its decline. He took the number one seat at Ligier, and for two years made do with unreliable and slow equipment.
A few races with the then backsliding Jordan team in 1993 closed out a long-ish career with probably enough high points to make up for some of the lows. Despite the Belgian fans' high hopes back in 1983, Thierry's debut was not exactly legend material... qualified 18th, and retired on lap five with faulty suspension. So, the beginning wasn't great, and the end was kind of depressing, but the middle bit was certainly something worth boasting about!