Ricardo Zunino

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Last updated: 25-September-2004


Before Formula One Formula One After Formula One

Before F1

Bizarre entry into the F1 world for Ricardo

Consider how hard it is these days for drivers to land an F1 race drive. You have to have had that certain something in junior categories to be noticed by team bosses. You may well need to have some experience testing an F1 car. If you can bring some money and sponsorship, that would help your cause immensely. You also have to be rather adept at politics, or at least your agent does. And, if you want to drive for a relatively competitive team, you may well have to serve your apprenticeship with the Minardis of this world.

The story of how Ricardo Zunino, from Buenos Aires in Argentina, got his World Championship F1 drive is nothing short of bizarre. One of a long list of South American drivers to head to Europe in the late-1970s, spurred on by the exploits of Emerson Fittipaldi and Carlos Reutemann, he was probably one of the less naturally talented, and his cordial nature was often out of place in the rough and tumble world of European motorsport.


Starts out in touring, then takes on road racing in a Fiat

Raul Manrupe tells us that Zunino began his career in his homeland in 1969 driving sports prototypes, and that he spent the 1970s mainly competing in national touring championships in a Fiat. Ernesto Gasulla adds that in 1974-75 he campaigned an almost-standard Fiat 125 in a category that combined both road racing and rallysport-style stages. But with sponsorship from the Automobile Club of Argentina, and being managed by Hector Staffa, formerly Reutemann's manager, Zunino headed to Europe in 1977.

He went straight into F2, which perhaps was too great a transition from touring cars. Initially driving a March 772 Hart for the Euroracing team, he came 9th at Thruxton but otherwise made little impression before switching to the works March team, to drive a 772 with a BMW engine. Apart from being classified 6th at Pau, where he was one of those who crashed in the rain forcing the race to be stopped, he generally found it difficult to acclimatise.


Does his time in F2, first making up the numbers, then scoring points

The Rouen round was the only other time he scraped into the top 10, and he even failed to qualify at Estoril, but with that precious point from the Pau race he finished up equal 20th in the standings. For 1978 he remained with the works March team, but now he had a 782 chassis at his disposal, still with a BMW engine. His first five rounds, though, continued to be bitterly disappointing, but at Vallelunga he found form and scored a point for 6th, giving him confidence that filtered into the following rounds.

In the following round at Rouen he added a 5th, before also taking 5th places in the tenth round at Enna, and the twelfth round at Hockenheim. He also recorded a 7th at Misano and in the first heat at Donington. With 7 points, he was 12th overall in the European F2 championship. Showing his improvement, at the end of the year he took his car back to Argentina for the Temporada races, and while he came 7th at Mendoza, at Buenos Aires he took pole position and finished in a fine 2nd, only 7 seconds behind Ingo Hoffmann.


Takes Aurora F1 by storm; wins at Brands Hatch

But F1 was now where Ricardo wanted to go, and the pieces almost came together for Ricardo to do just that. The BS Fabrications company in London, run by Bob Sparshott, had previously backed and run a Surtees campaigned by Henri Pescarolo. At the start of 1979, this group got together with Zunino, and began working on a design. But then the sponsor of the program pulled out after uncertainty over the Argentine GP, and the project came to nothing. Then plans to run an ex-factory Brabham also fell through.

And so Zunino found himself back in Formula 2, staying with March Racing, and now driving the latest 792 chassis, but still with the BMW engine. The ties with Munich were evident in that soon the team became known as the Polifac BMW Junior Team. Yet Ricardo's disinterest in yet another season of F2 was clear. He only came 9th at Silverstone, crashed at Thruxton, and finished 10th at the Nurburgring. But come mid-season, his wait for a big break was over.

Formula One

Takes UK F1 series by storm, including Brands Hatch win

In the middle of 1979, Zunino managed to get his F1 drive, albeit only in Aurora F1. Joining the series in round 6 at Thruxton, driving a McLaren/Cosworth M23, Zunino scored 2 points for 5th. But a change to an Arrows A1 saw him take 4th and fastest lap at Donington, then pole and fastest lap at Nogaro, 2nd and fastest lap at Mallory Park, a win at Brands Hatch, 2nd and pole at Thruxton, and 2nd at Snetterton. He didn't even finish the season, but with 39 points, Zunino was a respectable 5th overall.

By this stage, though, through his manager Staffa and (according to Raul Manrupe) possibly through Reutemann as well, Zunino had caught the attention of none other than Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone. Ricardo had already tested a Brabham at Silverstone, but nothing came of it. However, late in the year, a week before the last round of the Aurora series, Zunino returned across the Atlantic and was in Montreal for the Canadian GP as a spectator.


Opportunity comes Ricardo's way when Bernie gets on the PA

However, it was there that, after Friday free practice, Brabham driver Niki Lauda suddenly claimed he was tired of "driving in circles", and retired from F1. Ecclestone, debuting his new BT49 chassis that weekend, suddenly needed a capable replacement. The story goes that he even sent someone to make an announcement on the PA system asking if anyone in the crowd could drive an F1 car, but eventually Zunino showed his face and was given the drive.

Did Zunino volunteer himself? Or did Ecclestone already know Ricardo was present at the track? Did Bernie even have a role in ensuring that Zunino was present? Perhaps he already had an inkling that Lauda was ready to quit at any moment. According to some, the fact that Zunino had been able to test for Brabham, and eventually be on hand to make his debut seemed too much to be a fluke. The argument runs that Bernie was keen to increase Argentine interest in F1, and Zunino was his way of ensuring that.

Zunino, a spectator just several hours earlier, finds himself in a Brabham, and in the 1979 Canadian GP.
Zunino, a spectator just several hours earlier, finds himself in a Brabham, and in the 1979 Canadian GP.


Sensational drive in his first GP, and Berne keeps him on

At any rate, Zunino now suddenly found himself in the red Brabham, wearing a helmet borrowed from Lauda, as Nelson Piquet's team-mate, preparing for first qualifying. On such short notice, Zunino was nothing short of sensational. 19th on the grid, only 3.619s behind pole-sitter Alan Jones in the Williams, he then finished 7th and 4 laps down, a place out of the points. He would have been in the points but for a pit stop with a gear linkage problem. He even set the 6th fastest race lap, less than 0.4s slower than Piquet.

After a performance like that, Bernie needed to look no further. A week later, Zunino happily gave up the last round of the Aurora championship to race for Brabham again at Watkins Glen. There he qualified a dumbfounding 9th, ahead of World Champion-elect Jody Scheckter and reigning champion Mario Andretti, and a host of other fine drivers. But in the race things did not go so well, and after 25 laps Zunino spun out, having only recorded the 19th fastest lap of the race.


Less than spellbinding start to the new season

In truth, Zunino had been impressive predominantly because of the circumstances, and so it was a surprise that Brabham held onto him as Piquet's team-mate for 1980. Although the BT49 had been developed over the winter into a title-chasing machine, on home soil in Argentina Zunino could only qualify 16th, and struggled home 7th and last, 2 laps down. Things were little different at Interlagos, where from 18th he finished 8th, a lap down, although he did finish ahead of 7 cars.

It was another similar story in South Africa, Zunino starting 17th and finishing 10th, one lap down. Up to this point he had been consistent, if nothing else, but by this stage Piquet had already scored a 2nd and a 4th. But things were about to get a whole lot worse for Ricardo. At Long Beach, where Piquet took pole, Zunino was 2.725s slower in 18th. Then, while his team-mate dominated the race, he crashed at the first corner while avoiding a pile-up between Andretti, Jochen Mass and Jean-Pierre Jarier.

Ricardo struggled for much of 1980 - here he takes his Brabham to 22nd on the grid, and a retirement at Zolder.
Ricardo struggled for much of 1980 - here he takes his Brabham to 22nd on the grid, and a retirement at Zolder.


Poor showings, including a DNQ, see Ricardo on the outer

This was the start of a very bad trot. At Zolder for the Belgian GP he was a lowly 22nd on the grid, but a gearbox problem put him out after only 5 laps. Then at Monaco, where Piquet started 4th and finished 3rd, Zunino was only 25th quickest in qualifying but only 20 were allowed to start. He had been over 0.8s away from making the cut. By now Brabham were on the look-out for a more able back-up for Piquet, and the knives were well and truly out.

Although he finished a fine 6th in the Spanish GP (which subsequently lost its World Championship status), after France, where Piquet finished 4th but Zunino retired on the opening lap with a burnt clutch, Ecclestone wasted no time in giving the Argentinian the chop, replacing him with the Mexican, Hector Rebaque, who didn't do that much better but at least scored a point in Canada. If Bernie had wanted to generate interest in Latin America, then perhaps a Mexican was just as good as an Argentine!


One-off for Brabham again is followed by call up from Ken

Zunino sat out the rest of the year, but at the start of 1981, Brabham called on his services again when Rebaque proved unavailable for the South African GP, which turned out to be a non-championship event anyway. 7th on the grid and an 8th-place finish, 2 laps down may not have seemed all that special, but in the rain Ricardo did run 2nd for a time until he had to pit for tyres. Nonetheless, with Rebaque on hand to resume duties Zunino was left out in the cold once again once the championship season started.

But he was then contacted by Ken Tyrrell, who was looking for a second driver to partner Eddie Cheever in the Tyrrell 010 Cosworths. He had used Kevin Cogan at Long Beach, but for the two South American rounds he was prepared to give Zunino the nod. In Brazil, Ricardo was the last qualifier in 24th spot, and finished 13th and last, a mammoth 5 laps behind, and 3 laps down to the driver in 12th (who, incidentally, was Piquet).

Lucky again - Zunino receives a call from Ken Tyrrell to run in Brazil and Argentina. But he didn't impress, here he is last on the grid in Rio.
Lucky again - Zunino receives a call from Ken Tyrrell to run in Brazil and Argentina. But he didn't impress, here he is last on the grid in Rio.


Penalised by his fellow countrymen in his final Grand Prix

In Argentina, Zunino was once again 24th and the last qualifier, but he made an amazing start, overtaking ten cars on the first lap to be dicing with Gilles Villeneuve and Bruno Giacomelli. He was running in 10th when he missed a chicane, and was given a one-lap penalty (yes folks, a one-lap penalty). And we thought the Argentines were a patriotic lot who looked after their own! Needless to say, it destroyed his race, and he finished 13th and last, 2 laps down.

Anyway, it seemed Tyrrell was not overly impressed by Ricardo, as before the next race, he had unearthed a talent from Italy, one Michele Alboreto. Without hesitation he gave Zunino the flick. Ricardo then had an offer from Mo Nunn to drive the Ensign, but he turned down the drive deeming the car uncompetitive, in a pot-calling-kettle-black moment. And that was that as far as his F1 career was concerned. His blinding pace in that first race in Canada, when all the odds should have been stacked against him, remained an unfulfilled promise.

After F1

Currently in tourism at the foot of the Andes

Not only was that the end of Zunino's Formula One career, it appears as though it was essentially the end of his motor racing career as well. Raul Manrupe offers us some explanations why. 1982 was, of course, the year of the Falklands War, which caused an economic slump in Argentina that all but ruined the aspirations of other drivers like Miguel Angel Guerra. Manrupe also says that in the 1980s, Ricardo found himself embroiled in charges of which he was eventually acquitted in court.

With a nickname of 'Colorado' because of his reddish hair, he now runs a tourism centre and hotel complex in his native San Juan, at the foot of the Andes. Although he still enjoys following Grand Prix racing, he has little active involvement in motorsport. He did make an appearance in Buenos Aires when Formula One briefly returned to Argentina in the mid-1990s, and from time to time he participates in the Mil Millas, a road rally for historic cars, a sort of Argentine version of the famous Mille Miglia.

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