What springs to mind when you mention the name Vincenzo Sospiri? Naturally, the ill-fated Lola Formula 1 effort in 1997 which ended all too abruptly following a dismal showing in the Australian Grand Prix. But to remember that one unfortunate episode of Sospiri’s career is to forget everything which has made the Italian so successful, both past and present. Today, Vincenzo Sospiri is in charge of his eponymous GT racing team which has concentrated on bringing some of tomorrow’s future sportscar champions onto the big stage. In short, Vincenzo Sospiri is so much more than what happened in 1997.
Born in Forlì, in Italy’s northern Emilia-Romagna region, Sospiri’s racing adventure began like so many, in karting. Immediately, he was renowned for his prowess at the wheel; his speed was second to none. If proof was needed, Sospiri was identified by a certain Michael Schumacher as one of the most talented drivers the seven-time world champion ever raced against. The late great Ayrton Senna also recognised Sospiri’s raw speed.
Of course, in racing, having the talent is often now enough on its own and Sospiri quickly found out that money was just as crucial a currency as speed and natural flair. In the late 1980s, Sospiri earmarked his potential in junior single seaters, at the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch in 1988. The Festival was at the time, one of the best shop windows for future Formula 1 drivers to showcase their talent and, by winning the event, Sospiri proved that he had taken his talent in karting across to cars.
Formula 3000 followed, as did budget issues, but despite this the title came in 1995 with three victories for Super Nova, beating future Lola F1 team-mate Ricardo Rosset. What followed was the realisation of a childhood dream by reaching Formula 1, first as a test driver for the defending champions Benetton and then as a full-time race driver, even though the experience was fleeting.
For Sospiri, getting to F1 was the pinnacle, despite missing out on graduation to a Ligier race seat to the better-funded Pedro Diniz.
“It was a dream of a lifetime,” said Sospiri. “I always wanted to become a Formula One driver, we had done everything we could with the money we had, which wasn’t a lot to be fair. "
“I decided to stay one year as a test driver with Benneton and that was a very beautiful year, with Briatore, with a lot of testing. I had the option to stay with the team as a test driver for the next year or sign a four-year deal with MasterCard, so that’s how we decided to try for a career in F1.”
The year with Benetton put Sospiri into the same working environment as drivers Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi, as well as the best of the best at the time: Pat Symonds, Ross Brawn and Flavio Briatore. Sospiri carried out around 26 days of testing throughout the year – an almost unthinkable figure in today’s cost-cutting world of F1 – and revealed that he had been close to being promoted to a race seat at the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix, famously where only four cars ended up being classified at the finish.
The Lola experience was, on the other hand, one to forget, but Sospiri doesn’t hold any regrets about taking the plunge with a brand-new team which was ultimately a vastly unprepared and rushed operation.
“We knew we were not going to be competitive; we didn’t know it was going to be that bad to be fair, but we didn’t really care."
“And until Villeneuve’s final lap, I was qualified, Ricardo wasn’t because he was one-and-a-half seconds behind me, but I was actually in the race at the time, and then Villeneuve’s last lap – which was incredible – pushed me out."
“I accepted it, we understood. The FIA came to speak with us after qualifying and told us what was happening. Our car was as bad, if not worse, than the Formula 3000 car to be fair but it was okay for us.”
Two weeks later and the adventure was over, for good. Having been more than 10 seconds off the pace in Australia and failing to qualify for the race, the Lola team collapsed in Brazil, after financial backer MasterCard pulled out amid organisational mismanagement and a car which was poorly designed and underpowered. But just a couple of months later, Sospiri found himself on the front row of the grid for the Indianapolis 500.
“I was contacted by Team Scandia, I was still in Sao Paulo,” Sospiri explained. “They told me they wanted to set up a fifth car for me to race in the Indy Racing League. I had no experience with ovals, I thought about it twenty-four hours, then I accepted. The first sensation in the cockpit was that of being a bullet that wants to re-enter the barrel of the gun. It was something totally new that I quickly got used to."
“After doing the rookie tests, I got the second time in qualifying. We knew we were fast; the team was good. The Dallara was in its debut and the package was not the best of the lot, also considering the tires, so I certainly can't say that I expected to be on the front row.”
The following year Sospiri moved to prototype sports competitions, while keeping a foot in single seaters by participating in four races in the CART championship at the wheel of an All-American Racing car, a team founded by Dan Gurney and Carrol Shelby. At the end of 1998 he won the in the 1998 International Sports Racing Series, doubling up in 1999, aboard the Ferrari 333 SP with Emmanuel Collard. These results also guaranteed him two consecutive participations in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In the second of these, in 1999, he was in one of the three Toyota GT-Ones. His crew took pole for the race, but their chances ended just before midnight due to a puncture for team-mate Martin Brundle.
At 33, Vincenzo Sospiri decided to hang up his helmet. “Even though I still feel like a driver today…failure to land a seat in Formula 1 left a bitter taste in my mouth and I chose to make way for the youngsters, helping them to reach the finish line I had just touched,” he said.
Sospiri founded the Euronova team in 2001 which, over the year, paved the way for a generation of young budding single-seater drivers to learn the ropes with his outfit. Drivers like Luca Filippi, Vitaly Petroc, Sergey Sirotkin and Jérôme d’Ambrosio have all passed through Euronova, among others. He added: "Robert Kubica did made a few races with me and Antonio Giovinazzi's debut in single-seaters was with one of my cars. My greatest satisfaction as a team owner is that of being able to give several drivers the opportunity to become professionals, realizing their dream."
Come 2015 and the plans changed towards GT racing, moving away from the single-seater operation. "At the beginning the goal was to continue with the two teams, then between 2015 and in 2017 we decided to discontinue the single-seater program. "
“This is because over the years I realized that the opportunities for young people to enter Formula 1 were almost non-existent and I did not like giving false hope to the drivers, their families and their sponsors. In GT, the possibilities of becoming official drivers are very wide.”
Vincenzo Sospiri immediately chose Lamborghini Squadra Corse for his team. "There was immediately a great harmony with [Lamborghini Head of Motorsport] Giorgio Sanna and I liked his great clarity in explaining the objectives of Squadra Corse,” Sospiri explains."
“Over the years a fantastic team has been created, made up of very competent people who support customers in an exemplary way. We currently manage nine cars, six of our own and three of customers and we are very satisfied with this collaboration.”
His current GT organisation, VS Racing, has provided a steppingstone for various drivers to forge a career path in sportscars, such as Edoardo Liberati and Nicolas Costa, while this year’s roster of drivers Yuki Nemoto, Baptiste Moulin, Michele Beretta and Frederick Schandorff are hoping to build a clear path towards Lamborghini Factory Driver status in the GT3 ranks. Particularly for Japanese driver Nemoto, who came through the Lamborghini Supr Trofeo Asia ranks and immersed himself into the Italian environment superbly to claim the Italian GT Championship Sprint Cup title last year with Tuomas Tujula.
With Nemoto, Schandorff, Beretta and Moulin all contesting International GT Open this season in their VS Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 Evos, Sospiri is more than happy with the results of his chargers so far in 2021, and predictably has more ambitious goals for the remainder of the year which will include a maiden assault on the Spa 24 Hours in July.
“Together with Giorgio Sanna we are choosing the drivers who will drive for us at the 24 Hours of Spa, in which we will debut this year with a Silver crew. It will be the first time for us in the Ardennes, it's good news. We will see what can result from this participation.”