Emanuele Pirro on Le Mans success and what might have been in F1

Emanuele Pirro on Le Mans success and what might have been in F1

‘I am polite but not so diplomatic’ Been there, won it. Emanuele Pirro talks Lambo, Le Mans and the ‘hurt’ of F1 stewarding.

The CAR inquisition


Emanuele Pirro is good company wherever you are. But in the cockpit of a Lamborghini Essenza SCV12 at the Festival of Speed he’s in his element; thoughtful, articulate, and a force of nature behind the wheel. ‘We talk at the top,’ he smiles as we’re cleared for take-off… The run comprises savage noise, scarcely credible acceleration and, as the race wets get gummy and Pirro dials down the TC intervention threshold on his multi-function steering wheel, a series of deliciously decadent slides.

After showing his speed in karts in the late ’70s, Pirro graduated to cars by winning the 1980 Formula Abarth championship. By the end of that decade he was in Formula 1. He spent the ’90s steamrollering various Touring Car titles before switching to endurance racing, securing the first in a run of nine consecutive Le Mans podiums in 1999, in the Audi R8R. He won the race five times.

His latest gift to the world is the Essenza, Lamborghini’s V12-engined, 818bhp track-only plaything. Affable, technically savvy and a handy helmsman, it’s hard to imagine anyone better qualified to develop and deliver an 818bhp thug of a car that mere mortals might stand a chance of enjoying/surviving.

‘We developed the car for drivers of different abilities, so we have many settings,’ he tells me before jumping into the SCV12’s myriad set-up options, from multi-stage TC and ABS through settings for the diff, dampers, front and rear ride height, power steering, brake balance, and even DIY throttle maps: ‘You can build your own using the shift paddles.’

Pirro’s technical proficiency saw him contracted by McLaren to help develop the dominant Honda-powered MP4/4 (and its successors) even as he raced for rival teams. His CV is rammed with very special cars – Schnitzer-prepped E30 M3, McLaren F1, Audi R8 sports prototype – but for him the McLaren is right up there. And boy did he log some miles in it…

‘I would drive three days a week, every second week, the whole year – sometimes at Fuji but mostly at Suzuka. Initially, the Japanese were cautious. The evening before my first drive I ask, “What is the shifting point?” And they say, “We tell you tomorrow.” This is not a good start. But in a short time we really gained some trust. Developing those engines, helping perfect the power delivery – Senna in particular was very fussy about this – was an incredible privilege and very rewarding.’

Pirro’s time in F1 as a driver was brief but he’s a keen observer of the sport, both as a fan and as an FIA steward on some race weekends. ‘Do I enjoy this? Most of the time… [Pirro was a steward for the 2019 Canadian GP, in which Sebastian Vettel was penalised and the decision criticised].

‘People do not understand why we are there. They just want a battle on track, and for some reason the FIA or Formula 1 does not yet have the ability to explain what the stewards do. Nowadays, you need a referee. Before it was self-controlling, because of the level of risk. And sometimes the stakeholders don’t help. They complain when they are affected and this is really bad. It hurts me because I love this sport. But I will continue to do this job until they throw me out… Maybe they do this because I say what I think. Polite, yes, but not so diplomatic.’

When he’s not policing F1 conduct or thrashing V12 Lambos in the name of R&D, Pirro’s to be found pondering the future of endurance racing, the discipline he straddled like a colossus. ‘I’m excited about the new Hypercar class because where the former rules ended up was crazy. You could not afford it. I was in the FIA endurance commission in those days and I thought, “Why are we doing this?” There was so much technical freedom, which is wonderful in a way, but you’ve got to make something that is affordable. The times when we could afford to allow 100 per cent freedom are gone, unfortunately. At Audi it was expensive but it was okay. When Peugeot came in, it was still okay. But when Porsche came in it was crazy. And Audi and Porsche are the same group – I do not comment…

‘I still would like to see more of the [technically adventurous] Hypercars [some marques have chosen the more affordable LMDh class], because the two still don’t match very well. But there are a lot of manufacturers coming back. LMDh is a very smart proposal. In theory they will be at the same competitive level but it’s difficult when you have different rules. It’s like when we saw the [4WD] Audi Quattro in [otherwise 2WD] Super Touring– it’s difficult to balance the two. But I’m optimistic. I see the glass always half full.’

Six questions only we would ask

Tell us about your first car

‘It was a VW Polo, the cheapest version. My girlfriend’s father asked me if he could borrow it for a few days. When it came back it had been completely rebuilt; tuned, sport tyres, Bilstein dampers, GTI engine… best day of my life.’

What is your proudest achievement?

‘The E30 M3 Touring Car was incredible. It was specially made and such a nimble car. A really, really good time.’

Tell us about a time you screwed up

‘I was running fourth in my third race with Benetton, catching Mansell for third. I hit the kerb and crashed.’

Best thing you’ve ever done in a car?

‘A qualifiying session at Brands, in the rain. I felt like… you know when you drive in a way that for you is just perfect?’

Supercar or classic?

‘Both. I don’t own any classics but I love historic racing.’ Curveball: how many races did the MP4/4 win?

‘15 of 16. Prost and Senna were really good guys.’

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