When Trollé took his sole F3000 win at the 1987 Spa-Francorchamps round, he was leading when the race was interrupted after a very nasty crash between Luis Pérez-Sala and Alfonso García de Vinuesa took place on the Raidillon. Both drivers were the most promising Spanish hotshots of their era, at a time where the Iberian country was almost completely peripheral concerning the highest levels of motor racing. After Alfonso de Portago, Spain provided just some odd entries in F1, till in 1987 Adrián Campos managed to grab a seat with Minardi, so both Pérez-Sala and de Vinuesa had real dreams of reaching F1 too. In fact, Pérez-Sala would drive and clearly outpace Campos at Minardi in 1988, but de Vinuesa seemed to vanish in the mist of history. Why? In fact, it was a life marked by such doom and tragedy that almost eclipsed his feats. Fate has never been so hard.
Alfonso García de Vinuesa Gardoqui was born in Madrid, 13th December 1958, son of the owner of the renowned advertising agency “Clarín”. Even if he seemed destined to follow the familiar business and enrolled at the Faculty of Law, members of his family recall the young Alfonso had a deep passion for everything mechanical, assembling and disassembling several artefacts, and a super-creative mind, even mounting some “small inventions”, such a mini-cigarette vending system; and soon began his clandestine attempts with the familiar car, learning to drive well before the legal age, then proceeding to teach his elder brothers!!! So, more than mechanical things, the younger Vinuesa fell in love with cars and motor racing. Therefore, Alfonso stopped his studies on his third year and picked all money he had gathered in between to take a driving course on the Emilio de Villota Racing School – back then, de Villota was an accomplished Aurora F1 series contender, and raced occasionally on F1, without success. However, this was enough for the young driver to learn the basics of his future “profession”, and his talent was remarked by de Villota, that took Alfonso under his wing and helped him to find his first minor sponsors to debut on the local Formula Ford, the Formula Ford Fiesta FEA.
Vinuesa soon proved that, at least on the Spanish scene, he was one of the best and, in his first year – 1982 – Alfonso was immediately on the pace of the seasoned local drivers and other dashing youngsters, such as Antonio Albacete Jnr., often reaching podium places till he took his first win at the fifth round, in Jarama. Immediately he won two more consecutive races, at Estoril and again at Jarama, which meant Alfonso had hopes to defeat Albacete on the final Jarama round. Vinuesa took the pole and immediately shot in the front but soon Albacete reached him and exerted a lot of pressure, leading Alfonso to spin and, in consequence, being hit by Antonio Castro, which ended his race and title hopes. Nevertheless, the second place with 105 points, against Albacete’s 115, was a great result, complemented by occasional forays into the English FF1600 scene, Alfonso’s best place being a third on one heat on the latter.
With Ducados cigarettes as the main sponsor, amidst a whole lot of small Spaniard ones to compose his budget, Vinuesa took the risky option to relocate to England to drive both on the British and European FF2000 Championships in 1983 with Madgwick Motorsport, alongside his previous year rival Antonio Albacete. However, it soon became apparent his budget wasn’t enough and Vinuesa played second-fiddle against his countryman and other drivers from the team, his results suffering a lot with it. After much disappointment, he called it a day and left Madgwick, being soon called by the small Dutch squad VIT Formula Racing and switching from Reynard to Van Diemen. It was a welcome change, as de Vinuesa soon progressed – mainly on the European scene – his best results being a second in Zolder and a third at Croix-en-Ternois, ending the season in sixth. It was obvious than that, without at least a reasonable budget and assistance, it was impossible to show any talent.
In 1984 he focused again on the FF2000 season, this time solely in the European Championship, yet another year with a very low budget operation prevented Alfonso to fight for top places. However, he managed to take the pole on the twisty Jyllandsring – the first Spaniard to achieve such feat – only to fall for fourth when his tires gave up. And, at the end of the year, Vinuesa was called by Eddie Jordan to do the last round of the European F3 Championship, at Jarama, to replace the American Davy Jones. If there were any doubts, Alfonso took care his performance would become a highlight and put an impressive display to take the pole-position! However, his performance ended on the first lap when he crashed with Adrián Campos and Juan Carlos Abella, ending the race for the three Spaniards. Once more, the whole winter and pre-season were spent with the arduous task of finding some sponsors to commit to a full programme in the German F3, but this time de Vinuesa only managed a seat with Josef Kaufmann Racing by mid-season thanks to the “Epoca” magazine sponsorship. Yet 1985 was a repetition of 1983, as he found himself playing second-fiddle to his teammate and title favourite Volker Weidler and, even if he put immediately some great qualifying performances – after half a year without racing – the results never matched his sheer speed and Alfonso ended the season at odds with his boss when, at the Nürburgring, he found his Martini Mk45-VW chassis hadn’t been duly repaired after a crash and was cracked, leaving the team on the spot and ending the season 24th overall, with just three points.
However, the tide was turning and 1986 was definitively better, as Alfonso found a seat with Malte Bongers Motorsport, aboard a Reynard 863-VW and, knowing he had no funds for the whole season, decided to attack as much as he could to be noticed and, on the second round at the Wünstorf airfield, Vinuesa took his first win on the German F3 Championship under torrential rain. Sadly, even with one more podium visit, money ended after six races and Alfonso became again sidelined, but after some insistence, Purolator agreed to sponsor him and Vinuesa returned on the last round, on the Nürburgring, just to finish third! The sponsorship was extended to the European F3 Cup – the championship had been disbanded after 1984 and replaced by a Cup at the end of the season, which attracted some of the best entrants of the strongest European Championships – where Alfonso was engaged by the renowned Trivellato Racing (retiring after an accident); and to the last F3000 International Championship round, at Jarama, where Vinuesa loaned a seat with Peter Gethin Racing to drive the March 86B-Cosworth that had belonged to… Adrián Campos earlier in the season! Even if he had another retirement, Alfonso de Vinuesa was sure he had talent to progress, even to F1, and didn’t give up knocking every door to find all kinds of sponsors that could help him to find a drive for the whole 1987 season in F3000. By the way, even missing three rounds, the Spaniard had finished seventh on the 1986 German F3 Championship, with 43 points.
It seemed everything good got together in 1987, as de Vinuesa had found enough money to take a place with BS Automotive – Bob Sparshott’s squad had won the inaugural F3000 season in 1985 with Christian Danner and was a regular frontrunner – aboard a Lola T87/50-Cosworth. On the first round at Silverstone, our man immediately scored one point, and on the second, at Vallelunga, he qualified an amazing fourth, only to retire with mechanical failure in the race. However, the speed was there and, even with his well-known flat out approach, Alfonso didn’t crash too much and, one week later, put his car in sixth on the grid at Spa. The race started on pouring rain, and Vinuesa had a race-long dice with fellow countryman Luis Pérez-Sala… Sadly, it all ended with just seventeen laps, when both Spaniards tried the same approach to the daunting Eau Rouge corner and collided at more or less 230 km/h, with de Vinuesa going straight into the rails at the Raidillon… The race was stopped immediately and half points awarded, because it soon became apparent that, apart the mayhem, Alfonso was seriously injured, with a massive head trauma.
According to a marshal who was at Eau Rouge that fateful day: “Marshalling at Eau Rouge in about 1988 (sic). I was positioned at the bottom of the hill, in front of some debris fencing with the old concrete stand directly behind. Quite a confined position, but a fantastic spot from which to watch. Anyway, in the F3000 race the drying track left many people with rooted wets, and my colleague and I watched the second running of the Spanish civil war as Alfonso de Vinuesa and Luis Sala drove down the hill from La Source absolutely side by side. They had been going at it hammer and tongs for the duration, and it was pretty obvious to us that on this occasion neither was going to lift. Now 2 F3000 cars do not go side by side through Eau Rouge at racing speed. They clearly thought they would have a go. All hell broke loose as we ducked behind the barrier, getting a thorough soaking from the tyres and flying debris everywhere. Bricking it would be the best description of how I felt….Poor Alfie was out for the count, and I don’t think he ever fully recovered. British marshals were in force that year at that spot, and I have vivid memories of Prof. Watkins calling for British help, seriously upsetting our Belgian hosts!” [Ten-Tenths Forum].
However, three months later, Vinuesa was again at the wheel of the BS Lola, but something had changed. From the outside he was recovered from his injuries, but something was wrong with him, as he failed to qualify at Brands Hatch and then at Birmingham, prompting him to leave the team and stop for a while, surely thinking he needed more time to a complete recover. And, in 1988, we see Alfonso de Vinuesa again on the F3000 peloton, driving for Mike Earle’s Onyx Racing – precisely the team of the reigning champion Stefano Modena – alongside his German F3 teammate Volker Weidler, now with Repsol backing. Yet, even if the March 88B-Cosworth wasn’t the car to have, it soon became obvious that something was really not the same with Alfonso, as he failed to qualify for the first three races! Released from Onyx, Vinuesa tried again with Hugh Chamberlain’s Tamchester Racing Reynard 88D-Cosworth, returning to the series at Brands Hatch, but again failed to qualify on two of the three races he drove for them, the only race he managed to start being the chaotic Birmingham Superprix, where he fell victim of one of the many accidents that marked that round. For the last two races of the season he drove an equal Reynard for Magdwick, but again failed to qualify on the remaining two races… In fact, everybody thinks the crash had afflicted him far more than expected and, if Alfonso maintained the same level of motivation and hadn’t become fearful – otherwise he wouldn’t try so many times after the dismal performances he had after the crash – somehow his nervous system and reflexes weren’t the same and he couldn’t drive the same way. Acknowledging this sad, but obvious, truth that befell upon so many drivers, de Vinuesa took the decision to retire after 1988.
Nevertheless his passion for motor racing didn’t stop and, whilst being actively engaged on his new advertising agency, named “Borrón y Cuenta Nueva”, Alfonso came back occasionally in the early nineties, first with a Fiat Tipo 16V on the Spanish Touring Car Championship, and then, in 1993, drove on the the I Copa Porsche 968 CS – a one-make trophy directed to “gentleman drivers” promoted by Emilio de Villota – and made the pole on his first race in Jarama! Even with some interesting performances, Alfonso’s business demanded a lot from him and, knowing he wouldn’t drive at top-level again, he retired for good.
However, this happy period didn’t last for long. Alfonso’s life had already been marred by disaster, much harder than the crash at Spa, because his first love, Bea, had died in a skiing accident, and in 1983 one of his brothers committed suicide. In 1993, it was the time of one of his nephews to die, and he was already divorced, his first marriage having brought him three sons – Borja, Alfonso and Nicolás (called “Niki” in honour of Lauda). Later in 1994, the biggest client of his agency went bankrupt, thus dragging the agency with him. Showing his remarkable resilience, Alfonso de Vinuesa settled up all the things and, in 1995, created a new agency and the business was gradually flourishing. Meanwhile, he had met Ana and they were engaged and planned to marry in the Autumn of 1997 when tragedy struck again… Ana was killed on a road accident at the Carretera N-1 near Madrid. One month later, at dawn, Alfonso’s car broke down near the same place his girlfriend died and he left the car to see what happened, being fatally ran over by a truck and killed instantly. All those recent tragedies, namely the loss of his bride, and the coincidence of the place led to unsubstantiated rumours of suicide.
There weren’t doubts Alfonso García de Vinuesa was a talented driver. When I first heard of him, I thought of another obscure F2/F3000 driver, and even with my sheer curiosity by the unknown, I may say his name was sidelined till, by accidentally, I read his excellent biography by J.L. de Otero Saavedra on the latter’s amazing webpage “No Mirando a Nuestro Daño”, and became stunned by such a tragic life and Vinuesa’s family contribution to the article. However, as I always say when writing about a deceased driver, it’s his human side and competitive career that should be remembered, not death. And nobody can deny Alfonso de Vinuesa was one of the most tenacious men on the peloton, fighting against chronic lack of money and equipment to do some bright performances, coming from a country which motoring tradition focused mainly on rallies and 2-wheels. He never gave up and is recalled to have a more-than-hard determination to call the sponsors, and this was how he arrived to F3000. Even if he had already 28 when reached such level and could be regarded as another “late-bloomer” destined to endurance or touring cars, he was always focused on carving his path to F1 and immediately impressed the establishment with this “foot on the floor” performances, without crashing too much. Pity they only endured three rounds, because his head injuries at Spa were the moment that “blunted the edge” definitively. Knowing that Adrián Campos was already in F1 and Pérez-Sala would drive for Minardi in 1988 and 1989, there are no reasons to doubt Alfonso couldn’t do it, and some people recall he was regarded as having more innate talent than Pérez-Sala. There is no more to say about the man himself… Just to finish, it’s worthy to say two of his sons tried to follow his dad’s steps – Alfonso did karting, but it was Niki that achieved higher success, specializing himself on 2-wheels, riding on enduro, motocross and even cross-country, amidst the best Spaniards.