Andrea de Cesaris, who has died in a motorcycle accident aged 55, was a colourful if erratic fixture on the Formula One scene in the 1980s and early 1990s, but distinguished himself on the track by competing in a record number of Grands Prix without a win.
To begin with, de Cesaris, who combined lightning speed with a daredevil willingness to take risks, was seen as the great white hope of F1. But hope soon gave way to disappointment. He joined McLaren in his second season in 1981, but about all he achieved were accidents. He destroyed 18 car chassis and finished only six of his 14 races that year. The atmosphere around him in the team garage was said to have become so poisonous that at the Dutch Grand Prix, when he qualified 13th on the grid, the team withdrew his car from the race, fearing he would crash it again.
De Cesaris did better in his third season, with Alfa Romeo, becoming Formula One’s then-youngest pole position starter at Long Beach. But the points were few and far between. In the 14 years before he hung up his helmet in 1994, he started 208 Grands Prix, but never won and finished in only 68. He also achieved the record for the most successive non-finishes in one season: 14, in 1986.
De Cesaris’s unbroken record of failure led the race commentator Murray Walker to utter one of his most famous “Murrayisms”: “Andrea de Cesaris — the man who has won more Grands Prix than anyone else without actually winning one of them.” His colleague in the commentary box, former racing driver James Hunt, was more to the point: “Andrea de Cesaris should really be called de Crasheris. He’s an embarrassment to himself, his team and the sport, and maybe he should retire.”
This was unfair, for although de Cesaris was somewhat accident-prone in his early years, later on, drifting towards the back of the grid, he matured into a more consistent driver, scoring points for nine of the 10 teams he raced for and making a total of five podium appearances. His best results came with second places in Germany and South Africa in 1983, the year in which he finished a respectable eighth in the drivers’ championship.
A popular figure with a ready smile, de Cesaris remained philosophical in the face of disappointment. “ I do my job the best I can and I get the maximum I can from my car, and when I achieve a good result it is like winning,” he told an interviewer in 1992. “OK, if I won a race I’d be happier — but I’m not mad. Dreaming all the time doesn’t do you any good.”
Andrea de Cesaris was born in Rome on May 31 1959. His racing career began after his father, a tobacco wholesaler and motor racing fan, bought him a go-kart for his 13th birthday. During the 1970s Andrea won several national karting titles, and took the world championship in 1977.
The following year he graduated to saloon and sports car racing, coming to prominence by finishing second to Chico Serra in the 1979 British Formula Three Championship, an achievement which won him a place in McLaren’s Formula Two team.
When he won the F2 race at Misano in 1980 and finished fifth in the championship the same year, Alfa Romeo gave him his first two Formula One drives at the end of the season. He made his debut aged 21 in the 1980 Canadian Grand Prix, but was forced to retire with engine failure after eight laps. He then crashed out at Watkins Glen following a collision with Derek Daly’s Tyrrell on the second lap.
This pattern would be repeated many times during a career in which he raced for a total of 10 teams, including (in addition to Alfa Romeo and McLaren) Ligier, Minardi, Jordan, Tyrrell and Sauber.
De Cesaris’s accidents were often of his own making, and he was lucky to emerge unscathed. But he also had his share of bad luck. In 1982 he might have won the Monaco Grand Prix had his car not run out of fuel. He produced some of his best performances in 1991 for Eddie Jordan’s team (in which he was Michael Schumacher’s first F1 team-mate), notching up nine points and coming close to winning the Belgian Grand Prix, chasing the race leader Ayrton Senna before being forced to retire three laps from the finish with an engine problem.
In retirement de Cesaris made a lucrative career as a currency trader in Monaco, an occupation which left him free for six months of the year to pursue a passion for windsurfing in Hawaii and the Caribbean.
De Cesaris was driving his 600cc motorcycle on a road outside Rome when he lost control and hit a guard rail. He was killed instantly.
He is survived by a daughter.