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Kiss with a fist: Bertrand Gachot - How one small event can change Formula One forever

Published by Leigh O'Gorman

When Jordan F1 driver, Bertrand Gachot, was jailed for actual bodily harm just prior to the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix, little did anyone know the world of Formula 1 would soon be changed forever.

With no experienced driver ready or able to take the seat alongside team leader Andrea de Cesaris for the annual visit to Spa-Francorchamps, Eddie Jordan took a punt on the then unknown Michael Schumacher.  By the end of practice and qualifying on Friday, the career of Gachot was cooked meat.  Schumacher on the other hand qualified 7th, but retired on the opening lap with an overheated clutch; however the message was clear and Gachot was gone.

The life and career of Bertrand Gachot is a rather interesting tale.  The son of a French European Commission official in Luxembourg nearing the end of 1962, he would spend much of his career claiming either French or Belgian nationality; something that many commentators would pick at during his career, including the ever irascible James Hunt.

Gachot though was often keen to point out that he was European as opposed being from Luxembourg and even based his helmet design on that of the EU flag.

Jumping into karting at the age of 15, the Luxembourg / French / Belgian (take your pick) driver moulded his skills and eventually attended the famous Winfield School at Paul Ricard.

Winners of the "Volant Elf" (fastest driver at the course) at the School would receive a full budget for a Formula Renault season, but Gachot would just miss out on this scheme - he would lose out to future Ligier pilot, Eric Bernard, who also beat Jean Alesi to the prize.

For a time Gachot attended university, but longing for a life in motor racing, he dropped out of his course and decided to have a go at the Formula Ford 1600 series in 1984.

Within two years, he had taken titles in both the European Formula Ford 1600 series and the British Formula Ford 2000 Championship, before Formula 3 beckoned.  A rather successful year in 1987, saw Gachot take 3 wins in 18 races for West Surrey Racing and 2nd in the title hunt, losing out to the popular Briton, Johnny Herbert. Keen to progress through the ranks, Gachot would finish 5th in the 1988 Formula 3000 Championship with Spirit Racing; however despite a somewhat disappointing campaign, Gachot would find himself in Formula 1 just one year later.

Unfortunately for the small team, Formula 1 consisted of 39 entries at the season opener in Brazil

Nearly every driver that one speaks to would consider Formula 1 to not only be the pinnacle of motorsports, but also one of the toughest racing series' on the planet, yet when the 26 year-old Gachot joined the newly formed Onyx squad - it was around this time that Gachot applied and received a Belgian racing license. Unfortunately for the small team, Formula 1 consisted of 39 entries at the season opener in Brazil and the team were simply not prepared - the event at Rio's Jacarepaguá circuit would be the first of many DNPQ (did not pre-qualify) for Onyx.  For the opening six rounds (including long trips to Mexico, Canada and the US), Gachot would be busy packing up for the trip home by 10am Friday morning. Meanwhile his team mate Stefan Johansson was having a much better of it - the Swede qualified for the races in the Americas; however Johansson retired from the events at Mexico and the US and was disqualified in Canada.

Although Gachot made it on to the grid at France and Britain, he still struggled against his more experienced team mate and was eventually replaced by JJ Lehto following that years Italian Grand Prix. Gachot would sit out the next two races without a drive, but secured a seat with the Rial Racing team for the final two flyaway events at the end of what was a turbulent season.  Gachot was Rial's fifth driver that season and did not qualify for either race - in fact, Gachot and team mate Pierre-Henri Raphanel completed a run of ten consecutive races whereby neither Rial car qualified for a Grand Prix.  Unsurprisingly, the lacklustre German team disappeared during the off-season.

If 1989 was bad, then the beginning of the Nineties was a truly dire time for the Luxembourg / French / Belgian (again, take your pick) man.  Following the dissolution of Rial Racing, Gachot joined the Subaru-powered Coloni squad and was the Italian teams' only driver for the season. Sadly, Gachot did not qualify for a single race and did not even pre-qualify for the first ten rounds!!  The Coloni C3B with its flat-12 Subaru engine was more than 110 kilos overweight and was reportedly a dire handling car. A move to a Ford V8 engine halfway through the year improved things a little, but the Coloni was simply a bad car and never looked like making any race.

Anything had to be better than Coloni and while the Italian team busied themselves not even pre-qualifying for a single during the 1991 season, Gachot landed himself with another brand new team - Jordan. Not much is ever really expected of new teams entering Formula 1, but Jordan were one of the few to break the trend and ran in the top-6 of the Constructor's title all season, eventually finishing in 5th spot, sandwiched by Benetton and Tyrrell.  With a 5th place (Canada), two 6th place finishes (Britain and Germany) and a fastest lap  (Hungary), things were going well for Bertrand. Even outside Formula 1 Gachot was finding success as in June of that year, he picked up his sole victory in the Le Mans 24 Hour Race while driving a Mazda entry with Johnny Herbert and Volker Weidler. All was going swimmingly for the Luxembourg / French / Belgian (ho-hum) until his arrest.

Initially Gachot was convicted and sentenced to six-months at Brixton Prison

Whilst in London one evening, Gachot was involved in a minor car accident with London taxi-driver, Eric Court.  During a brief altercation with Court, the Jordan ace sprayed him with CS gas - a device that was illegal in Britain at the time. Initially Gachot was convicted and sentenced to six-months at Brixton Prison, but was released after two months on appeal.  Although the conviction was not quashed, the sentence was considered by the appeal courts to be far too harsh; yet while Gachot was now free, his career and reputation had nosedived. Gachot was first replaced by Schumacher for the Belgian Grand Prix and then later Roberto Moreno and recent Formula 3000 series runner-up, Alex Zanardi.  Upon his release, he flew out to Japan despite having no drive, but was able to secure a seat with the struggling Larrousse team for the final race of the season at Adelaide; however Gachot could not qualify.

For the 1992 season, Gachot changed his nationality to French on his racing license and stayed with Larrousse, but this did not lead to an improved year.  A single point was his sole reward during a difficult year which saw the V12 Lamborghini-powered machine finish only four-times in a sixteen race season.  His team mate, Ukyo Katayama fared little better with ten retirements and no points. Suddenly the Luxembourg born French or Belgian had no drive for the 1993 season and as far as many were concerned, that was it for Bertrand Gachot... or at least nearly it.

During his gap year, Gachot ran a number of touring car events and even secured a points finish in his sole CART race at Toronto, but the following year, he found himself back on the grid, driving for Pacific Grand Prix - the same squad with which he won his British Formula Ford title eight years previously.  In this case, there were few problems in getting the seat as he part-owned the team with the king of junior formulae, Keith Wiggins.

However, in this case, it was an unmitigated disaster.  Gachot only managed to qualify for five of the sixteen races and retired from all of the them - his team mate, the lamentable Paul Belmondo only made it onto the grid twice, finishing neither.  On the Saturday evening of the Australian Grand Prix, while packing to once again go home early, Gachot claimed it to be one of the best days of his life as he would not have to drive PR01 ever again.

In the off-season that followed, the original Lotus team disintegrated and the famous British marquee merged with Pacific for the following year and while 1995 saw results improve somewhat (including 8th place finishes for Gachot at Adelaide and for team mate Andrea Montermini at the Hockenheimring), it was not enough to keep the squad afloat.

The signs were there early during the season though - as Pacific struggled for cash, Gachot stepped aside so that pay drivers Giovanni Lavaggi and the legendary Jean-Denis Délétraz could display their meagre talents. When both drivers eventually defaulted on their payments, Gachot was back in the car to drive the final three races of the season and as Pacific Grand Prix folded, so did Bertrand Gachot's Formula 1 career.

While Pacific Racing racing went back to Formula 3000, before going to CART and eventually IndyCar, Gachot's career in single-seaters was well and truly done. There were further attempts at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Japanese GT Championship, but these only served to give him some seat time before he hung up his helmet for good at the end of 1997.

Nowadays Gachot concentrates on business dealings, running a drinks company called "Hype Energy Drinks" and is currently sponsoring Michael Annett's NASCAR Nationwide efforts for Germain Racing. However, for all his achievements - whether it be winning Le Mans, getting the fastest lap at Hungary in 1991 or that he achieved five points in mostly tiny squads, Bertrand Gachot may simply be remembered as the guy that inadvertently introduced Formula 1 to Michael Schumacher.

What Schumacher did next is, as they say, history.