Interview: How New Zealand set Roberto Moreno on the course to Formula 1
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At the age of 23, Roberto Moreno was whisked across the globe to compete in little old New Zealand.
In a very short space of time, the Brazilian had gone from being hot property in junior open wheelers in Europe, to being embattled and on the outer. On one hand he had won the national Formula Ford title and hotly contested Formula Ford Festival in 1980, and on the other a lack of funds meant he had to pull out halfway through his first season of Formula 3 the following year.
But by the time he had arrived in New Zealand in 1982, Moreno's stocks had skyrocketed by virtue of a crushing 1981 Australian Grand Prix victory where he convincingly thrashed the likes of Alan Jones, Nelson Piquet, and Larry Perkins. The deal had been to do just one race — Baypark — but the deal quickly became a deal to run the Kiwi full season. It was a season that helped set Moreno up for a career in Formula 1.
“My memories of New Zealand were of fantastic friendly people,” Moreno told Driven. “It was a fantastic atmosphere, people were friendly, the series was competitive. And the same is true now. People that help each other, and people that love racing.”
Jones in particular seemed a little irate at the dominance, having come out of retirement to 'win at home' in a blaze of glory only to retire with seven laps to go.
“[Jones] quit with seven laps to go — but I don’t think he wanted to finish second in Australia. They had convinced him to race there and retire in Australia. They had actually brought him out of retirement, since he’d won the Las Vegas race in ’81 — the last race of the year in F1 and they convinced him of ‘why don’t you win your last race in Australia, and then stop?’
“He was also supposed to go to Macau the year before with Theodore Racing and run the Macau GP. But because I’d won the Australian GP, Alan decided not to go to Macau and the team asked if we wanted to go, so we went to Macau.”
While the sport has evolved extensively since 1982, certain things have remained the same. Moreno’s former manager Greg ‘Pee Wee’ Siddle of Australia, the man that helped guide him to New Zealand, continues to broker deals for international stars to race here.
“[Siddle] called me up, I found a way to get over here, and we were set to do one race, which I won, but then we had no money to continue. I did an interview with a journalist, and the headline was ‘The winner of Baypark goes home with no money’,” he laughed.
“We stayed in Pee Wee’s friend’s house, a guy called Jonathan. He worked in a shop selling nice cars in Auckland, and he knew the owner of Auckland Gold and Bullion, and he sponsored us for the next three rounds. And that’s how we stayed in New Zealand.”
He went on to win three out of the four local events, including the New Zealand Grand Prix. The 65th running of the NZGP will take place this Sunday at Manfeild Circuit Chris Amon, as one of only two national Grand Prix events that run globally outside of the Formula 1 calendar (the other being the Macau Grand Prix).
Moreno finds himself back for the Grand Prix some 38 years after he last won it; kicking off an era where the event was dominated by drivers from North and South America like Davy Jones and Ross Cheever — a curious contrast to the '50s and '60s where British legends like Stirling Moss and Jackie Stewart reigned supreme, and the '70s when Australians like Frank Matich ruled.
Having enjoyed a colourful CART, IndyCar, and Formula 1 career (ranging from second place on debut with Benetton, to being teammates with 'The Stig' Perry McCarthy at Andrea Moda — one of the worst teams in F1 history), the 60-year-old returns as a mentor to fellow Brazilian Igor Fraga.
“What I like about Igor is that he comes from the same background as I did — no money, a lot of enthusiasm and focus, nothing else is important in life than other than what he’s focused on.”
“I went to a historic Formula 1 race in Mexico together with the Grand Prix three or four years ago, and I saw Igor racing in F4. I suggested that they come to America, and found a team that would accept the only $50,000 they had from one investor, and they kept him for the whole year.
“Then, he became the best video game driver in the world — leading to him getting sponsorship to race in Italy last year, now here, and then Formula 3. I’m very happy that he’s able to do all that. It goes against the odds.”
Fraga sits second in the Castrol Toyota Racing Series points, eight points adrift of defending champion and series leader Liam Lawson from Pukekohe on a weekend where 90 points are up for grabs. Like Moreno in the early 1980s, the sparring duo is fighting for Super License points, as both prepare to take on the 2020 FIA European Formula 3 season.
The pairing have been at each other's throats all season long; Lawson as the title favourite and Fraga as the surprisingly rapid rookie. Each has stood atop the podium (Lawson five times to Fraga's twice), and each has faced setbacks. For Lawson it was a mechanical failure at Hampton Downs that ended with him getting crashed into, while for Fraga it was a lap-one spin at the last race of the round four Pukekohe weekend.
Moreno's also had the chance to catch up with plenty of old friends from his stint here in the '80s, including local veteran Kenny Smith. The 78-year-old will make his 49th New Zealand Grand Prix start, one away from a neatly rounded 50 against drivers that are in some cases five times his junior.
“Pee Wee knew Kenny Smith very well, and Kenny sympathized with our situation. We didn’t have the money for leaving expenses, and then Kenny ... fixed that,” he laughed. “We were ready to go qualify or something, and Kenny says ‘I think I know which horse is going to win the next horse race’. I said ‘how do you know?’ and he said ‘I just know’.”
“And I thought okay, well let’s bet a lot of money — let’s borrow money from the bank and bet it. ‘No no no you can’t do that, it screws up all the betting systems.’ So we bet $500, and we won I think something like $5000. It fixed all the team’s problems, like being able to go to the next hotel or the next rental car or food, but that fixed it. We did it three times.”
While he's most well known for his time in Formula 1 and CART, it's those early days in junior days that resonate most for Moreno.
“I did two seasons of Formula Ford and so many laps, it was so much fun. I was young, didn’t have a lot of pressure … it was just fun. My first three years in Formula Ford are my best memories. Winning the Australian Grand Prix was great value, but I won the Marlboro World Cup Formula Ford Festival. It had 250 entries, at the time it was extremely competitive, and I won every heat, broke the lap record every time I went out. That had so much meaning.
“What I’m trying to say is, every race for me had meaning. Putting my name on the trophy of the New Zealand Grand Prix was also a big thing for me. I think it had to do with McLaren, and I think it was Bruce’s father that gave me the trophy. Every race I had had a different meaning.
“I enjoy racing, I enjoy life in the racing world, I broke all the odds and succeeded. Racing for me was a challenge in itself, and that’s why I see Igor and his Father and I try to help them as much as I can. I’ve been through the tough times that they’re going through, and I know how much will power Igor has to try to win.”