Beyond the chequered flag: Thierry Boutsen
3 May 2013 – For the latest instalment of a series running throughout 2013, GPUpdate.net enjoyed a candid conversation with Thierry Boutsen, who is currently making his presence known in the aviation world after widespread success in Formula 1 and sportscar racing. The Belgian competed for five outfits during an 11-season phase in the top echelon, which yielded three victories in the colours of Williams.
Born in Brussels on 13 July 1957, Boutsen’s route to Formula 1 was an impressive one. After winning the Volant V title in 1977, Belgian Formula Ford honours were promptly notched up, before champagne was sprayed in abundance in Formula 3 and Formula 2. At this time, he also tried his hand at endurance racing, but his focus was on breaking into Formula 1, and the opportunity ultimately arose with Arrows in 1983.
"It was a great moment," recalls Boutsen, who raced from his home Grand Prix onwards. "I never thought I could achieve that, but I believe there were some key elements. First of all I was able to win races in all of the categories I took part in, whether it was Formula 2, Formula 3, Formula Ford, Touring Cars or Group C. I thought that Formula 1 would be OK for me if I had the chance. But to get a chance you need to do a lot of research for money and get the team to work with you. I was extremely lucky to have a very good start."
It was while driving for Arrows that he was involved in one of the most bizarre finishes to a Formula 1 race. Following on from the midfield battles of his first two seasons in the sport, interspersed by a trio of points finishes, the 1985 San Marino Grand Prix saw him fighting with the big guns. But he claimed his maiden podium in a rather unconventional way, calling on the power of his muscles after running out of fuel.
"I crossed the line pushing the car in third position," Boutsen reminisces. "I got second afterwards. I knew that it was totally forbidden to push a car on the track, but there was a line in the regulations saying that you could if the car is in a dangerous position. So I purposely left my car in a dangerous position when it ran out of fuel, to push it across the line. I was very competitive all the way through and was within a few seconds of the 'real' leaders. I’m not talking about Senna because he was using far too much fuel and was out of competition right away. It was a very good race."
Boutsen’s performances over the course of the next two years did not go unnoticed in the paddock, with Benetton offering him a contract for the 1987 and 1988 campaigns. Although his first season was ruined by a string of reliability problems, momentum gathered the following term and he was able to achieve a quintet of podium finishes behind the dominant MP4/4 driven by Alain Prost and the aforementioned Senna.
"In the first year with Benetton the car was quite competitive," explains Boutsen. "I could have won at least two races, like in Mexico and Austria, but we had so many problems with reliability that I could never get to the end of a Grand Prix. Competitivity is one thing but reliability is the other! And I was missing one. The year after, I finished on the rostrum five times behind the two McLarens. It was a very, very good year; I was not equipped with a turbo engine, just a normally aspirated engine."
In 1989 Boutsen made the biggest move of his Formula 1 career and joined Williams on a two-year deal. Despite a massive pre-season accident, which he described as mentally-draining, his childhood dream of winning in Formula 1 came true, with victories being achieved at the rain-soaked Canadian and Australian Grands Prix.
More silverware was added to his cabinet throughout 1990, while playing a key role in the development of the team's active suspension. But, despite his positive results, he was replaced by Nigel Mansell at the end of his contract and had to watch from the sidelines as the Briton fought for the title. Just how did he feel at that moment?
"I was totally frustrated because I did the development of the active suspension for almost one year," says Boutsen. "I spent all my time doing that and the car became very, very competitive at the end and then somebody else benefitted. But, c’est la vie. I don’t even think about it anymore because it happened like that and I’m extremely lucky to have done well in Formula 1. Of course you can always do better when you think back, but when you do it you are limited by certain factors and you should not cry too much."
Spells with Liger and Jordan followed, before he called time on his Formula 1 career at Spa-Francorchamps in 1993. He then made further sportscar outings, notably securing a GT1 victory at Le Mans, but what about life away from the fast lane? Instead of relaxing on a beach, Boutsen has been at the helm of an aviation sales company since 1997. Dedicated to meeting the exacting needs of clientele, including the likes of Michael Schumacher and Mika Häkkinen, a similar adrenaline rush is experienced.
"The real start of it was because of my passion for aeroplanes and the fact that I had already bought and sold two or three aeroplanes for myself while I was racing," he explains. "In 1997 I decided to form a company in Monaco, because I got some business from a friend in Formula 1. Heinz-Harald Frentzen asked me to purchase a plane for him and that was the very first client I had. Then I worked for Keke Rosberg, Mika Häkkinen, Michael Schumacher, Guy Ligier and some other people in Formula 1.
"After a couple of years I decided to go abroad and see the rest of the world! I enjoy doing what I’m doing as much as I enjoyed F1 and racing as a whole. Every time I sell an aeroplane it’s like winning a race. We are successful because we are putting a lot of energy into it to get it right. The reward is very, very big when you do that."
Previous instalments: Mika Salo