TeamsThierry Boutsen: Another Cool Belgian By Jeremy McMullen
Over the course of a 24 hour race, like that of Le Mans, there will be many moments that will test the nerve and patience of a driver and a team. There will also be those moments that will tempt, causing a mistake in judgment that would bring the whole effort to naught. Until the rise of the new millennium, Jacky Ickx would be the poster-child for being cool under pressure. But there would be another Belgian that would come along that would seemingly only really prove his abilities as a driver when the odds were greatly stacked against him.
Born in Brussels, Belgium on the 13th of July in 1957, Theirry Marc Boutsen would grow up in the days of Olivier Gendebien, the Pilettes and Patrick Neve. By the time Boutsen was heading into his teens there was the great Jacky Ickx, the former 'Mr. Le Mans'. Therefore, there were a lot of motor racing drivers for Thierry to be inspired by as he grew. But despite the great Belgian racers, Boutsen would neither idolize them nor ever think about being just like them. Throughout his early years he was very much his own person. Still, the inspiration was there, and it would be hard to throw off. In fact, this inspiration would cause Boutsen to have a dream about becoming a racing driver
This inspiration would turn into a love affair that would have Boutsen later admit, 'I liked driving race cars—I hate driving road cars…' But while most would fall in love with the glamour and the prestige of being a World Champion racer, something which Boutsen too adored, Thierry would also fall in love with an aspect of motor racing that not many racers actually enjoy—the technical aspect of it.
The enjoyment of the technical aspect of motor racing would undoubtedly come from his degree in engineering. Boutsen's love of aviation would be kindled in the time between his formative education and university when he worked as a mechanic for Abelag Aviation. This seemed a perfect fit for the man interested in technology. And given the close correlation between aviation and Formula One, it would be a great training ground for the Belgian.
Although he came away from university with an engineering degree that dream of becoming a racing driver still nagged at the back of Boutsen's memory. And this nagging memory of a dream would cause Boutsen to push his way to sit in his first race car and to finally make the decision to attend the Pillete Racing School based at Zolder.
Once at the racing school, Boutsen would find that he was home and he would give up on a career in engineering. Still, like so many other racers, Thierry didn't have the financial resources to immediately fall into the best situations. He would work hard and would end up managing to purchase a Hawke Formula Ford car and ran it entirely himself. Thankfully for him, the engineering education would help him when others would need a solid team around them to help them set up a car and make them better out on the circuit.
This technical proficiency would help Boutsen to take the Benelux Formula Ford 1600 title in 1978. Out of 18 races, he would go on to win 15 of them. This incredible run of success would begin to open doors for himself. In 1979, he would be racing in German and European Formula 3 events. The following year he would drive for the Martini factory team and would come away with three victories in the European Championship. By the end of the season he would finish runner-up to Michele Alboreto.
Boutsen's racing abilities, combined with his technical proficiency, would cause March to take notice of the then twenty-three year old Belgian. And so, Thierry would join the works March team for Formula 2 in 1981. It wouldn't take too long before his abilities as a racer carried him to victory. And, by the end of that first year driving for March, Boutsen would come away having scored two victories. As with Formula 3, Thierry would finish the 1981 season in the runner-up position to Geoff Lees. The following year, Boutsen would earn no less than three victories and would finish 3rd in the championship, but it seemed his ascent toward Formula One had lost necessary power and it seemed Boutsen was destined to remain in the lower altitudes of motor racing.
The lacking power was, as is almost always the case, money. Formula One, besides being a motor sport, is also a business. Teams need money to be able to operate, and therefore, offer their drivers the best equipment. The problem was, despite the fact Belgium had produced some truly legendary drivers, was that its market was still quite small. Drivers need large amounts of money in order to buy top-notch seats, and Belgium just didn't have the sponsors willing to pay out the kind of money that would be necessary for Boutsen to gain that ride in Formula One.
So it seemed Boutsen's engines had run out of power to keep the ascent going. But Thierry wouldn't give up. He wouldn't just court one sponsor; he would try and spread the love between multiple sponsors. It would work, at least enough to get his foot into Formula One's door. Boutsen had the moment, and now, the money to make his Formula One debut.
Unfortunately, Boutsen wouldn't have the team he needed to make a big debut splash, but it would have to be good enough. And, on the 22nd of May, in 1983, Boutsen would make his Formula One debut driving for the Arrows team.
It was a special day, not just for Boutsen but for just about every other Belgian racing fan that was out there. Formula One would return to Spa for the first time since 1970. But instead of the old 8.77 mile ultra-fast circuit, a new circuit would emerge that would blend bits and pieces of the old with an entirely new portion.
Boutsen would make his debut with a solid team, but unfortunately, an underfunded one. The Arrows team would have a lot of talented people, but, without the funds it was almost impossible for the team to reach their full potential. Still, making his debut on home soil would be an exciting proposition for the Belgian.
Boutsen would start his first race from the ninth row on the grid in the 18th position. He would start beside the man he finished runner-up to in Formula 3, Michele Alboreto. He would, however, manage to out-qualify the man that would replace him at Williams some seven years later.
The debut would not go as what Boutsen would have wanted. His race would last just 4 laps before a rear suspension failure would bring it to an end. Still, it would be the beginning of a Formula One career that would span a full decade and three race victories. It would also mark the last time Boutsen would ever have to pay for a ride in Formula One, or, in any other motor racing discipline.
Boutsen's discipline as a racing driver would lead him, rightfully, to endurance racing. And before he would make his debut in Formula One, he would make his debut in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Racing for the French WM A.E.R.E.M. team, along with co-drivers Serge Saulnier and Michel Pignard, Boutsen would be making his debut at Le Mans driving a WM P81 driving in the 1981 edition of the French classic. Unfortunately, the debut would be short-lived as the race would come to an end after just 15 laps.
It would be the best of times and the worse of times for Boutsen in Formula One. The worse part of the story would be that Boutsen would be with a struggling Arrows team from 1983 to 1986. Over the course of those four years with the team the best result Boutsen would came away with would be a 2nd place in the San Marino Grand Prix in 1985. Boutsen would actually briefly hold his first Formula One victory, on technical grounds, until it would be taken away from him and given to Elio De Angelis.
The best of times came in the shape and form of Boutsen being able to apply his engineering background in attempts to make his cars much more competitive than what they really were. Still, Boutsen and the Arrows team had to deal with the reality of not having the funds to implement some of the changes necessary to make their car faster and better.
After struggling along with the Arrows team scoring just a total of 16 points in four seasons, Boutsen would make the move from Arrows over to the Benetton Formula Ltd. team. Driving the B187 and B188 chassis, Boutsen would find himself running up towards the front of the field much more often. Top five and podium results were much more possible and achievable with Benetton. But still, a grand prix victory would elude the Belgian.
Still, with the help of Rory Byrne and Pat Symonds, Boutsen would be able to use his technical skills to a much greater level and would come away with no less than 6 3rd place finishes over the course of just two seasons with the team.
The performances with the Benetton team would not be in vain. They would be noticed by none other than Sir Frank Williams. And so, Williams would approach Boutsen about driving for the team in 1989. Boutsen would agree and would join the Williams team for a two year contract.
Boutsen would always seem to come into a situation just before, or after, a team's rise to power. In the case of Benetton, Boutsen would be with the team in the days before Flavio Briatore. In the case of his time with Williams, Boutsen would find himself right in the middle of championship runs. Unfortunately, that middle portion, at least for a team like Williams, was something more akin to a time of wandering in the wilderness.
Williams was preparing for the future, but the future would be still a few years off. One of those futuristic elements Williams would try and implement before its time had come would be the active suspension that would make the FW14B a championship winning car. Problems with the suspension, and a lacking Judd engine, would cause Williams to slip from being champions in 1987 to something of 'also-rans' by 1988 and into 1989. Therefore, once again, Boutsen would come into a team not at its peak.
But it would be when a car was not reaching its full potential that Boutsen was possibly at his best. His ability to engage his engineering mind and to focus would help to make a mediocre car into a contender. And in the rain, Boutsen would look like a master.
Alain Prost hated the rain and Nigel Mansell just raced no matter what the conditions. Aryton Senna, however, was considered the master. But in 1989, it would become clear there was another rain-master in the Formula One paddock. Not surprisingly, it would be one of Senna's best friends.
In a fuel race at the 1985 San Marina Grand Prix, Thierry Boutsen nearly walked away with his first Formula One victory until it was decided that Elio De Angelis' car didn't fail scrutineering. Therefore, the victory would be snatched away from Boutsen and given to De Angelis. But, after the 1989 Canadian Grand Prix, Boutsen would leave the clear winner and one of those few masters in the wet stuff.
When asked about what it was about the rain that transformed him into one of the best drivers on the grid Boutsen would remark, 'In Belgium you can practice every day in the rain.' He would also add, 'I was good in wet conditions because it's all a matter of concentration and attitude. Also, I like driving in the rain very much, because it's difficult, because it's a challenge…There is no room for a mistake, and the limits are much more difficult to reach…it must be total focus.'
And it would be Boutsen's ability to focus that would certainly make him a better driver than his racing stats would suggest. And on two occasions in 1989, he would show just what he could do when he actually focused.
The 1989 Canadian Grand Prix would see constantly changing weather conditions. Portions of the race would be run under drying conditions. At other times, the track would be covered with water due to steadily falling rains. The entire race would a supreme test of bravery and tactics. Ayrton Senna would make the decision to go lap after lap without changing to wet weather tires. The gamble would not work and the weather would get even worse. Still, Senna would recover and would look to be stalking yet another victory.
Less than 10 laps from the finish it was still Senna holding onto the lead. Boutsen, who had not even been mentioned throughout the first two-thirds of the race, would be there in 2nd place ahead of his Williams teammate. And then, suddenly, Senna would pull over to the side of the road with problems. Just 3 laps from the finish the engine would let go in the McLaren and Boutsen would be handed the lead. One rain master would hand over the lead to another.
Senna's presence in the rain would detract attention from Boutsen's abilities. But after the monsoon conditions around the St. Lawrence, they would be on full display for all to see. He would hold on through all of the changing conditions, and then, the worsening conditions later on to take what was his first victory in Formula One. And it would be a demonstrative performance bearing his teammate Patrese by thirty seconds. A minute and thirty-six seconds would be the gap back to Andrea de Cesaris in 3rd place.
If Boutsen's win at Canada seemed to be a fluke, he would repeat the performance at the end of the season in similar conditions at the Australian Grand Prix. Everyone expected dry conditions until the beginning of warm-ups when the heavens absolutely opened up and made things incredibly treacherous.
In spite of the politics surrounding and leading up to the race, Boutsen would focus on the task at hand and would, again, come through the hellish conditions to take yet another wet weather victory beating his good friend Ayrton Senna. Out of three races that had wet weather conditions during the 1989 season it would be either Ayrton Senna or Thierry Boutsen that would come through victorious, and Boutsen would have two victories to Senna's one in those kinds of conditions. Therefore, Boutsen could have been considered every bit of Senna's equal had he been in a similarly capable car.
But while the two rain-soaked victories would be masterful performances by the Belgian, his greatest performance in a grand prix car would come one year later at the Hungaroring during the 1990 Hungarian Grand Prix.
When asked specifically about Boutsen, Williams' Patrick Head would make things very clear, 'Thierry was a very smooth and stylish driver; a quiet man, not that forceful and a very gentlemanly person who was always a pleasure to have in the team.' Speaking specifically about the Hungarian Grand Prix in 1990 he would say, 'Ayrton Senna was all over him for most of that race and Thierry never made a single mistake, which was remarkable and showed just what a very tidy driver he was. That was a clever drive.'
What would make the drive so clever would be the fact that Thierry would make the decision to drive the whole of the race without stopping for tires. This would require the ultimate in consistency and perfection as any extra wheelspin would cause the tires to fall off that much quicker.
Incredibly, in an inferior car, the move would work. He would hold onto the lead each and every lap and would come under incredible pressure from Senna at the end. Boutsen knew he had an advantage with tire wear with his Williams but it would still take every ounce of his being to pull it off.
Boutsen would say of that incredible performance, 'For me, this was a big achievement because it was not easy at all, and I made no mistakes under big pressure. You have to understand Ayrton Senna was my best friend in F1, in my life actually, but we were fighting each other that day, both of us 100 percent, so I was pretty happy at the end.'
Boutsen certainly would be happy when the race would come to its end, partly because it meant his third victory in Formula One, but also, because he had absolutely nothing left on the inside part of his rear wheels. Had the race gone one lap longer, it would have been Senna that took the win. Therefore, Boutsen could not have judged the race any better. It was a perfect race by Boutsen and displayed some of his true genius behind the wheel.
Pure genius still isn't money in the bank and this would end up costing him his ride with Williams into the years of the FW14. Boutsen would actually remain with Williams and would actively play a part in the development of the active suspension that would give Nigel Mansell his one and only World Championship. It could have been Boutsen fighting for the championship throughout 1991 and 1992 had it not been for financial issues.
Renault supplied the engines for Williams and they didn't want anybody other than a Mansell at the wheel of the Williams. This made things clear for Boutsen and he would depart the team at the end of the 1990 season.
Boutsen would emerge for the 1991 season driving for Ligier. Thierry would drive for the team over the course of the next two seasons and would fail to enjoy even a sniff of the success he had experienced with either Williams or Benetton. Boutsen's Formula One career was dying a slow death when he still had more than enough talent to be a major player in the championship standings.
It would be almost too difficult to watch the three time grand prix winner fight and come away with just 2 points throughout his two seasons with Ligier. It seemed things would be brighter in 1993 as he departed the French team and joined an Irish one in Jordan.
The Jordan chassis showed a lot of promise, but was designed for a man of small stature; something Boutsen is not. Boutsen would join the Jordan team in time for the European Grand Prix but had made it clear it was going to be his last year in Formula One. Unfortunately, this decision would motivate the team not to do anything with the car to make it more comfortable for him. Nonetheless, he would soldier on trying to do the best he could.
The ride with Jordan would be a temporary affair. Boutsen would decide to make his exit from Formula One at a fitting stop on the calendar, the Belgian Grand Prix. Ten years earlier, Boutsen had bought himself a ride with the Arrows team in order to take part in the Belgian Grand Prix. A decade later, it would be where he made his exit. Ironically, the exit would be swift.
In his first grand prix, Boutsen retired from the race after rear suspension failure. His race would last 4 laps. Seemingly incredible and impossible to beat, Boutsen's final race, the 1993 Belgian Grand Prix, would not even last one lap when gearbox failure brought it all to an end.
Earlier on during the 1993 season, Thierry Boutsen was making his transition over to another discipline of motorsport. Boutsen had taken part in sportscar racing throughout the 1980s but not in a consistent nature. However, he would make the jump to endurance racing full-time and would do so with one of the strongest teams at that time, Peugeot Talbot Sport.
Finally, Boutsen was with one of the best teams in motor racing. And it would come to be very fruitful for the Belgian. Driving with Peugeot in the 1993 24 Hours of Le Mans, Boutsen would earn a 2nd place overall finish along with his co-drivers Yannick Dalmas and Teo Fabi.
The move to endurance racing full-time would prove to be a blessing for Boutsen. He had never finished Le Mans before 1993. He would then go on an incredible run from then on. He would score back-to-back-to-back 2nd place results in the French classic until managing to take a class victory and finishing 2nd overall in a Porsche 911 GT1 during the 1996 running of the race.
Despite the fact Boutsen was now in his 40s, it was clear this technical driver still had talent and this would make him still a driver in demand. And it wouldn't be at all surprising when Toyota came calling asking Boutsen to be one of their drivers for their GT-One project and Toyota's assault on Le Mans.
It was well known that Toyota was looking to enter Formula One, but they would need a proving ground to help them build a firm foundation. Therefore, Toyota would end up doing the same thing that BMW would do, which was to endurance racing. Places like Le Mans would serve as the perfect proving grounds for their engines and other components that would make their way over to the Formula One car. And given Boutsen's engineering background, he would serve as a perfect driver to help in that process.
Part of a three car effort, Boutsen, along with co-drivers Ralf Kelleners and Geoff Lees, would start the 24 hour race from the fourth row of the grid beside the all-Japanese line-up of drivers driving the third GT-One.
The race would be going well for Boutsen and the rest of his number 29 GT-One. However, after completing 330 laps, it would all come undone. As with his farewell to Formula One in the Jordan, the gearbox in the Toyota would fail leaving the team stranded. After suffering another early retirement the year before, Boutsen would begin to weigh his racing options.
Boutsen had been racing for more than two decades after his fight in the Toyota at Le Mans came to an end because of gearbox failure. Over the course of those more than two decades of driving he had managed to avoid any serious accidents despite there having been some truly scary moments. Clearly understanding that his opportunities to draw the best rides were quickly drawing short, he would decide to retire from racing, but not before he competed in one last Le Mans with Toyota.
The 1999 24 Hours of Le Mans would be Boutsen's only race of the season. Pairing up with Ralf Kelleners and Allan McNish, this would also likely be the last best opportunity Boutsen would have at earning an overall victory.
The lead up, as well as, the early part of the race would be absolutely eventful, but not for Boutsen and his effort. Mercedes-Benz would have their CLRs at Le Mans. However, during practice the car would flip over on Mark Webber. A much more dramatic and memorable flip of Peter Dumbreck in another CLR would bring Mercedes to decide to withdraw altogether.
Mercedes' withdraw, and the fact Toyota were starting the race from 1st and 2nd on the grid, meant things were looking good for a Japanese manufacturer to take the overall victory for just the second time in history. However, after just 90 laps, the pole-sitting Toyota would go out of the race after having suffered a puncture. And then, on the 174th lap, Boutsen would suffer one of the worst accidents of his life.
Approaching the Dunlop Curve, Boutsen would have an unfortunate coming together with a slower Porsche which would cause him to lose control and slide through the gravel until slamming hard into the tire barrier. The force of the crash would be such that Boutsen would be carried away from his car by stretcher. Boutsen would be sent to the local hospital to be checked out a little more thoroughly and it would be the clear and final clue Thierry would need to make sure his decision to step away from racing had been the correct one.
But when it came to walking away from motor racing that would take some time. The crash would cause him to have to take the better part of two years to learn how to walk right again and it would be about four years before he could actually get a night's sleep without any pain.
Despite the pain of his last experience as a driver, Boutsen would not leave racing altogether. Thierry's brother-in-law would start a racing team and would approach him about being a part of the team. Being fully aware of the challenges he faced in the small racing market in Belgium, Boutsen would lend his name to his brother-in-law's team that competes in Formula Renault Belgian Championship. Though not involved in the day-to-day operations of the Thierry Boutsen Racing Team, he still serves as a consultant.
The majority of Boutsen's time and energy is swallowed up by his other passion—aviation. 'I've always loved them,' Boutsen would remark, 'I bought one when I first got some decent prize money in F1. Not just for the technical side, they are works of art also, the small business jets.'
Boutsen would buy his first small plane back in 1986. He would sell and upgrade a number of times throughout his racing career, and so, buying and selling aircraft would become one of his hobbies. While toying with his hobby, he would have a few fellow drivers approach him about looking for or at specific aircraft for them. This would turn the hobby into a full-fledged business that would become known as Boutsen Aviation in 1997. This would become a successful business for Boutsen as he would go on to sell his 200th aircraft just a couple of years ago.
Despite his technical interests and his engineering background, his personal views of modern-day Formula One are rather interesting. While he would not say that it is either better or worse, he would make a point that the technology of the sport has taken over from pure driver skill. And this is something Boutsen would know a lot about since two of his three Formula One victories came purely down to his skill behind the wheel in absolutely wet conditions.
Thierry Boutsen would be most widely remembered for his performances while driving for Williams. However, he would have many other special moments in motor racing. His list of successes would include a 1000 Kilometers of Monza victory, a 2nd place in the 1000 Kilometers of the Nurburgring, victory in the 24 Hours of Daytona, 1000 Kilometers of Spa win, 2nd in the ETCC at Zolder, victories in the Brands Hatch and Spa 4 Hours, a victory in the 24 Hours of Zolder and a 1st place in LM GT1 in the Petit Le Mans. Combined with his string of podium finishes at Le Mans and his three grand victories and Boutsen would certainly have a resume that the vast majority of racing drivers would be more than envious of.
And while Thierry Boutsen has moved on, and perhaps, has become even more successful as a corporate jet salesman, one thing he should always be remembered for were those incredible performances behind the wheel of a race car, especially those three performances that earned him his only Formula One victories.
Each one of those required incredibly talent and a supreme touch at the wheel. And while others, like the great Aryton Senna and Alain Prost would go sliding off the circuit in the wet, or could not keep their tires underneath them over the course of a whole race, Boutsen would manage to pull off the miraculous. Therefore, his talent should never be questioned, nor overshadowed. In fact, the only questions concerning Boutsen that should be dwelled upon would have to be, 'What if he stayed at Benetton, or, was able to stay with Williams?' 'What would we have seen from this, another cool Belgian?'