Motor Racing: Alboreto emerges from the dark: Derick Allsop meets the experienced Italian driver who will be savouring his superior new status at Sunday's British Grand Prix

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The Independent Online
MICHELE ALBORETO will be able to enjoy the luxury of a sleep- in on Friday mornings at race meetings from now on, but he takes more pleasure from the widespread recognition of his consistently competitive driving this season. It is just nice to be noticed again.

The Italian driver has not been noticed too much since he left Ferrari, disenchanted and frustrated, at the end of the 1988 Formula One World Championship. For three years he drifted, apparently without hope, towards oblivion. Jobs with Tyrrell, Lola and Footwork (nee Arrows) seemingly confirmed his fate.

This season, however, Alboreto has featured regularly in the television frames. He is the only driver to have finished all eight races and his five points spare him, from this weekend's British Grand Prix at Silverstone, the early Friday morning ordeal of pre-qualifying.

Alboreto and his Footwork Mugen-Honda now automatically take part in qualifying proper - not that he complained about his lot. 'If you can't come through pre-qualifying, then there is no point in being here anyway, and it can be useful to have the extra hour's practice,' he reasoned.

Positive thinking has rarely been a problem for Alboreto, a man with the features of Rowan Atkinson and a sense of humour to match. He also has a hunger undiminished by cumbersome cars and the passing years. At the age of 35, he is the rediscovered talent of the track.

Alboreto maintains he never doubted the talent, which gave him second place in the 1985 world championship, was still there. All he needed was the opportunity to demonstrate it, and this year the Footwork car, powered by a Mugen-Honda engine following last season's ill-fated flirtation with Porsche, has provided it. Three consecutive places in the points, then three just outside in seventh position, are testimony to the reliability of man and machine.

'Everybody is motivated and we are showing that perhaps we're not as bad as people were saying,' he suggested, with the inevitable smile. 'The engine is the big difference this year. If you have problems with the engine it stops development work on everything else, because you can do nothing unless you are running. We have been able to improve the car, and the whole team is working better now. When that happens the driver has a chance. When it doesn't, it's a disaster. Of course it has been hard for me the past three years. I have driven like crazy, but that doesn't show in the record books.

'For two years with this team, nothing happened at all. I don't know how many drivers would have gone on and had the strength or attitude in this situation, but then I am a Capricorn. Maybe that explains it.

'I like to drive and I am always enthusiastic and committed. I am happy with myself because I know I have done a good job in the last three years. Now people say good things about me and I find I have some friends out there. That is the best part for me. That's what makes the three years worthwhile. The points prove nothing to me. I always knew I could still drive competitively, it's like riding a bike. You never forget how.'

Alboreto had to draw on his enthusiasm and commitment last season when he crashed heavily in testing at Imola, cracking two ribs and injuring a leg. He said: 'It was a big accident. A week later I went back to Imola and the first time I passed the place where I crashed I kept my foot on the accelerator. Perhaps that makes me crazy, I don't know.'

The change in fortunes might lead another driver to yearn for a still higher plane, but Alboreto shrugs off the thought. 'I'm a realist, not a dreamer,' he said. 'I don't think it will be possible for me to get one of the best drives again and go for the championship. If I cannot be with one of the top four teams, I'd like to stay with Footwork and finish the job I have started here. I enjoy my driving and we smile. That's good enough, isn't it?'

(Photograph omitted)