Way back in 1994, Gabriele Tarquini and Alfa Romeo parachuted into the British Touring Car Championship and took the series by storm with the stunning 155 homologation special. Alfa Corse’s rules-stretching wings and splitters controversially reset the bar as the Super Touring boom stepped up a gear, but the team sprinkled a welcome dash of exotic flair into an already spicy mix.
Little Tarquini, more Italian than fresh pasta and a good bottle of Chianti, scored eight race wins on his way to a memorable title and, just as importantly, charmed everyone with his good humour, natural charisma and endearing grasp of the English language: Dingle Dell at Brands Hatch forever after became “ding-a-dong-a-dell”.
Twenty-seven years later, the remarkable Tarquini is still racing touring cars as a fully fledged factory driver, for Hyundai in the World Touring Car Cup (WTCR). At 59 (he will be 60 next March), he cuts a lithe figure of finely matured teak; and while the face is perhaps the give-away of the countless racing miles he’s notched up, the piercing glint of unrelenting drive in his eye is just as it was.
It’s natural for racing drivers’ careers to change down a gear or two from their mid-40s, but Tarquini and old rival Yvan Muller – a youthful 51 and also belligerently defying retirement with Cyan Racing’s team of Lynk&Co 03s – are living proof that, in tin-tops at least, creaking age can still be a virtue.
Making his point
Before 1994, Tarquini was best known as a talented Formula 1 driver saddled with no-hope back-of-the-grid machinery. Between 1987 and 1992, he scrapped in 37 grand prix starts for minnows Osella, Coloni, AGS and Fondmetal, and he even added another as late as 1995 in a one-off return for Tyrrell. One solitary point was all he had to show for his efforts, scored with a sixth place for AGS at the 1989 Mexican Grand Prix. But for such drivers, graft at the blunt end of F1 only adds to the valiant Don Quixote cult-hero aura.
“If you consider that I started my karting career in 1974, this will be my 47th season since my first race,” says Tarquini. “To be a professional driver close to 60 is an unbelievable achievement, and I’m very proud of this number. My first [car] race was in 1983. I’m not happy to put the number on the table, but it’s a really long career.”
For added perspective, Tarquini raced an Alfa in the first World Touring Car Championship in 1987. Yann Ehrlacher, who won the WTCR title last year in his Lynk&Co, was born in 1996, two years after Tarquini claimed his BTCC crown. It’s probably best that he doesn’t dwell on that one.
Fresh start for Hyundai
Beyond the startling years of service, what’s really outstanding is Tarquini’s sustained competitiveness. Okay, last season was tough, but that was the case for Hyundai as a whole in the WTCR, including for team-mate and 2019 champion Norbert Michelisz. Tarquini won the title as recently as 2018 in what was then a new i30 N that he had developed almost single-handedly, adding to his WTCC crown earned in 2009 with Seat – and now he has taken a lead role in the birth of Hyundai’s next-generation racer, too: the Elantra N TCR, with which the Korean marque bids to revive its flagging WTCR fortunes.