Tarso Marques turns 40

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I would feel awful if I didn’t acknowledge the landmark 40th birthday of one of my favorite drivers of all time. A driver who despite every attempt to reason with me and convince me that I can find better favorites to root for, remains solidly in my all-time favorite drivers list. It’s really tough to explain the admiration I have for former F1 backmarker Tarso Anibal Santanna Marques, that has somehow grown even after his days in the racing limelight have ended.

From a meteoric rise to Formula 1 in 1996, scouted by Giancarlo Minardi as an impressive teenager in Formula 3000, the potential was entirely snuffed out at the pinnacle of motorsport by the time he was 25. A recent clip surfaced of Marques qualifying for the 2001 European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring. The Minardi PS01 was legendarily under-equipped and under-developed compared to the other cars, and even regarding that, then-ITV Sport pundit and former driver Martin Brundle, had harsh words for the still-young Brazilian. Skip to about 4:15 if you wish to hear Brundle declare, “He’s not a world class driver” just after critiquing his very clumsy line through most the Nurburgring GP circuit.

Of course, five years prior, when Marques was still viewed as a driver with the potential to be the next Emerson Fittipaldi – the two-time World Champion for whom Marques’ sweet, sweet helmet design is modeled after – he had tangled with Brundle in a rather overzealous maneuver on the young Brazilian’s part. This was in the ’96 Argentine Grand Prix, where Marques qualified a sensational thirteenth – still with Minardi – in just his second ever race. It would never get that good again for Marques at this level.

The following year, Jarno Trulli was poached away from Minardi as an injury replacement to Olivier Panis at Prost. Marques was named as his replacement, paired with ailing veteran Ukyo Katayama. A sensational run in 1994 aside, Katayama was one of the most crash-prone drivers of his era, and running out the end of the string in an F1 career littered with wrecks and derailed by a cancer diagnosis that same ’94 season. Marques, with all his potential, should have been able to be the quicker driver in his ten races at Minardi. He was not, by a steady margin, and therefore not retained for 1998.

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Tarso Marques driving in the 2001 Canadian GP, where he would finish ninth.

A year as a Bridgestone test driver, two years in CART, and after all that, somehow, Marques was back in F1 with Minardi – who were saved from extinction by a last-minute deal by Paul Stoddart to buy the team from Giancarlo Minardi. Marques’ third tenure at Minardi showed how ineffective their outdated car was in the hands of an “average” driver – he failed to qualify for the British Grand Prix, the first DNQ in an F1 race since the dreadful 1998 season of Ricardo Rosset at Tyrrell, and when he made the race, Marques was last on the grid virtually every race. This lap shouldn’t have allowed him to start the Australian GP in Melbourne, but the race stewards were quite generous that weekend.

That struggle of Marques to stay above competency was the contrast to demonstrate how talented the driver on the other side of the paddock was. A young Spaniard, with just two years and twenty-six race starts’ worth of experience under his belt before he got to F1, just nineteen years of age until the German Grand Prix, scouted by Minardi since he won the Open Fortuna championship in 1999 (which has since evolved into the newly-christened Formula 3.5 V8), a top prospect managed by championship-winning team boss Flavio Briatore

That young man was Fernando Alonso, who crushed Marques 13-1 in head-to-head qualifying scenarios (dropping Marques to a lifetime 4-20 (blaze it) in that stat) before Marques was dropped in favor of Alex Yoong, who also demonstrated how bad the car was in the hands of a less capable driver. Yoong had more money coming from the Malaysian government, and Marques was willing to step down to let Yoong help the team in the financial side of things – a rarity in Formula 1.

A link to the Totally Legitimate Phoenix F1 project, which ranks somewhere between the Indrema video game console and Stefan GP in the realm of all-time vapourware, in 2002 was as close as Marques ever got to another shot at F1 redemption. He had flamed out at an age where many drivers are still yet to hit their peak, and he sadly wouldn’t be the last case of that sort of thing.

For all the successes of ex-Formula 1 castoffs in IndyCar, Marques enjoyed none of that for himself either. Marques will almost always be remembered by fans of IndyCar or Champ Car racing by this embarassing incident in the 2004 race at Monterrey: Having qualified top ten in just his second race back after four years away from the discipline, an awkward tangle with Ryan Hunter-Reay early in the race sent Marques’ car spinning off, with no damage, but needing a tow to get started again. Then this happened.

After that, Marques drove just two more races in American open wheel racing: Once in Mexico City at the end of ’04, and once in Cleveland the following year. All of them with Dale Coyne Racing, at the time, the Minardi of the Champ Car World Series.

Based on a track record devoid of any major success in two of racing’s premiere arenas, even when grading on a curve and considering the teams he was driving for, there legitimately shouldn’t be a reason why Tarso Marques should be viewed as a captivating racing driver. Certainly not somebody that should be in someone’s favorites, anyway.

Jay Hunter, professional wrestling critic, host of the OSW Review video podcast, coined the perfect term for a driver like Marques. Tarso Marques is solidly one of “my boys.”

Applied to its original context of professional wrestling, Hunter defines: A BOY is a (generally not very talented) wrestler that didn’t achieve success, where there’s a bit of cringe factor admitting he was one of your favourites. You like/support him more than the average & what he deserved.

I’ve got a lot of “boys” in the world of motorsport, at least in Formula 1. Luca Badoer is one of them. Pastor Maldonado is one of them. Roberto Merhi was one last season. Most of the F1’s fanbase on social media can safely say that Max Chilton is one of their boys for life. From my memory of driving as him in the Formula 1 demo on the original PlayStation, Jean-Denis Deletraz is a boy from the old school. Then there’s Zsolt Baumgartner, the boy who came good at Indianapolis in 2004 and made me a very happy fourteen-year-old Minardi fan. And that’s just who I could think of without derailing this piece for another thousand words.

Marques has less to his credit than most of those drivers I listed. Badoer was a key cog in the Ferrari dynasty of the aughts, Maldonado is a GP winner, Deletraz took two class wins at Le Mans and his son could redeem his family’s name in F1 in a few years. Tarso Marques has a cool-sounding name. He has one of the best helmet designs in modern F1 history. In his mid-20s, he was still young enough for anyone to reasonably think that there was still some untapped potential in him as a racer. And that’s…pretty much it. He is the most “boy-ish” of all my boys.

But for as little as Marques was able to accomplish in the top flights of motorsport in terms of results, there are moments and milestones in his career that cannot go overlooked. When he won his first single-seater race in 1992 at the age of 16, he was the youngest Brazilian to win a car race in any discipline. A year later he became the youngest race winner in the Formula 3 Sudamericana championship. At this time, he was testing his mettle against future IndyCar greats Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, and coming out on top often.

Marques drove for DAMS in the International Formula 3000 championship in 1995, which has now evolved into GP2, and is set to become the new FIA Formula 2. Today, a drive with DAMS in GP2 would be the single most coveted seat in the grid – and that was still a damn good gig in 1995, even in a year where F3000 didn’t produce a lot of great F1 talent (arguably the most promising prospect of them all, Marco Campos, sadly died in the finale at Magny-Cours). By way of his appointment as Al Unser Jr.’s injury replacement in 1999, Marques is one of the very, very few people in the history of American open wheel racing that can say that they not only drove for, but also made their debut with Penske Racing – even if ’99 wasn’t exactly one of Penske’s better years.

Because of a two-race spell with JMB Racing in the 2004 FIA GT Championship, Marques is not only one of a privileged few to have raced for Ferrari in the top flight of sports car racing, but he’s immortalized in the all-time great PC racing simulator GTR 2 as co-driver to Karl Wendlinger, right out of the box. And even if Marques’ final result in 2001 wasn’t indicative of his actual performance compared to Alonso at all, he is still one of only a very, very small handful of drivers who have been teammates with Alonso and classified on par with or ahead of in the World Championship. And coincidentally, one of those drivers, Jenson Button, also celebrated a birthday on 19 January. The others are Lewis Hamilton, and Jarno Trulli*.

*Trulli was released from Renault F1 Team with three races to go in the 2004 season, by that point he had outscored Alonso 46-45. Alonso ultimately finished the season with 59 points, Trulli remained at 46 having failed to score points with Toyota in two races.

He was inadvertently a crucial factor in the finish of two big races: In the 2000 Michigan 500 mile race, Juan Pablo Montoya used Marques’ lapped car to slipstream and eventually beat Michael Andretti to the line in one of the all-time superspeedway races in American open wheel history. In the 2001 Brazilian Grand Prix, David Coulthard used Marques as a buffer to overtake Michael Schumacher and go on to win the race, in a similar manner to how Mika Hakkinen used Ricardo Zonta as the pick in his famous pass on Schumacher at Spa the year before.

Since his last race in Champ Car, at Cleveland in 2005, Marques has had a damn interesting life. Since 1999, he runs one of the foremost custom car shops in Brazil, which has now expanded to include two shops in the United States – in Miami and Los Angeles. That success is built off the back of a portfolio that includes seventy wild choppers – some of which won awards at Daytona Bike Week. It includes over a dozen custom cars – most of which are lowriders, and a dozen more helicopters. He’s part Paul Teutul Jr., part Ryan Friedlinghaus, but with way more racing talent than the both of them put together. If the egg-avatar masses thought Lewis Hamilton’s personal Pagani Zonda 760 LH is a tacky thing for a racing driver to roll around in, they’d probably go apoplectic if they caught a glimpse of Marques’ lowrider collection – which includes a pink, hydraulics-equipped Chevrolet Impala called “Fucking Low”.

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Marques holding the trophies won for his Pink Boardtracker concept bike, one of many designed by TMC. – Image Credit © Tarso Marques Concept

He was a contestant on a Brazilian reality TV show called Amazônia – similar to, but not entirely like the Survivor that America has come to know and love. And Marques won the whole damned thing, apparently. He’s not been entirely clean, though – Marques is one of the few auto racers in recent memory who’ve been banned for doping – the substances in question that led to his two-year ban from racing in Brazil were those usually found in steroids. That surprises me very little. These days, he’s covered in more tattoos than some entire biker crews, and has the muscle-bound physique of a rugby player.

But he has come back to racing since then – most recently, driving with his father in the lower-level Miami 500 endurance race in 2013. He’s a radio commentator for Formula 1 in Brazil. Oh yeah, and he did win two races in the Game Stock Car/Stock Car Extreme/Automobilista-famous Brazilian V8 Stock Cars category, in Rio in ’06, and Campo Grande in ’07.

Sometimes you can be drawn to a driver for reasons entirely unknown, even after you’ve thought about it for periods of time. I’ll probably never be able to justify being a longtime fan of Tarso Marques for any reason that isn’t so superficial it would be embarassing to put into words. Sometimes, though, you just need to embrace the oddity in your fandom, and soon, you’ll find something that legitimizes the magnetization you had to begin with.

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Happy birthday, Tarsus. The best of your days have just begun.


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