For all the wrong reasons, Attilio Bettega is rightly remembered as being special. Thirty five years ago he became the first professional driver to lose his life in action in the World Rally Championship, in an accident on the first day of the 1985 Tour de Corse.
It was a huge shock, but strangely enough his tragic loss prepared the sport for the accident which would happen exactly one year later, when Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto also lost their lives on the same event.
Attilio was special for many other reasons. He was one of the first major drivers whose career took off through success in a one-make championship, in the national Italian Autobianchi A112 series.
The prize for the title winner was an immediate upgrade into the works Lancia team, the top of the profession for an Italian driver.
For me it seemed a career step too far for one so (relatively) inexperienced as the 24-year old Attilio. I told Cesare Fiorio, the Fiat Group’s competition director, I feared that it would only end in tears, but within weeks Attilio was already rallying a Stratos successfully.
Clearly Attilio’s subsequent seven year career with the top-flight Fiat group rally team proved that I was wrong and Cesare, as usual, was right.
Attilio was one of the old school of drivers, perhaps the last of that generation of top line rally drivers who never learned to speak English. For media people it was frustrating, and bothersome for Isabella, his wife, who spoke English and who patiently interpreted for us when she had the chance.
Attilio Bettega finished 6th outright on the 1980 Monte Carlo Rally in a Fiat Ritmo 75. Photo: Martin Holmes
I think the first time we met each other was at San Romolo service stop when Attilio wanted to know why his Stratos was able to catch our Vauxhall Chevette 2300HS on the short first stage of the 1978 Sanremo Rally.
We had to explain to his co-driver, then his girlfriend Isabella, that we had the wrong tyres on our car. It was Attilio’s first stage in the WRC and we had already spoiled it for him!
Life at the top was tough, never more so than on the 1982 Tour de Corse when his Lancia 037 heavily impacted a concrete wall and smashed his legs. This ended his season very prematurely and life was still very painful for him through the 1983 season.
I do not know whether Attilio ever knew about the trauma he caused me coming home from New Zealand in 1983. He had me downgraded on an international flight back to Los Angeles. Continental Airlines decided that a journalist was worthy of a first class boarding pass, Fiat Group personnel had to settle for Business class.
Walter Rohrl (who I had thought was my friend) arranged for Attilio to stumble into the airport on crutches and convincingly persuaded the check-in staff that a rally driver with an injured leg needed extra leg room. Up he went, down went me!
Attilio Bettega, Sanremo Rally, 1984. Photo: Martin Holmes
Bettega hit a cow on the 1983 Rally of New Zealand in a Lancia 037. Photo: Martin Holmes
Attilio had a dramatic event in New Zealand when he ran over a cow on the famed Motu Road stage and the luckless animal was stuck, trapped under his car. Lancia mechanics immediately flew to the scene, jumped out of their helicopter to send Attilio and Maurizio Perissinot on their way again. They finished third, a half hour behind the winner, their teammate Rohrl.
The traditional element of the pressures of life at the top of an Italian motorsport empire was never more clearly illustrated than in 1984 for Attilio, when another promising young Italian driver, five years younger, came along.
This was Miki Biasion, and Sanremo Rally was High Noon. Bettega was the top seeded Italian driver competing in a full Martini team car, Miki was in a Jolly Club car, but in an equivalent specification Lancia 037.
They went almost neck and neck into the final stages and the battle was only ended when Miki punctured. Attilio came second, his best ever WRC result and one of his six podium finishes – but behind the Peugeot of Ari Vatanen.
French cars winning in Italy in those days simply intensified the sporting political temperature at Fiat. In this atmosphere, any second place was failure, especially on home ground.
The media gained a tremendous respect for Attilio. Perhaps his finest hour came only a month before he died, when for eight sections he led the Safari Rally, on his first attempt, before his Lancia retired with engine failure.
Bettega slid off the road on a fast approach to a right hand bend on the Zirubia stage in 1985. Photo: Martin Holmes
Then came that frightful day in Corsica. Attilio was the highest placed Italian driver on the event at the moment he slid off the road in Corsica, and his career and his life came to a premature end.
One of the most profound reactions was for the media at the event. We were not used to handling this level of tragedy, it was unchartered territory.
I vividly remember that this was one of the young British motorsport journalist David Williams’ first assignments. He had just joined Motoring News (now Motorsport News) as Rally Editor. How do you handle this? All I can say is that this incident prepared us all carefully for rally tragedies that followed.
For me, as for everyone else, the loss of Bettega was marked by trivial memories, things quite irrelevant. The day before he died I had really enjoyed taking some shots of Attilio.
I rushed to get them processed, only to discover that the film used had been subjected to a powerful security x-ray machine, when Lufthansa had mislaid my case coming back from the Safari Rally. Nobody warned me they had done this. I could have used fresh film.
The memorial to Attilio Bettega in Corsica, May 1986. Photo: Martin Holmes
The impact that took Attilio’s life was a fundamental experience in the sporting authority’s continuing quest for improving driver safety in rallying. The 037 slid down the hillside and the top of the windscreen near Attilio had collapsed.
His co-driver, Maurizio Perissinot, was unhurt, but very badly upset. Nine years later the sport lost Maurizio after of a long illness – he died on the same weekend as the Memorial Bettega stadium races were being run in Bologna.
The WRC saw Attilio’s son, Alessandro, in WRC action between 2005 and 2009, winning the Fiesta Sporting Trophy in 2006.
Many of Attilio’s colleagues were still remembering his life even in 2015, gathering for a remarkable celebration parade of rally cars at his home town of Molveno, near the Italian mountain town of Trento.
Bettega's son, Allessandro, competed in the WRC in a Fiesta in the mid 2000s. Photo: Maurice Selden
A line up of Fiat Ritmo, Lancia Stratos and Fiat 131 in honour of Attilio Bettega in his home town of Molveno. Photo: Martin Holmes
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