When Niki Lauda walked out on his Brabham team following practice for the 1979 Canadian Grand Prix, the British team found themselves in a dire situation.
Having endured a dreadful season, the Brabham pairing of Lauda and young teammate Nelson Piquet retired from race after race after race. In fact, in the first thirteen races of the 1979 season, Brabham suffered fifteen retirements from twenty-five entries, with Lauda not managing to qualify for the Grand Prix of Monaco.
Even a win against a depleted field at the non-Championship race at Imola could not lift Lauda’s spirits. Dispirited, the World Champion from only two years previously had been truly humbled and with his will gone, Lauda left. One might be able to guarantee to a certain degree that drivers everywhere would jump at the chance to pilot a Formula 1 should the opportunity arise. Step forward Ricardo Zuniño.
Argentine Touring Cars, European F2 and Aurora AFX
Born in the San Juan district in Western Argentina, Zuniño was a relatively late starter in motorsport and did not get behind the wheel of a racing machine at the ripe age of 25. Starting with a period in sportscars, he eventually took to the Argentine Touring Car Championship with Fiat, meeting some little success.
Having shown signs of decent, if somewhat untrained talent, Zuniño soon gained sponsorship from the Automobile Club of Argentina and in early 1977, set off for Europe and the hotly-contested Formula 2 Championship.
In a Hart-powered March 772, Zuniño did not have the most successful of seasons first time around; scoring only a single point at the Grand Prix of Pau. Oddly enough, what was originally a 73 lap race at Pau was cut to 59 tours, when heavy rain made the course virtually undriveable. Along with Zuniño and Euroracing’s Alberto Colombo, future Formula 1 stars Didier Pironi and Ricardo Patrese all crashed on the final lap of the famous French street race, gifting a win to the Renault-backed Frenchman, René Arnoux.
1978 would prove to be a slightly more fruitful experience for Zuniño, although he could still do no better than seven points, thanks to three 5th place finishes and a 6th in the works March team. The following year, Zuniño was looking for a move up the racing ladder, making Formula 1 his primary goal, regardless of his results in the lower category.
As the final year of the 1970’s got under way, a muted Formula 1 drive in an ageing Surtees chassis with the proposed BS Fabrications squad fell apart and with little else to lose (or do), the 29-year-old secured a test with Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team.
That too would come to nothing and as prospects became thin on the ground, Zuniño accepted a drive with Arrows’ British Formula 1 team – otherwise known as the Aurora AFX Championship – and soon began piloting their A1 machine. There would be little chance of a Championship run though, as the Argentine had already missed the first five rounds by the time the offer from Arrows arrived.
Settling in would not be an issue for Zuniño. The Argentine national claimed several points finishes, before scoring a victory at the Fuji Tapes Trophy at Brands Hatch in late-August. Against the likes of David Kennedy, Emilio de Villota, Guy Edwards, Desiré Wilson and eventual Champion Rupert Keegan, Zuniño secured a top-six position in the Championship. While his competitors were hardly top drawer opponents, he still managed some considerable results against recognised talent.
On the money in Montreal
Thanks to small gap in the British Formula 1 calendar in late-September, Zuniño arrived in Montreal for the Canadian Grand Prix as a spectator; however Friday morning brought turbulent events in the paddock, as Niki Lauda resigned.
Spotting his one-time test driver in the paddock, Ecclestone approached and Zuniño’s career was changed in an instant. By Friday evening, he was a fully-fledged Brabham driver.
With precious little time to get truly acclimatised to the new BT49, the man from San Juan eventually qualified on the tenth row, but finished a credible 7th place, albeit four laps down on race winner Alan Jones. To make it even more spectacular, the Argentine had even set the race’s 6th fastest lap and had lost plenty of time stuck in the pits thanks to gearbox problem. Even if it meant little on the classification sheets, it was still an impressive achievement and following the race, Zuniño was rewarded with another drive at the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, one week later.
By now, the Brabham man had more time to feel his way into the car and started the race from 9th position ahead of drivers such as Patrese, Pironi, Mario Andretti, Patrick Tambay, John Watson and newly crowned World Champion Jody Scheckter. The race, run in changeable conditions, caught Zuniño out and he was one of many drivers to spin off the track and into retirement.
Poor Form, Poor Fortune
Following these two impressive showings, Zuniño was re-signed for a full season in 1980. Fortune would turn to the worse for the Argentine driver – the season started with his home Grand Prix at the great Oscar Gálves circuit in Buenos Aires and while Zuniño finished in 7th place, he was much slower than a fired up Nelson Piquet – himself eager to make his mark on the World Championship. Zuniño would follow-up with an 8th at Interlagos and a 10th place finish at Kyalami – Piquet meanwhile was clocking up points, while consistently out-qualifying his older teammate; sometimes by over one second.
The situation would reach a painful low at Long Beach at the tail-end of March. While Piquet took both pole position and an easy victory, his struggling teammate qualified only 18th (2.7 seconds slower than Piquet) and retired after one corner as he attempted to avoid a pile-up between Andretti, Jean-Pierre Jarier and Jochen Mass.
Sadly later in the race, Clay Regazzoni suffered a brake failure in the same corner and rammed Zuniño’s parked Brabham. Initially, it was thought that Regazzoni had simply injured his foot; however it soon transpired that the Swiss man had been paralysed in the incident from the waist down.
Neither Brabham finished the Belgian Grand Prix five weeks later, but at the sixth round in Monaco, Piquet qualified 4th and finished 3rd. Zuniño, meanwhile, did not even qualify for the race, having missed the mark by nearly a second. By now, it was an open secret that Brabham were looking to ditch their Argentine number two. Incidentally, Zuniño did register a top-six finish at the Spanish Grand Prix, only for the race to declared a non-Championship event after it had been run.
As the field lined up at Paul Ricard for the French Grand Prix at the end of June, Zuniño burned his clutch on the grid, ending his race before the lights had gone out; Piquet, meanwhile finished 4th, leaving him 2nd in the World Championship standings.
After the dust settled upon the Paul Ricard result, Zuniño had been quietly fired, to be replaced by the mildly superior Hector Rebaque. In fairness to Zuniño, his Mexican substitute did not fair much better than the Argentine journeyman, with Rebaque scoring only a single point, ironically at the Canadian Grand Prix.
Zuniño did not completely disappear from Formula 1. The San Juan man sat out the rest of the 1980 season, but did return to Brabham for the South African Grand Prix at the beginning of 1981. The Kyalami race was initially to be opening round of the season; however FISA declared the event a non-Championship event and was run to Formula Libre rules. No manufacturer teams were present for the race, leaving only nineteen cars to take part with Zuniño finishing in 8th position.
For the Brazilian and Argentine Grand Prix, the former Brabham driver found a temporary home at Tyrrell, finishing 13th in both events; however he had been running in the top-ten at his home race, until a skipped chicane led to a one-lap (!) penalty.
Truth be told, Zuniño had been outclassed by American teammate Eddie Cheever in the two races and by the next Grand Prix at Imola, the Argentine had again been replaced – this time by the reigning European Formula 3 Champion, Michele Alboreto.
An offer to complete the season for Mo Nunn’s struggling Ensign team appeared, but with Zuniño unwilling to trawl around at the rear of the field week in-week out, he turned the British team down. With no other drives on the horizon, the Argentine’s brief top-level was over after only ten races from eleven entries.
Come 1982, the Falkland’s War broke out and with the Argentine economy struggling to stand on its own, sponsorship deals were curtailed without warning. For Zuniño – and many other Argentine drivers of the day – motor racing quickly became history. Returning to his home country to compete in occasional historic car events and the Mil Millas road race, his love for motorsport competition had waned somewhat and with lots of new found free time, he took charge of the Posada San Eduardo hotel in San Juan.
Sitting at base of the Andes, the former driver later became head of the region’s tourist organisation, where he remains to this day.