Weekend rewind: Lucio Cesario – Part 1

Photos: House Bros Motorsport Photography

First published in 2017

Lucio Cesario exploded onto the Australian racing scene in the early ’80s, bringing new excitement to open wheeler competition. Lightning fast, the Melbourne driver quickly secured the Australian Formula 2 title, prompting an invitation to join Allan Moffat’s Mazda team for the 1982 Sandown and Bathurst enduros. Unfairly, Cesario is often remembered for a low number of high-profile driving incidents, but they were no worse than those of other star drivers. Bizarrely, he was given a substantial driving ban following a collision at Sandown, however Cesario’s speed and talent was recognised by the Italian factory Lancia World Endurance Championship sports car team. As part of the Lancia team, Cesario competed in the 1985 24 Hours of Le Mans (finishing sixth), just five years after he first drove a four-wheeled competition vehicle at Calder Raceway. Darren House sat down with the man dubbed the ‘Villeneuve of Australia’ to discuss his short but extraordinary career. You can read a transcript here or listen to the podcast at: https://bit.ly/3qnmBtH

AUTOPARTS AND EQUIPMENT: You come from a racing family – your dad (Gaetano Cesario) raced – how did you became involved in the sport?

LUCIO CESARIO: I grew up with my father always having a race car, I never remember Dad not having a race car in his garage, so it was pretty much part and parcel of my growing up.  

He had some interesting racing cars.

He did, very much so, and may I add, [he was] probably ahead of his time. He had the very first Abarth in the country – Abarth is pretty big in Australia at the moment – he’s raced FIAT spiders, an Anglia, he always had some form of a race car in his possession.

He used to race against Peter Brock.

I remember it quite vividly. One particular race, I would have been, probably all of 10, nine or 10, Dad in the Abarth at Sandown and Peter Brock in the Austin A30, bucketing down with rain. Dad was on pole, he ended up winning that race. It was a memorable race. I remember it vividly to this very day. It was a Toby Lee event, and we’ve still got the trophy.

Did you know then you wanted to go racing?

I never thought about… I don’t know… I think Darren, it was one of those things… you took it for granted. Dad had the cars, but it never crossed my mind to jump into one of his cars. I was quite happy playing around with my mini bike or motor bike, or dirt bike. I never had that inclination of saying, “Pop, can I drive one of your race cars?” 

You started your competition career racing motorcycles. How did you go from mini bikes and dirt bikes to circuit racing? 

My very first love was motorcycle racing. I remember my dad bought me a full-on road racing bike at the age of 15 or 16 – I remember going to Calder – it was a [Yamaha] TZ 350 – a full-on race bike. I remember the first time I ever rode it at Calder, the first test day, I thought to myself, ‘My father wants to see me dead – this thing is just wicked’. It was a two-stroke, amazing torque. I’d never ridden anything like it.   

From there I competed in a few events. I was very young, my father had to drive me to all the circuits and all in all I had many, many accidents. My father was more or less sick of scraping me off the ground (laughs) and he more or less said you’re on your own because you’re going to hurt yourself pretty bad. And it pretty much came to a stop a year or so after that.

I have always been one of those people who, if it comes easy, I’d pursue it, it’s for me, it’s my chosen sport. I felt at home, it came very easy.

With those accidents, I guess you were showing, even back then, a very strong will to win.

That was probably my biggest fault or dilemma, I think I rode a bike like driving a car – I was either locking a front wheel or locking something and a motorcycle required a smooth style or riding, which probably didn’t agree with my persona, my style. It just didn’t suit that.

How did you progress into cars?

Cars, Darren, there would have been a pretty big gap between motorcycles and cars, of probably I’d say four or five years. I’ll never forget, I was sitting at home, and I said to Dad, “I’d like to take up motor racing”. I would have been all of 21. Now, I never did any kart racing prior to that or anything to do with anything on four wheels.

My father was probably the best dad you could ever have, he was all for it and he said, “Well, what do you want to race?” I remember looking in the back of the classifieds in Auto Action, it would have been 1980, and there was a Formula 2 Cheetah in Tasmania for sale. So, Dad flew over, bought the car, we had it shipped back to Melbourne and that was my very first race car. I didn’t even have any race overalls at that stage.

We go out to Calder, for the very first time in this open wheeler, and from day dot I drove that as hard as I could. I spun it on every corner possible in one lap – it was just flat to the floor, and I thought wow, this is me, this is fantastic. Unfortunately, the bug was caught a little late in my life but from that moment I was in love with the open wheelers.

Most people would think it’s a pretty big step going straight into Formula 2.

I didn’t think so, no. I still remember [my first drive of the car] vividly, one of the marshals coming up to me saying, “Look out, there are a few drivers who have only just got their licences” and I remember thinking, ‘Hang on, this is the very first time I have stepped in this car’. From there, I got my CAMS (Motorsport Australia) licence. We did half a dozen club events. I won the majority of the ones I competed in. I have always been one of those people who, if it comes easy, I’d pursue it, it’s for me, it’s my chosen sport. I felt at home, it came very easy.

From there, that was 1980, I ran it until around mid-’81, the Cheetah Mk6, and Dad said now, I’m going to buy you a proper Formula 2 – and my father was very black and white – you’re either in or out – you either show talent or you’re out. He was very much like me.

We bought Graham Watson’s (Ralt) RT3. In ’81 I won two rounds of the Australian championship, the following year I won most of the rounds except at Sandown; I won one race but in the next race there was an electrical problem with the car, and I didn’t finish but you could say I won all the events with that car, which got me the Australian championship.

And now I’d like to explain to you how the Allan Moffat thing came about.

In ’82, I’m sitting at home, I get a call from Allan Horsley from Allan Moffat’s team asking what I was doing for Bathurst. Mind you I’d only driven a for a year and a half, I get a call from Allan Horsley, (laughs), what am I doing for Bathurst? – God, I think I got a bit teary at that time – and he said we’d like you to run with us for Sandown and Bathurst, co-driving with Gregg Hansford. I thought, ‘whoa’, I couldn’t believe it, I just couldn’t believe this had happened at such an early stage of my career.

At the first race at Sandown in ’82, the Castrol 400, Gregg Hansford had an accident so that put us out of the event. Then came Bathurst, Gregg had an accident in practice, they put [the car] together, I went out and I had an accident, and they didn’t put it together. It was supposedly pretty badly damaged underneath and that was my short introduction to Bathurst.

Thoughts at the time, and they persist today, is that Moffat was very upset and withdrew the car.

Look, probably to this day, Darren, I still don’t know the true story – why they withdrew the car. The car didn’t have any body damage, it had suspension damage underneath. To this very day, I’m not 100 per cent sure why they withdrew the car, we were all amazed they did. I had no say in it, so that put an end to that.

Was that shattering for you?

Oh, absolutely. Shattering and at the same time… everything was happening so fast. To be thrown in this massive, Australian team, as I said, after probably a year and a half of competing, I was too ‘green’ – well, no excuses. I didn’t have anyone to coax me, I sort of did it all my own way, made a few mistakes, but I don’t see why that should have… it didn’t put an end to my career… but why that incident sort of tarnished my name. Plenty of drivers have had many accidents. That [incident] certainly didn’t help me but my excuse was I was just too ‘green.’

Do you remember the circumstances of the incident?

Oh, absolutely yes, vividly. Driving over the top of McPhillamy Park, now they have a bit of a run out to the right – [but] back then there was a part of the mountain there. It happened exiting McPhillamy Park, I took a really wide line and I drove with two wheels up the side of the bank and then came back down to the left of the circuit and that caused a lot of the damage underneath the car. It wasn’t a spin or a crash into anything, I just literally drove on the side of the mountain, that caused all the damage.

I found that quite bizarre. I’m a race driver – I didn’t know how to do it any other way – I didn’t know there was another way to do it.

It was also your first drive in a touring car. Did you find it very different or was it just another race car?

Just another race car. I feel at home in a race car, whether it has a roof or it hasn’t.

You had a meteoric rise – some people might have thought you had a lot of family money behind you.

Admittedly my father gave me the right equipment but having the right equipment isn’t everything and I’ve always said, “Actions speak louder than words”. By having the right car and showing your ability – that you can drive – people started to take notice and from that point on it was, more or less, I got offered drives with these teams. 

You came out of nowhere and suddenly you’re in the spotlight. Did that put any pressure on you?

No, I never felt any pressure behind the wheel of a car. I was always very comfortable behind the wheel of a car. I knew my own limitations; I didn’t feel any limitations. You could virtually say, Darren, my career lasted five years from go to whoa, to the Lancia drive, it was five years. It was more or less the blink of an eye. I wish I had a 15- or 20-year career in motor racing, but that wasn’t the case.

Some drivers weren’t very happy with your aggressive style.

So, then we start ’83, I moved from Formula 2 to Formula Mondial – the Pacifics – very much a disaster of a year. One particular event at Sandown I had an altercation on the track with another driver, who in turn complained. From that complaint on that day, all the name drivers got together and more or less said – and mark my words, this is the truth – they more or less said if he’s on the circuit, we don’t want to compete. This guy is going to kill himself, and he’s going to hurt us. And in saying that, that’s where I got that six month’s ban from CAMS; I lost my licence for six months over that incident.

There was a fine to pay [but] we couldn’t afford to pay that fine back in those days, so ’83 was very much a sabbatical year – I didn’t spend very much time on the circuit, but it was just odd how they reacted towards me. I found that quite bizarre. I’m a race driver – I didn’t know how to do it any other way – I didn’t know there was another way to do it.

I don’t recall you injuring yourself or anyone else.

I’m still here today. I don’t think my mindset has changed much to be very honest with you. I still run in historics, I still, in my own mind, approach it in a similar way but I’m still here to speak about it, so it hasn’t been that bad (laughs).

Such a ban seems quite severe, and I’m not sure there’s been a similar one before or since.

It was, it hit the front page of Auto Action. It was either three months or six months – I think it was a six-month ban – I thought it was very severe. But when you have the establishment against you, who would they rather see – who would they stick up for – a lone wolf or the rest of the drivers who are competing. I didn’t have much say in that. We were pretty dejected. We pretty much took it on the chin. It was a pretty hefty suspension for not much. Today they probably wouldn’t even blink at the incident. Or probably they would blink at the incident these days, (laughs), they’re getting pretty strict with incidents on the circuit.

Talk me through that incident from your point of view.

The incident… well, how do I explain… how do I clean it up (laughs)… make it look good… oh look, I was probably in such a hurry to get past the guy in front that I more or less cut across the dirt and as you know there’s not much traction on the dirt with these open wheelers (laughs) so I ended up ploughing into the side of him, and all the drama started. Once again, always being in a hurry, that’s youth I suppose.

At the time you were compared to [Gilles] Villeneuve, being called the Australian Villeneuve. On social media there’s a lot of admiration for Villeneuve and his aggressive style but one of the grand prix drivers of the time went on Facebook and said it’s okay for fans to admire and honour Villeneuve but you didn’t have to race against him.

You know, you don’t get into a car intentionally wanting to get it sideways or to have a bingle – it’s never your intention. It just so happens that, I think there are certain drivers that probably are prepared to push the boundaries and I was one of those. I was always racing me. I wanted to be the quickest into a corner, out of a corner, the latest braker, everything. That’s just the nature of the beast. It’s a natural instinct. It’s just how I’ve always loved to race. I’ve never done it any differently. Never.

Darren, as I explained, that’s why my career was, I suppose, from go to whoa, it sort of happened like lightening. Because of, maybe, that massive will to win. Coming second meant nothing. It was a will to win at all costs, it was all or nothing. My blessed Dad, he was very much the same as I said, he was very black and white. Hence, the good car with no excuses. If you’re not winning in a good car, it’s not your thing, it’s not the game for you, it’s not your sport. And I’m the same, I would have just pulled out of motor racing if I weren’t getting results.

Any thoughts of giving it away (after the licence suspension)?

Oh, it may have crossed my mind. Things were pretty hard at that point in time. You’re struggling to buy tyres… actually, can I give you a little example of ’83? Probably the highlight of ’83. The Mondials are racing at Adelaide Raceway, we weren’t going to attend but we get a call from Adelaide Raceway, they were prepared to pay the accommodation and fuel bill if we could get over there and compete. We arrived and there was Alfie (Costanzo) running with (Alan) Hamilton, they’d been there testing a couple of days. To cut a long story short, I put it on pole position, we just dusted the car off, bought it out to Adelaide Raceway and put it on pole position and I’m the only Formula Mondial driver to ever break 50 seconds. I did two laps under the 50s, that was probably the highlight of ’83, beating the big money teams with our little measly set up. That put a smile on my face, but it was short-lived.

I was always racing me. I wanted to be the quickest into a corner, out of a corner, the latest braker, everything. That’s just the nature of the beast.

You raced at the Australian Grand Prix at Calder in 1984.  

Well, yes, I was running around in my old Ralt, the ’81 model. In ’84 there were a lot of international drivers there – on the Friday I had the quickest time. I still picture those two laps I did, they were just right on the money, they were just beautiful, and those times were never bettered on the Friday or the Saturday. Come race day, on the Sunday, the brakes jammed on. The brake master cylinders seized, so I couldn’t get it off the starting grid so that was the end of the ’84 meeting.

Those events were 100 laps of the short course at Calder, you couldn’t have been looking forward to that.

Calder was two squiggles and two straights or something, a very short circuit. It was pretty much a little go kart track for the grand prix but unfortunately, I didn’t get to do too many laps.

As you say there were some very big-name drivers in that race. Were you intimidated by any of the international drivers?

I don’t know how people will perceive my answer, but I always thought… look… two arms, two legs, with blood running through our veins, a driver is a driver. That never ever crossed my mind or intimidated me in any way. That was my approach back then. Don’t get me wrong, it was an honour to be on the circuit with these big-name drivers, that particular year there was [Niki] Lauda, there was Keke Rosberg, [Andrea] de Cesaris, it was an absolute honour to be on the same circuit, but I always thought if they can do it, why shouldn’t I be able to do it.

But that year, I’ve got to add, I drove under the Peter Jackson banner with Alan Hamilton.

How did that come about?

I approached Alan about running me in the team with Alfie and at the end we had agreed he would run my car; it was a pretty tired old car, but I’ve got to add, all the focus was for their number one driver. I could see that, and I felt it – so once again that was pretty much a mediocre sort of year too.

People who only know you from your racing might be surprised to learn that you are a very calm person and quite a shy man. Obviously, there’s an on-track Lucio and an off-track Lucio.

Well Darren, you got one of them right – very shy? Absolutely! It was very much a downfall for me in motor racing because I was a very shy sort of person. But being very calm? Well, I’m not sure about that, even being out of a car at times (laughs).

You were quite media shy, too.

Absolutely. There were races where I was on pole and media wanted to talk to me and I’d shy away from speaking to anyone. I’d tell them to go speak to the guy who came second, I just absolutely walked away from it. And it wasn’t being a snob, it just didn’t sit well with me. I just wasn’t comfortable with it.

As you say, you weren’t being a snob, but a lot of people might have thought you were, because shy people can appear arrogant.

Yeah, I might have come across as being a bit arrogant, but it was the contrary – it was just shyness (laughs).

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Darren House

Darren House has been involved with motoring and motorsport media for more than four decades, working as a photographer, journalist, editor, public relations manager and marketing manager. He has produced material for numerous publications, including Auto Action, Chequered Flag, Motorsport News, Performance Street Car, Super Ford, Street Machine, Fast Fours & Rotaries, Hot Fours & Rotaries, Motorsport Legends and Truth Sport.

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