Home Featured Birth of a single-seater giant: the untold story of Prema’s early years

Birth of a single-seater giant: the untold story of Prema’s early years

by Roger Gascoigne

Photos: Giorgio Piccolo

Prema is considered the gold standard in modern junior single-seaters – a dominant force in every series it enters. 40 ago today, a very different Prema took its first steps in F3, the category where it made its name

The road to Prema’s powerhouse status began on March 25, 1984 at a wet Vallelunga circuit for Italian Formula 3’s season-opening and grandly-titled Campidoglio Grand Prix, named after the Capitoline Hill at the heart of ancient Rome.

Prema today is unrecognisable from the team which appeared at Vallelunga, and the journey from its modest baptism has not always been smooth. But an overwhelming passion for racing and an indomitable family spirit has allowed it to overcome all hurdles and to develop into the benchmark it is today.

Formula Scout spoke to Angelo Rosin, Prema’s co-founder and patriarch of what is still at heart a family business, and his partner in the team’s early years, Giorgio Piccolo, to look back at the fascinating story of its founding and first racing steps.

After leaving school aged 14 in 1972, Rosin started his career “in a very small company in Italy, which is a very famous company to work in motorsport: Trivellato”. The Trivellato family operates a large car dealership in northeastern Italy, and its racing department was a regular in Formula 2 and F3 in the 1970s, taking Riccardo Patrese to the 1976 FIA European F3 title.

“When I worked with Trivellato many important drivers from F2 and F3 passed through,” remembers Rosin.

After completing his military service, in 1977 he left to set up RAM, together with a colleague from Trivellato and another friend. However, his passion was unfulfilled by “the philosophy of RAM to work with prototypes, building engines for racing and hillclimbing”.

“I don’t like cars with the tyres covered,” he says. “I like formula cars.”

Prema preparing for its first ever test day

By coincidence, just as Rosin was looking to set up his own team to move into single-seaters, he struck up a conversation in the workshop one evening in 1982 with Piccolo, who was an occasional visitor to RAM. Piccolo, with no racing background himself, was looking for an experienced partner to set up a team, having “realised that I would never be able to compete as a driver for financial reasons”.

Upon learning Rosin had resigned from RAM, Piccolo paid him a visit at his home “to propose to him to form a team with me”.

“It was December 21, 1982. He took a couple of weeks to decide – he had another proposal – and then accepted.”

A partnership was formed and Pre.Ma (short for Preparazione Macchine or “Car Preparation”), as the team was originally called, was born. For Piccolo it was, he says, “the realisation of a childhood dream”.

Rosin recalls that his wife Grazia Troncon “was working in the office to control the money, the budget and to organise the logistics, Piccolo was more the sporting area and me for the technical area”, with the team completed by his young cousins Andrea and Primo. It was, however, already too late to jump into F3 for 1983, so the nascent Pre.Ma “started to get organised and ran a single Lucchini sportscar in the Italian prototype championship for six months”.

“But we put all our motivation and energy into formula cars. The objective was to organise the test in the winter for F3, to buy a car and use it to test some drivers and to prepare for 1984,” remembers Rosin.

“In the meantime, we built our network within the world of F3,” explains Piccolo. “Two people gave us great assistance – Chuck McCarthy, who was the Ralt importer for Italy, and Roberto Farneti, who imported Volkswagen-Judd engines.”

Unlike today where the F3 category name has been given to a spec car, in the early 1980s the third tier of single-seaters was truly an open category and featured highly competitive battles between multiple chassis manufacturers and engine suppliers.

Trying out the new Ralt

Rosin takes up the story: “In 1984 there were in Europe many engines: from Toyota, Alfa Romeo and VW, engines prepared by John Judd. In Italy there was one importer for Judd and this company came to Piccolo and me to run one driver, Gianfranco Tacchino, who had broken his arm in 1983 in a crash after two or three races.”

A deal was quickly done and Pre.Ma was ready to take on F3. Ralt was then the dominant chassis in European F3 with its Ron Tauranac-designed ground-effect RT3, and McCarthy arranged generous financial terms to get the new team started.

Today, Prema’s drivers and engineers benefit from an extensive pre-season testing schedule to get ready for the start of the season. In 1984 things worked a little differently for Pre.Ma and its plain white Ralt RT3-VW.

“In preparation for the season, we did a single day of testing at Misano a week before the first race in Vallelunga. A very short day, among other things, because cars and motorbikes alternated, and there was a fatal accident involving a motorcyclist in the early afternoon which brought the test day to an early end,” Piccolo remembers.

Due to bumper entry lists exceeding grid capacities, a format of two heats and a final had to be used on some of Italy’s smaller tracks.

Tacchino finished ninth in a rain-shortened heat at Vallelunga, leaving him on the ninth row of the grid for the 38-lap final. Remarkably, he then picked his way through to third, earning Pre.Ma a podium on its first day of racing. There was little to indicate the historical portent of the result, and attention was focused on the hegemony of Novamotor’s Alfa Romeo engine being broken by VW-powered race winner Walter Voulaz.

Tacchino “started getting better and better and finished third in the championship”, says Rosin, who 40 years later retains an incredibly accurate memory of names and results.

Prema’s shiny new truck in 1987

In fact, Tacchino rounded off the season in October with another milestone, taking Pre.Ma’s first ever victory at Misano by seeing off a guesting Ivan Capelli, the freshly-crowned European F3 champion.

At the end of 1984, Pre.Ma was approached by McCarthy to run its Ralt-VW at the Macau Grand Prix for ex-Formula 1 driver and ABBA drummer Slim Borgudd. However, the car was officially entered under the Trivellato Racing banner, with Rosin and a mechanic making the journey to Macau.

Amazingly, Borgudd qualified second then was classified sixth in the grand prix from his aggregate time over the two legs. On his return to Vicenza, Rosin related to Piccolo that the driver had been “fast but a little weird”.

Obviously pleased with the team’s efforts, McCarthy called on Pre.Ma at the end of 1985 to run a privateer entry for Borgudd again. He could only finish 11th, but the weekend seemed to be one of high jinks on and off the track.

Despite his success with Pre.Ma, Tacchino moved on for 1985. The team signed Italian Formula 2000 graduate Giorgio Montaldo as his replacement and he came fifth in Italian F3, in the process earning selection for the inaugural FIA European F3 Cup, which had been created after the continental championship collapsed at the end of 1984.

Armed with a “special engine, with an evolution of the electronics”, Montaldo finished sixth in Pre.Ma’s first big international event it had entered in its own name.

The team had added another entry, future three-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner Rinaldo “Dindo” Capello, from round four of the Italian F3 season. “He started well, fighting to the top” but next time out at Magione “one driver pushed him out and he broke his arm”, recalls Rosin. “He missed maybe 40 days – one or two races.”

In fact, it wasn’t until round 10, two months later, that Capello returned to action but he soon showed his pace, taking “[two] pole positions and some very good results”. One of those poles came at Misano [pictured below].

Photo: Prema

Unfortunately, Capello struggled from the start to raise sponsorship. “When he started with us the budget was very small, running with our Pre.Ma sponsors. With Giorgio Piccolo we worked a lot to raise money,” says Rosin.

To the disappointment of both partners, ongoing lack of funds forced Capello to move elsewhere for 1986, with Massimo Monti taking his seat. “We would have liked to have had him [Capello] in ’86 as well but neither he nor us could raise the budget,” Piccolo explains.

Monti proved fast but unlucky (as “three or four times the engine stopped”) in a field that included the crop of strong Italian drivers such as Nicola Larini, Marco Apicella, Alex Caffi and Stefano Modena. In the end he came fifth in the standings, meaning entry into the European F3 Cup on home soil at Imola. Monti claimed pole, but could only finish a lapped seventh.

The team’s rapid growth meant new premises were required, so in 1987 Pre.Ma said goodbye to its workshop in the tiny village of Colze outside Vicenza and relocated to a new factory on the city’s outskirts, at the same time splashing out on a new transporter. Still far from its current standards but an important step in the team’s development.

There were big changes on track as well as the team switched chassis from Ralt to Reynard, while remaining faithful to VW.

Cesare Carabelli arrived in place of Monti, and was one of seven drivers to be controversially excluded from the standings for fuel irregularities after finishing second at Vallelunga. However, the season was more notable for karter and future touring car legend Fabrizio Giovanardi’s debut. He was quick from the word go, “the best young driver” according to Rosin.

Pre.Ma had been one of the last remaining VW runners in Italy but “for 1988 we decided to move to Italian engines”. The team bought Alfa Romeo units, having “kept a relationship to Gianni Pedrazzani” whose Novamotor firm had prepared the engines of the last two champions.

Rosin, Troncon & Piccolo in 1988

Giovanardi “fought all year – firsts, seconds – [for] some pole positions, and lost the championship by two points to [Emanuele] Naspetti,” Rosin recalls. “There were some mistakes – sometimes the team’s, sometimes the driver’s.”

For reasons known only to the organizers, Giovanardi’s entry for the Monaco F3 race, still the category’s European blue-riband event, had been turned down but the team made its first appearance under its own name at Macau with another future touring car legend as Gabriele Tarquini was team-mate to Giovanardi.

The next year marked an important milestone in the team’s history for several reasons. Firstly, Antonio Tamburini left Venturini Racing to join its driver line-up. However, it was his young team-mate Jacques Villeneuve who grabbed the attention.

Villeneuve brought with him a sizeable budget thanks to the sponsorship of Camel cigarettes, resulting in the cars being decked out in the sponsor’s bright yellow livery. Finally, Pre.ma appeared to have reached the big league.

In fact, the team had already begun a relationship with Camel in 1988 as Rosin recalls: “Camel started a little bit before Jacques, they came to us [with] Giovanardi who had put a small Camel logo on the car.”

But now the brand, which had made a big splash when entering F1 with Lotus in 1987, wanted to do things properly. At a time when Italian-entered cars tended to be plastered with hundreds of small sponsors’ stickers, Pre.Ma’s cars, mechanics, and team were kitted out in Camel’s instantly recognisable shade of yellow and with the brand’s logo prominent.

“Villeneuve stayed with us for three years. Camel invested a lot of money, more in the team, more in the driver. They paid for the season, for the driver,” says Rosin.

“And in three years of co-operation we never had a written contract with Camel,” adds Piccolo. “A shake of the hands was enough.”

Lunch time in Camel colours while racing at Enna in 1989

Tamburini won the season’s first two races, but a run of six wins in seven races by Forti Corse’s Gianni Morbidelli, a future F1 driver, put the title beyond Tamburini’s reach despite him returning to the top step in the penultimate round at Imola.

He then qualified on pole for the European F3 Cup at Misano, but had to settle for second place behind Morbidelli once more.

Tamburini’s day-of-days came in Monaco on the team’s first visit, taking pole by 0.446 seconds and leading every lap of the race. According to Piccolo it prompted him and Rosin to embrace “for the first time, and the only time in many years,” as the partners were overcome with emotion.

As an interesting aside, one of the non-qualifiers in Monaco was local Herve Leclerc in his privately-entered Dallara-VW, who had finished eighth the year before. Two of his sons, Charles and Arthur, would go on to feature prominently in Prema’s future.

Villeneuve also failed to qualify in Monaco, perhaps unsurprising given that it was only his third ever race meeting in single-seaters. The future F1 and CART champion had begun racing the year before with a few outings in Italian touring cars.

With almost no background in karting, the Swiss-educated French-Canadian raced initially under an Andorran licence, as the only federation which would grant a racing licence to a 16-year-old. The hype in Italy around the son of the legendary Gilles – a Ferrari idol still worshipped in Italy – was enormous, and youthful exuberance and inexperience contributed to many mistakes. With fields of over 40 cars, even making it beyond the heat races proved difficult. Nevertheless, his attitude impressed Rosin.

“When Jacques came, I expected a particular driver, a particular approach, but Jacques came when he was very young – 16 or 17. He did a small test in Magione or Varano, I can’t remember exactly, a few days before the start of the championship.

“He came step-by-step because he made a lot of mistakes. No experience from karting and just small experience in touring cars in 1988 driving an Alfa Romeo. He was getting better and better, sometimes it was difficult because in Italian F3 there were heats to qualify for the final race. Sometimes he started at the back, but he continued to improve and to improve.”

Tamburini in 1989

“He was a good driver, a very good kid. For me, in my younger passioned way, when I see Jacques he’s the best driver for motivation, the character to approach motorsport.”

Villeneuve himself has fond memories of his first racing steps with Prema. Speaking at the team’s gala anniversary celebration in 2023, he said: “It was an amazing time. I was 18 years old, learning Italian and discovering a whole new world. At the time Angelo was also engineering the team, so he was like a father figure to me and I learned a lot. My team-mates had experience and were older than me, so it was a really good life school.”

Tamburini graduated to Formula 3000 for 1990, and Prema ran fourth-year F3 driver Roberto Colciago, Villeneuve and Giuseppe Bugatti, who had looked impressive in winter testing.

Colciago stormed into an early championship lead with three poles and two wins in the first three rounds, but then a combination of crashes and technical issues restricted him to just one point in the next six rounds. He bounced back with victory at Varano, but Prema’s weekend was marred by a nasty qualifying shunt for Bugatti which resulted in a broken arm.

Going into the Vallelunga season finale, Colciago had a four-point lead over Max Angellelli. But he qualified 11th while his rival took pole. Colciago had it all to do in the race, exacerbated further by stalling at the start. “Luckily”, team-mate Villeneuve burst through from row two of the grid to lead, and holding up the field thereon helped an unflustered Colciago’s recovery.

Villeneuve won on-the-road, but then a one-minute penalty dropped him to 14th (penalties were obviously harsher back in 1990). It promoted Colciago to third, enough to be champion by three points over Alex Zanardi. It was Pre.Ma’s first title.

“[It was a great thing for Prema winning the championship. We had a fantastic team, fantastic people. I really enjoyed that year and I learned a lot about the car,” said Colciago as he looked back on his sucess over three decades ago.

A young Jacques Villeneuve

The team had achieved another milestone, its first-ever one-two finish, earlier in the season. That was done without Colciago, as Bugatti led home Villeneuve at the Binetto circuit near Bari.

The 1990 title was also Reynard’s first in Italy. While the manufacturer had also been victorious in Germany and France, Ralts had become the chassis of choice in Britain. West Surrey Racing’s Mika Hakkinen using his Ralt to defeat the Italian and German regulars in cameo appearances on the continent.

Prema initially stayed loyal to Reynard for 1991, but it was soon apparent that the car was inferor to the Dallaras and Ralts.

“1991 was a difficult season because Pre.Ma was driving with a Reynard. We started the first three races with the Reynard but the combination of the car and the Pirelli tyre was a disaster. The car was not fast,” explains Rosin. “We decided after three races to buy three new cars from Ralt, which at that time was a very good car.”

Though the move brought the team back to the front with Villeneuve and new team-mate Alessandro Zampedri, by this time Luca Badoer was on an unstoppable run of form. Villeneuve did manage to grab pole for the prestigious Monza Lottery Grand Prix but in the race had to settle for second behind Badoer.

Back at Monza in September [pictured below], he led from another pole before being punted off by Niko Palhares, although the furious Villeneuve recovered to third.

“[Villeneuve] had some good results, some pole positions. The result [sixth] in the championship was not fantastic because we lost time and spent a lot of money to prepare the move to the Ralt, which was not good for the final results,” says Rosin.

“We stayed with the Ralt until the end of the season but then Dallara started pushing me, asking why we weren’t running the Dallara. Prema, together with Euroteam, was then the only top team not to use the Dallara, so for 1992 we decided to move to Dallara.”

Photo: Roger Gascoigne

Rivals had already gathered several seasons of data with the increasingly omnipresent Dallara chassis and Pre.Ma struggled to match them with their Formula Alfa Boxer graduate Gianantonio Pacchioni. He could race for the team again in 1995.

Pacchioni became something of a Monaco specialist. He was sixth on his circuit debut in 1992, with cameoing team-mate Villeneuve ninth, then in 1993 he won with Tatuus- which was then a team rather than a manufacturer. Two years later he won again with his old team. Rosin says “Pacchioni always drove very well on the small tracks”.

Pre.Ma switched engine supplier to use Fiat’s new powerplant in 1993, and Fabrizio de Simone won twice in Italian F3.

Off-track, the company was struggling. Under pressure financially, Piccolo says the only option “was to sell the team.” As a result, two new investors were brought in for 1994: local businessmen Massimo Vallotto and Giorgio Galvanin. By mid-season that year, Piccolo had decided to move on after becoming “tired after 12 years of doing always and only F3; I wanted to try something else”.

By changing scenery he did get to experience different categories like Formula Renault 3.5 and F3000, and had “two years in the USA with the American Le Mans Series, two years in China and running the SuperTrofeo and FIA GT for Lamborghini.”

For the team he co-founded it also marked the start of a new direction as Pre.Ma had metamorphosed into Prema Powerteam, the name it would become famous under across Europe.

In the second part of this story, we will look at Prema’s journey from this low point to the creation of the global titan that bestrides today’s junior categories. And what better fact to illustrate than Dino Beganovic’s FIA F3 Championship victory in Melbourne last weekend, which was by our reckoning Prema’s 239th race win in F3 through the category’s multiple guises.

Prema’s most successful F3 stars

Pos Driver Years Wins
1 Raffaele Marciello 2011-’13 23
=2 Felix Rosenqvist 2014-’15 15
=2 Lance Stroll 2015-’16 15
4 Roberto Merhi 2011 13
5 Daniel Juncadella 2010-’12 11
=6 Esteban Ocon 2014 9
=6 Maximilian Gunther 2016-’17 9
=8 Ryan Briscoe 2003 8
=8 Mick Schumacher 2018 8
=10 Jake Dennis 2015 6
=10 Callum Ilott 2017 6