Norberto Fontana

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Last updated: 21-January-2005


Biography

Before Formula One Formula One After Formula One

Before F1
Background

Comparisons with Carlos R

Motor racing fans have always been, and always will be, a parochial lot. Whether a team or driver is any good becomes a matter of national pride. When a driver lines up on the starting grid, he not only carries the expectations of himself and his team. In many instances he also carries the hopes and dreams of his nation. Just ask Rubens Barrichello what it meant to be The Brazilian After Senna. And so, not surprisingly, race fans will often leap to the defence of the merits of their man, objective or otherwise.

Take Norberto Fontana, for example. Argentines will have you believe that he is the best driver to emerge from the land of the Pampas since Carlos Reutemann, and that his languishment in local touring cars these days is a travesty of his ability. To outsiders, he is the young man who flattered in German F3 only to deceive badly once he stepped into the F1 and CART cockpits. And where lies the truth? Does it come as a shock to anyone that it's probably somewhere in between?

1983-91

Early starter in karts, at age 8

Norberto Edgardo Fontana was born in Arrecifes, west of Buenos Aires. The third child of Hector and Clara, he was by no means the first racing driver to hail from that town. None other than the great Pampas Bull himself, José Froilan Gonzalez, was also a native of Arrecifes. Like many others who started racing young, Norberto's first race came in 1983 as an 8 year old, when he started karting in the Summer Night Championship in downtown Lujan.

His tender age was discovered though, and he was stopped from competing until 1989, when he began his first full season of kart racing in the senior category of the Youth Kart Championship of Buenos Aires Province, finishing as runner-up despite his lack of previous experience. The next year he stepped up to the next level in provincial competition, the Standard Championship, and came 4th. And by 1991, he was racing not only in the Standard category, but the highest Free category as well.


Fontana, aged 8, takes to the karting track in 1989.
Fontana, aged 8, takes to the karting track in 1989. Picture from Norberto Fontana Official Site.

1991-92

Karting king turns to car power

What's more, Fontana cleaned up both titles to become undisputed karting champion in the Buenos Aires Province. Make that the undisputed king of karting in the whole of Argentina, as he also took out the senior category of the Argentine Karting Championship that year. After such a rapid rise through the ranks, in a form of motor racing that quickly separates the talented from the pretenders, here was a young man to keep an eye on, with a bright future in front of him.

With no more to achieve in karting, Norberto moved into car racing proper, competing in 1992 in ten races of the Formula Renault Argentina series in a Crespi. But if he was to really carve a path for himself, then Europe was where he needed to be, and by the following year he had gathered the finances to relocate himself across the Atlantic. Despite the difficulties of being an 18 year old away from his homeland, it did not take him long before he started leaving his mark on the racetracks of Europe.

1993-94

Heads to Europe and gets a solid grounding in FFord

That first season he set about competing in as many Formula Ford races as possible. He easily won the Swiss Formula Ford 1600 title with six victories, and he also came 3rd in the European Formula Ford 1800 championship. Other races in German Formula Ford 1600 and 1800 gave him valuable experience on a variety of tracks, and it led to several end-of-season outings in Formula Opel Lotus, including a run in the Nations Cup event at Estoril, where Fontana and Adrian Hang represented Argentina.

There was now no time to waste. For 1994 he was taken aboard by the Kaufmann Motorsport team to run in the prestigious German F3 championship, driving the latest Dallara Opel 394. As a warm-up, Fontana was entered in a round of the Swiss F3 series, and after an easy victory it was clear that he would have no problems adjusting to the formula. However, in a German F3 field that included the likes of Ralf Schumacher, Alexander Wurz and Jörg Müller, Norberto was going to be up against stiff opposition.


Norberto won the 1993 Swiss Formula Ford title with six wins along the way.
Norberto won the 1993 Swiss Formula Ford title with six wins along the way. Picture from Norberto Fontana Official Site.

1994

Makes his mark in German F3 against Wurz and Ralf

The first few rounds saw Fontana mixing it on the edge of the top 10, but in the second race at the Nurburgring in May, he started from 27th on the grid to finish 9th. It gave him a fresh injection of confidence which immediately came to fruition at Wunstorf. There he started 5th, but by the end of lap one was already up to 2nd and harrying Wurz. When the Austrian retired, Norberto inherited the lead which he kept to the end, fending off Schumacher and Arnd Meier to take his maiden victory in the category.

In the second race at Wunstorf though, despite starting from pole he spun on lap 3 and only finished 9th. It was a sign of his inexperience that plagued his next few races, but a return to the Nurburgring proved to be the highlight of his year. Having qualified on pole, he led from start to finish in race one despite constant pressure from Schumacher, beating Michael's brother by only 0.61s. He then repeated the dose in race two, this time holding off Wurz by an even slimmer margin, this time only 0.41s.

1994

Rookie of the Year with 118 points; impresses at Zandvoort, Macau

Now there was no doubt: this youngster from Argentina was going to be a consistent contender, and at Avus he claimed a 3rd and a 2nd. In the last meeting at Hockenheim, he came from 4th to place 2nd in the first race, and was leading the second when he crashed out on lap 5. But overall he finished with 118 points, and claimed 6th in the championship, in which Müller comfortably defeated Wurz and Schumacher. In addition, Fontana was named the rookie of the year.

During the course of the season, Norberto had also competed in several other prestigious F3 events. At Monaco, in a race won by Giancarlo Fisichella, he spun into the armco, but in the F3 Masters at Zandvoort he came home a commendable 5th. He then took part in the end-of-season event at Macau, where the stars of the German series met the British championship stars like Jan Magnussen, Kelvin Burt, Dario Franchitti and Ricardo Rosset, and impressed in qualifying there.


In 1994, Fontana impressed in German F3, and would knock the socks off Wurz (left) and Ralf Schumacher (right) the next year.
In 1994, Fontana impressed in German F3, and would knock the socks off Wurz (left) and Ralf Schumacher (right) the next year. Picture from Norberto Fontana Official Site.

1995

Wipes the floor with a class field to take F3 title by 85 points

But 1994 was just the entrée to a 1995 season that had some labelling him as the class of the F3 field anywhere in the world. Kaufmann Motosports upgraded Fontana to a Dallara 395, and gave him a new team-mate in Jarno Trulli. And with Wurz and Schumacher still amongst the competition, plus others such as Massimiliano Angelelli and Tom Coronel in the field, it looked to be a closely-fought title. But clean sweeps by Fontana in the first two meets at Hockenheim and Avus set the tone for the rest of the season.

Poorer weekends in which Norberto 'only' scored 3rds and 4ths at the Norisring and Diepholz were followed by a six-win streak over three meets at the Nurburgring, Singen and Magny-Cours. By the last weekend at Hockenheim, where the Argentine came 4th in the first race and retired from the second with a puncture, it was all academic. With ten poles and ten wins out of 14 races and 256 points in total, he had made absolute mincemeat of Schumacher, Trulli, Wurz and co. Ralf was second, 85 points behind.

1995-96

A hot property now; turns down Zanardi's title-winning drive

Away from the German series though, Norberto had failed to come to grips with Monaco (again), where he only finished 8th. He won the Zandvoort Masters from pole, and in a one-off Porsche Supercup drive finished 5th at the Hungaroring. But despite going to Macau full of confidence, he was beaten to 5th by Ralf, Trulli, Pedro de la Rosa and Sascha Maassen. What's worse, during the weekend he had suffered a nasty accident, injuring his neck, and it was to have repercussions for the rest of his career.

The 1995-96 off-season was a turning point in the Fontana story, still 18 months from his F1 Grand Prix debut. His dominant German F3 title had left teams chasing him. But his Macau accident had seemed to leave him physically weakened and emotionally scarred. He already had an F1 test contract with Sauber, and though Mo Nunn had suggested him for the Chip Ganassi CART team, Fontana preferred his Sauber deal and Ganassi took Alex Zanardi instead. And we all know how that story ended up...


Fontana en route to his German F3 title in 1995.
Fontana en route to his German F3 title in 1995.

1996

Japan, ahoy! Mediocre follow-up to previous year

It was a period of indecision, understandable for a 20-year-old, that would cost him dearly. What options were left? Opportunities in the new control-car F3000 formula for 1996 were being snaffled up, and in the end Norberto was forced to join Ralf and head to Japan. Although Formula Nippon wasn't the career black hole that some have described it, it was not the place where you'd expect to find a dominant German F3 champ. Nor did it make it easy for Fontana to continue his Sauber testing role on a regular basis.

The Argentine linked up with the Nova Engineering team to drive their Lola T96/51 Mugen, and his season was reminiscent of his first year in German F3 - fast at times, some great results, including two 2nds and a win at Fuji, but inconsistent as he came to grips with the new cars and circuits, sprinkled with some accidents, mechanical failures, and other lacklustre results. Although he had scored 22 points and claimed 5th in the series, it had not been an ideal follow-up to the previous year.

1996-97

Slowly dropping off Europe's radar in FNippon

In addition, Norberto had had another Porsche Supercup outing, this time at Spa, but this time he only finished 11th, and he had also managed to make his F3000 debut, with Edenbridge Racing at the Estoril round. An anonymous 19th on the grid in an unfamiliar car, despite only being 1.4s away from pole, and a crash on lap four of a 46-lap event, meant he very quickly fell off the radar in Europe. By the end of 1996 he was just a pale shadow of the 'new Fangio' or 'new Reutemann' that people had proclaimed a year ago.

And so it was back to Formula Nippon in 1997, switching to the Le Mans team to drive their Reynard 97D Mugen. He started the season in the bottom half of the top ten, before his F1 call-up finally came. From there until the end of the season, in between his F1 starts he would score a 2nd at Fuji, a win at Mine, and a 3rd at Motegi, and finish with 21 points, coming third in the series. But considering that de la Rosa had walked away with the title with 82 points, Fontana's results had been nothing to shout about.


Goodbye Europe, hello Japan! In 1996, Norberto headed to Formula Nippon.
Goodbye Europe, hello Japan! In 1996, Norberto headed to Formula Nippon.

Formula One
1995-96
Sauber

Testing deal not all it seemed to be

At the end of 1994, after Norberto had come good in the latter stages of the German F3 championship, he had caught the eye of one Peter Sauber, who gave him the opportunity to test that year's Sauber C13 at Barcelona at the end of the year. So impressed was the Swiss team boss that he signed Fontana to be Sauber's test driver in 1995. With the deal came the Red Bull sponsorship that would emblazon the Argentine's Dallara throughout this championship-winning German F3 season.

The Sauber test role was one he would retain throughout 1995 and 1996, although, as anyone given the job would attest, it is an unenviable role. Ask the likes of Jörg Müller or better still Neel Jani, Sauber's designated third driver in 2004 who barely got to sit in the car. Over the years, it has become a function of Sauber's limited budget, and also of Sauber's attitude towards the importance and worth of the test driver role, that anyone in the position gets far fewer opportunities than the equivalent role in another team.

1997

Upheaval and unhappiness within the Swiss outfit

And so throughout 1995 and 1996, Fontana hung to the role as a foothold in F1, even though it wasn't availing him of many chances to actually taste F1 machinery. Indeed, throughout 1997 he never actually carried out a test session for the squad, even if he continued to be their test driver. 1997 was also the first season that Sauber ran with the Petronas customer-Ferrari engines, and it was not proving to be an easy season for the team and their C16 chassis.

Johnny Herbert was the team's lead driver, and before the French GP had scored a 4th and two 5ths. As part of the Ferrari engine deal, Nicola Larini had started the season as Herbert's team-mate, and despite a 6th in Melbourne, he had left after round 5 in Monaco, claiming that the ambience in the team was "terrible". Gianni Morbidelli, another Ferrari-endorsed man, took the drive, but poor runs in his first two races suggested that Sauber may have been treating 1997 as a one-car team kind of year.


In more ways than one, 1995 to 1997 were testing times for Fontana and Sauber.
In more ways than one, 1995 to 1997 were testing times for Fontana and Sauber. Picture from Norberto Fontana Official Site.

1997

Norberto dropped into an almost impossible situation

But in the week before the French GP, Morbidelli broke his arm in an accident, and with no other options Sauber, probably reluctantly, put Fontana into the seat. After all, the Argentine was the team's test driver, supposedly, but it was hardly the kind of affirming call-up 22-year-old Norberto needed. He had been wasting his career away in Japan after his F3 title, he had been forgotten about in Europe, his own F1 team had been rejecting him, and now he was being brought in very clearly as no more than a last resort.

What's more, he was being given a car he had never tested, and one which might have been inferior to his team-mate's, and his tenure would be on a race-to-race basis. If Fontana was wanting to impress, having the odds stacked against him like this was unlikely to put him in a good frame of mind. It also didn't help that the Argentine public were expecting miracles from him. As events unfolded, it became clear that Norberto was struggling to cast aside the pressure and make the best of the situation.

1997

Nervous debut at Magny-Cours; hits Salo and pits for a nose

Fontana's debut at Magny-Cours was circumspect, to say the least. He spent Friday learning the car, and in damp conditions set a time that had him as high as 8th, but he fell away from there. Though according to him he was pushing harder and harder as the weekend progressed, observers were commenting otherwise. Martin Brundle, for example, noted that Norberto was fully lifting off at turn 1, the Grande Courbe, instead of merely feathering the throttle as others were doing.

If that was a sign of his lack of confidence, so too was his eventual qualifying position. With a time almost 3s away from Michael Schumacher's pole time, he was 20th out of 22 on the grid, six positions and 1.5s down on Herbert even. To make matters worse, he damaged his front wing endplate in a collision with Mika Salo's Tyrrell at the first corner, and later had to make an unscheduled stop to change his nosecone, catching the Sauber crew unawares.


On debut at Magny Cours. It was an action packed weekend.
On debut at Magny Cours. It was an action packed weekend.

1997

Former rivals show him up; Sauber courts Brundle

When rain started falling at around the 40-lap mark, but not heavy enough for drivers to change to intermediates en masse, Fontana was finally caught out. He understeered off at the Estoril sweeper, going deep into a gravel trap from which he was not going to escape. In comparison with some old rivals and fellow young guns, like Trulli making his first start for Prost and Wurz in his second GP with Benetton, it had been an uninspiring weekend for the Argentine.

If it was any consolation, he had recorded a fastest race lap almost a second faster than Herbert, although the Englishman had been on a heavier fuel strategy. But it had not been enough to impress Peter Sauber, who actively looked for other replacements in the lead-up to the British GP. Indeed, Brundle himself was offered the drive, but Martin did not want to race a car he had never tested and preferred the ITV commentary box. When you have nothing to prove, you can turn down offers like that...

1997

Evenful weekend at Silverstone, as good qual time is discarded

And so Fontana got the drive again, but it was hardly the kind of reassurance and support he needed. But if that was unsettling enough on his first visit to Silverstone, then the events of the weekend would put him further on the back foot. After a steady but unspectacular practice, but with the Sauber handling well, Norberto set a time in qualifying that was good enough for a fine 14th on the grid. Even if Herbert on home soil again almost 1.5s faster, it was still a commendable effort.

Except that, at 1:35pm, he had been shown a red light at pit entry to come in for a mandatory weight check. Perhaps unfamiliar with the procedures, he drove straight past and was summoned before the stewards, who disqualified all his qualifying times and relegated him to the back of the grid. But there was still more drama to come. When the race began, Ukyo Katayama unfathomably spun his Minardi straight into the pit wall, having not yet even crossed the start line. The safety car was brought out.


Peter Sauber didn't seem overly impressed with Norberto in France, and looked to replace the Argentine youngster.
Peter Sauber didn't seem overly impressed with Norberto in France, and looked to replace the Argentine youngster.

1997

Norberto appears before the stewards for the second time in 2 days

As the field slowed, the Sauber team must have hesitated in letting Fontana know what was going on, for Norberto thought there was an opportunity and made two passing moves, past Tarso Marques in the Minardi and Jos Verstappen in the Tyrrell. Though he redressed this mistake on the track, at the end of the race, for the second time in two days, he was hauled before the stewards, and this time slapped with a one-race ban, suspended for four races.

The race itself provided even more problems, as for three-quarters of the event he drove with his right leg getting progressively numb. In a race of attrition though, he wound up in 9th place out of 10 cars still running at the end having set the 16th fastest lap of the race. But all in all it had been a disastrous weekend, exactly the kind of weekend he would have been hoping to avoid if he was going to impress anyone. If anything, his own nervous, careless mistakes had made him even more of a liability in Sauber's eyes.

1997

Up and down Germanic weekend: 5th in practice, a magnet for trouble

But with Morbidelli still recovering, Fontana had one more opportunity at Hockenheim, for once on a track he knew well from his F3 days. And it showed; in his best sessions in his time in F1, he was 5th fastest after Friday and 14th quickest in Saturday free practice. But set-up changes, minor mistakes, and bad timing with others' incidents saw him go no faster when it mattered in qualifying, and Norberto found himself down in 17th on the grid, over 0.5s slower than Herbert and almost 3s behind Gerhard Berger on pole.

The race proved though that poor Fontana was becoming a real magnet for trouble. When David Coulthard went off on the first lap with a damaged front wing, he came back onto the track right in the Argentine's path, causing him to brake heavily. Norberto then had a spin at the first chicane by himself, and a punctured Giancarlo Fisichella spun just as he was going past. Another 9th place, again out of only ten cars to see the chequered flag, had Fontana's F1 career living on borrowed time.


After Germany, Fontana had one final opportunity, at Jerez.
After Germany, Fontana had one final opportunity, at Jerez. Picture from Norberto Fontana Official Site.

1997

Officials issue fines for speeding, Jacques not fine with slowing

With Morbidelli ready to return for Hungary, Sauber wasted no time in putting the Italian back in the car, and Fontana back into the cold. But Gianni was also having his fair share of incidents, and in practice at Suzuka he crashed heavily, and was forced to sit out the season-closing European GP at Jerez. So Fontana was given one final chance to show his worth, but it was always going to be a tall order. He qualified 18th, over a second off team-mate Herbert, but another brush with officialdom was awaiting him.

During the course of Saturday, Norberto had been clocked at 97.9 km/h in the pit lane - well over the speed limit. The stewards had no hesitation in slapping him with a $5,000 fine, and by this stage Peter Sauber must have run out of patience. The race then turned out to be comparatively uneventful, although at one stage he badly held up Jacques Villeneuve who was hunting down Michael Schumacher for the title, prompting the Canadian to cynically point out afterwards that Sauber were using Ferrari engines...

1997

Time at Sauber draws to a close, looks to Tyrrell

Fontana eventually came 14th out of 17 finishers, and in fact his race had been quite respectable. He had even made a top notch passing move on Verstappen's Tyrrell, with two wheels out on the grass. But obviously he had done nowhere near enough to keep his nominal test role with Sauber, let alone bid for a race seat with the Swiss team. However, some still believed in him, even within Sauber. Max Welti, for one, recommended him to Tyrrell after his move on Jos the Boss.

Ken Tyrrell took the recommendation on board, and in fact seriously considered Fontana for his 1998 line-up, alongside Toranosuke Takagi. In fact, it was more than mere consideration, because they started negotiating and Norberto even signed a draft contract. But as fate would have it, by this stage Tyrrell was no longer sole decision-maker at Tyrrell. British American Racing had begun the process of buying out the team with a view to using the franchise for their own entry in 1999.


Fontana was a whisker away from a Minardi drive in 1999. Here he tests the car; sponsorship proved his downfall.
Fontana was a whisker away from a Minardi drive in 1999. Here he tests the car; sponsorship proved his downfall. Picture from Norberto Fontana Official Site.

1998-99

BAR like Ricardo, and Minardi plump for Gaston

A day before Fontana was due to sign the final contract, BAR faxed Tyrrell vetoing the agreement and forcing the team to sign Ricardo Rosset instead. The Brazilian had been as equally mediocre as Fontana thus far in their F1 careers, but he had the advantage of bringing much more sponsorship money, which made all the difference. It was the trigger that moved Tyrrell to pull out of the team that bore his own name even before its swansong 1998 season began.

And it wasn't even the final heartbreak for Norberto. Nicolás Korzan tells us that at the end of 1999, Minardi were looking for a new team-mate for Marc Gené, and Fontana tested with a view to taking the seat. But sponsorship issues conspired against him once again. All along he had been backed by broadcaster Telefé, but PSN had just taken over the Latin American cable TV rights. In no time, PSN inserted their man Gaston Mazzacane into the Minardi seat. Fontana's last real shot at an F1 drive was gone.

After F1
1998

Back to Japan, and a 4th in FNippon and a 7th in Japanese GT

With his Tyrrell opportunity having evaporated, Fontana found himself marooned back in Japan for the rest of 1998. He persevered with the Le Mans team in Formula Nippon, and in what was now a year-old car he achieved largely the same results as the previous year. Another win at Fuji, plus another 2nd, 3rd and 6th meant he scored 21 points yet again, although this time it was only good enough for equal 4th in the series with Masahiko Kageyama, behind series winner Satoshi Motoyama.

Norberto also diversified into tin-top racing for the first time, competing in a Castrol-sponsored TOM'S Toyota Supra in the Japanese GT championship, sharing the car with Masanori Sekiya. The pair started the season brightly with a 6th at Suzuka and a 3rd at Sendai, but after that there was only a 3rd at Motegi to celebrate, but it was still enough for the Argentine to place 7th in the standings with 33 points. Little did he know that saloon car racing would come to dominate his career a few years down the track.

1999

Returns to Europe, targeting F3000 with Fortec

For the moment though, his heart still lay with single-seaters, and a burning desire to return to F1. After all, he was still only aged 24. But with no offers on the table, Fontana nonetheless returned to Europe and took the one opportunity available: a season in F3000 with the new Fortec team. But as recent history has shown, although the one-make F3000 formula was designed to emphasise driving ability, often it's been a team getting it together that has made all the difference.

And so it proved with Fortec. If Norberto was hoping for a strong season in front of F1 eyes, he was to be disappointed. He only qualified in the top 10 five times (but he was one of only 9 drivers who qualified for each round), and apart from Monaco, where he came from 18th to finish 5th, and another 5th place at Silverstone, there were no other points finishes, but perhaps a few too many accidents as he over-drove to compensate for his team's deficiencies. A mere 4 points was hardly what Norberto wanted.


Norberto's year in F3000 in 1999 wasn't a winner, with only a couple of points finishes.
Norberto's year in F3000 in 1999 wasn't a winner, with only a couple of points finishes. Picture from Norberto Fontana Official Site.

2000

Heads to America, and CART, a.k.a. home of the European refugee

Nevertheless, as we've seen it did almost lead to a Minardi F1 drive for 2000, but after that option disappeared as well, Fontana had to come to grips with the fact that he was a washed-up F1 driver at just 24. And so he headed away from Europe once again, this time back to the Americas, but to race in North America in CART. But it was a case of same story, different category as he joined another inexperienced team, Della Penna Racing, to drive their Reynard Toyota 2KI.

With limited pre-season testing and tenuous sponsorship support, in a brand new category, Norberto was always going to find it difficult. He contested eight rounds with a best of 11th at Cleveland before his funds dried up and Della Penna had to look for a new driver. 28th on the table with only 2 points did not reflect the fact that, according to team boss John Della Penna, an expatriate Argentine, Fontana would have been able to perform much better in a more experienced team that could give him more testing.

2001

Lands in TC2000, with a brief final flirt with F3000

Now doubtless fully disillusioned with trying to scrounge out a single-seater career with not enough money to be competitive, Norberto returned to his native Argentina and was snaffled up by the works Toyota Team to drive a Corolla in the thriving TC2000 two-litre touring car championship. In his first season in a type of car he had never raced before, with a good team, the pressure off, and nothing to lose, he took his first win at Obera before repeating the feat at Alta Gracia, and finally started carving out a niche for himself.

7th in the title with 54 points was a great first-up effort in the ultra-competitive series, especially when he had soundly defeated legendary team-mate Juan Maria Traverso. Now backed by PSN, the company which had thwarted his chances of driving for Minardi in 2000, he was, however, brought back to Europe for a few more F3000 starts for the PSN-backed Prost Junior team. But a disappointing 14th at the Hungaroring followed by a retirement at Spa showed that he might not have been single-seater race-fit.


Fontana at Portland, driving for Della Penna Racing in CART during 2000.
Fontana at Portland, driving for Della Penna Racing in CART during 2000. Picture © Wayne Duval.

2001-02

Takes the TC2000 title in style, with 4 wins

That was a shame. For when Luciano Burti in the Prost F1 car crashed horrendously at Spa, all but ending his F1 career, Fontana may well have been first in line to fill up the seat for the remainder of the season. But instead Prost went for Tomas Enge, the Czech who was en route to finishing 3rd in that F3000 season. But unlike his previous near-misses with Tyrrell and Minardi, this time there seemed to be less disappointment, as if Norberto had found his comfort zone in TC2000 and was happy to stay there.

That proved to be exactly the case in 2002. Wins at Rio Cuarto, Bahia Blanca, Obera and Pigue in his works Corolla, plus a 3rd at Alta Gracia, put him well on track for the title in only his second season in the tourers. A 7th at Mar del Plata clinched his championship victory, his first title since that runaway German F3 win in 1995. His speed and consistency convinced local Argentine fans once and for all that Norberto was a special talent that other categories had failed to nurture and that F1 had lost.

2003

Corolla not getting the job done; Norberto eyes Tourismo Carretera

Fontana remained in the works Toyota in 2003, and was one of the most consistent performers, with another two wins at San Luis and San Juan, and podiums at Mar del Plata and General Roca. But with this model of the Corolla starting to get long in the tooth in the face of newer machinery from the likes of Ford, Chevrolet and Honda, the defending champion found himself beaten to the title. Indeed, 100 points only left Norberto in third place in the overall standings.

The TC2000 championship is of course not the only tin-top category in Argentina. There is also the Turismo Carretera series for grotesquely beefed-up muscle cars, which attracts many of the TC2000 stars as well and has up to 70 entries at any round, requiring several heats and a final at each race meeting, making it one of the best-contested series in the world. Now an entrenched figure in the Argentine racing scene, it was only natural that Fontana would branch into this series as well.


Fontana's Toyota Carolla on its way to a firm championship victory in the Argentine TC2000 series.
Fontana's Toyota Carolla on its way to a firm championship victory in the Argentine TC2000 series.

2003-04

Great in the heat, but fails in the finals

Driving a Dodge Cherokee, he debuted at the Rio Gallegos circuit and immediately won his heat, even though he failed to finish the final. It was a sign of things to come. He took further heat wins in Rafaela, Parana and La Plata, and scored four pole positions, but his record in finals and especially the reliability of his car was abysmal, with nine DNFs out of thirteen final starts. The result was a lowly 22nd place finish on the points table, with only 71.5 points.

Fontana continued in both series in 2004, but it was a season of changing fortunes. Toyota introduced a new Corolla, but teething problems and inconsistent results had Norberto out of title contention early. He won the Parana round and scored a smattering of 4ths and 5ths, although he also took top score in the Buenos Aires endurance event, where points were awarded after 28 laps but the race continued after that, with championship regulars handing over to co-drivers, including several international stars.

2004

Top-5 final placings in both Argentine tin-top series

Norberto was teamed with Kelvin Burt, and took the lead from Martin Basso on the 27th lap. By leading at the end of the 28th he claimed the points for the 'win', and was ready to hand over to Burt when backmarker Carlos Okulovich spun in front of him, and he also went off and crashed in avoidance. In all, Fontana finished the season with 103 points, and in 5th place overall behind runaway championship winner Christian Ledesma, a good salvage effort after a lacklustre mid-season.

In the Turismo Carretera series, still in his Dodge, Norberto started 2004 in much the same way as 2003, doing well in heats but struggling in finals. However, a clean sweep at Rio Cuarto where he took pole and won both the heat and the final marked an upturn in competitiveness. Three more heat successes and two final podiums followed, before he finished the year with two straight heat-final double victories at La Plata and Rio Gallegos, the late charge brining him up to 3rd overall with 167 points.


Running his souped-up Dodge at Laplata in the Turismo Carretera during 2004.
Running his souped-up Dodge at La Plata in the Turismo Carretera during 2004.

Personal

A neglected talent, or a over-hyped failure? Neither - and both!

By the end of 2004, it is difficult to comprehend that Fontana's international career appears to be well and truly over before he has even turned 30, with no sign that he will leave the Argentine local scene for the time being. But at the end of the day, who is right? The Argentine fans who lament his wasted talent and who still hold him in high regard as one of the best around, or the F1 observers who remember him as the much-hyped future superstar who was so disappointing in his Grand Prix opportunities?

Probably both. One doesn't dominate the German F3 title like he did and thrash current F1 stars so easily without being tremendously gifted. But Fontana's story proves that a career is not made from mere talent. Talent needs to be nurtured by good guidance and supportive teams, neither of which Norberto seemed to have in the second half of the 1990s. And the right financial support, of course, which thwarted his opportunities with Tyrrell and Minardi. Now, if only Fontana had been Brazilian...

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