When the 1990 Le Mans-winning Jaguar comes out of hibernation, for display at a motor show or a Goodwood demonstration run, it displays a strange anomaly.
The record books show that the event was won by John Nielsen, Price Cobb and Martin Brundle. And yet on the number three car itself there’s no evidence of the last of those names. Instead the roof bears the legend “Eliseo Salazar,” together with a little Chilean flag.
Salazar did indeed qualify the car, but he never actually drove it in the race. The Jaguar with his name on was heading for a famous victory when, shortly before he was due to jump aboard, he was bumped out in favour of team veteran Brundle.
It was a hard but perhaps understandable decision, typical of pragmatic team boss Tom Walkinshaw. But its effect on Salazar, one of the nicest guys you’ll meet in racing, was incalculable.
At around 8.10am Nielsen brought the leading Jag in, and a fresh and very motivated Brundle hopped aboard. The car was in a delicate condition, having lost fourth gear, and that also perhaps helped to explain why Walkinshaw considered that Martin was the best man available to bring it home safely.
But that was of little consolation to poor Salazar, who had to wait in frustration until 10.21am before he was able to take over from Michel Ferte in the other car, which by now was down in 11th place. Fired by adrenaline and anger, he immediately set some startlingly fast laps, to prove a point.
“At the time I got in the car I was obviously disappointed,” he recalls, “and I was mad also, so I was driving fast. I caught Martin quickly and I was going to pass him just to unlap myself by a lap, but they came on the radio and said stay behind. So I had to.”
A couple of hours later engine failure forced him to stop on the Mulsanne Straight. Meanwhile at 4pm his would-be crew mate Nielsen crossed the line to take the chequered flag. As the Dane celebrated on the podium with Cobb and Brundle, Salazar sat quietly in a team caravan with his then wife.
When I got there they were both in tears. “Come in and cry with us,” he sighed. It was easy to understand the emotions.
“It could have been one of the highest points of my life, but it ended up being the lowest. The whole extent of the deal became apparent later on when the car won. What if the car had retired? Then I wouldn’t have lost anything. So afterwards I was very disappointed. You don’t get many chances like that.
“It was a big blow to my career, and actually after that I didn’t race again for a few years. I did a couple of races with Spice to finish the season, but then they stopped, and I went back to Chile. Eventually I had an opportunity at the end of ’93, when Gianpiero Moretti asked me to test his new Ferrari 333SP, and I went to Fiorano.”
Podium: Price Cobb, Martin Brundle, John Nielsen and Tom Walkinshaw, Jaguar
Salazar became one of the leading lights of IMSA’s new World Sportscar category, forerunner of the American Le Mans Series. Subsequently he moved to IndyCar, finishing fourth in the 1995 Indianapolis 500 – the last race with a full CART field. He then competed in the IRL, winning a race at Las Vegas in 1997, and qualifying and finishing third at Indy in 2000.
He continued to compete in all kind of categories, and eventually he could claim to have taken part in the Monaco GP, the Indy 500, the Le Mans and Daytona 24 Hours, and the Dakar rally – some years before Fernando Alonso could say the same. In fact he’s also contested a WRC round, something that Alonso has yet to do…
In recent years he’s worked closely with the FIA, bringing Formula E to Chile, and serving as a steward at F1 races. He’s put the Le Mans disappointment behind him.
“At the time, of course, it was devastating,” he says today. “But the rest of my motor racing life and my IndyCar career afterwards was very rewarding, and Le Mans became just a memory. Anyhow I respected Tom a lot, I was so sorry to hear about his passing, and I will always be grateful for the opportunity he gave me.”
One aspect of that 1990 weekend still nags at him, however: “In qualifying at night drivers had to do at least one lap. Tom asked us to be careful and just complete it.
“On my turn there was an accident, and I went by slowly losing maybe 10 seconds, so my time didn’t reflect my speed. Afterwards I wondered if they thought I was slow at night…”
Eliseo Salazar testing in Grand-Am in 2012.