Albacete looks back at remarkable career
FIA European Truck Racing Championship stalwart Antonio Albacete goes into the season finale, held at his home venue, Circuito del Jarama, with high hopes of securing third in the championship this weekend.
The 53-year-old made his FIA ETRC debut back in 1997, and – with the exception of one season only – has been racing trucks for 21 years.
It seems like a lifetime in its own right but what's remarkable is the fact that Albacete was an established name in motorsport long before he even saw a race truck, not to mention having driven one.
Throughout the 1980s, into the early 90s, the Spaniard made a name for himself racing single-seaters, going up against some racers who went on to establish impressive careers.
Moving up through the ranks, from Formula Ford to Formula Vauxhall/Opel Lotus and then British Formula 3000, Albacete competed against the likes of Damon Hill, Mika Häkkinen, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Allan McNish and Pedro de la Rosa, just to name but a few great names.
His compatriot de la Rosa remembers Albacete well. "I have huge respect for Albacete. He was always really fast, even though he didn’t have the money and was never in the best cars," said the former McLaren, Arrows and Jaguar Formula 1 driver.
It was during these early days of his racing career, while living in the UK, when Albacete crossed paths with some of the greatest names in the history of motor racing.
"We used to live in one house, three of us. A British mechanic, a Brazilian driver called Mauricio Sandro Sala and me. Mauricio was a friend of Ayrton Senna and Ayrton used to come to our house to have dinner. That was in 1983," recalls Albacete.
Only a year later Albacete found himself sharing track with the great Brazilian. "In 1984 I was testing at Snetterton. I was in a Formula Ford car and Senna was in a Toleman F1 car, we were all running together," he adds.
Senna wasn’t, however, the only F1 legend Albacete crossed paths with.
"I remember going to Zolder one year for a Formula Ford 2000 test with Madgwick Motorsport," he says.
"Once we arrived there we noticed a McLaren trailer and started to wonder what they were doing there. We were told by the circuit management that we can’t test because McLaren had booked the circuit at the last minute. We were really disappointed because we came all the way from the UK.
"In the end, McLaren agreed that we could share the track and I remember going out in my tiny Formula Ford car and Niki Lauda blasting past me in his McLaren.
"Later Niki came to our garage to say hi. It’s a shame that we didn’t have mobile phones then so I could record it all."
From single-seaters, Albacete switched to touring cars, where he raced throughout the mid-1990s.
Back in these days, there was no world or European-level touring car competition, hence Albacete focused on his domestic championship, driving for several manufacturer-supported teams and competing against tin-top aces such as Gabriele Tarquini and Jordi Gené.
It was during this chapter of his career when he drove a BMW 3 Series Super Tourer, which to this day he considers the best race car ever driven.
It was ahead of the 1997 season when Albacete drove a race truck for the first time.
"I was racing in the Citroen ZX Supercopa and the car was built by Piedrafita," he says.
"I had a good relationship with them and I was testing different cars. They approached me and said 'CEPSA and MAN are looking for a driver'. I said 'OK, let’s see if I can manage it' because I’ve never driven a lorry," he recalls.
"I remember the first time I drove the truck. It was unbelievable. I was going up the hill at Jarama, 'woooo', I said 'oh f***' and then I noticed it... I wasn't flat out. So the next lap I went flat out and I thought, 'f****** hell, big power'. The acceleration... you felt more than in a touring car."
The rest is history. The second most-experienced driver out of the current crop of the FIA ETRC racers clinched one class and two overall titles during a career that exceeded two decades. He's still going strong at 53, winning races and competing at the sharp end of the pack in 2018.
Going into the season finale this weekend, the wily Spanish veteran lies third in the standings, with 209 points to his name. That’s six more than two-time champion Norbert Kiss, and nine more than one of the revelations of this season, Sascha Lenz.
Track knowledge should play to Albacete's advantage, but there’s an element of an unknown in a brand new surface that could level the playing field.
Albacete refuses to consider retirement, therefore clinching third in the championship on home turf will be his main objective as it can help to secure a programme for next year.
"The sponsors' situation is not easy but it would be a big difference to finish third rather than fifth so that’s our main job," he says.