He once raced for Enzo Ferrari and won the 24H of Le Mans, but today his life is devoted to art. We met Stefan Johansson, 65 years old, on his recent trip to France, on Zoom: although there was a screen between us, the Swedish ex-driver told his story with no filters.
I have always imagined artists dressed in white, as if such candour could make them pure, freeing their mind from superstructures, clearing it of all pointless baggage. Ready to colour their thoughts with emotions, just like a bright, clean canvas waiting to welcome new forms. And of course, Stefan joined our Zoom meeting wearing a white t-shirt. He has just come from California, where he lives today, to spend some time in Europe. And he is in France, for a bit of rest but also to create. On the wall behind him I can see two brightly coloured paintings. Although this politely smiling man now devotes much of his life to painting, it is certainly not his first love.
His surname is Johansson: a man who spent over ten years as a Formula One driver, in 1985 and 1986 at the wheel of anyone’s dream car, the Ferrari.
I was born and raised in Modena, and as a child in the Eighties I spent my summer days in the countryside, just a few miles from the legendary track in Fiorano: my playtime was accompanied by the powerful roar in the background, brought by the wind to my ears. “Can’t you just hear the Red car racing,” my grandmother would say. I tell Stefan this anecdote, and his eyes widen, filled with a light that they didn’t have before, and I can see it, even though the screen between us acts as a barrier. “That was me, training on the track,” he tells me with an understandable dash of pride. “Of course, at that time there were no simulators, everything had to be tested on the car and so I spent entire days driving round the track, in the summer we went on till ten in the evening, when it got dark. For me, that was a dream come true.”
At this point, I just have to ask him when and how this adventure began. He replies that it all happened very quickly. One Monday he received a phone call from Marco Piccinini, the then-sports director of Ferrari, inviting him to Modena. Two days later he was on a flight from London to Bologna and then on to the factory in Maranello, surrounded by cars covered in white cloths, like works of art to be hidden until the right time. He was led along a poorly-lit corridor, photos of racing legends like Nuvolari and Fangio hanging on the walls, to the office where Enzo Ferrari was waiting for him.
From a distance, the man, the legend, was no more than a silhouette, like in a Fellini film, but here it was all real, and Stefan became a driver for the ‘Rearing Horse’ when Ferrari asked him a single question: “Are you hungry?” And then: “You’re hired.” That was it.
On Friday that same week, the adventure began with the Portuguese Gran Prix, alongside Michele Alboreto, a great friend and team mate. Not only did he spend two unforgettable years at Maranello with him, but – with Tom Christensen – he competed in and won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1997. Still today, it was one of his most authentic, thrilling and incredible races, so I ask him how it felt to climb up to the top step on the podium. Modestly, and with a dash of humility, he replies that it was fantastic. These are the subtleties we can see in people with a big heart. He still likes to attend races today, the 24 Hours, Indianapolis (which he considers technically the most difficult race) and the Munich GP, the three competitions he thinks are the toughest in the world.
How did Stefan become a driver? The passion for engines was in his blood, his father Roland was an amateur racing driver. Watching the races was something that came naturally to him, and at the age of eight he began driving a kart, and was racing by the age of twelve. From there to racing on the world’s top Formula One circuits was just a matter of time, and the rest is history.
But today, I’m talking to the man who also turned his profound artistic sensitivity into a profession: the art world was always one of his passions, but at one point in the life of a driver something happens, and changes everything.
On 14 May 1986, during a practice session on the French F1 circuit Paul Ricard in Le Castellet, the rear spoiler came off the Brabham BT55, travelling at high speed, driven by Elio De Angelis. The car became unstable, hit a barrier and set on fire. Stefan watched the accident, involving his best friend, who died in hospital the following day. “He was an elegant, sophisticated man, a great person. He was my best friend,” he tells me, his voice dropping a tone. We can never find a reason for death, but we can think beyond, processing our pain and turning it into something beautiful. And he decided to start painting, and painting became a therapy that placated his grief. “Painting is like driving, you need rhythm,” he says.
For the past six years, his studio has been in Santa Monica, California. The perfect climate, luxuriant nature, the ocean a stone’s throw away: an unbeatable source of inspiration. Browsing his website, I note that his paintings bear the name of stretches of famous circuits: an explosion of colours that make you feel the speed, as if the world slips by carrying with it the landscapes and the people, becoming one before your eyes.
This was exactly the effect Stefan wanted to obtain: to make the public understand what it means to drive a Formula One car.
My favourite is Tosa, the name of one of the bends at the Imola Race Track, and I see that it is dedicated to his friend Elio De Angelis. Blue is the dominant colour: blue like the sky, blue like infinity.
Cars are still a part of Stefan’s life today, managing some IndyCar drivers. But when I ask him if he feels more a manager or an artist, he confesses that today he is certainly more an artist: he loves to collect works of art, but not cars – he adds, laughing – because they take up far more space, and far more time on maintenance.
Our time is up, virtually I leave Stefan in the damp warmth of France, where I know he is working on some new artistic projects. The meeting ends. Click.
I think back over his stories and suddenly the haiku of a Japanese poet springs to mind.
“Barn’s burnt down - now I can see the moon”. Elio De Angelis’ death brought ruins to Johansson’s life, but those very ruins opened a new world to him, made of art and new opportunities. His love of speed hits his canvases hard, and with a little imagination you can see what it must be like to be inside a blender, right before your eyes.
Light and colours. I think that Stefan has found his moon.