Somewhere high in the mountains above Turin, a 13-year-old is beneath the duvet listening to Radio Monte Carlo. He’s listening to see if his hero can create history on the other side of the Alps.
He can. Walter Röhrl won the 1984 Monte Carlo, becoming the first driver to win the world’s most famous rally four times. That the German took those four wins in five years and four different cars merely added to the aura. And the breakneck breakfast table chatter in the Adamo household the following morning.
Andrea Adamo could hardly contain himself as he recounted Röhrl’s rally to his patient mother. He couldn’t talk to his father. Because his father was on that other side of the Alps working on the event. Adamo senior would be debriefed at a later date.
It was around then that Andrea Adamo decided his future. He would become a race car engineer.
Fast forward 36 years and Adamo has joined his father on the Alps’ far side. But this time it’s the older of the two looking on with absolute pride. He’s watching his son guide Hyundai Motorsport to victory on one of the world’s premier motorsport events.
What about his Mamma Adamo?
“Still,” he says with a smile, “still she does not understand what I am doing. Sometimes she tells me she is in an uncomfortable situation, where she sits with the other ladies, her friends, in the house speaking about their children; one has a son who is a doctor, another one a lawyer. ‘What’s your son doing?’ they ask her. Still, she says: ‘I don’t fully understand. He is travelling around and playing with the cars.’
“It doesn’t sound very good in respect to the others. But I told my mother it could have been worse. ‘At least,’ I tell her, ‘I’m playing with cars.’ For me that’s OK.”
Born and brought up just 50 miles outside Turin by a father who worked as a scrutineer for the Italian governing body of motorsport and a patient mother, it’s no surprise Adamo’s career path was set early.
“I grew up in a house where motorsport was more important than football,” he says. “I didn’t collect those Panini football figures, I collected Autosprint and Quattroroute magazines. I read all these stories about Fiat against Lancia on this incredible tour to the west called Sanremo [Rally]. I remember talking to my father and being amazed at these stories.”
And, if Andrea and his sister were good through the week, they got a Saturday treat?
“One guy who lived near us was owning a red [Lancia] Stratos,” he says, “so if my sister and me were behaving correctly, my cousins would bring us to see the Stratos.”
The Dino-engined, Bertone-drawn masterpiece has worked its magic from bedroom walls around the world. Seeing one – on a weekly basis – in the flesh left its mark on Adamo.
“I planned it to go to a technical school, then university,” he says. “I was telling everyone I could be a race car engineer. One evening my parents tried to explain to me that it’s good to have dreams and targets in life, but life does not always treat you so well that it allows you to reach your dreams.
“I remember letting them speak a lot. Then I said: ‘OK. Thank you for the advice. But I will be a race car engineer.’ They were a bit: ‘Oh, OK, maybe we wasted our time trying to explain.'”
If there’s one thing Adamo knows, it’s his own mind.
Since his arrival at the WRC’s top table at the top of the 2019 season, he’s been something of a whirlwind. He’s direct, determined, driven. And dividing opinion among the established order.
Fitting five drivers into three cars, dropping Andreas Mikkelsen, deploying team tactics and riding roughshod across the moral argument against playing with the running order has regularly cast Hyundai’s team principal as the sport’s bad guy.
Put that to him and his reaction is impassive to the point of aloof. His response is brief. But not brusque.
“I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to win.”
Delivering Hyundai its maiden manufacturers’ title after a decade in the WRC’s top class is testament to that. A testy relationship with some areas of the media a by-product.
I was going to say an ‘unfortunate by-product’ but checked myself. Adamo sees things very much in black and white. He deals in news, not comment. That it’s unfortunate is not news, it’s comment. And, by definition, superfluous.
Anybody who’s watched his interviews on the WRC’s All Live service will bear witness to his frustration with the superfluous.
“People died to let us express our opinion,” he says, “so we have to express our opinion to use the words that we are able to use in the proper way. The most important thing we have is time. And I hate to waste time. I don’t want to intimidate no one, but I want to speak to people who have something to say – not people that are making stupid questions. When people came with stupid questions, I’m annoyed because I’m busy enough.
“I understand that journalists are working and I always respect everyone because everyone is working. Ask our PR department, I never denied anyone an interview. But if it’s clear that someome came to me and started to make stupid questions, I will not play the game of this one, because I don’t see why I should waste Hyundai Motorsport’s time.”
This answer goes straight to the heart of my frustration with Adamo’s reputation. Find the key, unlock him and he’s among the sport’s most engaging, opinionated, charismatic and genuinely warm and amusing characters you’ll meet.
Get him up through the gears and he’ll find overdrive all by himself.
“I have something more to say now,” he says with a mischievous smile that makes me nudge my voice recorder just that bit closer to the speaker on my Zoom-screened laptop.
“I grew up reading magazines, as I told you,” he continues. “And I have many, many names on top of my mind in Italy like [legendary Italian rally writer, Guido] Rancati, that are people who were really writing well. Now, in Italy, there is an important journalist that died – they were writing for Republica, an Italian newspaper. Once he said: ‘There are not sport journalists, there are journalists. Because if someone is doing their job properly, he makes his name as a journalist.’” I agree.
“You all write and produce the words and there are many [journalists] in France, there were many, in Portugal and in Spain and I was reading these ones because I respect them as I do you. The problem is now, in these times, if you write two words on Facebook you can become a journalist. I think the word ‘journalist’ is a bit abused. I think everyone that can record something with their mobile phone camera or can write two words in a row, they think they are a journalist.”
And Adamo knows a thing or two about a well-constructed sentence. He’s an avid reader, especially when it comes to our sport. His forensic knowledge of rallying comes courtesy of Gazzetta dello Sport’s chronicling of Italy’s supreme reign over the late 1980s and early ’90s. And McKlein.
“I have all the books,” he says. “I love them. I love to read.”
And he’s read well. His grasp of the sport is unequalled, even by the likes of Craig Breen, one of the service park’s acknowledged experts in rallying’s past.
“When I first met him,” says Breen, “we chatted about things for a bit and then we got onto the history and we were there for ages. I love that. I love that he’s somebody who understands where everything came from and how important our past and our history is. It’s amazing.
“I remember trying to catch him out and asking him some serious questions like, how many left-hand drive Metro 6R4s were ever made. Bang, back with the answer and the fact that Didier Auriol drove one, where, when and what his results were. His grasp of our sport both back then and the here and now is second to none.”
The ‘back then’ came from one place. Two actually. The first was Corso Marche 38, Lancia’s competitions base on Turin’s west side. The second? Chivasso. Lancia’s Torino home of 40 years until it shut in 2003.
Adamo just about caught the end of rallying Lancias, but his first job was with Abarth on the Alfa DTM and Super Touring programs. While he might have missed out on the mud, he didn’t miss the main man.
“Limone,” says Adamo, immediately when asked about the person with the greatest influence on his early years.
“Sergio was special.”
Limone was the man responsible for Lancia’s most successful ever rally car, the Group A Delta. By the time Adamo started working with him in 1995, he’d moved on to Alfa’s ultra-successful touring car, the 155.
Adamo adds: “You ask about the rules and methods I use today and for those I have to go back to my roots and remember nice evenings when I was a young chief designer or young designer with Sergio. And every time we tried to read the rules separately and exchange opinions. Sergio was a very great, great teacher for me about those matters and I always remembered this big lesson to think out of the box. I think Sergio is one of the most clever men I’ve met in my life.
“I remember one sentence from all my life: The dromedary [camel] is the results of two engineers: one wanted to do a horse and the other one wanted to do a camel and it doesn’t work. The leadership is important. This was a big lesson in those days that you need to have a clear organization. It’s not the fact that you go all together around and see what is going on. No, it’s a clear organization, a clear leadership [that delivers]. And the leadership has to bring results.”
Joining Abarth from Turin University as a junior aerodynamicist, Adamo progressed through race engineering (box ticked), into the design office and ultimately on to become technical director – courtesy of Limone’s recommendation.
“I loved to work with these guys,” he says. “I was like the child in the team for them. I was young when I started and now it’s incredible to see these guys now they have retired – they still think of me like the child in their team. We have such stories from these days.”
Abarth was changing though. With Limone gone, Adamo grew frustrated.
“It was an emotional moment when I left [Abarth],” he says. “In those days the direction was clear. For me, it was not really motorsport that was the main target there. Because the management was changing and they don’t respect it… I have nothing to say, but clearly the direction was different. They told me they do motorsport, but I told them I was doing motorsport from very, very young and this… this was not motorsport. This was not the way I feel and breath and eat motorsport.
“I started to be quite uncomfortable [at Abarth] and I have to say that in the end, today I’m here and that’s because of Barbara [Adamo’s wife].
“One evening while having dinner, when the mood was down, I heard her say I must grow up. Eating and breathing Abarth, Lancia and Alfa and all these things couldn’t continue anymore. And I understood that the direction was different and that I was in a very bad mood. And in the evening at dinner she told me this is not what you want to do. So leave Abarth, go freelance, let’s find another way.
“She said: “When you are going away all the time, at least when you’re back, Andrea, you are not someone that I cannot recognise.”
“It’s important when you have someone supporting you in this way, so I took the decision and I left [Abarth]. I have to say now thank you to her and to the decision that she suggested to me was probably the correct one. If I had not left, then maybe, I don’t know, it’s a bit like the Sliding Doors movie. But sometimes you have the proper person beside you allowing you to be brave enough to make the decisions.”
He departed Abarth for Lola, then worked at Honda Racing before a brief spell in Alfa Romeo’s road car department working on the Giulia. He knew road cars wasn’t for him.
“It’s a long story,” he says, “but I have nothing to hide. I was at Alfa only six months because I discovered it was out of my work at the level of the things [they did]. I live only once, I always check – like on the yoghurt pot – for the expiry date somewhere.
“In October 2015, I told myself: ‘Listen, let’s change my life’.”
That change of life came with a more straightforward job in a friend’s company.
“I told myself, maybe after 25 years in motorsport, it was the time to try to live a normal life. From eight in the morning until five in the afternoon and then to have the weekends free, lets enjoy these feelings.”
And that was all going to plan until he was invited to interview for a position as manager of Hyundai Motorsport’s customer racing department.
“It was,” he laughs at the memory, “the most nice and easy interview of my life. Because it was by far, far, far away as my wish to do it. I didn’t want to do motorsport no more. Because it was far away from my mind, I said OK I would go [to the interview] because it’s not nice to discard an invitation. It’s a matter also of respect of the people.
“I came to Alzenau, I met many people and I watched the team with the R5. I had a chat with [then team principal] Michel Nandan with the representatives of the Korean people.
“You know when you are easy-going, no tension and just really a nice chat. We spoke about many things, a bit like now. And then when I left. The HR manager told me: ‘For sure for this position we have other candidates, we will interview other people, so we will give you feedback in two or three months.’
“No problem for me. My mind was far away. It was something like a Wednesday, I landed back in Turin and was going back to my nice, non-motorsport life. The [following] Monday morning I was called by HR asking me if I would agree to start to work the Monday after.
“I had made this castle that I thought was made from strong bricks, but the reality was like the playing cards and one small blow was all it needed to destroy it.
“I didn’t start the Monday after, it took me one month to settle on things, but I started then.”
He started with 15 people and no cars and, by the time he stepped up to head up all of Hyundai Motorsport four years later, customer racing employed 70 people and had two very competitive and commercially viable race cars in the i20 R5 and i30 TCR.
When the call came to replace Nandan, Adamo was as surprised as he was flattered.
“I’ve never worked in my life with a career target,” he says, clearly forgetting the promise his 13-year-old self made to his parents about being a race car engineer.
“I was loving the job I was doing and I always felt in my life that I was lucky to have the possibility to do a job that I was loving in the environment that I was doing it in. So I never dreamed to become something more than what I was. I always tried to do the best as I could in the role that I was doing and learn from the people that were leading me to understand what was good, what was not good.
“We don’t live enough time to learn all the things. We do not have enough time to make all the little mistakes to become better. In life there are moments in which you cannot say no.”
With driver contracts in place and the 2019 i20 Coupe WRC revealed a matter of days after his appointment, Adamo inherited much of Nandan’s team last season.
He refuses to be critical of the choices his predecessor made.
“I cannot say I could have done x if I could have been y. Maybe I could have done it even worse and I’m not the kind of guy that regrets. I’m the kind of one that acts. Don’t forget, I became team principal of a team that was fighting for the world championship, both driver and manufacturer, in the two years before. It’s not something that has to be forgotten.
“Everyone does things in their own way and I did things in my own way and I changed a bit the organization and other things that needed to be changed. Let’s see. But I was also faced with the reality that I could not say: ‘Let’s take a moment, let’s organize things, then go ahead.’
“I was taking a team that was a winning team and I changed a few things and we are going on evolving things. I tried to make the things better and better. I’m lucky because there are other people that took Formula 1 teams in much worse situations and needed to do much more to come back to win after this evolution. I was lucky that we were able to win in the first year, but that means the team was very good.
“There were different reasons, reasons I never really understood, why it was not winning before.
“What I know is that I brought my way of doing things, my willingness to win, and also now I know that there are things that we have to improve. Sometimes we can go faster, but sometimes we cannot improve so fast because, of course, we are a big organization and I cannot go home and say I need 10 more engineers, 20 more mechanics and three million euros more. I have to face the reality and take the best out of it. I cannot cry and say: ‘Ahh, we cannot win because we don’t have this, we don’t have that.’
“I have to say we can win because I have this, this, this and that. This is the approach that you have to face in the end if you want to be a winner.
“I am lucky, because I have smart people working with me and the man who I was sharing most of these kinds of decisions with is Alain [Penasse, Hyundai Motorsport team manager]. He is really reading and knowing the rules much better than me. Most of the time we are on the same page and we understand when it is the moment to change little things. I know I’ve been contested when we swap positions on the road, when we’re changing drivers, but I can only route it to one thing: we are paid to win.
“I’m not paid to be the nicest, the smartest chap of the service paddock, or the nicest friend of journalists or the nicest friend of everyone. I’m not a social guy. I’m not the kind of guy who loves parties. A dinner with four people is like a rock concert for me. I do not speak a lot, because I think there are already too many people in the world that are speaking a lot, and I do not need to put more words around. You [only] have to speak if you have something to say. If you have nothing to say, it’s not a need to speak.”
Adamo definitely had nothing to say I wrote about Ott Tänak joining his team from Toyota last October.
He’s happier to reflect on what was arguably the biggest service park shock in years. Was it a difficult deal to do?
He ponders the answers. Then opens up: “It has been, not difficult to make it happen, but of course there were some economical sides that we had to settle down. People were screaming about the money that Hyundai was supposed to spend to have him. That made me laugh, because I read about private jets and so on. Maybe the only thing I didn’t read about was about him having a gold kitchen, with me cleaning his kitchen after his wife cooked. All the other bullshit had been wrote about.
“The good thing was that I found a guy with the same willingness to win that I have and that people like Thierry Neuville is having as well. When you speak with someone and you understand you’re speaking the same language and, in the end, you make the same jokes.
“In the end, Ott is a bit like me, if I permit to say. In public he is not really the kind of man who makes many jokes or is sociable, but inevitably we have enjoyed a lot, as we have enjoyed with Thierry and the others for that matter as well. There is an official screen, that is an approach that we all have as professional people doing a rally, because we are there to win, not to enjoy the people or keep a good mood for everyone. But outside, when we relax for a moment, I think it’s a nice way of behaving.
“And I have to say that I really appreciate that Thierry and Ott are working very well together. Because Ott, for sure, brought the experience of other WRC class cars, so he’s bringing experience and saying the same thing that Thierry is saying. This is a big help. When you manage top drivers that are clever – and normally when you have top drivers it means they are also clever – it’s much easier. For sure, you have to be clear. As I said before, the truth makes you free: if you tell all the people all the [important] things are: which are the priorities, who is leading, who is not leading, who takes the decision, who has to respect the decision. It’s clear, square and then everything has to work out.
“Of course a driver is not a top driver if he’s not selfish. I understand that. The day a driver stops complaining, stressing and asking will be a bad day, because it means they have only the normal willingness to win. I have no children, so I don’t know how to manage children, but sometimes I think back to seeing my nephews when they were younger, it was a bit like this; they tried to stretch the limit to see how long before papa and mama get upset. Then they know where the limit is make a step back. Sometimes with drivers it’s a bit like that.”
One thing Adamo’s entirely unwilling to castigate Tänak for is the Estonian’s similar approach to some aspects of the media.
“Like I told you, I like to read,” he says. “I read the Bible, not because I’m a religious guy, but if you read it as a historical book – and let me permit without disregard or offending anybody – it’s a very nice book because there are many, many things that can teach you something. There is a very nice sentence that is: ‘He who is without any sin throws the first stone.’
“I hardly think me, as I am, can say something against [Tänak] because I’m the first one that, when a plan goes wrong, am not the most nice and kind type of chap to speak with!
“But at least I’m sitting at the desk. We have to think that they are speaking with drivers that are driving cars with about 400hp, 200km in the forest, in the mud, and there may be a problem while they’re fighting for a win that they want harder than life. And at the end of the stage, if they do have a problem, they have someone asking them why they pulled the handbrake more than someone else! I can understand sometimes [their responses].
“The level of adrenaline is so high, the willingness to win is so high, they are driving these tools at an amazing speed and with an amazing effort.”
“I think we need the characters. It’s what we speak about. If we had all the drivers saying ‘yes, oh yes I had a nice stage, I think I can go faster’, I think that spectacle will get boring. Maybe it’s not my job to hear, but I think sometimes waiting for the comment nice. And every time Ott is saying the car is not good – and he is doing top stage times – this makes me smile.”
For somebody who’s seen truly dark days in his life, the ability to smile the way Andrea Adamo can smile speaks volume about the man behind the man too many see in the service park.
He’s a good guy. A good guy who just happens to do a very good line in being the bad guy.
You can hear David Evans’ interview with Andrea Adamo in full in SPIN, The Rally Podcast