Walloon Thierry Boutsen‘s single-seater career got off to a flying start with victory in the 1978 Formula Ford 1600 Championship taking 15 race wins from 18 en-route to the title before moving to European Formula 3.
Runner up in the F3 title to future Ferrari F1 star Michele Alboreto at his first attempt gave Boutsen the impetus to move up to Formula 2 for 1981 where he again finished title runner up in his debut season, on the back of a brace of wins, but four retirements – including the opening three rounds – put paid to any chance of the title.
More wins were to follow in 1982, when he improved on his points haul, but ultimately finished third in the title race behind winner Corrado Fabi and Johnny Cecotto.
His impressive F2 showing had by now attracted the attention of a number of Formula 1 teams, testing for both McLaren and Brabham before making his debut for Arrows in 1983 at his home Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, a deal that is alleged to have cost Boutsen $500k.
Boutsen scored no points in the remaining ten races of 1983, with a best finish of seventh, but backing from Barclays – a sub-brand of British American Tobacco – allowed him to remain with Arrows for another three full seasons, scoring a single podium at the 1985 San Marino Grand Prix, finishing behind Lotus’ Elio De Angelis.
His three largely uncompetitive years at Arrows came to an end in 1987 when Boutsen was signed by Flavio Briatore to drive for Benetton, who were, at that time, effectively the Ford works F1 team.
Benetton allowed the Belgian to regularly compete for points, if not for wins, and he duly took six points finishes in his first season with the Anglo-Italian squad, finishing on a high with a third place in the season ending Australian Grand Prix.
Better still was to come in 1988 when the Benetton B188 coupled with the Naturally aspirated Cosworth DFV (Ford stopped development of their turbo engine ahead of them being banned for 1989 hence Benetton’s switch to non-turbo) powered Boutsen to five podium finishes (all behind the imperious McLaren-Hondas of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna), leaving him fourth in the championship standings, behind the McLarens and splitting the two turbo-powered Ferraris.
In a season where turbo cars were at an enormous advantage, Boutsen finished top non-turbo car, ahead of a Ferrari and both Lotuses, all of which benefitted from turbo-power.
His smooth driving style and consistent finishing made him the perfect choice for Sir Frank when he sought to replace Nigel Mansell, who was off to Ferrari for 1989.
Williams’ Renault project was in its infancy, and they needed a quick driver who was adept at developing a car and who’d proven himself as a steady pair of hands.
Boutsen proved to be all of these things, and, partnering Italian Riccardo Patrese, took his maiden Grand Prix win in his first season with the team at a wet Canadian Grand Prix, and followed that up with another wet race win at the season-closer in Australia en-route to fifth in the WDC.
His second season at Williams continued in the same vein as the first, as he took another win and a handful of podia.
However, Williams’ Renault partnership was beginning to gather pace & 1990’s FW13 was considered to be among the strongest in the field. With this car Williams felt they should have been considerably closer to the Ferraris and McLarens ahead of them than they found themselves, and their two drivers – neither of whom was considered a world beater – were at least partly responsible.
Sir Frank drafted in Nigel Mansell to spearhead their title tilt in 1991, and Patrese – having worked with Mansell previously – was preferred to Boutsen who, despite having won three GPs to Patrese‘s one in their time together, was allowed to leave.
Boutsen was left with little choice but to look further down the grid for his next F1 opportunity, and he signed for Ligier where he failed to score points in all but his very last outing for the French marque.
His long-term connection with Barclays gave him enough financial wallop to secure one final hurrah in Formula 1 with Jordan, where he replaced Ivan Capelli midway through the season, but out of practice, and his lanky frame ill-suited to the car he was comfortably outpaced by team-mate Rubens Barrichello and he too was replaced before the season was out.
Fittingly, his final race in Formula 1 came at Spa Francorchamps – the scene of his F1 debut nine years earlier.
On leaving Formula 1 Boutsen turned his hand to German tourning cars and sportscars, with limited success, before retiring from racing altogether in 1999.