Long before he made his own cars, Enzo Ferrari made his name as a manager looking after Alfa Romeo’s GP team. Mark Hughes reports.
What happened in the 1930 Mille Miglia is the stuff of legend. The greatest drivers of the day, Tazio Nuvolari and Achille Varzi, were in their resolve even more intense than usual, for these warriors were driving identical works Alfas and knew this was as close to a match race as they were ever likely to get, a chance to settle the issue of just who was the world’s number one. First one led, then the other, but the margins were small. Suddenly, after Ancona, on the return to Bologna, Varzi lost six minutes to his adversary, and the race was lost. What had happened?
Why the sudden fall-off in Varzi’s pace at such a critical time? ‘The answer is to be found in the shadowy presence of one Enzo Ferrari. Having been allocated an earlier starting slot, Varzi was running ahead on the road and was reliant on team information at the fuel stops for summaries of his progress. It was at Ancona that Varzi was falsely told by a mechanic that he was now comfortably leading and had no need to push. The mechanic was acting under the instructions of Ferrari, the team ‘fixer’, anxious that the desperate duel might cost Alfa dearly. By the time Varzi realised he has been deceived, it was too late; Nuvolari was right behind him on the road and well ahead on time. Legend has it that the great Tazio turned off his lights once he had his rival in his sights, in order to catch him by surprise, but, if true, it was purely a symbolic gesture; Ferrari had already ensured Nuvolari’s win.
The incident tells us much about Ferrari the team manager. Callous – he would have known well how much his actions were going to hurt the intensely proud Varzi. Ruthless – he wished to ensure a team victory and anything else was subjugated to that. Cunning – he chose to misinform Varzi rather than Nuvolari, knowing that the former drove with cool detachment and was far more likely to cruise when appropriate than the more fiery Nuvolari. Furthermore, starting behind, Tazio would have been better positioned to discover any scam earlier. Pragmatic – if his actions ran the risk of losing the services of a furious driver, he would sooner it was Varzi, for great though he was, Enzo considered Nuvolari incomparable.
Actually, Ferrari probably felt confident he could keep both drivers on-board; indeed, he was almost certainly hoping he could manipulate the incident to stir up even more intense rivalry between them. For that was his Machiavellian way; he would almost wilfully bring together explosive characters, light the fuse and stand back, believing this was the way to bring out the best in them. “A flair for the agitation of men,” as he described it in his autobiography, My Terrible Joys.
The career of Enzo Ferrari the team manager, as opposed to the constructor, is ill-defined. Even at that Mille Miglia his official role was only to oversee the Scuderia Ferrari Alfas of three wealthy amateurs. Varzi and Nuvolari, by contrast, were in cars prepared and entered by the factory. Even so, his influence is evident. While his connection with the company was at times loosely informal on paper it was never less than umbilical in reality. It began in 1920 and ended in ’39, though only in the seasons 1934-36 was Scuderia Ferrari the official competition arm of Alfa Romeo. But while the partnership wasn’t always explicit, it was enormously beneficial for both parties; it enabled Ferrari to begin building his empire, and provided Alfa with the services of an intuitively great racing man whose skills far transcended those of a mere team manager.
It all stemmed from a genuine love of motor racing, inflamed when his father, who ran a metal-working shop, took ten year-old Enzo to see Vincenzo Lancia, and Felice Nazzaro fight out the 1908 Circuit of Bologna. His ambition to be part of this world was given free rein by a deeply independent spirit, doubtless intensified by losing the guidance and security of his father and elder brother to illness in 1916. After serving the war years shoeing mules, young Enzo travelled from his home town of Modena to Turin, presented himself at the engineering department of Fiat and asked for work.
Little could Fiat have known what it was turning down as the disheartened young man shuffled out into the snow, found a park bench, sat down and cried. But nor should you be fooled by such tears even in a man barely into his twenties: in reality he was more than able to look after himself.
It’s difficult to imagine, anyway, how this lone wolf could have made a lair for himself within a big organisation like Fiat. When he eventually hooked up with CMN and subsequently Alfa, they were small-time manufacturers and he was quickly able to carve out a niche. He had evident flair, in fact, for making himself indispensible through shameless networking disguised as socialising; he never took his eye off what he was trying to achieve for himself. Yet his constant striving and improvisation played a vital role in establishing Alfa as a major racing force.
Though officially he was no more than a sometime race driver for the company – he won a few minor events – and a sales agent for its road cars, he acted in reality as general fixer and go-between. An incredibly persuasive man, the same skills that had got him into the inner sanctum of Alfa were used to lure Luigi Bazzi, and ultimately Vittorio Jano, from Fiat. These two engineers were fundamental in ensuring that the baton of Grand Prix racing passed to Alfa in the mid-’20s. It simply would not have happened without Enzo.
Poaching staff from Fiat gave Ferrari considerable pleasure. He viewed the Turin company’s subsequent withdrawal from the sport as its come-uppance for turning him away that time in 1918. This fierce desire for revenge fired his efforts, making him all the more formidable.
Alfa itself withdrew from the sport at the end of 1925, in the wake of one of its periodic financial crises and the death of lead driver Antonio Ascari. In the meantime Enzo maintained his strong links, travelling regularly to the Alfa factory, ostensibly on business for his dealership. But he had a plan which he felt sure would gently pave the way for Alfa’s return to competition: in 1929 he set up Scuderia Ferrari to prepare and race sports Alfas in minor events for a selection of pay drivers.
His manipulative skills were much in evidence here. The major investors in this new venture were Mario Tadini and the Caniato brothers, Augusto and Alfredo, all wealthy enthusiasts without the skills to be big-time racers. It’s easy to imagine Ferrari playing to their egos, using his links to the glamour and prestige of Alfa to entice them in, doubtless as willing ‘victims’. Within three years, with the team safely established, they had been bought out by Count Felice Trossi, who had the advantage of not only being even wealthier but of being a formidable driver in his own right. Within a further three years Trossi, too, was out. Throughout, Enzo Ferrari remained in control, even though his own monetary stake was small.
One senses that Enzo derived a certain satisfaction from such dealings. He made much of the fact that he was a simple man from a regional backwater, though he tended to overplay this angle in his self-congratulation. But the insecurity showed through in an almost pathological distrust of intellectuals; when Alfa employed Wilfredo Ricart, Ferrari’s disdain was ill-concealed. “He used to walk round in shoes with cushioned soles. So that his brain didn’t get jarred,” he scoffed.
The chip on his shoulder showed also in his complex relationships with drivers. As a racer he enjoyed minor successes, but even though he created opportunities for himself – he was even made part of Alfa’s Grand Prix squad at Lyon in 1924 – he was unable to make real use of them. His friend Sergio Scaglietti commented of Ferrari’s relationship with Nuvolari, “He admired him, of course, but was very jealous. They really were like two prima donnas when they were together, each always trying to have the upper hand.”
lf, deep down, Ferrari felt he lacked the education, talent and social refinement of many of those around him, he had a tough armoury with which to protect himself. He had street-savvy; he was tough and shrewd with a forceful and charismatic personality that enabled him to get what he wanted. All traits which helped make him a fantastically effective team manager.
Varzi’s win in the ’34 Mille Miglia owed everything to these qualities. Although a seething Achille had indeed left Alfa not long after that infamous duping four years earlier, now he was back in the fold while his nemesis Nuvolari drove a privately-entered car. Predictably, the race again became a duel between the two of them, but when the rain began to fall Nuvolari started to increase his lead. At one of the last stops, in the town of Imola, Ferrari insisted Varzi switch to the new, untried, Pirelli rain tyres. Varzi was reluctant being sufficiently proud to believe he could defeat his rival without an unfair advantage. Ferrari knew otherwise and after a huge row the new tyres were fitted. Varzi pulled back the deficit and won comfortably.
More often Enzo’s management skills were seen at one remove, for once he formed the Scuderia, he rarely travelled outside Italy. He refused to fly, didn’t care much for trains, would even use the stairs in preference to a lift. But even at foreign races, his hand could still be clearly seen. He delighted, for instance, in the conflict he helped to create through the arrival in the team, in ’34, of a startling new talent, Guy Moll. He enjoyed immensely the fact that the young Algerian had ignored team orders to finish behind Louis Chiron at Tripoli and had not only passed the Frenchman but tried to take victory from team leader Varzi. For the French Grand Prix Ferrari provocatively included Moll in the squad as a reserve, with Varzi, Chiron and Trossi as nominated drivers. The inference was clear to the established stars: perform or else. When the acting team manager telephoned Ferrari with the practice times, he was duly instructed to put Moll in Trossi’s car for the race.
His skilftil machinations succeeded in bringing Alfa back into frontline racing, and in the years 1934-36 Scuderia Ferrari, as the official competition offshoot of the company, achieved success way beyond what was merited by the increasingly outdated hardware provided by the factory. It was a tough, professional fighting outfit that reflected the man behind it.
Back to the Mille Miglia, this time in 1940, ten years after we came in: Ferrari and Alfa had finally parted company. The terms of his pay-off had forbidden him to co-operate with any other manufacturer for four years – in itself an acknowledgement of his abilities – but it didn’t matter, he had bigger fish to fry now. Among the entries were two little red sports cars, to be driven by Alberto Ascari and Lothario Rangoni. They were labelled just AAC 815s, but were really the first Ferraris. A new era had begun.