Campari con brio

He could have been a professional opera singer but Giuseppe Campari’s heart lay in motor racing. Bill Boddy profiles the life of an Italian great and judges him against his many rivals

Very broadly, racing drivers along the years can be divided into the professionals and the amateurs. This was recognised at Brooklands, where for some years there were races for ‘Private Competitors’ — those with no connections with the motor trade. This led me to say to Jenks how nice it was that most of the drivers there were amateurs. DSJ looked at me quizzically and soon presented me with a list of 39 well-known drivers with garages or other motor businesses. “Counter that,” he said. I had to trawl hard to do so. I had to list doctors, a barrister, a fur-broker, a number of stock brokers, Army and Naval officers, a bacteriologist, a Peer of the Realm, a contractor, a Royal Prince, a publisher, a butcher and several journalists to accomplish the challenge…

Which is where Campari comes in. It was well known he could have been a successful opera singer had he not been a professional racing driver. His wife, Lina Cavalleri, was an accomplished singer. (Perhaps musically orientated readers will be able to tell us just how famous she was, and whether Campari would have made a truly great impact in the theatre had he not preferred the circuits?)

But racing was Campari’s calling. He was born near Milan, and became a test driver at the ALFA factory, forerunner of Alfa Romeo. Soon he was allowed to drive their racing cars, to some effect, as just after he came of age in 1914, Campari was fourth in the tough Coppa Florio. Hostilities over, he raced for the newly formed Alfa Romeo, for a time with the out dated 40/60hp cars, with one of which he scored the first important victory of Alfa Romeo; he won the 242-mile Mugello race over the Futa Pass in 1920, ahead of a Diatto and a Weber driven by a man to make his name in carburettors.

By 1921 Alfa Romeo had a significant team of drivers, in Campari, Antonio Ascari and Ugo Sivocci — “The Three Musketeers” — backed up by Enzo Ferrari. Even then Ferrari influenced racing, enticing designer Luigi Bazzi from the victorious Fiat organisation to work for Alfa Romeo. It is said that Ferrari and Ascari would sing operatic arias with Campari at times, when the results were joyous.

That season Campari was second-fastest in the Parma hillclimb in the big car and in the Targa Florio, Campari was third against more potent GP cars. By 1922 the Targa was a truly international happening, yet difficult as ever; it was said to have but 13 miles of level road in the entire 268 miles. Campari alone in a 40/60 was only 11th, but third in the racing car class. He retired in the Gran Premio race at Monza and his hoped-for hat-trick at Mugello was frustrated by a broken valve on the last lap. The same happened in the Brescia GP, after which Campari gave up driving the rather outdated car.

Alfa Romeo’s hopes for the 1923 Targa Florio were based on a five car team developed from the sports R1 model, and Count Masetti, who had won the two previous Targas with Fiat and Mercedes. It paid off for Alfa, a 1,2,3 finish only spoiled when Campari’s 3-litre ran out of fuel on the final lap. Sivocci won, Ascari passed the dry car of Campari, Masetti was fourth and Ferrari retired. At the end of ’23, Sivocci was killed in the new P1 GP car practising for the Italian GP at Monza and the other Alfas were withdrawn. Campari did not compete as regularly as the others and one wonders whether he may have been using his operatic gift at amateur performances — does anyone know? However, 1924 was the year of the great P2 GP cars, when his talents could be better demonstrated.

It was the age of supercharging, and the Vittorio Jano-designed GP Alfas had supercharged straight-eight twin-cam, 1987cc engines for the 2-litre GP ruling. The wheelbase was 8ft 8in and power output was 135bhp at 5500rpm, top speed about 135mph, with an unladen weight of 15 1/2cwt, with 21×5 Pirelli balloon tyres. With the P2s, Alfa Romeo faced a great 1924. But first Masetti was second in the Targa and Campari third in the Coppa Florio with the TF Alfas. After a run of wins in lesser races by Ferrari, Campari had a P2 at Pescara but hit something, burst a tyre, and was flagged in by his pit. Ferrari won again. But Campari made up for this with victory in the European GP at Lyons, in which four P2s ran, the veteran Louis Wagner enrolled as a team driver. It was a race between Delage, Fiat, Sunbeam and Bugatti. Ascari was in the ascendant but on the last lap his engine gave up and Campari took the flag, from Divo’s Sunbeam, after just over seven hours at the wheel, at 71mph, earning 100,000 Francs. In the Italian GP the P2s dominated, Ascari first, at 98.76mph for the 497 miles, from Wagner and Campari. The veteran Minoia had the fourth P2 and was fourth, an Alfa grandslam.

Alfa supremacy continued in 1925, last year of the 2-litre formula: they took the manufacturer’s Championship, the chief prize before today’s Drivers’ title had been introduced. The P2s now gave 165bhp and were formidable, although said to be slightly lacking in road-holding. But they out-did the V12 Delage challenge. They met in the dull European GP at Spa, the Delage team retiring and only Ascari and Campari finishing, 1,2. In the 1925 French GP at Montlhéry, Ascari had it all his own way until he lost control in unexpected drizzle, overturned and was fatally injured. The other Alfas were withdrawn and the Delage won, their drivers afterwards laying their laurels on the spot where Ascari crashed. Ascari’s son Alberto was six years old.

At Monza for the Italian GP four P2s ran, the American Peter de Paolo replacing Ascari. After a Duesenberg had led but crashed, Campari looked set for an easy victory but a long refuelling pause gave the race to Brilli-Peri. Apparently Nuvolari would have been reserve for the Alfa team but had crashed a P2 in practice when the gearbox seized. The 1 1/2 litre formula for 1926 made Alfa withdraw, to concentrate on sportscar racing. However, the P2 was to be developed to produce about 200bhp and the cheerful, portly Campari proved just as adept in the roadgoing Alfas and in these faster P2s.

Campari had a good ’27, cap sometimes reversed a l’Etancelin. With the more powerful P2 he won the Coppa Acerbo, was second in the Milan GP at Monza and also won the 320-mile Targa Abruzzio. He was also in good form in 1928, endorsing his versatility by winning Mille Miglia in a s/c 1500 Alfa, with Guilio Ramponi. Using another s/c 1500, Campari managed to split the Bugatti opposition in the Targa Florio, behind Divo but ahead of a great number of other top drivers. He had bought one of the old P2s and won the Coppa Acerbo at Pescara, averaging 68.25mph for 317 miles, was third in that year’s Coppa Ciano at Leghorn, then, having sold the car to the fiery Achille Varzi, they shared it in the Italian GP, where it was second between the Bugattis of Chiron and Nuvolari; Chiron set a race record of 99.14mph but Campari’s average was only 0.77mph slower, after contending with an accident when an old Talbot went into the spectators.

That the Mille Miglia victory had been no fluke Campari demonstrated by winning the stupendous race again in 1929, partnered again by the calm Ramponi, in a s/c 1750 Alfa Romeo, at 55.69mph. The now well-established driver was absent for most of 1929 but came to Ireland for the Ulster TT, as one of the works team of 1500 Alfa Romeos. Mr FW Stiles of Alfa Romeo British Sales Limited had persuaded the company that the British were keen users of sportscars and able to invest in their cars; he had already enticed them to the Phoenix Park races, Boris Ivanowski doing very well there. For the TT, Stiles had put in Ivanowski, Artilo Marioni, George Eyston and Campari in s/c 1500cc cars. Campari not only won the class but was second overall behind Caracciola in the 7-litre MercedesBenz, over the rain-swept tricky course.

From 1930 it was the famous Scuderia Ferrari which was running the racing side of Alfa Romeo. The TT that year was a great success with Nuvolari, Varzi and Campari in the s/c 1750s and Eyston as reserve. They duly took the first three places, Tazio winning at 70.88mph, Campari second and Varzi third, after Campari had ignored no-overtaking zones and the signals of irate officials, his response being to slow but not to stop at his pit. He could be rather excitable but was a very fast driver, 1930 bringing him in second in the Coppa Ciano with Marioni, and third in the ever challenging Mille Miglia. And he was second at Phoenix Park to Caracciola’s huge Mercedes-Benz in the combined and so-called Irish GP.

In 1931 Campari drove one of his best races, at Phoenix Park, thrilling the onlookers as he fought with Birkin’s 2.3 Alfa Romeo in a 2 1/2-litre Maserati, braking hard into the comers, sliding on the road awash after a thunderstorm, to come in second after the hectic 300 Irish miles, despite a stop to have a damaged eye bandaged. He still came second in the big-car race to Birkin. Before that, the wily old campaigner who had seen everything and done most things, as one writer observed, was also in great form.

He won the Mille Miglia in a 1750, after the new 2.3s had monumental tyre trouble. In the Targa Florio, taken very seriously by Ferrari and Jano, Nuvolari’s 2.3 won but Campari was fourth, less than 20sec behind Varzi’s Type 51 Bugatti. In the ten-hour European GP at Monza Nuvolari was paired with Campari, and they won in a 2.3 Alfa, thereafter called the Monza type, at 98.17mph for a day’s racing. In another ten-hour GP at Montlhéry the Campari/Borzacchini Monza was second to the Chiron/Varzi T51 Bugatti. In the Belgian GP, ten hours again, a stone holed the sump of Campari’s Alfa, losing him the European Championship, but he just said, “It could not be helped.”

He won the Coppa Acerbo quite easily using the powerful Tipo-A Twin-Six Alfa, and in the IT he fought another battle with Birkin both in sports 2.3 Alfas. But in hoping to early brake the Italian at the corner at Comber, a ploy Campari recognised, Birkin hit the bank and stopped. But Campari had no choice but to use the escape road, finishing sixth on handicap and for once was very angry! Borzacchini was second. Campari had the 3 1/2 litre twin-six for the Monza GP but the two gearbox transmission played up.

Approaching middle-age Campari had lost none of his abilities. In the Mille Miglia he went off the road after Ancona and was last in the five-hour Monaco GP, but for the Italian GP, in one of the new P3 monoposto Alfas, the other driven by Nuvolari who won, he was fourth. In the Coppa Ciano he was third in an Alfa 1,2,3 led by Nuvolari.

In the Monza third heat he was third again but in the final Fagioli’s twin-engined Maserati shunted Nuvolari off the road and he was disqualified; Alfa threatened to withdraw, the crowd got angry, so it was forgotten, but as Nuvolari’s P3 had been damaged he took Campari’s. However, in the 1933 French GP at Montlhéry with a two-seater 2.9 Maserati that was in continual tyre trouble, snaking horribly, and was difficult to restart, a push-start incurring a 1000 franc fine, Campari overcame the lot to win and set a new lap record for the road course, of 86.6mph.

Hit again in the eye by a stone in the Marne GP he had no luck with the monoposto 2.9 Maserati and then came the sad Monza GP track race. Skidding on oil, Campari in a 2WB Scuderia Ferrari P3 Alfa Romeo was killed, and Borzacchini died later from the same accident, and in the final Count Czaykowski in his Bugatti crashed fatally. So ended a fine career and the great life of a popular driver to whom the spectators had called, as he went to the start, by his nickname Negher, for swarthy. Ironically, Campari had already intended to retire to pursue his other profession. The Alfa drivers shared prize money but perhaps opera paid better…

So how should we rate this great Italian driver? Not, perhaps, quite in the class of the likes of Nuvolari, Chiron or Varzi but the following is worth bearing in mind when considering his abilities: in the period 1922-33 Campari won four top races, and scored seven seconds, five thirds and three fastest laps, a better performance than that of Caracciola over the same period and far better than those of Etancelin, or Brilli-Peri. The measure of a very experienced and fully capable driver, who deserves to be remembered.WB