Too good for their own good?

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It was Italy’s dream team – Ascari, Jano, Lancia. The car looked sensational. Success seemed guaranteed. But the project ended in tragedy and thwarted ambition, as Chris Nixon explains

Early in 1954, Motorsport enthusiasts found themselves looking at photographs of two new Grand Prix cars so startlingly different in appearance that it was hard to believe they had been built for the same Formula. In February, Autosport published pictures of the Mercedes-Benz W196, a gorgeous, fully-streamlined machine, rumoured to have an inclined, straight-eight engine with fuel injection, and disc brakes.

Three weeks later, the magazine put the Lancia D50 on its cover. Whereas the long, sleek, curvaceous Mercedes was indeed a Silver Arrow, the Lancia was a Scarlet Fist — short, clenched, pugnacious. The knowledge that these two fabulous-looking cars would soon be locked in competition was a tremendous prospect.

Better still, it was now confirmed that these machines were to be driven by the two best drivers in the world: Juan Fangio and Alberto Ascari. The scene was set for a sensational start to the new 2.5-litre F1.

Sadly, it was not to be. The Mercedes went on to win 11 of its 14 races in 1954-55, while the Lancia was doomed to failure, an intriguing might-have-been.

It must all have looked so good to 30-year-old Gianni Lancia when he saw his brainchild, the D50, run for the first time, at Turin’s Caselle Airport on February 20, 1954, in the hands of his friend and hero, Ascari. With its fuel tanks slung between the wheels, it looked superb, but its appearance did not reveal the many technical innovations that were on Lancia’s drawing boards in Turin, several of them produced by the fertile brain of Gianni himself.

The original specification called fora dry sump V8 engine with fuel injection; four-wheel drive; a pre-selector gearbox; disc brakes; side-mounted fuel tanks; the engine and rear-mounted gearbox as structural parts of the chassis. And these were not just pipe dreams — all were built and tested, though not all made it onto the car.

D50 has often been hailed as Vittorio Jano’s baby, but Ettore Zaccone Mina (in charge of engine design) denies this: Ian° was the leader of the team, but he was not the designer! No one person was responsible for the overall design of the car. Its engine as part of the chassis and at an angle to it, the fuel tanks between the wheels — these things all came out of discussions between us, with Gianni Lancia making the final decisions.”

With the D50 on the drawing board, Gianni now needed someone to drive it and, remarkably, he succeeded in persuading Ascari to leave Scuderia Ferrari and join the fledgling Lancia team. Ascari had become disenchanted with Enzo Ferrari’s poor pay and, at the end of 1953, was making noises about not racing in ’54. The latter was a bluff, of course, but when Gianni outlined his plans for Grand Prix racing, and revealed details of his new car, Ascari decided to join him, and got his great friend, Gigi Villoresi, to do likewise.

By this time, Fangio had agreed to drive for Mercedes, and it was clear the new 2.5-liire F1 was about to usher in a new era of motor racing. Sadly, it would have to begin without the Lancias.

Both teams announced that they would debut in the French GP on July 4, but only the W196s made it to Reims. The D50 was plagued with problems in testing: unpredictable mad-holding, unsatisfactory brakes, a chassis that needed reinforcing to combat torsional stress, and oil circulation so poor that the V8 could complete only four or five laps at a time before overheating.

The French GP provided a crushing win for Mercedes. Although one of the W196s retired, the other two, driven by Fangio and Karl Kling, demolished the opposition and finished over a lap ahead of the rest.

By the time of September’s Italian Grand Prix, the Lancias had still not appeared and were still well off the pace. While the Mercedes, Ferraris and Maseratis were all lapping Monza in under two minutes, rumour had it that, in private testing, Ascari’s best was a mere 2min 08sec. Humiliatingly, Lancia did not enter their home GP.

But Gianni and his team persevered and, late in September, things began to go their way so much so that the Italian press was alive with rumours that Ascari had lapped Monza in lmin 56sec. True or not, the D50 had clearly taken a turn for the better, and it was announced that two cars would contest the Spanish Grand Prix at Pedralbes, on October 24.

Practice provided the opposition with their first good look at the handsome newcomer. It was immediately apparent that there was no four-wheel-drive and that the five-speed gearbox was conventional, too, as Ascari and Villoresi did not like the semiautomatic pre-selector unit.

‘The Lancia D50 could complete only four laps before overheating’

The D50’s chassis was a short space-frame with the engine and mar-mounted gearbox/ final drive forming a structural part of the chassis at each end.

The 90-degree V8 developed 260bhp at 8000rpm and was offset at an angle of eight degrees to allow the prop-shaft to run beside the driver, giving a lower seating position. Mercedes-Benz had followed Lancia’s lead in mounting their drum brakes inboard on the W196- the D23 and 24 sports-cars were thus equipped but Lancia put the D50’s drums outboard (discs arrived in ’55) in order to preserve the very short (89.8in) wheelbase afforded by the neat engine/ transmission/chassis design.

The elegant pannier fuel tanks were Gianni Lancia’s idea. Not only did they ensure the car’s weight distribution did not alter during a race as the fuel was used up, they also, as wind-tunnel testing with a model showed, improved the car’s aerodynamics. It’s not unreasonable to suggest the Lancia was more technically advanced than the Mercedes.

Fittingly, the Lancias looked terrific and Ascari immediately showed they had the performance to match, taking pole at Pedralbes, one second faster than Fangio (in an unstreamlined Mercedes), with Mike Hawthorn (Ferrari) a further 1.5sec back. Had Mercedes met their match?

Yes, but at the hands of Ferrari, not Lancia. Going into lap nine, Ascari was leading by almost 20sec when he had to retire with oil in the clutch. Villoresi suffered a bearing failure on the opening lap, and Hawthorn went on to win, ahead of Luigi Musso’s Maserati 250F and Fangio.

Nonetheless, Fangio was the new world champion, and Mercedes had won five of the seven GPs they entered (including the non-championship Berlin GP). But for all its much-vaunted superiority (space-frame chassis, fuel injection, desmodromic valves and aerodynamics), W196 had not proved significantly faster than the ‘old-fashioned’ Ferraris and Maseratis. Would the Lancias see them all off in 1955? The answer was to be a resounding no but it had nothing to do with technology.

The first GP of 1955 was in Buenos Aires, where Ascari and Villoresi were joined by young compatriot, Eugenio Castellotti. At Mercedes, Stirling Moss had been brought in to give Fangio better back-up.

The Argentine race was a disaster for Lancia and a foretaste of things to come. In 52-degree heat, only the remarkable 44-year-old Fangio drove throughout and thus took a deserved victory. Everyone else stopped to hand over to a relief driver. Of Lancia’s pilots, Villoresi retired on lap two with carburettor trouble; Castellotti was overcome by the heat and handed his D50 to Villoresi who crashed out; Ascari took the lead from Fangio on lap three, but went off on lap 22 and retired.

There was a four-month gap before the next championship Grand Prix, at Monaco. Lancia took the opportunity to revise their car considerably, increasing the wheelbase, improving the oil cooling system, and fitting new drum brakes. The developments

were then tried out in minor GPs at Turin, Pau and Naples. Ascari won the first, a fractured brake pipe cost him victory in the second, and he won again in the latter. Buoyed by this, Gianni Lancia sent five cars to Monaco. His largesse, however, belied the parlous state of his company.

‘Within days of this race, the sport was plunged into turmoil’

In the middle of May, Grand Prix teams converged on Monte Carlo for the first time since 1950, and with Mercedes-Benz, Lancia, Ferrari, Maserati, Gordini and Vanwall gracing the glamorous Principality, it seemed Fl racing was entering a golden age. Yet within days of this race, the sport was plunged into turmoil, first by the death of Ascari, then by the collapse of the Lancia company, and finally by the horrendous tragedy at Le Mans, where more than 80 spectators were killed.

Meanwhile, the Monaco GP provided one of the biggest upsets of all time, being won by Maurice Trintignant, whose Ferrari had started in 12th position on the grid. The three Mercedes retired (although Fangio and Moss were almost a lap ahead of Ascari when they went out), and while three of the four Lancias finished, they were in second, fifth and sixth positions. The other D50 finished up in the harbour when fading brakes caught out Ascari at the chicane and the Lancia dived into the water. Fortunately, cockpits were wide in those days, and Alberto swam to safety. Despite the freak result, Mercedes-Benz had shown they had the legs of the Lancias (and, indeed, everything else) while they were running. Clearly, the red cars had some catching up to do.

Sadly, they never had the chance. Just four days after Monaco, Ascari was at Monza to watch the testing fora sports-car race and, on the spur of the moment, borrowed a helmet, some goggles and a Ferrari from Castellotti. Unseen by anyone, he crashed at Curva Vialone and was crushed to death.

For Gianni Lancia it was the end of the road. His company had been in deep financial trouble for some time. Sending five cars by air to Argentina may have seemed like a grand gesture, but he was spitting into the wind. The death of Ascari was the final straw and it was announced that Lancia were withdrawing from racing.

As if to keep the faith with Ascari (but, in fact, to claim much-needed starting money), two cars were sent to Spa for the Belgian GP, and Castellotti gave a bravura qualifying performance to put a D50 on pole position, in memory of his hero. In the race, though, he was overwhelmed by Fangio and Moss and eventually retired with transmission trouble. And that was the end of Lancia racing.

But not quite: there was no question of scrapping the D50s, which still held so much promise. All the cars and spares were offered to Officine Maserati, but their 250F looked like a future winner, so they declined. The Italian Automobile Club then decided to give the cars to Scuderia Ferrari — a bitter pill for Ferrari, whose cats were nothing like winners in 1955. But when Fiat chipped in with 50 million lire over five years, he swallowed hard and accepted, though with a singular lack of grace, not once mentioning Gianni Lancia’s achievements.

There was one, final indignity to come.

‘Lancia D50s easily out-qualified the Ferraris at the Italian GP’

For the Italian GP at Monza, Ferrari sent four Lancias and three Ferrari Supersqualos. Driven by Castellotti, Giuseppe Farina and Villoresi, the D50s easily out-qualified the Ferraris of Umberto Maglioli, Hawthorn and Trintignant.

However, the Lancias had been designed to run on Pirelli tyres, whereas Ferrari were contracted to Englebert. The Belgian company insisted that, as the Lancias were now officially Ferraris, they had to run on their rubber, with the result that several treads were thrown at high speed. Englebert had refused to allow the D50s to revert to Pirellis, so Ferrari withdrew them from the race.

But was that the whole story? The very idea that Enzo Ferrari (of all people) would take orders from a Belgian tyre maker at Monza (of all places) stretches credulity more than somewhat — unless it suited his purpose! And in this instance it most certainly did: the Lancias were much faster than his own cars, and would doubtless have been even faster on Pirellis — and in front of thousands of tifosi and the world’s press, too.

In effect then, the remarkable D50s were not raced because they were too good for their own good. Gianni Lancia ‘s dream had become a nightmare.