The first Prancing Horsepower

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Italian GP 1948: the first time a Ferrari appeared in a grand prix. And it led! Paolo d’Alessio tells the story

Journalism can be a very strange occupation. Sometimes it takes years, months or weeks of painstaking research to gather together enough material to present the story of a team such as Ferrari. At other times you can lay hands on invaluable archive material in the space of just a single day.

This is what happened to me a short while ago: while rummaging around a private collection of memorabilia, I stumbled across some priceless images that helped to reconstruct a historic event in motorsport: Ferrari’s grand prix debut as a racing car constructor.

It took place on September 5 1948 in Turin (coincidentally my home town) on the Valentino circuit, which for once was hosting the Italian Grand Prix…

The Second World War had only been over for a few months when Enzo Ferrari called a press conference in 1946 to announce that he would be restarting operations as a racecar manufacturer. At the time war broke out, his company was still known as Auto Avio Costruzioni. When peace returned, Ferrari said he would be building two different models: a sportscar and a grand prix single-seater, both powered by a ground-breaking 12-cylinder vee engine. This layout (which was unusual for the time) had fascinated Ferrari ever since 1914, when he first saw pictures of the American Packard V12 that raced at the Indianapolis 500.

The Ferrari grand prix project was entrusted to Gioacchino Colombo, with the help of two more high-flying engineers: Giuseppe Busso and Aurelio Lampredi. The trio went swiftly to work, but it would be two years before the first Ferrari grand prix car was seen — at the 1948 Italian Grand Prix on September 5. The reason the race was held in Turin was that repair work had not yet been finished on the circuit at Monza, which had emerged badly from the war. Nonetheless, the choice of Turin was not a purely random one: the Piedmontese city, which was Italy’s first capital, is still known now as the centre of the Italian car industry.

The challenging Valentino circuit, steeped in history, had all the qualifications to host a top-class international race. It was three miles long and snaked through the splendid scenery of the Parco del Valentino, tucked alongside the Po river. The track consisted of a long straight (punctuated by a temporary chicane) and a twisty infield section, with a wide variety of tight hairpins and technical corners.

For the occasion, Ferrari entered three cars. One was for home-grown hero Nino Farina (who would go on to become World Champion in 1950 and was also the cousin of the famous coachbuilder Giuseppe Farina, better known as `Pinin’ Farina). The second car was for Frenchman Raymond Sommer and the third was for the Thai Prince Birabongse Bhanuban, who was known under his pseudonym of Bira. Being a brand new car the Ferrari was not considered to be a favourite, unlike the 1479cc Alfa Romeo 158, which put out 280 horsepower, or the newly unveiled Maserati 4CLT, also making its debut in Turin. Adding to the entry list were French teams Talbot, Simca, Gordini and Delahaye.

The practice sessions were made more difficult by heavy rain (which also affected the race), meaning that the street circuit was a real handful. Coping best with the slippery surfaces and low levels of grip was the pre-race favourite Jean-Pierre Wimille, who took pole position in an Alfa 158. The French driver was in front of the identical car of Count Trossi and Luigi Villoresi’s Maserati. The leading Ferrari, driven by Sommer, was on the second row ahead of Consalvo Sanesi’s Alfa and the second 125 F1 of Farina. Maserati driver Alberto Ascari was relegated to the third row in front of the two Talbots of Louis Chiron and Reg Parnell. The third Ferrari of Bira qualified on the fifth row alongside Piero Taruffi’s Maserati and Louis Rosier’s Talbot. Not for the last time, the organisers then changed the grid formation to 4-3-4, putting the Ferrari of Sommer on the front row for its debut!

The race got underway in driving rain. Despite this, nearly 30,000 spectators braved the elements to watch the 75 laps through the Parco del Valentino. The fastest starter was Sommer, but his lead only lasted a few hundred metres. At the end of the start-finish straight, the Frenchman was overtaken by the more powerful Alfa 158 of Wimille. From that point on the number 52 Alfa was untouchable, while a battle for second place raged behind him between Sommer’s Ferrari and Villoresi’s Maserati. After fighting tooth and nail, the two of them dived into the pits at the same time for their first fuel stop, and got away again together. Their battle was decided when Sommer got caught out by the slippery surface and spun, losing a minute. Now that Wimille and Villoresi were firmly established in first and second, Sommer found himself dicing with his team-mate Farina, who had moved up to fourth, while Bira had been forced into retirement. Farina would also fail to finish: he made a mistake while squaring up to an attack on his team-mate and went off, damaging his car’s radiator beyond repair.

At this point it seemed the race was settled — unless anybody got it wrong in the treacherous conditions, which were becoming wetter and wetter. But then Villoresi’s ailing Maserati engine decided to liven up proceedings in the closing stages of the 19th Italian Grand Prix (in actual fact it was only the 18th, but a typically Italian bureaucratic bungle had seen the race number jump from the 16th to the 18th running the previous year).

Sommer was quick to capitalise on his rival’s problem, and in the space of a few laps reduced the gap to 27sec, then 25, then 20, then just seven. At the flag they were separated by only two seconds, but the result remained second place for Villoresi and an unexpected podium for Ferrari on its debut.

The brand-new little 225bhp Ferrari, which had a wheelbase of barely 2.15 metres and weighed only 700kg, had proved itself to be extremely competitive, if not quite a winner on a demanding track in extreme conditions. Despite its relative lack of horsepower compared to the Alfa Romeo and Maserati, the Ferrari 125 Fl was capable of fighting on equal terms with the latter, and hardly disgraced itself compared to the Alfa, the best car at the time. Once more Enzo Ferrari’s vision was prophetic: even though top-class racing cars were expensive to design, build and race, it was absolutely vital for his Maranello-based team to become a constructor in what would become motor racing’s premier category. And all this thanks to Raymond Sommer’s unexpected third place in an incident-packed 1948 Italian GP, held for once on the Valentino circuit in Turin.

Ferrari 125

The 1948 125 F1 was the first Ferrari grand prix car (at the time ‘Formula One as a category did not exist). The car you see in the drawing, which finished third in the Italian GP, was designed with a classic layout for the period.

The front-mounted engine is a 60-deg V12, designed by Gioacchino Colombo. The cubic capacity was 1497cc, with a bore and stroke of 55mm x 52.5mm, single overhead cam per bank, and two valves per cylinder. The 125 F1 had a five-speed gearbox, while the suspension used double wishbones at the front and trailing arms on the swing-arm rear axle. It had drum brakes on all four wheels, and tipped the scales at just over 700kg. Equipped with a Roots supercharger, the V12 produced 225hp at 7000rpm.

 

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