Enzo Ferrari's right-hand woman

In the tightly-knit world of F1 everyone knows who Brenda Vernor is: from 1978 until his death in 1988, this native of Croydon was Enzo Ferrari's right-hand woman as well as 'mother figure' to the racing team . . . We recently had the chance to reminisce with her.

Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi with Brenda Vernor. She worked for Enzo Ferrari from 1978 until his death in 1988, mainly to do his translations. 2015 Austrian GP.

Photo: Motorsport Images

Enzo Ferrari has always been regarded as an institution in Italy. In fact, someone once suggested that first comes the Pope, then Ferrari. Being his secretary must have been the dream of thousands of Italian signorinas ... even signoras. How come an English woman from Croydon landed the job?

I went to Italy on holiday in the early 1960s and met an English girl who was married to an Italian, the manager of the Palace Hotel in Modena. She suggested I should stay on in Italy to which I replied, 'You must be nuts,' but that's what happened — I stayed! In 1962 I took a job as English teacher at a private school. At that time, Englishman Mike Parkes, Ferrari's chief development engineer and works driver, was looking for a secretary. I taught at the school during the day and worked for Mike in the evenings. I worked for him for 16 years. Mike lived in the same house in Modena as Lina Lardi and her son Piero Lardi Ferrari, and that's where I first met the 'old man'. In fact, Piero was an English student of mine at the time — he was then 16; today he's my boss! Ferrari said that if Mike ever left he'd like me to work for him. The implication was that he didn't want us to work for him at the same time as we'd only end up fighting! Mike didn't exactly leave — he died in a road accident; about two months later, in July '78, Ferrari 'phoned me to ask me to work for him, mainly to do his translations. That's how it happened.

English and Italian lifestyles are traditionally different. The mere fact that you are still there after 30 years must mean you've adapted well.

One reason I've adapted so well is that — like the Italian — I'm quite extrovert. I say it like it is . . . I'm forthright and cannot stand liars and two-faced people. My philosophy is that if people don't like the truth it's just too bad. Several of our drivers learnt that about me. But I'm also a lot like my father, who was Irish, and one of the dearest people I've ever known. He'd give anything away just to make other people happy. I'm like that too. I enjoy giving. I like the Italian lifestyle . . . I know so many people in Maranello; there's always someone to turn to. They are very friendly and often a bit too nosy, but that doesn't really matter. I love pasta but I don't generally like the Italians' attitude towards animals. I love animals and don't like to see dogs chained up and fed with scraps. Another problem I have with Italians is that they have so little sense of order. I'm very punctual and have never kept anyone waiting. But, yes, I'm happy there — whether I'll ever return to England to live, I don't know . . . I've lost a lot of contact there. I take each day as it comes.

Enzo Ferrari greets his two drivers, Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi in 1980.

The old man greets two of his drivers, Villeneuve and Pironi Photo: Motorsport Images

When did you learn Italian and how long did it take you? And having learnt 'high' Italian how long did it take you to pick up the Modenese dialect?

I had never studied Italian, unfortunately, but I took a job as an au pair with an Italian family in Bologna where nobody spoke English and that's how I learnt. The best way — among the people! I learnt the Modenese dialect at Ferrari — the mechanics speak nothing else so if you don't learn the dialect you don't speak to anyone!

How exactly did you fit into the hierarchy at Ferrari?

First of all, Ferrari had two male secretaries: Valerio Stradi who, from the age of 15 for the next 35 years, handled Ferrari's personal affairs (he retired recently); and Georgio Ferri who was responsible for paying telephone and electricity accounts and that sort of thing. I worked closely with Franco Gozzi in the Press Department and, apart from translation work, was directly involved with the racing department, representing Ferrari at FOCA and generally being involved with all aspects of motor sport and Ferrari's racing division. . . looking after the drivers and all their affairs. There were 200 men in the racing department.

Haw much control did you have? Were you fairly autonomous?

Oh no, that wasn't possible at Ferrari! Ferrari was always the boss. In fact he always nitpicked at my press releases and translations. He always — almost on principle — changed something like a comma or one word!

Lorenzo Bandini in the pits, 1966

Vernor got to know many drivers well, Bandini being a particular favourite Photo: Motorsport Images

Most people have an image of Enzo Ferrari as being a despot, a tyrant, of being aloof.., a real Caesar. Yet in an interview some years ago he confessed to being timid, which seems hard to believe.

Yes, the tyrannical image, I think, was a bit of a front. In fact his admission of timidity could largely be true. He was actually a very nice person, but one had to be careful of his moods. He had a wicked sense of humour and often teased people — particularly the drivers about their girlfriends — even Mike in front of me! He also enjoyed practical jokes. He always said I had the best telaio (chassis) in the racing department. He had a fiery temper but after a flare-up it would all be over and forgotten within 10 minutes.

Did Ferrari have any endearing characteristics?

He had a phenomenal memory for facts, figures and statistics and this was the case until his death. For example I once typed a letter to someone and Ferrari informed me that the addressee had moved five years earlier and proceeded to quote from memory the new address, postal code and telephone number. That happened all the time. And as I said he had a sense of humour. He was also quite a ladies' man. . . He also loved company and would always greet everyone — even the washing up woman. He would go to great lengths to say 'good morning' to everyone.

"Even Gianni Agnelli (president of Fiat) wouldn't be allowed into the factory that day!"

Did he have any particular quirks? Any bétes noires? Did anything in particular drive him up the wall?

No, nothing that immediately springs to mind, but he didn't like being addressed as 'Commendatore', a title that stems from the fascist era. He preferred 'Ingegnere' and that was how he was addressed by his staff and those close to him. But as I said one had to be careful of his moods; if I wanted a day off (like Friday to go down to the coast for a long weekend) I had to wait for the right moment. On one particular occasion when I asked he looked very glum and sternly asked if I was going to wear a bikini. When I replied in the affirmative he said I could go!

Ferrari's moods seemed almost pervasive. In fact in September 1967 I was a victim of such a mood. My friend Sir John Samuel (who had owned Diva Cars in London, but later went on to develop electric vehicles) and I arrived at the main gate in the hope of being given a conducted tour of the factory. For us both it had been a long-standing ambition to visit Ferrari. We were met by Jonathan Williams, a works P4 driver at the time, but were told we couldn't have picked a worse day because 'the Old Man was in a black mood', the reason being that Jackie Stewart had sent a telegram that very morning declining an offer of a Ferrari works drive. In fact, Jonathan said, even Gianni Agnelli (president of Fiat) wouldn't be allowed into the factory that day!

That was before my time but, yes, that could have been the case. He could be cantankerous, but I suppose that was his privilege.

Chris Amon at the 1967 Monaco Grand Prix

Chris Amon: a super bloke, but very sensitive to what the Italian papers said about his race performances Photo: Motorsport Images

The name of Piero Lardi Ferrari has cropped up. It's been an open secret for many years that Enzo Ferrari, despite being absolutely distraught at the death of his own son, Dino, as a result of muscular dystrophy in 1956, had another son by Lina Lardi.

Yes, that's true and now, of course, it's common knowledge. As I said I've known Piero for many years and he's now my boss. Piero had quite a difficult upbringing in that he was always kept in the background. His mother never married.

Is Piero like his father in any way?

Only in temper. He's exactly like his father — a flare up lasts for about 10 minutes and then it's all over. Confrontations really upset him. He is actually a very caring person. Almost too good.. . he commands a great deal of respect from everyone at Ferrari. But as for being like old man Ferrari, no. He was a legend. . . a hard act to follow.

I believe that after all those years of being 'mother' to the racing department you and Piero were moved to the production car division.

Yes, I see F40s every day; and every day is a new learning experience!

A number of people — English speaking racing drivers and journalists and others who knew Ferrari quite well — maintain that he understood every word of English even though he only spoke Italian.

That's not true. He neither spoke nor understood English; but he did speak French.

To drive for Ferrari seemed the ultimate dream of many top racing drivers, but when they got there it often ended in unhappiness and recriminations. Politics always seemed the root cause.

Yes, Politics is Ferrari . . . politics is being Italian. What else can I say? I suppose it makes them different.

Nurburgring, Germany. 5-7 August 1966. Michael Parkes (Ferrari 312).

Vernor worked for Mike Parkes for 16 years before joining Ferrari in 1978 Photo: Motorsport Images

While other heads of car companies and racing teams thrived on international travel Enzo Ferrari seemed happy to stay at home.

Yes, he never travelled abroad. He enjoyed going to practice sessions at Monza and Imola but would always watch the races on TV at the Fiorano circuit. After the events he would summon his drivers to Maranello to discuss their performances.

Where did Enzo Ferrari live? Near the factory?

He had a villa close to the factory but never really lived there. He had a four-storey house in Modena and after his wife's death in 1976 Piero moved there permanently with his family and mother. Piero's daughter Antonella, now aged 24, occupies the top floor. She has a four-year-old son. . . there's another Enzo Ferrari!

"I think his mother had more influence (than his wife) on his life. It was she who insisted that Piero should eventually be brought into the business"

It's often said that behind every successful man is a supportive wife ... a power behind the throne. Was this the case with the Ferraris?

No I don't think so. Laura Ferrari did come to the factory every day and had lunch in the canteen with the staff but I think his mother, who died at the age of 90 in about 1962 or 1963, had more influence on his life. It was she, in fact, who insisted that Piero should eventually be brought into the business.

I once heard it said that Ferrari had a late metabolism cycle (I think that's the medical term) in that he was a slow starter in the morning but could go on till the early hours when everyone else was ready to drop.

I'm not sure about that, but it's possible. He would go to the barber every morning, then collect his mail from the office in Modena . . . there was another office in Modena . . . and arrive at the factory at about 11 o'clock. Then the buzz would go round: 'Watch out, the Old Man's arrived!' He certainly had a presence. He generally worked till about 7.30 in the evenings, including Saturdays and Sundays.

Carlos Reutemann at the 1973 German Grand Prix

Carlos Reutemann left an immediate impression upon Vernor Photo: Motorsport Images

What other outside interests did Ferrari have?

He enjoyed opera and in his young days he was a good journalist . . . he loved reading newspapers from cover to cover. . . but his whole life really revolved around his factory.

As someone close to the racing department you should be able to answer this question. From the early 1950s until the early 1970s, Ferrari was actively involved in sports car rating, in fact during those years probably won every major sports car class that existed. Yet since 1972 there's been no official sports car works team and emphasis since then has been on Formula One. It's no secret that Ferrari's Formula One performance of late has hardly been a success; surely, participation and success in sports car racing would be more important than Formula One from a marketing point of view? Wouldn't winning Le Mans be more important than, say, winning the Hungarian Grand Prix? It almost seems as if Ferrari capitulated to Porsche without a fight. I'm sure Porsche's many successes in endurance and sports car rating have boosted production car sales.

The reason was because it was too expensive to race in two categories and Ferrari elected to go the Formula One route.

You must have seen a number of Grand Prix drivers come and go. Can you tell me about your involvement with them?

Before I joined the company officially I knew Lorenzo Bandini well. He was such a nice guy and lived in the same block of flats as I did. He'd 'phone me late at night to discuss his troubles and would often have breakfast with me and then give me a lift to the school where I was teaching. When he died in that terrible accident at Monaco I vowed I'd never go back there. I eventually did, 10 years later. I also knew Ludovico Scarfiotti well . . . such a gentleman . . . and he died unnecessarily in a silly hillclimb accident.

Chris Amon . . . another super person. . . but sensitive. He got demoralised so quickly. He always wanted to know what the Italian papers had to say about him and his performances . . . often I didn't tell him exactly what the press said! When I joined the company I used to look after a succession of drivers. I would find houses or apartments for them, arrange their transport, sort out their insurance, many of their personal affairs, their laundry, arrange schooling for their children, handle medical and dental appointments; and in one case I had to rush someone's wife to hospital when she miscarried. For this I inherited the title of 'mother' but always said 'aunt' would be better — it wouldn't make me feel so old! Carlos Reutemann left at the end of 1978 — the year I joined. He walked into my office once (I'd never met him before) and I stopped typing immediately: I'd never seen such a handsome man!

Enzo Ferrari addresses the press with Luca di Montezemolo

Enzo addresses the press flanked by Luca di Montezemolo Photo: Motorsport Images

Gilles Villeneuve was a crazy character — he could never drive off without wheelspinning. I remember once going for drive with him up a mountain pass in a 328. If anything had come from the other side I don't know what would have happened. He couldn't understand why I was looking so worried. He once 'phoned me at 5 o'clock in the morning from his apartment in Monaco to check on the weather as he wanted to fly down to the factory in his helicopter. I drew the curtains and all I saw was thick fog and told him that he stood no chance. So what did he do? He set off! He got about halfway and had to put it down on a farm where he stayed overnight. After another helicopter flight with Jody Scheckter as passenger, an ashen-faced Jody told me: 'Never again — the guy is nuts!' He asked me to get him back to Monaco by any other means — car, train, coach — whatever. Gilles was actually quite an introvert but opened up in Jody's company. They were great buddies. Jody was very funny in those days. He had a dry sense of humour and always had me in fits of laughter. The Italians, in particular the people of Maranello, loved him. He now lives in Atlanta and I think he's changed quite a lot from those days.

Didier Pironi was another favourite. Pironi had had great difficulty in walking after his bad accident at Hockenheim in 1981 when both his legs were smashed. Afterwards he had to endure several operations and was strapped in the boat when it capsized and he drowned. I was away for a weekend with Piero and his wife Floriana when we heard the news on the radio that Pironi had been killed in a power boat accident.

I'm also very fond of René Arnoux. He often 'phones me. He is such a nice, funny guy. He is fond of children and once gave a party for 53 handicapped children. He was so good with those kids. Some say he is rough but it's not fair to judge people until you know them.

Ah, Patrick Tambay. . . . what a gentleman and so handsome! Also a very intelligent person. I don't know if you know he has a degree in economic science. When he left I cried. He was somehow different and left a great void.

My colleagues put up a large photograph in my office of Michele Alboreto when he succeeded Patrick. I was most upset and told them to remove it, but when I got to know Michele and his wife Nadia we became firm friends. I often bake cakes for them!

Stefan Johansson is like a younger brother. He still keeps in touch. The drivers often used to scribble dedications and notes on my desk pad and one I particularly cherish is a note from Stefan: 'To Brenda — more than a mother, better than a friend, thank you for all your kindness.'

Gerhard Berger is another good friend. He's always cheerful and keeps out of politics and intrigue. I will hear nothing bad about him.

Nigel Mansell I really only knew, to say 'hello' to. Prost didn't even say that! Jean Alesi is sweet and educated. CapeIli I didn't get to know at all — sad isn't it!

Enzo Ferrari in a rare moment removes his glasses to address the press

In a rare moment, Ferrari removes his glasses to address the press Photo: Motorsport Images

Did Mr Ferrari have favourites among the drivers or did he adopt the role of impartial headmaster?

If he did have favourites he never showed it. He was rather like an impartial headmaster towards the drivers.

"The Argentinian president, Carlos Menem, once visited the factory wearing blue jeans and tennis shoes"

You must have met a number of famous people at the factory.

So many, I forget who. Prince Bernard of the Netherlands is a charming and polite man. Paul Newman came into my office once and when I looked up into those blue eyes I nearly fell off my chair. Sylvester Stallone is shy but opens up as he gets to know you. Some others were Nick Mason of Pink Floyd; the Shah of Persia; Princess Caroline's late husband Stefano Casiraghi; Prince Albert of Monaco; Luciano Pavarotti. The Argentinian president, Carlos Menem, once visited the factory wearing blue jeans and tennis shoes. When I politely held out my hand to say goodbye he gave me a bear hug. Another old so-and-so, a ladies man I'm sure!

Where do you live?

In Maranello . . about 10 minutes from the factory. It's most convenient; I can pop home for lunch or a quick shower in summer, or to let my labrador out for walks.

Do you drive a Ferrari?

No! I have actually never driven one but hope to before I die! Until recently I had a Fiat Uno Turbo but now have an Uno 70SX. A few months ago I wrote off my Uno Turbo. At 10 o'clock one night I was driving along the road behind the Ferrari factory and hit a barrier at some unlit roadworks. The car slewed across the road and was written off against the wall of the factory. I broke my right shoulder in five places and even though the bones have healed I still do not have full use of my right arm.

When Ferrari died in 1988 I believe he was buried before his death was officially announced.

That's correct. That was his wish and only his immediate family were present at the service. I was in America at the time. He died on August 14 and was buried at 7am on the morning of August 15, my birthday. Only later that morning was his death made public to the media. Over 3000 letters, cards and telegrams of sympathy were received. Piero replied to every one. Every year on his birthday, February 18, and on the anniversary of his death flowers arrive at the factory from all over the world. Piero thanks everyone personally.

The end of an era.

Yes, a long era!