Grand prix racer, Le Mans winner, journalist. Paul Frere’s curriculum vitae is something to boast of, but even he recalls how difficult it was to come to terms with the Ferrari hierarchy on his debut for the marque in the 555 Super Squab at Monaco in 1955.
“I was the new boy in the Ferrari team. It was my first drive for them and during practice I came into the pits and asked whether they would allow me to try the Super Squalo with the front anti-roll bar disconnected. The car was understeering terribly —the last thing you need around there — and I wanted to get some roll transfer to the rear and produce more front end grip.
“My engineer was almost terrified by my request and said, ‘No! That’s part of the design and we cannot touch that.’ So that is how we went into the race.
“I don’t think that the Super Squalo was an inherently bad car. At that time I just don’t think some of the people at Ferrari had any idea how to set up a racing car. Aurelio lampredi, who designed it, was a most interesting person and I liked him very much. He was very, very charming, courteous and helpful. He really knew all you need to know about engines, but he didn’t seem to know much about handling!”
With four decades of hindsight it is clear to Frere that this little anecdote was symptomatic of the attitude of Ferrari at the time. A time when it took just a polite request to get a drive for the greatest team in history.
“In the 1954 German Grand Prix I had done some very good practice laps in my Gordini,” he recalls. “I was consistently quicker in practice than Jean Behra but in the race my front wheel flew off together with the brake drum. Fortunately I was running up hill so I could roll to a halt.
“As I climbed out I swore that I would never drive a Gordini again and after the race I went to see Nello Ugolini, who was Ferrari’s team manager at the time, and asked him if he could find a place for me in the team at the Nurburgring 1000Km. He didn’t say no. But he didn’t say yes, either. He more or less had to ask the big chief but before I got a response the race was cancelled. Later that winter I got a letter from Ferrari himself inviting me to test at Imola.
“I went along to drive with Maurice Trintignant and Harry Schell. Farina had set a bogey time for the three of us and after the test I was called into Ferrari’s office. I announced immediately that I did not have any intention of doing the whole season as I was 38, had a good job as a journalist and a family as well. I didn’t want to be a full time driver. They agreed and said that they would call me whenever they needed me.
“So I got the call toga and race for them in Monaco, which I wasn’t too happy about as I didn’t like driving there. As it turned out there was no pressure for me to perform in the race as I was sharing the car with Taruffi and we lost 15 minutes with gear linkage problems.”
Following Monaco, Trintignant took the Squalo away for testing and by the time of the next Grand Prix at Spa, Fere was struck by the improvements that had been made to it. So much so that the drivers opted to run the supposed ill-handling beast rather than the tried and tested Type 625.
‘When I drove the car in Belgium it was transformed. It was so much better to drive. I had the opportunity to try the Type 625 and the 555 and both Farina and I opted to race the Super Squalo. In those long, fast curves it was just easier and more stable. The fact that it understeered meant that it gave you more confidence in the quick turns. The 625 was apt to snap to oversteer which you could do without at Spa.”
The Belgian race was chassis 555/1’s finest hour, Fere taking the little, squat Ferrari to a fine fourth place behind the two Mercedes W196s and his team mate Farina. But the car was never the target of great affection from its drivers.
“The next year we drove the LanciaFerrari D50. It was a much better car,” admits Frere. “It was designed by Vittorio Jano and modified again by him when it went to Ferrari. He really knew something about handling. If Mercedes had not withdrawn from racing at the end of 1955, I genuinely believe that the D50 could have been a match for it.
“Overall I enjoyed my period racing for Ferrari. It could be quite a funny time. Once we got called into a drivers’ briefing and Ugolini told us, ‘We all know that the Mercedes will be unbeatable. But that doesn’t matter. What is most important of all is that we beat the Maseratis!
Some priorities, it seems, never change. Matthew Franey