Giuseppe Farina: substance with style

Giuseppe Farina is rarely listed among the greats. He deserves more credit, says Mike Lawrence


Guiseppe 'Nino' Farina was the winner of the inaugural F1 World Championship in 1950


In 1950 Giuseppe ‘Nino’ Farina became Formula One’s first world champion, yet he remains among the least known. In his day sportsmen were rarely interviewed, and besides, he was an intensely private person who hated even posing for photographs. In modern terms he was a sponsor’s worst nightmare, yet nobody could ignore his talent.

The best years of Farina’s career were stolen from him by WWII; he had already claimed the Italian championship three years on the trot, 1937-39, even though Tazio Nuvolari was at the height of his powers. Enzo Ferrari, no less, called Farina the “complete driver”, a man who could rise to any challenge.

What is interesting about him is that he had so many options in life, and he chose motor racing. Farina was a brilliant all-round sportsman who showed promise in athletics, skiing, soccer and riding. He was also a brilliant student who gained a PhD in political science — not a bad qualification for someone who would drive for Ferrari. Farina served as a cavalry officer in the Italian army and a glittering military career beckoned, but he turned that down, too. For a time he practised as a lawyer, then decided it was not for him; he wanted to go racing and that alone. It’s hard to think of any other driver who has had so many choices and who endured so much in order to race.

Farina was born in Turin in the October of 1906, the same year in which his father founded Stabilimenti Farina, which began as a subcontractor making pressed metal components for local firms, including Fiat. The company diversified into coachbuilding during 1919 and Giuseppe’s uncle, Battista Farina, better known as `Pinin’, worked for it until ’28, which is when he left to go into business on his own account. Stabilimenti Farina closed its doors in ’53.

Crowds around Giuseppe Farina after the 1950 British Grand Prix

Giuseppe Farina is surrounded by crowds after winning the first F1 World Championship race at Silverstone

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Nino grew up among cars and car people and these naturally included motor racing people. The automotive world in Italy was a small one and he knew everyone in it. He learned how to drive by the time he was nine, and that at a time when there were comparatively few private cars in Italy.

While still a student he bought a second-hand Alfa and entered it in the Aosta-Gran San Bernardo hillclimb. His father was running in the same event and Nino, spurred on by competing against him, overcooked a corner and crashed, breaking a shoulder bone and receiving facial injuries. This might have been a warning to most of us, but not to Farina: he lived to race.

It was 1933 before he could afford to indulge his passion again, and he took part in some minor events. The following year he began to appear in more important races with an Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 entered under the Scuderia Subalpina banner. His performances soon improved, and in September ’34 he took his first victory — in the Voiturette race which supported the Czech GP on the daunting Brno road circuit.

By the end of that season Farina was marked down as a promising driver and people started to lend him cars. His smooth style drew comment, and Nuvolari for one was impressed. The two men formed a close friendship, and Nuvolari took Farina under his wing and became his mentor. For his part, Farina dedicated himself to fully justifying the maestro’s faith in him.

The following year saw Farina compete in top-line events such as the Monaco Grand Prix, in which he crashed. He was fifth in the Tunis GP, second (to Nuvolari) in the Coppa Citta di Bergamo, picked up places in other events and led at Modena before retiring with a split fuel tank. In the first Donington GP he led until a halfshaft broke.

These were excellent performances and they led to Farina being invited to join Scuderia Ferrari in 1936. Enzo admired Farina’s passion and fearlessness, and Farina would rise high — very high — on his list of favourite drivers.

Three Italian championships followed. True, Italy had now been downgraded to the second division among the motor racing nations by Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union, but a hat-trick of national championships was not an inconsiderable achievement. At the age of 34, when many modern drivers are thinking of retirement, Farina was coming into his own; but then came the war.

The period of hostilities is a dead chapter in Farina’s biography and there appears to be no definitive account of what this former army officer did. The best guess, and it’s only a guess, is that he returned to the family business which was then making aero-engines. Farina kept himself such a private man that there is no account of him being for or against Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime. He did, however, gain his PhD when Mussolini was in power, so it is a pretty fair bet that he wasn’t a Marxist.

When racing resumed in 1946, Farina demonstrated that his old skills had not diminished and, driving once again for Alfa Romeo, he won the Grand Prix des Nations in Geneva.

But then he fell out with the team. The fact that Alfa Romeo decided to restrict its activities to only four races a year did not please the drivers, but even this limit on competition stretched its resources. Of more importance to a man like Farina was the fact that, with no real opposition, the team began to stage-manage finishes. Such actions were a long-established tradition in motor racing, but it caused ructions within the team. A dispute over number one status developed, and Farina voted with his feet.

When Ferrari began in 1947 Farina was recruited, and the following year he divided his time between the works Ferraris and a Private Maserati. The Ferraris were not reliable, but with the Maserati 4CLT/48 he won at Mar del Plata, the Monaco GP and the Grand Prix des Nations in Geneva. When Alfa was competing, however, everyone else became a member of the supporting cast.

Matters followed a similar pattern in 1949, although Alfa Romeo was absent. It was a restricted season with some good results, but Farina’s career only really took off again when he rejoined Alfa in ’50.

Nino Farina, Ferrari 553 , Grand Prix of Belgium, Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, 20 June 1954. (Photo by Bernard Cahier/Getty Images)

Farina driving for Ferrari at the 1954 Italian Grand Prix

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That year witnessed the inaugural world championship, and it was Farina who emerged as the first world champion. He was teamed with Juan Manuel Fangio and Luigi Fagioli and he began his run to the title by winning the first-ever world championship encounter, the British Grand Prix at Silverstone — and he did so magnificently by taking a firm lead from pole and setting fastest lap on the way.

As the year progressed Fangio was likely to be the quicker driver in practice sessions, although one would have been hard-pressed to decide who was quicker during a race. Farina won the Swiss GP at Berne after swapping the lead with Fangio until the latter retired. He led the Belgian GP until his transmission failed and led the French GP until his fuel pump gave up. He won the non-championship Bari GP, leading Fangio with no difficulty, crashed while leading the Grand Prix des Nations (he deliberately spun his car to avoid another driver’s accident) and again won the International Trophy at Silverstone. Finally, he led all but two laps of the Italian GP to secure the title.

At Monza he had to see off both Fangio and Alberto Ascari, the latter in the much improved 4.5-litre Ferrari. These three were locked into a tight battle, but Farina kept his head, and his car, intact. He was a worthy champion. These days one hears a great deal about Fangio’s brilliance, but Farina took the title fair and square — and in 1950 there were no team orders at Alfa Romeo.

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Farina stayed with the team for 1951, while contesting other events with his Maserati 4CLT/48. This 05 car was now obsolete, but as the new world champion Farina could negotiate good starting money.

This was the season when Alfa was finally defeated by Ferrari, and when Fangio emerged as clearly the quickest Alfa driver. Fangio took the title; Farina finished fourth in the points. Nino, though, was still a top-class driver, and his comparatively disappointing campaign was largely due to the Alfetta being at the end of its competitive tether. It was overstretched, and Farina did not have the delicacy of touch which Fangio had.

With Alfa Romeo withdrawing at the conclusion of 1951, Farina joined Ferrari, but like everyone else he was outpaced by his young team leader Ascari. This disconcerted him, although he and Alberto were close friends. For the first time in his life Farina had to try too hard, and he crashed a lot. Ascari was the fastest driver of the day — even Fangio acknowledged that — and he piled win upon win, leaving everyone else to pick up the crumbs. But it was still not a bad year for Farina — actually many grand prix drivers would have been very satisfied with it. He was regularly second behind Ascari, and finished runner-up in the championship, too — not bad for a man of 46. To put that in perspective, the runner-up in 2003, Kimi Raikkonen, will turn 46 in 2025!

Ascari continued his domination in 1953, by which time Farina had become a more thoughtful driver less inclined to take risks. He had fewer incidents, and the highlight of his season was winning the German GP after Ascari’s sister car shed a wheel. He remains, at 47, the oldest driver to win a world championship race without sharing a car.

Farina was also retained to drive Tony Vandervell’s Ferrari 4.5-litre 375 which was entered as the ‘Thin Wall Special’ in Formula Libre races in Britain. Given the usual state of the opposition this was akin to shooting fish in a barrel, but it was in this car that he became the first to lap Silverstone at 100mph.

The end of the season saw Farina third in the world championship — he grossed more points than Fangio in second place, but had to shed some — and he was the clear number two over at Ferrari, ahead of Mike Hawthorn and Luigi Villoresi.

Then both Ascari and Villoresi decamped to join Lancia and, at the age of 47, Farina became Ferrari’s number one. He rose commendably to the occasion, but he must have known that Ferrari was in deep crisis with no clear idea where it was going. Even so, in the Argentine GP which opened the season, Farina set pole and led the early stages, though a pitstop for a new pair of goggles perhaps cost him a win.

He then secured victories in the Buenos Aires 1000Km sportscar race (which was unusual because he rarely shone in endurance races), the Circuit of Agadir and the Syracuse GP. He crashed heavily while leading the Mille Miglia but seven weeks later, with his right arm still in plaster, disputed the lead of the Belgian GP with Fangio’s Maserati 250F until his Ferrari 553 developed a fault. Mercedes-Benz had not yet entered the world championship and so that drive at Spa was a good indication of his abilities; Farina revelled in Spa’s fast sweeps where his delicate car control came into its own and where the driver could make a real difference.

Then it all went wrong. While practising for a Monza sportscar race, a universal joint on his Ferrari broke and the driveshaft punctured the fuel tank. The car caught fire and Farina was so badly burned that he missed the rest of the season. When he returned in 1955 he was able to race only by taking morphine injections to kill the pain.

With Moss and Fangio now at Mercedes-Benz everyone else faced an uphill struggle during 1955, but Farina still scored a second, a fourth and a third in the opening world championship races. Many drivers would be more then happy with that tally, yet we are speaking of a man pushing 50 and dosed-up on drugs…

It was too much even for Farina. The constant pain, together with the death of his friend Ascari, led Farina to announce his retirement.

Given his deep-seated passion for the sport, it surprised nobody that this retirement did not last long. Farina was back aboard a Lancia D50 entered by Scuderia Ferrari for the Italian GP, but the car was withdrawn after it threw a tyre tread at 170mph and spun wildly. Monza’s banked track was being used, so speeds were exceptionally high, and the Engleberts which Ferrari used gave enormous problems.

That was the end of Farina’s F1 career. He was not invited to join Ferrari for 1956, and he was not interested in making up the numbers in an uncompetitive car. With Villoresi, he had been the last of the great Italian drivers who had first raced pre-war.

Farina was not quite finished, however; he attempted to qualify for the 1956 Indianapolis 500 using a Kurtis-Kraft chassis fitted with a six-cylinder Ferrari engine, but it was a failure. He tried again the next season with a regular Indycar and withdrew after it crashed in practice, killing the test driver.

After that Farina hung up his helmet and became involved in car dealerships, selling Alfa Romeos and Jaguars. He also dabbled with a driving school in Turin, but it was not a success. Eventually, he went to work for his uncle at Pininfarina, in a capacity which is best described as ‘ill defined’.

In June 1966 he was driving his Lotus-Cortina to the French Grand Prix when it skidded while crossing the Savoy Alps near Chambery and smashed into a telegraph pole. Farina died instantly. Having survived so many crashes on circuits, it was ironic that he should perish in an ordinary road accident. Ironic, but not altogether surprising. He had always treated public roads as though they were racetracks, to the extent that Fangio refused to ride with him.

Today Farina is rarely remembered among the greats, but those three Italian championships in the late 1930s count for something given the calibre of Italian drivers at that time. His world championship was won with no less than Fangio as his main opponent, and he gave Fangio a hard time in 1954. Had he been more outgoing, more of a sporting celebrity, perhaps today his reputation would be brighter than it is.

His influence, though, lives on. In 1950, Stirling Moss undertook a season with HWM on the Continent, and it was not long before he encountered Farina. Nino taught Stirling a thing or two about how an established star deals with cheeky interlopers; Farina was a hard man, and you had to earn the right to overtake him. That was something which Stirling had to cope with. But the thing which really impressed Moss was Farina’s driving style: it looked so good. Farina didn’t hunch over the wheel as most drivers did then, nor did he appear to be wrestling with his car: he sat back with the steering wheel held at arms’ length. The calmness which he displayed while racing conflicted with the Latin passion raging below the surface. Moss, then only 20, imitated that style behind the wheel, and he in turn bred countless imitators.

Stirling has always acknowledged Farina as his influence, and for many that alone would be compliment enough. But for a man like Nino, a true hero in his own right, it is nowhere near.