San Remo

Just along the cost from Monte Carlo lies Italy's rival to racing's most famous street circuit. David Malsher drives it, is bowled over by it - and explains why it went bust

Without question, Italy has a rare magic. Motor Sport's venture to San Remo is the second half of a trip that started so disastrously we have spent the past two days playing catch-up. The evening before we were due to head along the south coast of France and onto the north coast of Italy, even photographer 'Hyper Action' Mann was beginning to wilt. But in that sun-soaked trip of just 30 miles, the smell of the Mediterranean's salt jars us back into life. We roll into Ospedaletti, a genteel suburb two miles from the centre of San Remo, relaxed but raring to go.

We find ourselves on the Via Aurelia, which formed the main straight for the circuit. Perfect. Two-thirds of the way along it there is a large tourist information board, and a little further on a similarly sized display shows the layout of the old track. It is apparent that its straights and turns have recently been renamed — Rettilineo J M Fangio, Curva A Ascari, Salita G Agostini, etc. A nice touch from a town proud of its motorsport past

It is perplexing, therefore, to read across the top of the display the words 'Circuito Bernard Ecclestone'. Were I in a cartoon, a thoughtbubble containing a giant exclamation mark would have 'pinged' overhead. For the life of me I cannot fathom why a circuit which held its last car race 50 years earlier (and its last motorcycle race in 1972), has been named after Formula One's ringmaster. Fangio, Ascari or Luigi Villoresi would have been more apt, surely? For they (and Prince Bira) were the stars of the four Formula One non-championship grands prix held here between 1948 and '51.

And it is they who dominate my thoughts as I pitch our Mercedes C-class into the first corner, where once Maseratis barked, Ferraris thundered and Alfas yowled. This 160-deg turn, which can be taken quite quickly (when traffic lights and oncoming traffic allow) possesses cambers that upset the poise of our modem car. It is sobering to think that this C320 has 40 per cent less power than a 158, and that this is then tamed by traction control wizardry before being channelled to tyres with far more grip than those rock-solid Pirellis of yesteryear. And you can be sure, too, that the road surface is better five decades on. Much, much better.

But little else has changed. On the outside of that first turn is the eight-foot-high flint wall from which photographers in 1948 snapped panoramic shots of the battling brand-new 4CLT/48s of pole-sitter Villoresi and his protege Ascari, and Giuseppe Farina in a year-old 4CLT. It was the latter who showed well against the new models and was leading, marginally, when his throttle linkage broke on the 28th of 85 laps. Thereafter, Ascari was relatively untroubled. Villoresi had to make two unscheduled pitstops, and though second, was lapped.

The Maserati 4CL of third-placed man Clemar Bucci was lapped twice. And the fading talent of Raymond Sommer was lumbered with the underpowered Ferrari 166SC sportscar with which he did well to finish fourth. Most significantly, the Affettas of Achille Varzi, Jean-Pierre Wimille and Count Felice Trossi were absent, preferring instead to prepare for the Swiss Grand Prix at Beme.

They didn't grace San Remo with their fabulous presence in 1949, either — and nor did Ascari, who had signed up with Ferrari. Thus it was Fangio, contesting his first-ever European race, who led a Maserati 1-2-3-4, a comfortable winner over the aggregate of two 45-lap races. Second was Prince Bira, who had the consolation of fastest lap.

Exiting that first corner and charging up the Via Cavour, easing gently right and gently left to reach one of the circuit's highest points is an exhilarating feeling for any driver in a fast car, noise bouncing off a waist-high wall on the left and another, three times as high, on the righ.t But it is easy. A driver of Fangio's calibre would barely have noticed that this laziest of S-bends wasn't straight. What would have occupied his mind was what was to come, for as the road cranks hard right into Corso Guglielmo Marconi, so the gradient eases and, after a crest, starts descending.

The increase in momentum is gentle at first, but as you move left on the racing line (old pictures show drivers just an arm's length away from that wall) so the plunge gets steeper — and steeper still as the cars crossed to the middle of the road and braked, braked, braked for the 90deg left over a viaduct. It sounds messy — and it is. Self-restraint would have been the key to this section. And I bet Fangio made up a whole chunk of time over his brave but less talented rivals.

Indeed his blue-and-yellow Maser finished a minute ahead of Bira's similar 4CLT, and the following year, in his favourite car, the Alfa 158, Fangio did the same job to the same effect: over the course of one 90-lap race, he beat Villoresi, driving a Ferrari 125, by a minute. This time, though, El Chueco was a tad lucky, for after Ascari had taken pole in his 125, both Prancing Horses suffered from overheating, Alberto's proving terminal.

Ascari, Fangio, it matters not — whoever the genius, they would have gained nothing over the mortals on the next couple of short straights linked by an undemanding left-hander. In the 21st century, however, they would have found themselves having to negotiate a sandy track surface, workmen with a cement mixer, and a large hairy dog enjoying a siesta, as the road climbs gently once more. And it is our lack of speed that means, on arrival at the next challenge, a 90 right, we can look left and see where the 1947 version of the track arrived - up a narrow, steep road from the pit straight before hanging a right. In its inaugural year, Ospedaletti ran clockwise. I envisage it and am unimpressed: such a route would have placed too much emphasis on the car, not the driver. It's easier to lean on a car in uphill turns; by '48, though, San Remo's tricky bits were downhill.

The other reason why the 1948 race was an improvement over the year before was the array of cars. Fabulous state-of-the-art machines, even running far apart, must have made for more satisfying viewing than the selection gathered for the '47 event. That edition saw racing divided into three categories, based on engine size, the quickest seven in each heat going through to a final. Yves Giraud-Cabantous steered his elegant pre-war Delahaye to victory ahead of a Fiat Volpini and an Alfa Monza, and though the racing was close, the fact that Tazio Nuvolari was rendered an also-ran in the 1100cc category has, in hindsight, a hint of the absurd.

I bet, though, Tazio looked fantastic through this mildly downhill S bend (now named after his compatriot Villoresi), especially for any spectators standing where the 1947 and '48 circuits meet, to watch entry and mid corner. Desperate not to lose crucial momentum, he must have been the picture of commitment. Being a blind S, contemporary traffic is forced to hug the inside wall. This checks one's speed, but gives a fantastic view of the purple blooms that prosper in this area of the world, and of the painted chequers which have been preserved for 50 years by the clement weather and by being in the shade. But for those able to use the entire width of the course, there was just enough mid-sequence straight and end-sequence run-off to take the left-hander foot to the floor.

Which is ideal for the long, slightly downhill straight ahead.

Whatever the car, whatever the period, whatever the speed, there's nothing too challenging about it save protecting one's eyes from the glare off sun-bleached walls and track. And so there's time to look out to sea on the left, to the hills of San Remo straight ahead, or, on the right, into the houses whose gardens you race past the end of.

Then you smoothly apply some right-hand lock, take the sweeping downhill right-hander and realise you need to wind on some more lock in order to take the right line to the hairpin. Get it horribly wrong and you can go straight on (as some had to on race-days long gone), the escape road now being a car park for the cemetery.

My focus, though, is on the sand that has been dropped mid-turn by a tipper lorry heading up the hill to a building site. Our Merc's reaction to it gives me a jot of an impression of how it was when, five decades earlier, this was little more than a wide dirt-track, the absence of traction restricting even an Ascari qualifying lap to the 65mph mark.

He achieved that in 1951, when the mood of the viewers was already a sombre one, Johnny Claes' Talbot having broken a brake pipe, left the road and killed a spectator. Shoving such thoughts to the back of his mind, Ascari would have revelled in the bellowing, brutish Ferrari 375 around here, though its own momentum must have meant that this part of the lap was done largely on the overrun and on the brakes. It is deceptively steep; Fiat Puntos and the like, going up the hill, are caught in that annoying gap 40mph flat in second gear, or revs dying in third.

That was the last year a car raced in anger here. Claes' accident, and the fact that the circuit was just 30 miles away from its more glamorous tax-haven neighbour, was enough to consign Ospedaletti to history as a racetrack. It was that easy. Yet intriguingly, it was used as a test venue, Lancia regularly assessing its F1 car and sportscars there during the early '50s. Imagine that through the streets of Brighton.

Out of the hairpin, there is a short straight where the track once more bridges the narrow valley crossed in the opening sequence of corners. We are now heading for the final corner and, ultimately, out to sea, where a mist is blurring the horizon. The descent is more shallow here and, on the wall on the inside, painted chequers are again apparent. It's apt that in a county so imbued with motorsport, such preservation continues, even inadvertently.

We now cruise down Corso Regina Margherita to rejoin Via Aurelia. This combination of roads formed the pit straight, and approximately halfway along it were the two main hotels where the drivers stayed. One has been converted into a retirement home for ex-Fiat workers; the other, Villa Sultana, the first casino in Italy, is now in a dilapidated roofless state, but looking magnificently evocative nonetheless. It really deserves to be someone's pet project.

Just like the racecourse is. Ospedaletti isn't just a well-preserved road course. Racing cars have been back here as recently as 2001, thanks to the efforts of Caterina Bertalli and Aldo Canina. They are, respectively, the president and secretary of the Committee for the Revival of the Ospedaletti Circuit. In 1988, they organised an Historic Revival, which was attended by Villoresi and 'Toulo' de Graffenried, and the following year Fangio, no less, was the guest of honour. That these stars came to pay homage to a track they raced on so few times says much about the strong feelings evoked here, feelings that are easy to empathise with.

More memories were made in June 2001, when another famous name returned to San Remo's seaside track: Ferrari. The marque's Club Italia put on a major display over three days, and the attention garnered from this event — and from the circuit's dedication to one Bernard Ecclestone — has given the committee big ideas. Its aim is now much higher. None of its three Historic Festivals have seen a wheel turned competitively, and the ultimate goal has become the return of true racing to the track, perhaps alternating with the biannual Monaco Historique.

It's a wonderful idea. While modern motorsport, led by Formula One, trashes its heritage, severs its links with the past, and divorces itself from those who love it for what it was as well as what it could be, the opportunity presented to the burgeoning historic scene by Caterina and Aldo is very tempting one. But is it a realistic one?

To be honest, if it happens, I will be absolutely amazed. The wherewithal is simply not in place as it is in Monaco, where the splendid Historique event piggy-backs on the preparations for the grand prix. That said, if it does happen, it will be amazing.

Our thanks to the Committee for the Revival of the Ospedaletti Circuit, c/o Bluetime, via Matteotti 127, 18038 San Remo, Italy.