One hundred and sweet sixteen

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Maserati’s century of life has created some magnificent cars, notably the 16-cylinders

One of the most celebrated of all great Maserati designs is the Sedici Cilindri – the 16-cylinder – campaigned by the always tiny Bologna factory from 1929 to 1934. It’s not the type’s fantastic success that has left it with legendary lustre – it’s more the sheer ‘WOW!’ factor of such a complicated box of tricks, producing so much horsepower and thunderous performance in such a whippily compliant chassis. This monster combined two of the proven 2-litre straight-eight blocks at a vee angle of 22.5 degrees upon a common crankcase in which each bank drove an individual crankshaft, geared together.

The original Sedici Cilindri V4 model of 1929-31 was a 4-litre, offering about 280-300bhp while the later 1932-34 V5 was a 5-litre, producing 330-360bhp. Two complete V4s are thought to have been built, but just one V5. Driving these beasts in competition was no sinecure – only the bold need apply. Step forward Alfieri and Ernesto Maserati, ‘Baconin’ Borzacchini, Luigi Fagioli and – lastly – Piero Taruffi.

It was Fagioli and V5 that starred in the 1932 Monza Grand Prix. This event – a Formule Libre classic not to be confused with the Italian Grand Prix – was run at the Autodrome on September 11 that year. It comprised three 10-lap (62-mile) heats plus a five-lap (31-mile) sprint repêchage, the best four finishers in each heat then qualifying for the 20-lap (124-mile) final, and the organisers ensured that Alfa Romeo, Bugatti and Maserati confronted one another in every race. There was no easy route to the final.

The prize fund was interesting: 12,000 lire for the winner of each heat, 6000 lire to the repêchage winner and 40,000 lire to the winner of the final – mesmerising figures that produced some ferocious motor racing.

The entry was headed by Alfa Romeo’s factory team of four gleaming Tipo B Monoposto cars – the so-called ‘P3s’ – for Nuvolari, Campari, Caracciola and Borzacchini. Scuderia Ferrari-entered Alfa Monzas were to be driven by Brivio and Taruffi, while Bugatti fielded 5-litre Type 54s for Varzi and Chiron. The nine assorted Maseratis were headed by Luigi Fagioli in V5, which started from pole in heat two. He and Nuvolari in the factory Alfa Monoposto ripped into combat from the starter’s flag. On lap six Nuvolari thrust inside Fagioli into the Vialone bend only for ‘The Abruzzi Robber’ to move across on his normal racing line, either oblivious to the Alfa’s move or to cover it. To avoid a really high-speed collision, Nuvolari clouted the kerb and had to pit with a buckled front wheel and axle. Fagioli thundered on to win the heat with Nuvolari a distant second – and personally steaming.

While the third heat and repêchage were run, Nuvolari and the Alfa team management lodged a bitter protest against Fagioli’s driving, demanding his disqualification and threatening to withdraw their team.

Stewards Count Vincenzo Florio (President of the RACI Sporting Commission), Renzo Castagneto (racing director) and Marquis Pietro Parisio pondered the problem, finally informing Alfa Romeo that while the appeal was upheld, they were postponing any sanction until after the racing.

Scheduled start time for the final was 3.45 that afternoon. The qualified cars were lined-up on the starting grid… without any works Alfa Monoposti. The huge Milanese crowd – estimated at 100,000 – began to whistle and jeer. Where were their local favourites? The Maserati lads around Fagioli didn’t flinch – this could be Bologna’s day. Inter-city and inter-province rivalries within Italy remain intense even today.

Down in the Monza paddock, former Fascist Party secretary Roberto Farinacci intervened with angry Alfa Romeo managing director Gianferrari. Alfa was state-owned – non-participation would spoil this great day of racing, colour public opinion against Alfa and its backers, unacceptably rock the regime’s boat. Gianferrari backed down, Nuvolari – though disgusted – was brought to heel and he, Caracciola and Borzacchini appeared on the grid. Campari did not start. His Alfa’s front axle had been fitted to repair Nuvolari’s. The Alfa Romeo team cars were wheeled out to a terrific reception – and Fagioli and Nuvolari persuaded to hug publicly in reconciliation. Both were hard men, and my guess is that Farinacci had offered them both a bonus payment to stir no further trouble… and probably Campari as well. Those guys were professionals to the core. They wouldn’t have missed a money-making trick.

At the end of that long day, Nuvolari and Caracciola had swapped the lead of the final between them while Fagioli struggled with the big, squalling Maserati 16-cylinder jammed in gear. Nuvolari’s Monoposto then began to falter with a blocked fuel feed, a pitstop dropped him to third behind Fagioli’s Maserati, and Alfa’s German star was left to win unchallenged – to an indifferent reception from the already thinning Milanese crowd. Bologna’s finest had been beaten – but the wrong Alfa driver had finished first. La Maserati would fight another day…

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