The Corse of true love

…never did run smooth between garagista Enzo Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. Yet their turbulent partnership through the 1930s laid the bedrock of the Ferrari legend
Writer Paul Fearnley

A chill March day yet his car is naked: tubes, wires, rivets. He’s road-tested bare chassis before. That, though, was a long time ago, and this is momentously different.

In suit, shirt and tie, he, never the most agile, squeezes behind the large spoked steering wheel and pauses for dramatic effect before commanding the engine. The bubbly V12, ambitious in concept for such a small, nascent firm, and thus relatively simple in its construction, is all he had hoped for, its dolce voce amplified by the courtyard’s walls and cobbles. Horsepower, for now, is secondary.

He breaks into a grin. His rueful staff, hands on hips or clasped behind backs, their fingers crossed, manage a wry response at best, which in turn fades to pursed expectation as cocked ears cling to the reverberating, hopeful note as it dissipates in the direction of Modena. Then silence. Nervous glances. Feet shuffled. Oaths muttered. Ears still cocked.

*******

There was a powerful, verging on risible, element of opera buffa to Enzo Anselmo Ferrari’s later life: artful and boastful; deceitful and disdainful; playful if not exactly joyful; skilful and successful. Through a mixture of luck, doggedness and inspiration, smoke and sunglasses, this son of an artisan became the ‘Pope of the North’.

A global icon stamped with a world-famous emblem, he was a carefully choreographed character. His office was a moodily lit stage, a forbidding den fit for Il Drake. His libretto was scripted with a flourish in Purple Emperor ink. And his many arguments were overblown arias. Brooking no challenge until none came, he was able to brightly fade, bathed in the unquestioning, undying love of the distanced many.

His early life required fewer effects and embellishments. Gritty and full of challenges, not all of them overcome, it was punctuated by the deaths that understandably hardened his heart. Father Alfredo caught bronchitis and was sucked under by pneumonia mere days later. Elder brother Alfredo Jnr – the fêted, fated one – was spirited away by “an unspecified malady” that same year, 1916. And son Alfredo, wasted by Duchenne muscular dystrophy, showed much bravery and some promise before his unstoppable, agonising passing at just 24. (With beloved ‘Dino’, in 1956, went Enzo’s hopes. Thereafter he was driven by needs and fears.)

In between these terrible times, Ferrari almost became an unglamorous WWI statistic himself. Pleurisy, contracted while shoeing mules for the Third Mountain Artillery, caused him two operations, a stay in a ramshackle hospital for supposed incurables and a long convalescence.

He would also, in cahoots with a muscular Argentinian, ‘kill his mother’ at Silverstone’s British Grand Prix of July 1951.

The tears Ferrari shed after his rejection by Fiat in the winter of 1918 were genuine even though their backdrop – a snow-covered bench in Turin’s Valentino Park – was theatrical. His family had been torn apart and its hard-won metalwork business in Modena had folded in the space of months. Enzo, the drummed-in humdrum brother with the airy ideas of becoming an opera singer, a sports reporter, or, heaven forbid, a racing driver, would have to man up. And wise up, too.

The conduit for this 20-year process would be Alfa Romeo: Ferrari’s ‘mother’.

Milan’s Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili, originally a division of French firm Darracq, was now in the hands of Nicola Romeo, a persuasive maths professor with two engineering degrees and a calculating ambition. Fiat was pre-eminent on road and track in the Italy of the immediate post-war period, but Alfa’s Portello factory, belching smoke, had potential. Ferrari read the signals and joined in 1920, after brief spells in a Turin garage converting truck chassis to cars and another with Costruzioni Meccaniche Nazionali.

‘Better known’ as CMN – one of the many forgettable acronyms to fail its turbulent peacetime transition – the latter did at least provide him with a maiden competitive outing, a minor Appenines hillclimb, as well as his first great motor sporting experience and tale: the 1919 Targa Florio. Hounded by wolves in snow-capped mountains on his way to the event, once in Sicily he was, he claimed, prevented from finishing by a crowd gathered to hear the President of Italy.

Some of this might have been true. Some of it probably wasn’t. Ferrari was inclined to darn his driving career. Though far from threadbare – he finished second in the 1920 Targa and beat Mercedes-Benz to win the Coppa Acerbo of ’24, both for Alfa Corse – it did not live up to his expectations. To his credit, he knew his limits. It’s just that he preferred not to air them.

He was much better at making himself useful. Whenever burgeoning Alfa overreached itself, it was his bulging contacts book, can-do attitude and persuasiveness that spanned the gaps. Among others, he talked influential engineer/designers Luigi Bazzi and Vittorio Jano into switching sides from Fiat. The former came willingly and stayed gladly. The latter, a proud Piedmontese, would insist much later that he waited for an invite from the organ-grinder before relocating to Milan.

Ferrari the facilitator/adviser/driver – in that order – also became Alfa’s distributor in the Emilia-Romagna and Marche regions. He returned to Modena and modelled himself on the great cavalier racer of the era, the first of Ferrari’s beloved garibaldini. Smart rather than clever, knowledgeable rather than educated, Antonio Ascari was also Alfa’s agent in Lombardy.

Ferrari fell painfully short in comparison. Rather than race Jano’s first masterwork, the P2, alongside Ascari in the 1924 French GP at Lyon, he cited illness after practice and slunk home on the train. Yet his relationship with Alfa was sufficiently robust to survive any shame and embarrassment. In fact it was strengthened, for although he raced on and off until the birth of his first son in 1932, it was clear now, even to him, where his strengths lay. That’s why, when a wiry bike racer touted by him as a future star in cars crashed a P2 at Monza prior to the 1925 Italian Grand Prix, no mud stuck to Ferrari. Nor would he give up on the hasty Tazio Nuvolari.

Theirs was Ferrari’s other crucial sporting relationship of this era. Successful but stormy, it was based on mutual respect leavened by recrimination. Nuvolari would gleefully goad Ferrari about his driving shortcomings – an eye-opening ride alongside Tazio had been a contributory factor to Enzo’s racing retirement – while Ferrari would woundingly remind Nuvolari of the collapse of his eponymous equipe. They were only half-joking.

*******

Ferrari’s eponymous equipe was codified in December 1929. Alfa, the inaugural world champion of 1925, had reduced its racing activities to concentrate on road cars and dealerships. Not only did this bolster Ferrari’s coffers, because Jano’s superb aspirational designs were an easy sell to rich, adventurous young men, but also it provided him with a chink of opportunity. His response was a blueprint for motor sport’s future: a small, concentrated but flexible team funded by private individuals and its key suppliers, capable of representing a major manufacturer.

Thus able to claim cheaply any success as its own while deflecting costly defeats onto Ferrari, Alfa was swayed. So, too, were Pirelli, Bosch, Shell, Champion and Memini (and later Weber) carburettors, which spotted the potential promotional benefits of an association. Though these provided only token amounts towards the initial cost, the support they promised and provided was the security Ferrari needed as he set up temporarily in an unprepossessing workshop on Modena’s Via Emilia. Neither he nor Alfa, his dominant and slightly condescending partner, could have any hint of their future rivalry. Ferrari was only a garagista, after all.

His handful of mechanics prepared three Alfas and delivered them to Brescia for the 1930 Mille Miglia. Despite back-up from the team’s hard-pressed Citroën van, all retired.

A week later, Ferrari himself scored the team’s maiden podium finish, a third in the Circuit of Alessandria, but it was the summer arrival of Nuvolari, in conjunction with a modified P2 from the works, that put it on the road to glory with a hat-trick of hillclimb victories.

Ferrari and Nuvolari had known each other since the latter’s less powerful Chiribiri had hassled Enzo’s victorious Alfa during the 1924 Circuit of Savio. Ferrari, ironically as he turned out, considered Nuvolari a closed book, but they were cordial verging on chummy while they were winning. Nuvolari, fearless and relentless, and with a hint of a Napoleon complex at 5ft 3in, would tax Ferrari’s patience and conciliatory skills to the maximum. No other driver would be allowed such leeway, although Stirling Moss might have been but for his 1962 Goodwood crash.

Ferrari had justifiable right to be satisfied with the team’s eight victories in its first season. Increasingly confident, he secured a sizeable bank loan and moved the Scuderia and his soon-to-be pregnant wife Laura, who had until now played an active role in her husband’s career, to new headquarters at 11 Viale Trento e Trieste. There could be no turning back: more cars, more staff, more races, and more and better drivers. Alfa, meanwhile, was sufficiently impressed – or self-serving – to entrust him with the debut of its 8C model: Nuvolari finished ninth in the 1931 Mille Miglia after tyre problems.

Matters were moving apace. Ferrari, however, had suffered enough hardship to know that success was hard to come by, and fickle. So this Enzo led by example rather than intimidation and intimation. He attended races, did not hide behind sunglasses, and communicated directly rather than trust to arch intermediaries. He treated his employees well. Though he would come to detest their militant unions, he admired and promoted their Modenese craftsmanship – his father would have approved – and was proud to employ so many. He took very seriously his rising standing within the community but, although the team bore his name, it was a team first and foremost. Plus Ferrari wasn’t in total charge.

Scuderia Ferrari was created as a joint-stock company and rich amateur racers owned its majority share. Enzo’s initial stake was 50,000 lire, while the Caniato brothers, Alfredo (that name again!) and Augusto, textile merchants from Ferrara, and Bergamo banker Mario Tadini combined for 130,000. Ferrari, his name above the door, was in charge, but the stakes were raised when Count Carlo Felice Trossi, another millionaire racer with a banking lineage, bought out the initial backers during the winter of 1932.

Trossi was everything Ferrari was not: a sophisticated, dégagé, privileged polymath who lacked only the killer instinct. They might have clashed had not Ferrari held an affinity for drivers of his own era that only a very few of those who came later were accorded. Trossi and the ebullient Giuseppe Campari, another with operatic pretensions and dimensions, were considered to be and treated as genuine friends. The latter’s death in the 1933 Monza GP at the wheel of a Scuderia Ferrari-run Alfa was a line in the sand. Drivers, no matter how good, were held at an emotional arm’s length thereafter. Ferrari needed Nuvolari; the others he could take or leave, and certainly money talked. False bonhomie had slipped down his agenda.

Little wonder. His ubiquitous team won dozens of races in 1932 and already possessed the capability, and the will, to be in two places at once. Yet that season it played a distant second fiddle to Alfa Corse’s works superteam of Nuvolari, Rudolf Caracciola and Jano’s P3, the first fully resolved monoposto GP car. As was Alfa’s wont, of course, when a financial slowdown caused dictator Benito Mussolini to nationalise the company in 1933 and order it to concentrate on military contracts, it leaned heavily on Scuderia Ferrari once more.

Enzo, who knew better than to say no, took the strain. Indeed, his answer to the prevailing conditions had been to diversify. He bought a Duesenberg single-seater, ran (from 1932-34) a successful motorcycle team and instigated a first in-house design: Bazzi’s Bimotore behemoths.

*******

He loved Alfa but was wary of being 100 per cent dependent on it. And rightly so. For instance, it refused initially to hand him the otherwise redundant P3s, and only did so after Nuvolari huffily jumped ship to Maserati and began winning in its new 8CM monoposto. Even when Scuderia Ferrari – without Nuvolari, still in a huff, and also without his replacement Luigi Fagioli, headhunted by Mercedes-Benz – made an excellent fist of battling Germany’s technologically advanced Silver Arrows in 1934, praise from above was grudging. Alfa’s new managing director Ugo Gobbato, a Mussolini acolyte – a stance that cost him his life in a post-war assassination – was a firm believer in strict structures, a legacy perhaps of his German education.

Jano had worked quickly and effectively in the past and Ferrari, increasingly used to making snap decisions and immediately acting on them, had high hopes of receiving a new weapon soon. Instead, the 8C-35, a synthesis of the supposed best from all departments of a large works, was a maddening time in gestation and, when finally it arrived at the end of 1935, looked old hat alongside the low-slung Germans. It handled better than its lofty appearance suggested and Nuvolari, reconciled with Ferrari in a deal insisted upon by Mussolini and brokered by Jano – but in truth triggered by rival Achille Varzi’s opportunistic signing with Auto Union – was able to win with it on the twisty circuits. The ‘Flying Mantuan’ knew, however, that the “magic was ending”. Amid a public outcry, Nuvolari drove an Auto Union at the 1937 Swiss GP.

These were darkening days for Ferrari. His relationship with Laura was becoming increasingly perfunctory as Dino’s illness became increasingly apparent. This strain at home, as well as at work – an increasingly politicised sport, the overwhelming superiority of the opposition and a horde of disaffected drivers as a result – was beginning to take its toll. No fan of omnipresent, self-important fascisti, though he knew when to smile for their and ultimately his own benefit, Ferrari was attending fewer races. For instance, he was absent from Nuvolari’s sensational 1935 German GP victory. He preferred instead to rely on the decisions and debriefs of a new sporting director, Nello Ugolini, a successful football manager. Stretched chains of command would cause his team problems in future, but for now this was a sensible, interesting, almost inspired appointment that helped in trying times.

Even so, Ferrari was not overly disappointed when in March 1937 an uppity Alfa purchased 80 per cent of his team. Indeed, freed from some of the more irksome administrative worries, and more financially secure, he was able to think laterally again and channel the ideas of a bright new employee. Giaochino Colombo, tutored, frustrated and eventually sidelined by Jano at Alfa, arrived at Modena as part of the new deal. The plan they hatched – Ferrari typically claimed complete credit – was to bypass the Germans with a voiturette racer designed and built to GP principles and standards. Enthused, Colombo proposed a rear-engined machine. The essentially conservative Ferrari countermanded his suggestion but otherwise allowed him free rein. The result was the divine 158 that would give Alfa its glorious GP swansong.

Ferrari was re-energised. His workshop, rather than gloomy and doom-ridden, was suddenly filled with purpose and buzzing technicians, several of whom had been temporarily freed from the Byzantine atmosphere of Portello. Which is why Ferrari was less happy when Alfa marched in and bought him out, lock, stock and barrel; staff, equipment and the unfinished Alfetta. Scuderia Ferrari ceased to exist on January 1 1938.

What the next season proved conclusively was that the reformed Alfa Corse did not know better than Scuderia Ferrari, and that Ferrari was pathologically unsuited to being an employee with clear-cut boundaries. His short spell as racing manager was unhappy and unfulfilled. He detested designer Wilfredo Ricart, the Spaniard charged with filling Jano’s shoes – the cull had been comprehensive – and was astounded when Gobbato stood by ‘the foreigner’ in the teeth of his howling criticism. The rift unbridgeable; Ferrari was sacked in 1939.

His long, diverse association with Alfa had taught him everything about the business and the sport, and plenty about himself, as his ex-employer would soon discover. Closeted in his office – Enzo, take note! – Gobbato had no inkling of what the shop floor knew: Ferrari was the team’s nervous system and best strategic mind. Gobbato knew enough to attempt to handcuff Enzo with a clause barring manufacture of a car under his own name, but did not anticipate Ferrari’s irritation, chicanery and ambition: to beat Alfa. A monster of many parts had been created and released.

With 40 staff still loyal – his name remained a clarion call – and under the auspices of a new company, Auto Avio Costruzioni, Ferrari built two cars for the 1940 Mille Miglia. Based on Fiat running gear, they featured a straight-eight created from conjoined Fiat ‘fours’, plus a flowing, though not yet beautiful, body by Touring. Rush jobs, both 815s retired, albeit not before Alberto Ascari, 21-year-old son of Antonio, had briefly led his class.

The 158 had proved to Ferrari that he could create the conditions for home-brewed success; the lack of credit he received for it created his need to prove himself on his own terms. The parts-bin 815s went some way towards doing that. The tailor-made, pure prototype 125S, the first to carry his name, was the next, albeit hardly financially logical, step. Designed by Colombo during a suspension from Portello, for a Scuderia Ferrari revived and reconstituted as a one-man-one-vote private company, the new model also benefited from contributions by Bazzi, Aurelio Lampredi, Angelo Nasi, Luciano Fochi and Giuseppe Busso – to a man ex- or moonlighting Alfa personnel. This was personal.

*******

Here he comes! Same note – still reverberating, still hopeful – different direction. From Modena, he swings through the gates, brakes to a stop, blips and kills the ignition. He pushes back in the seat, catches the mood, taut with anticipation, and diffuses it with a smile.

He’s only been as far as Formigine, three arrow-straight, tree-lined miles from one unremarkable village, Maranello, to the next, but it is far enough for him to know that he has begun the rest of his life. It’s a chill day in March 1947 and Enzo Anselmo Ferrari is 49.

Badge engineering...

The story of Ferrari’s Cavallino Rampante is typically Enzo: a rattling good yarn based on half-truths and surrounded still in mystery

The official version is that it was ‘awarded’ by the aristocratic parents of Italy’s greatest WWI fighter ace, Francesco Baracca; Ferrari says he met them during celebrations for his 1923 Circuit of Savio victory.

If true, why then did he sit on the honour for nine years? For the horse, placed by Ferrari on a shield of gold – the official colour of Modena – did not bolt until the 1932 Spa 24 Hours, when it appeared on the Alfa 8Cs driven to a 1-2 by Antonio Brivio/Eugenio Siena and Piero Taruffi/Guido D’Ippolito.

One suggestion is that Ferrari was attempting to strengthen his team’s identity as a buffer against an increasingly meddlesome Alfa Corse. Another is that he had only ‘received’ the badge a few months before its debut. What is sure is that Baracca carried the emblem on his Nieuport and SPAD planes. What is unsure is why.

One suggestion is that it was a trophy taken from a German Albatross flown by a Stuttgart pilot displaying his city’s coat of arms – a rearing black horse on a yellow background – and shot down by Baracca in November 1916. Another is that it referred to Baracca’s cavalry background.

Doubt surrounds other aspects of the story.

Some believe the emblem was not within the gift of the Baraccas and that it belonged to the famous ‘Squadron of the Aces’. Others say Squadriglia 91a’s official use of a black griffon confused matters.

And the connection between Enzo’s elder brother Alfredo Jnr and Baracca is perhaps not as strong as often portrayed. If he were part of the hero’s ground crew it can only have been for a short time – Alfredo died in the winter of 1916, before the creation of the ‘Squadron of Aces’.

Baracca claimed his first kill on April 7, 1916, and took down 34 enemy aircraft before succumbing to rifle fire near Mount Montello on June 19, 1918.

Enzo Ferrari on…

Achille Varzi

Varzi the driver was no different from Varzi the man: intelligent, calculating, grim when necessary, ferocious in exploiting the first weakness, mistake or mishap of his adversaries. He could well be described as pitiless. It was not easy to follow his reasoning, especially when he was developing one of his cold and calculating arguments; he was a man, in fact, who sometimes managed to convince himself even of what was absurd. Anything he believed in, he would defend to the bitter end. He had a complicated emotional life… not the best thing for a racing driver’s nervous system.

Guiseppe Campari

I remember his extraordinary dexterity in changing gear: he was able, even as early as 1920, to change down flawlessly through the gears and, without grating, check the momentum of the enormous mass of the flywheel and also the huge gears. Of portly build, but endowed with great strength, he was black-haired, with a pinkish body that seemed always to be glistening with perspiration. There was something in his personality – the freshness, the sincerity and the unselfconscious simplicity – that was unfailingly endearing. Not only was he an exceptionally skilful driver, but an indomitable fighter too, a man who – for the sake of winning – would disregard danger.

Tazio Nuvolari

His technique remained a supreme demonstration of skill carried to the very bounds of human achievement and the law of balance and momentum. I have seen it equalled by only one other driver, Stirling Moss. Nuvolari was a lonely man, embittered by the cruel way in which fate had struck at him through his deepest affections. Nevertheless, and I trust this does not sound uncharitable, he never ceased to be a shrewd actor. There were few who knew the crowd so well as he, who understood what the public wanted and, through it, knew how to lend stature to his own legend.

Carlo Felice Trossi

He would do things in everyday life and on the track that no one else would have thought of. He brought a curious note of detached gentility into the racing milieu. As a driver, he possessed exceptional gifts and characteristics: nonchalance, courage, a talent for improvisation and even humour. He never became a [sporting] tycoon because he had neither the patience nor perseverance – nor the wish. I am thus unable to define him as a man who really made his mark; all the same, in the memory of those who knew him he has continued to live as a unique and extraordinary personality. Surely that is enough!

Guy Moll

Together with Moss, he was the only driver worthy of comparison with Nuvolari. In fact, Moll (right, winning the Avusrennen in 1934) resembled Nuvolari in certain singular mental traits, in his aggressive spirit, in the calm assurance with which he drove and in the equanimity with which he was prepared to face death. I have never seen such coolness and self-assurance in danger. I realised that the greatest risk he would have to face would be in the inferiority of competitors, who might be tempted to use unorthodox methods in defending themselves against his greater skill and daring. And this was, indeed, probably the case.