Doug Nye: Italy's attempt to keep racing in the ghastly circumstances of 1940

“In 1940, motor sport was out of the question, unless you were Italian”. Four months into the Second World War, motor racing continued in Italy with a truncated Mille Miglia course; Tripoli Grand Prix and Targa Florio

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Future enthusiasts will surely recall 2020 as having been a truncated racing season, yet one still jam-packed considering the Covid pandemic, lockdown, world economies tanking, and all the recent – bleeagh… In fact the milestone calendar years – each decade’s ‘noughty’, such as 1900, 1910, 1920 or 1930 – have often featured motor sport surviving adversity.

However, none of these punctuated or restricted seasons has ever been run in quite such ghastly circumstances as that of 1940. When the year began, Europe was already four months into the Second World War, with Great Britain and France locked in a renewed conflict with Germany. Any form of serious motor sport was out of the question, unless – of the leading nations – one was Italian…

Fascist Italy had – just like the Third Reich in Germany – projected national prestige through international motor racing. Alfa Romeos campaigned for years by the Scuderia Ferrari and, since the start of 1938, by the replacement new Alfa Corse in-house factory team, had earned much credit in Grand Prix, subsidiary-class vetturetta and sports car racing. The Maserati marque had weighed-in with its own share of success – especially at vetturetta (effectively Formula 2) level. But then on September 3, 1939, what would become global conflict had erupted. Mussolini’s supposed pact of steel with Hitler’s Germany immediately appeared somewhat more flexible than its most committed supporters might have imagined, as the Italian state wavered over what might really transpire before committing arms to either side – or declaring neutrality. Such a big decision; back a winner or back the losers became Rome’s problem…

So what happens within the racing world in such a situation? Heads down, focus upon our own sporting events, shut out reality and keep on racing.

The Targa Florio was run over 40 laps around a Palermo park

In the isolationist United States – albeit under lesser pressure – that’s what the highly-commercialised track racing world espoused, though even then with a restricted calendar. The 1940 Indy ‘500’ was run and won by Wilbur Shaw in the Grand Prix-derived 3-litre supercharged straight-8 Maserati 8CTF in which he’d won the previous year’s edition. Come August on the one-mile dirt oval at Illinois State Fairground, Springfield, Rex Mays would win the 100-Miles in his Bowes Seal Fast Special track car, combining a Stevens chassis with Bud Winfield engine. And on September 2 that year the same combination won again in the New York State Fairgrounds dirt 100-Miler at Syracuse, NY.

Meanwhile in Italy on April 28, 1940, the Mille Miglia – or a kind of ersatz Mille Miglia – had been revived. The race had last been run in 1938 when it was disfigured by a terrible accident in which a Lancia saloon had careered into the crowd just after an (unlevel) level crossing at Bologna, killing 10 spectators and injuring a further 23. A government ban had followed upon road racing through built-up areas. This proved brief, but no Mille Miglia would be run in 1939.

Now for this first wartime season it was revived, run not around the leg of Italy as had become traditional but over nine laps of a proscribed 165km (102-mile) public road triangle, starting and finishing outside Brescia, with Mantua and Cremona its two other apices.

That race was notable for two things. One was victory for the SS-badged BMW works team of Baron Fritz Huschke von Hanstein/Walter Bäumer in a BMW 328 streamlined coupé. Secondly, that race featured two cars competing badged simply ‘815’ but built by Auto-Avio Costruzioni of Modena, the company Enzo Ferrari had founded after he left Alfa Romeo with a ‘non-compete’ clause part of his severance deal. Built together with Enrico Nardi, the 815 cars used 1.5-litre straight-8 engines derived from two Fiat 4-cylinder blocks lodged in tandem upon a common crankcase. Mr Ferrari’s young clients who had initiated the project were local aristocrat, the Marchese Lotario Rangoni Machiavelli, and Alberto Ascari, son of Mr Ferrari’s former team leader and hero at Alfa Romeo – Antonio Ascari, who had crashed fatally when leading the French GP at Montlhéry back in 1925.

As the dust from this Mille Miglia settled, the 1940 Italian racing scene shifted first across the Mediterranean to the super-fast Mellaha desert circuit in Libya – then the Italian colony of Tripolitania – and later to the island of Sicily. The Tripoli Grand Prix on May 12 featured the new Alfetta works team cars of Farina, Biondetti and Trossi finish 1-2-3, leaving only fourth-place money for Villoresi’s Maserati.

More concession was then made to external wartime restraints as the May 23, 1940, Targa Florio was run not in its usually majestic long-circuit guise on the Madonie mountain course but instead over 40 laps of a 5.7km loop in Palermo’s Favorita Park, as a race for 1.5-litre supercharged vetturettas. All 16 starters were Maseratis, of which those driven by Villoresi, Cortese and Rocco finished 1-2-3. Two weeks later, on June 10, 1940, Mussolini – Il Duce – backed Germany in finally declaring war upon crumbling France and embattled Britain, with the intention of creating a Roman Empire in the Mediterranean.

When the year ends with a nought, racing amidst adversity is nothing new…

Doug Nye is the UK’s leading motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s