The Maserati 250F was a titan of F1. Doug Nye went to Italy and talked to two of its creators
People — not the cars — are the essence of motor racing history. Unlike the chicken and the egg there’s no doubting which comes first. The Maserati 250F was the first design series to win popular recognition in the modern sense as ‘a historic racing car’. Yet while the nuts and bolts of the 250F story have by now been pretty thoroughly unravelled, the first-hand testimony of the men who built and campaigned those cars in earnest — starting more than 50 years ago in 1954 — has seldom surfaced.
Back in 1981 I spent time with Maserati’s long-serving chief engineer (now the late) Ingegnere Giulio Alfieri to recall the building and racing of the works 250Fs. He was then chief engineer of Nuova Lamborghini at Sant’Agata, president of Honda Italia and a much sought-after consultant engineer. Next day we talked to ‘Guerrino’ Bertocchi — Maserati’s famous chief mechanic and tester at his then current place of work, the De Tomaso factory. Tragically, the great Bertocchi was killed two weeks later, while riding as passenger in a De Tomaso saloon an ironic fate for a man who had joined Maserati in 1921 and who in his last days at the age of 74 looked perhaps 65, and still drove like a larrikin of 30… or less.
The Maserati 250F series’ creation is credited to Gioacchino Colombo, but he had already left Officine Maserati in November 1953, before the 250F prototype had run. Alfieri took his place. He explained that he had kept neither papers nor photographs. “When we won the World Championship in 1957,” he explained, “it was the maximum of my time with Maserati, but my character says that when you have obtained something it is finished — tomorrow is the important thing.
“At Maserati we were like a happy family. One hundred and ten men were involved in building our racing cars like the 250F, making everything — chassis, engines, gearboxes. We worked 8am to 8pm, six and a half days a week minimum and I was a happy man.
“I liked the work, and money was not the most important thing to me. The final decision to stop racing was sad for me, but the life of the factory was more important than myself. I liked racing: it increases the desire of the men to work and it helped me to learn, technically, very fast. But to me, now, it is of more importance to the community at large if an engineer can improve the efficiency of an electric motor one per cent than if an engineer has made a car which wins. Technical achievement for the good of all people is more important than racing success — so to me I have done nothing of merit, but it is nice of you to think I have.”
There was nothing false about Alfieri’s modesty. Born on July 14 1924, he went on to graduate as Dottore Ingegnere from Milan Polytechnic on July 9 1948. On August 15 he had started work on steam turbine engines at the Cantiere Navale Reuniti shipyard in Genoa, and in April 1949 he moved to Innocenti — “Lambretta time”, he called it — designing two- and four-stroke engines.
He joined Maserati on August 1 1953 “when the engine drawings for the 250F were nearly complete, and the gearbox and chassis design was just beginning. After only three months the first car was on test at the Modena Autodrome. We always worked quickly.”
Bertocchi confirmed the mercurial Colombo’s work rate: “One morning Colombo took out a blank sheet of paper and said to me, ‘Before evening I’ll have a present for you.’ It was the 4CLT chassis…” (Hmm, yes ‘Guerrino’ old sport, the rush job subsequently showed). “The 250F was almost as quick (to be built). I drove the car first time here at Modena, era buone, forte, veloce… instantly very good, born well.”
Alfieri recalled an A6GCS sportscar bending the unpainted 250F prototype by spinning into it in front of the pits during those first tests. “That meant we had to work Christmas Day morning 1953 to complete two new 250Fs and some customer A6GCMs with the new 2.5-litre engines, for shipping to Argentina on December 26 in time for the first gran premio of 1954. In the Argentinian GP we won, but only after many problems.
“We had only tested in the cold. There in Argentina it was the height of summer, very, very ‘ot!
“We cut big holes in the 250Fs’ noses to improve cooling, and in the race Ferrari were leading and we were right on the limit, Fangio with only 1kg oil pressure, when at that moment arrived a great storm. The rain completely changed our situation — it cooled the cars, our car handled the wet superbly and Fangio drove past the Ferraris and won.
“Good handling, powerful brakes and competitive power provided the keys to the 250Fs’ success. Alfieri mischievously explained: “Our car handled well due to contributory reasons: one, front suspension geometry, not special, but good — unequal-length wishbones and coil-springs; two, De Dion rear suspension very soft with transverse leaf-spring; three, our Pirelli tyres, very good; four, this first space-frame chassis was very poor in torsional stiffness, in the wet lateral force was low, tyre friction poor and so our lack of chassis stiffness did not punish us, instead it made our car perfect for the rain — very pleasant, very special… very lucky!”
The new Maserati was unusual in that its De Dion tube arched around the front of the gearbox/final-drive to keep its mass within the wheelbase. The tube was located by twin radius rods each side and laterally by a centre slider ball in a channel on the transaxle casing. The transverse leaf-spring contributed nothing to wheel location, being pivoted at its centre and passing between pairs of rollers at chassis width which were moveable to provide adjustable roll stiffness. Massive multi-finned bi-metal brake drums appeared in the wheels front and rear, and Houdaille rotary-vane dampers were chassis-mounted and operated by long links from the suspension.
In the early-1954 races the 250Fs suffered bearing failures caused by oil frothing. The dry-sump oil tank’s location within the hot engine bay exacerbated this problem, so Alfieri moved it to the extreme tail. Other problems were more serious. Alfieri: “The original De Dion tube failed sometimes and we increased its wall thickness from 1mm to 3mm, which was heavy, but stiff and strong. Bevel-gear trouble in the transmission was a bigger problem. Fangio won Argentina and Spa without trouble but then went off to drive the new Mercedes…” He paused, gazing silently into space, before continuing: “Marimón remained, we asked Villoresi to drive for us again, and young Moss and others had private cars. With Villoresi first and then Moss began the trouble of the bevel gears and we changed to ‘Model 7’ straight-cut gears, very big, and this was a complete cure.
“Fangio, you see, was always very soft, very gentle on the car. In a race he would consume 10-15 litres less fuel than the others, wear his brakes less, and all other parts of his car too. After he had gone we found the others in comparison were all very hard, rugged on the cars, and we had to make them stronger — but we wanted them lighter and more powerful as well.
“At the end of 1954 engineer Bellentani went to Ferrari and I became totally in charge at Maserati: sportscars, road cars, not only the 250F. So I changed the gran premio chassis design, made a small, better streamlined body, and we did a great study of the engine characteristics to improve its mid-range and 245bhp maximum. Eventually we arrived at nearer 270bhp and reduced weight from 620kg dry, 640 sometimes, down to nearer 600-610kg. We found more power partly by changing from methanol fuel, which we used for more than a year, to nitromethane mixes. We tested 43 or 44 different mixtures, found widely different power outputs and characteristics, and chose the best suited.
“Through 1955-56 we made many experiments. We did a completely new-design tubular frame to improve chassis stiffness, using more tubes, smaller tubes, and changed brake drums — though we never had any problem with them. We fitted two fuel pumps, one on the engine, one on the gearbox. I did big work on streamlining the exhausts, sometimes one pipe, sometimes two; we had a little trouble in the aluminium-steel multi-plate clutch, which was corrected, and so on.
“I experimented with fuel injection, beginning alone without any help. All my designs were my own: I never copied from anyone, so I alone was responsible for my mistakes. I had to learn as I went along.
“We made our own quarter-engine-speed injection pump and started with injection direct into the inlet valve, later onto the exhaust valve — this was very difficult especially since I was alone in Italy with this work. We worked day and night, terribly hard, and found more power with injection, but better response is so hard to measure. In fact the power curve was too sharp, the power came in too hard and made the car difficult to control as the cornering power of the tyres of the time was really very small.” He laughed, dark eyes twinkling under beetle brows: “At Goodwood, Moss drove the injection car with 265bhp. I remember he tried his own carburettor car with 240-245bhp and the times were almost the same. Injection gave us big power for the time, but was difficult to utilise.
“At Reims we ran our streamlined 250F — that was my idea. We always tried to improve the aerodynamics of the car and I did small model tests of the streamliner in the Milan University wind-tunnel. The full-size car was not very good, but was the best of the type, I think — better than Ferrari’s!” Cue laughter.
In search of reliability Maserati’s works team applied a rigid ‘lifing’ programme, changing con-rods after two or three races, the valves after every race, valve finger gear after so many hours, pistons too.
But Alfieri, a sensitive deep thinker, had witnessed the aftermath of works driver Onofre Marimón’s fatal accident at the Nürburgring in 1954 and never saw a race thereafter. He would work on the cars during practice but leave for home at 11 o’clock on race morning: “It’s a big responsibility as chief engineer, and for me to watch our drivers racing was only a great suffering.”
He experimented with disc brakes — “We fitted an English set but we were too far from Dunlop, Lockheed et cetera to be confident, and the result was not so much better than our own drum brakes anyway” — and in 1956 he built the ‘offset’ 250Fs for the Italian GP, design and construction occupying barely one month.
“At Reims I saw our cars were too slow, and I came back as passenger in a Fiat 1100 driven by Bertocchi and thought, during the voyage, ‘What can I do?’ And when we arrived back in Modena I said we shall do a new chassis, a new gearbox with an offset drive-line and a new lower body with offset cockpit and driver seated down beside the propshaft, and it was all ready for Moss to win our Italian Grand Prix at Monza that September.”
Alfieri allowed himself a rare smile at that memory, before explaining developments for 1957 — when Maserati at last won a World Championship: “Each year we had done new cars; the 1956 Fuoricentro (offset) showed good speed but not very good handling and we could not understand why. The technological language of the time was inadequate for our drivers to explain what was happening in the cars, and so we started again with the new lightweight design for ’57; even smaller tubes, more of them, 40 per cent stiffer for the complete chassis and with increased weight bias to the rear, maybe 48:52 distribution dry.
“Mr Botasso, engineer of Pirelli, was a very nice man, a great friend of mine. So as not to hurt Maserati, when Pirelli decided to stop racing in 1956 they made many, many tyres for us to use in 1957. The problem in tyres then was not compounds and grip, it was only safety, to last a 500km grand prix distance carrying a heavy car without exploding.
“We used 17-inch rear wheels purely to reduce tyre stress and add safety — at Monza Ferrari used 15 inch tyres, which exploded. The engines gave 270bhp, and I had experimented with desmodromic valve gear and also developed the V12 2.5-litre engine.
“Desmodromic was very expensive. With our finger-system valve gear and our technology it was nearly impossible — and there was no reason to do it! We never found higher revolutions through desmodromic. It was really wasted time.
“The V12 offered another solution to the 2.5-litre formula. It was a very good engine and we obtained 300bhp. We destroyed many in early tests, running late at night and keeping all Modena awake!
“We had valve-spring and con-rod problems — the rods were too light — but we made a small modification and it became reliable. Ten and a half thousand rpm was a lot for 1957. But I discovered the truth that is still true today — the 12 has too much friction loss, too heavy fuel consumption and a longer time of acceleration than engines of similar capacity yet fewer cylinders.
“For me the amount of horsepower lost is important, and in a 12-cylinder it’s a lot. In 1956-57 I did not know this, but I learned… We had a good six-cylinder which we ran in three ‘Lightweight’ works cars and won races, while we ran one 12-cylinder and only learned not to do that. It was not the way ahead.”
At the end of the 1957 season Fangio had won the Drivers’ World Championship in his ‘Lightweight’ works 250F and Maserati had lost the Sports Car World Championship in a catastrophic Venezuelan GP in Caracas which left their expensive V8 and six-cylinder cars as charred wrecks. Coincidentally Juan Perón had been deposed in Argentina. His regime had a deal to exchange grain for Italian machine tools, notably from the Orsi empire, of which Maserati was a prime part. The Argentinian deal collapsed, Orsi went unpaid and Maserati was forced to bow out of racing in order to help the Group survive.
They produced ultra-lightweight so-called Piccolo 250Fs in 1958 “to keep Fangio racing”, but that was the end, after no fewer than 34 250F chassis numbers had been issued.
‘Guerrino’ Bertocchi recalled the Maserati 250Fs’ 1954 Argentinian debut most vividly, his sharp, dry voice delivering clipped, blunt, factual sentences. Here, plainly, was a man not used to any contradiction.
“We had the frothing oil problem in the hot practice there. Three engines failed, and every time six mechanics had to strip and rebuild with new pistons and rods, all night until dawn. In one week we never saw our hotel room. Then Saturday morning, with the race on Sunday, the engine broke again in Fangio’s car. I said to Direttore Orsi, ‘What we need is castor oil to have a chance.’
“So I, with Fangio, Orsi and some others, went all round the pharmacies in Buenos Aires for 30kg of castor oil, and they all had half-litre bottles only. We tasted it to check it was fresh — old oil on the shelf for years would not do. Eventually we got it. Race day morning we got Fangio’s engine back together, and at 4am I was out on the track running it in just as the sun came up.
“I drove for about four hours. Just a half-hour before the race started we changed the plugs, I did five laps to check and on the fourth I lowered the time of Ascari and Fangio…” (I love this quote, utterly typical of the great Bertocchi.) “The car was great, heavier to drive than the due litri, but well-balanced, predictable and forgiving. You could do anything in it. All our due-cento cinquante-effes (250Fs) were like that, pleasant friendly cars.
“You ask why we did not win more? At the start of 1954 we didn’t know Fangio was going to Mercedes. He was kidnapped twice — I tell you — once in Cuba by the Castro lot and once by Mercedes for 70 million lire! Marimón was almost as good as Fangio. I tell you, Fangio, Marimón and me, we were like three brothers — it was a black day when Marimón was killed. Moss was a great driver, we liked him; Behra e brava, ma non e Fangio (Behra was good, but he wasn’t Fangio)!
“In the 250F days we had a good mechanic team. It meant a lot of training and drill and we got our fuel and tyre stops the best. Our team was me as Capo (chief), my brother Gino Bertocchi, Manni, Borsari, Arturo Brancolini and Giorgio Neri later on.
“We treated the hubs with Vaseline so hub nuts would spin on or spin off with one finger, and Gino and I held the record for changing one wheel — with hammer, mind, no pneumatici then! — in 12 seconds, at Napoli.”
Is it right to regard those great front-engined cars as non adjustable? “No! We could adjust the cars greatly. The night after practice, six mechanics, two hours, we could change everything: springs, anti-roll bar, dampers, gear ratios, everything. While one car was practising for a time another would be testing to prove the best set-up — we could do many adjustments.
“We tested continuously here at Modena…” And at this point Bertocchi just couldn’t resist the line so practised, so polished, over so many years: “Who held the lap record here four years running? Not Fangio, not Behra, not Moss, not Schell…” Then, after a deafening pause, fixing me with a challenging glare he thumped one immense, scarred, muscular thumb against his breastbone and bawled triumphantly: ” Io! — Me! — I did!”
“Behra was working also for the factory, he was always testing with me. We had two chassis lengths of car (Alfieri quoted 2200mm and 2280mm). Fangio liked the longer, more stable chassis and Behra the shorter, more nervous one. Fangio gave the engineers little information. He was not technical, he would drive very fast any car you gave him. Moss was very fast, very intelligent, very accurate in the preparation of his car — his mechanic Alf Francis was very important to him. He had big trust in him, but in general the cars were always the same in the team, perhaps 7hp, 10hp more in one engine, but often the engine with most horsepower on the test bed did not have that horsepower in the car!
“If somebody complained their car was no good I would do three laps and my middle lap would be faster than their best (I’ll swear his thumb quivered, about to strike that proud chest once more), but the mechanics in my team were all world-beaters, and the great races of 1957 were the most satisfying for the 250F — aaaah, Campione del Mondo, squadra mia… Maserati!”