As good as Rindt

Lorenzo Bandini was highly regarded – as a driver and as a man – by his Ferrari team-mates John Surtees and Chris Amon. He looked all set to join the top rank when he died at Monaco​

It was on May Day 1955 that Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson won the Mille Miglia, and for almost 40 years it had a joyful resonance for ‘Jenks’. “I associated it with such pleasure,” he said, “and now this…” His diary entry for May 1, 1994, read simply, ‘Absolute bloody disaster’. That afternoon Ayrton Senna had been killed at Imola.

It is May Day as I write. A week from now is the 25th anniversary of the death of Gilles Villeneuve, and two days after that, on May 10, 40 years will have passed since Lorenzo Bandini died from injuries suffered in the Monaco Grand Prix. A poignant time.

Bandini’s accident was especially gruesome – his Ferrari was upside down, on fire, and attempts to rescue him were sickeningly inept – and it was a seminal one in racing history. As the race went on, Bandini, dreadfully burned, was manhandled from his car, dropped when the flames flared once more, then put on a stretcher, taken by boat across the harbour, thence to the Princess Grace Clinic, where he died three days later. His heavily pregnant wife, deep in shock, was taken to the same hospital, alas too late to save her first child. The saga was as ghastly as could be imagined, and such was the revulsion at what had befallen this popular man that suddenly Jackie Stewart’s was no longer a lone voice in the quest for safety. 

Probably no racing driver ever looked the part more than Bandini, but there was nothing shallow about him. “A lot of people with his sort of good looks behave like peacocks – you know the type,” says Chris Amon, Bandini’s team-mate of 1967. “But Lorenzo wasn’t like that at all. I thought he might be aggressive towards me when I joined Ferrari, but he was utterly charming. One of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”

John Surtees, at Ferrari with Bandini for several seasons, concurs: “I remember Lorenzo with great fondness. He was always very friendly, and as a team-mate completely apolitical. Never had any problems with him at all. A good lad.”

Bandini was always obsessed with cars, and became an apprentice mechanic at 15, working at the garage of one Signor Freddi in Milan. Already he was determined to become a racing driver, but where to start? Fortunately, his employer proved to be a benefactor, lending him cars to use in local hillclimbs.

Following the death of Luigi Musso at Reims in 1958, Italy was without a world-class driver, and in an effort to put that right, Count Johnny Lurani conceived a low-cost single-seater class: Formula Junior. Late in ’58 Bandini bought a Volpini and took part in his first single-seater race, the Sicilian Gold Cup, finishing third in both heats. Through 1959 and ’60 Bandini became a star in Formula Junior and was obviously ready for something quicker. 

The new 1.5-litre F1 began in 1961 and Ferrari, with its V6, was confident of a power advantage over the four-cylinder Coventry Climax engine, staple diet of all the English constructors. In addition to the three works cars for Phil Hill, Wolfgang von Trips and Richie Ginther, it was decided to run another car under the banner of Scuderia Sant Ambroeus for a young Italian, and although Bandini seemed the obvious choice, Giancarlo Baghetti got the nod. Fortunately for Lorenzo, Mimmo Dei, the patron of Scuderia Centro Sud, was a believer and offered him a Cooper T53-Maserati. On his F1 debut at Pau he finished a good third behind Jimmy Clark and Jo Bonnier, but the car was hopelessly underpowered and there were few further opportunities to impress.

Baghetti, meantime, won his first three F1 races, including the French Grand Prix at Reims, and his performances were the talk of Italy. Enzo Ferrari, though, had not forgotten Bandini and nominated him to co-drive with Giorgio Scarlatti in the world championship sports car race at Pescara. Lorenzo, who did most of the driving, scored his first major victory, and that led to a contract, which included F1, for 1962. On board also, though, were Phil Hill, Willy Mairesse, Ricardo Rodriguez and Baghetti. That was how the Old Man operated: more drivers than cars, with only Hill assured of a regular drive. It was ruthless and manipulative, and it was how he had always done it.

After a magnificent season in 1961, Ferrari fortunes slumped in ’62. Bandini was given a car for Monaco and drove superbly to finish third, but from that point on the team went into steep decline, the V6 no match for the new V8s from Climax and BRM.

At the end of the year there was a huge upheaval at Maranello and many engineers left. Of the existing drivers, only Mairesse was retained for 1963, but once more Dei came to Bandini’s rescue, for he had bought Graham Hill’s title-winning BRM and painted it red. Lorenzo loved the car and qualified third for the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring – several seconds faster than Hill’s newer works car – only to crash on the first lap. Another accident, a few minutes later, was to change the course of his career: Mairesse went off at Flugplatz and was badly hurt.

“Mairesse was very quick, but unstable,” says Surtees. “He did it wrong lots of times, and after that shunt at the ’Ring Lorenzo became my natural team-mate at Ferrari.”

Bandini had been contracted to race Ferrari sports cars, he and Ludovico Scarfiotti winning at Le Mans, but F1 was his passion, and now at last he was where he wanted to be.

In 1964 Lorenzo married Margherita Freddi, the daughter of his original mentor, and went on to have an excellent season, winning the Austrian Grand Prix and finishing well elsewhere. At the final race – Mexico – he was, however, involved in an incident of some controversy. Jim Clark, Hill and Surtees were all in contention for the world championship, and Bandini ran into the back of Hill’s BRM at a hairpin, ending Graham’s hopes of the title – which ultimately went to Surtees. It was all very unfortunate, but no one who knew Lorenzo believed
it was anything other than accidental, and at Christmas Graham sent him an LP of driving lessons! They had style in those days, did they not?

Surtees and Bandini were retained by Ferrari for 1965, but this was a ‘Clark’ year and there were no grand prix wins for the team, Lorenzo’s major success being victory at the Targa Florio, co-driving with Nino Vaccarella.

The 3-litre F1 began in 1966, and Monaco was the first round of the world championship, Ferrari sending a new V12 for Surtees and a 2.4-litre V6 for Bandini. John retired early, leaving Jackie Stewart’s BRM in the lead, but towards the end Lorenzo began to catch him, setting new lap records before settling for second. At the wet Belgian Grand Prix he was third behind Surtees and Jochen Rindt, and this, as it turned out, was to be John’s last grand prix drive for Ferrari.

“At the time,” says Surtees, “a lot of people were saying that the team was ‘favouring Bandini’ and that was why I left – but that was rubbish. It was true that I’d said I should have been driving the 2.4-litre V6 car rather than the 3-litre V12 at Monaco because it was the quicker car and I was the quickest driver there. But that certainly wasn’t Lorenzo’s doing.

“What happened at Le Mans was that we’d thought there was a chance that a Ferrari could keep going for the 24 hours, running at 98 per cent, and perhaps we could break the Fords. Politics came into it: they said that Mr Agnelli was arriving and they wanted him to see his nephew – Scarfiotti – drive the car at the start. I said, ‘Well, that blows all our strategy about trying to win this race.’ After what had happened at Monaco, I just felt, ‘I’m no longer part of this family’, and I left.

“Lorenzo was terribly upset – in fact, he begged me to change my mind. My leaving made him team leader, and I don’t think that was something he ever wanted. I don’t mean that he was willing to play second fiddle, but it was a responsibility he didn’t want, as an Italian in a very Italian environment, and I think it was a mistake to put him in that position. He deserved better.”

Whatever, Bandini was now Ferrari team leader, and at the next race, the French Grand Prix at Reims, he started from pole position and led comfortably until his throttle cable broke. For the rest of the season, his luck kept time with Reims.

At Monza, Surtees says, Bandini got the short straw. “It was politics again. Of the three drivers Ferrari had there, Lorenzo was certainly the quickest, and yet they arranged for Scarfiotti to win the race – because of his connections, he had the new three-valve-per-cylinder engine which had quite a lot more power. In fairness, that wasn’t something Ludovico would have asked for himself – he wasn’t a bad lad at all –it was just stupidity on the part of Ferrari.”

For 1967 Bandini’s team-mates were to be Mike Parkes, Scarfiotti and new recruit Amon. The inclusion of Chris in the team pleased Lorenzo, for they got along well and were to be paired
in the new 330P4 sports-racer.

The partnership started well with victory in the Daytona 24 Hours, and then at Brands Hatch, in the Race of Champions, Lorenzo drove the latest F1 car to an encouraging second place, less than a second behind Dan Gurney’s Eagle. From Brands he went to Le Mans for the testing weekend, recording the fastest time with the P4. Next it was the Monza 1000Km, and once more Amon and Bandini won in the P4.

All in all, life had never looked better to Lorenzo. Next was Monaco, his favourite race, after which he was to go with Amon to Indianapolis, where both had drives in the 500 for the first time. As it was, Chris made the flight alone, and it was in Gasoline Alley that he learned his friend had died.

“I really think,” Amon says, “that Lorenzo was just on the point of progressing from a good driver to a great one.”

Surtees puts it this way: “Lorenzo could be very quick, and I thought he was very underrated. I had some good team-mates, and although Lorenzo had that little bit of inconsistency, he was certainly not one you took lightly. 

“If I think back to the 1966 season, I started off at Ferrari with Lorenzo, and then joined Cooper alongside Jochen Rindt. Your most important rival is always your team-mate, isn’t he? Well, I thought Jochen and Lorenzo were about the same.”