arly in May I spent three quite enchanting days in Modena and around. I had been there many times before, of course, but
always during trips to Imola, a place probably unknown to the gentlemen of CVC, but one which was — and still could be, if 30 or 40 million dollars a year were available — among the finest theatres of Grand Prix racing I have known. Better yet, it is in a country where they actually give a damn about Formula 1.
Even brief touches with Modena were memorable, but I never felt I was doing it justice. This is, after all, the birthplace of Enzo Ferrari, and like Indianapolis in that racing comes out of every pore. The trigger for my visit was a ‘phone call one day with my old friend Peter Windsor,
during which we talked of the plan for Jacques Villeneuve to drive his father’s Ferrari 312T4 at Fiorano on May 8, the 30th anniversary of Gilles’s death. It was an admirable idea, of course, but we both suspected it might turn into a bit of a ‘corporate event’. Luca di Montezemolo was going to be there, and there would be a press conference, which would also feature Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa. Nothing wrong with that in itself, of course, but… what did it have to do with a day honouring Gilles Villeneuve? More appealing, we reckoned, would be a less ‘official’ celebration of Villeneuve’s life the weekend before, being organised by Jonathan Giacobazzi, he of the wineproducing family firm who sponsored
Gilles during his years with Ferrari. Thus we at once booked rooms at the Hotel Real Fini, which itself has long links with motor racing, and is on the Via Emilia. The Mille Miglia used to pass by the front door. Once out of Bologna airport, however, we travelled directly to Pappagallo for lunch,
and it seemed only appropriate to have tortellini alla panna, a favourite of mine, but also of Ferrari drivers down the years, not least Chris Amon, not least Gilles. The pasta was perfection, but the main reason for visiting Pappagallo, which opened in 1919, was that it had been the favourite restaurant of one Tazio Nuvolari.
Staying at the Real Fini, too, were Joann Villeneuve and her daughter Melanie, having arrived in Italy that morning after a ‘red eye’ flight from Montreal. It was a delight to see them again, and, together with Signor Giacobazzi, we stayed up till one in the morning, drinking good wine and reminiscing. “At a race track,” Joann smiled, “Gilles was like a kid in a playground. It was simple for him: ‘If I’m fastest in every corner, I’ll be fastest on every lap, and I’ll win every race…’ “Of course people always think of him in terms of Ferrari, but, you know, before we came to Europe, and were watching the Grands Prix on TV, the team Gilles always wanted to drive for was Lotus — he absolutely loved watching Ronnie Peterson in that black Lotus. When Ferrari came along, it was ‘OK…'” There has always been an assumption that Villeneuve would have stayed with Ferrari throughout his career, and undoubtedly Enzo would have wished it so, but Gilles was tiring of the endless fight against faster English cars, and the disillusionment he felt after the Imola affair with Didier Pironi was profound. At the time I asked him if he would remain with the team for 1983. “I don’t know,” he
said, “but if Pironi is there the answer is no, for sure.” In the San Marino Grand Prix his teammate had ignored Ferrari’s long-held ‘team order’ that the cars should finish in the order in which they were when they became first and second. Villeneuve himself had always
scrupulously observed the rule, even when passing Jody Scheckter at Monza in 1979 would have kept him in the World Championship hunt. No surprise then that he was outraged by the duplicity at Imola — and it’s no surprise, either, that he was maddened by the team’s refusal publicly to back him. Well, after all, a Ferrari had won the race, so…
“Gilles had great relationships with both Carlos [Reutemann] and Jody,” said Joann. “The only problem was with Pironi. Quite early on I said, ‘Don’t trust him’, and Gilles said, ‘You don’t know him…’ I said, ‘I know — but don’t trust him’. That was why he was so upset after Imola — he had trusted Pironi, and betrayal was something he simply couldn’t understand…” At the time I felt sure that Villeneuve would part company with Ferrari, and the
likelihood is that he would have accepted Ron Dennis’s offer to join McLaren in 1983 — either that, or taken a sabbatical, and gone there in ’84. Who can imagine how quick he would have been in John Barnard’s TAG Porsche-powered MP4-2?
On the Saturday morning we went off to look at the old Modena Autodromo — or rather the site of it. Thirty years ago, when I went there with Denis Jenkinson, the circuit was still as it had always been, albeit no longer in use, but now only the old control tower remains. A shame in one way, but at least the area has been transformed into a park named after Enzo Ferrari, rather than a faceless industrial estate or whatever.
The park, what’s more, is leafy and rather charming, its sundry pathways named for drivers from down the ages, and there are memorials, too, for such as Eugenio Castellotti, who lost his life at the circuit in March 1957.
Castellotti, the protege of Alberto Ascari, personified the Italian racing driver of the Fifties. “He was most people’s idea of what a racing driver should look like — and rarely does!” said Stirling Moss. “Dramatic good looks, like a bullfighter or something…”
From a rich family, Eugenio raced cars because he wished to do nothing else. In 1956 he won Italy’s blue riband event, the Mille Miglia, averaging 85mph for eleven and a half hours in torrential conditions on public roads, and heading three more factory Ferraris, driven by Peter Collins, Luigi Musso and… Juan Manuel Fangio.
The following spring Castellotti was in Florence with his fiancee Delia Scala, a leading actress of the time, who was appearing in a play at the Teatro Verdi. When Jean Behra’s Maserati 250F set a new lap record at Modena, Ferrari called Eugenio and ordered him back: for the honour of the company, he said, it was vital that a Ferrari should beat Behra’s time. There were those who claimed that this came about as a result of Ferrari’s accepting
a wager in a bar, but one would prefer to believe this apocryphal. Whatever else, it seems absurd that the Modena lap record — set in a test session — could have been a matter of such moment.
An order was an order, though. Not in the lightest of moods, Castellotti took a train back to Modena and arrived at the track in the late afternoon. Out he went in a Lancia-Ferrari — and within a few minutes he was dead, the car going out of control at the S-bend at the end of the pit straight, throwing the driver out as it somersaulted, then disintegrating against a small stone grandstand. Behra, on the spot, was emphatic that Castellotti had had a problem changing down, that his car had arrived at the corner
in neutral. Delia Scala, notified of the tragedy early in the evening, somehow observed theatrical tradition, and ‘went on’, as usual. As I stood by the memorial to Castellotti, I couldn’t help but remember something Peter Ustinov once told
me. “Peter Collins, with whom I was friendly, told me the most terrifying story about the Commendatore. Peter was with him in the office at Maranello, and the phone went. Ferrari picked it up, and said, ‘Pronto! Ferrari!’ Then he listened, and he became pale. ‘Non e possibile… Castellotti… Castellotti morto…’ A slight pause. ‘E la macchina?”
When I related this to Phil Hill, a member of the Ferrari sports car squad at that time, he responded with a cynical smile: “Yeah, sounds about right…”
Saturday afternoon brought a visit to the Panini Collezione, regarded very much as the `Maserati Museum’. Sited out of town in sumptuous countryside, an elegant building on Signor Panini’s farm houses the cars, and a glad sight they make. When I was a kid my heart always beat faster for Maserati than Ferrari, perhaps because my heroes Behra and Moss drove for the team, perhaps because their cars — notably the 250F and the 300S — remain to my eye the most classically beautiful racing cars ever built. The most startling exhibit, though, is the single-seater built by Maserati — in about three weeks — to take on the ED
Indianapolis roadsters in the Race of Two Worlds at Monza in 1958. A beast of a thing, it rather resembles a 250F on steroids, and outlandishly — for a European race car of the Fifties — carries sponsorship, from the Eldorado ice cream company, and is white, rather than red. Powered by a short-stroke 4.2-litre version of the V8 from Maserati’s 450S sports car of the previous year, it was driven by Moss, and if flogging round Monza’s banked ‘oval’ was far from Stirling’s idea of fun, he soon acclimatised to this new form of racing, running as high as third before the steering broke at 170mph, and pitched him into an accident which truly frightened him: “I just closed my eyes — I thought I was going to die…” After hitting the barrier at the top of the
banking, the Maserati spun crazily down onto the infield, where Stirling climbed out, somehow quite unhurt. Dinner on Saturday, hosted by Giacobazzi, was at the Montana in Maranello, which opened in 1967, and these days has replaced the Cavallino as Ferrari’s restaurant of
choice. It goes without saying that the fare was delectable, but what truly made the evening was the presence not only of the Villeneuves, mere et fille, but also of Mauro Forghieri and the Ferrari mechanics from Gilles’s racing days, some of whom brought scrapbooks from his career.
I found myself sitting next to Rene Arnoux, who was due to play a central role in the events of the following morning. These days the director of a Swiss company manufacturing delicate parts for high-end watch companies like Patek Philippe and Jaeger-LeCoultre, Arnoux, always quiet and shy through his racing career, has come out of his shell, and was clearly elated at being back in a Ferrari environment. “Through Jean Todt,” he said, “I drove a Schumacher car a few years ago, and honestly I couldn’t get over how easy — compared with the cars of my era — it was to drive. OK, the limit is always the limit, and of course I wasn’t near it, but… very soft ride, smooth power delivery, automatic gearchange, power steering…” This being the weekend it was, somewhat inevitably the conversation came round to Villeneuve, of whom Arnoux had been a good friend. “I remember,” he said, “talking to Gilles at Long Beach one evening about a particular corner there. We were discussing whether or
not it could be taken flat — I said maybe, but I didn’t think so, and Gilles agreed. Next day, in practice, I came round that corner — and there was Gilles’s car, with a wheel off! Later on he said, ‘I guess we were right in thinking it wasn’t flat — but I had to try…’ “Everyone still talks about that day at Dijon in 1979, and it was the best race of my life, but afterwards some of the older drivers were saying Gilles and I were crazy — maybe they had never been in a battle like that, I don’t know… I can only say that we were both completely fair with each other — as you can tell by the way we embraced after the finish. “Today you have penalties for everything — but you also have driving permitted that would have been completely unacceptable then. Look at the film of Dijon, and you will see that all down the long straight to the first corner, neither of us ever changed our line to block the other one. Now, when someone is trying to pass, you just swerve in front of him, and apparently that’s OK
— even allowed! Gilles would never have understood that — any idiot can block. He was hard on the track, but always sportive, and that’s how it should be…
“Somehow, you know, I never think of Gilles as a racing driver,” Rene said. “I think of him as an acrobat. So many people have asked me what was different about him, compared with other drivers, and I say ‘different’ is not a big enough word — he was unique.”
And the fastest driver Arnoux ever raced against? Rene made a face. “There is nothing to discuss…”
So to Sunday. By 9.30 we were in Castel d’Ario, birthplace of Nuvolari, and there, in the piazza bearing his name, sat a 1979 Ferrari T4, complete with tyre-warmers. Alongside it was a Nuvolari Alfa, and along from there Villeneuve’s personal Ferrari 308GTB. All were to take part in a very special drive to Erbe, eight kilometres away. Can you imagine such a scenario anywhere but Italy?
I looked inside the car, savouring the leather-bound Momo steering-wheel (rather than carbon fibre `tiller’), the stubby conventional gear lever and ‘gate’. And I noted that the T4, while in perfect working order, had thankfully not been ‘restored’. It wasn’t just any T4, this. Now owned by Jonathan Giacobazzi, it was the 1111, very one which featured in the duel with Arnoux at Dijon, the one which (like Nuvolari’s Alfa at Brno in 1937) lost its left rear tyre (and ultimately wheel and suspension) while leading at Zandvoort, which honourably followed Scheckter
home at Monza, which fought valiantly against Alan Jones’s faster Williams at Montreal, which lapped Watkins Glen 11 seconds quicker than anything else in wet practice, and then won the race… The one, in short, in which Villeneuve could so easily have become World Champion.
Because of the unforgettable race at Dijon, Arnoux easily topped a poll conducted to determine who should drive the car this day. Behind him were Messrs Alesi, Scheckter and Tambay. Even as it was all unfolding, I was aware that this was a day — a weekend — that I would never forget, a reminder, as if it were necessary, of why I have always loved Italian motor racing above all other. Hordes of enthusiasts were on hand, scrabbling to take photographs of the Ferrari, and if the weather looked a little threatening nothing could detract from an atmosphere that was exuberant and good-natured. And why not? Here we were, after all, in a racing environment, free to
film with a movie camera without the risk of 30 lashes…
At mid-morning the T4 was fired up, and appropriately it was the doyen of Ferrari mechanics, Giulio Borsari, now 86 years old, who sat in the cockpit, warming the engine on a constant throttle, then, as the temperatures came up, blipping it — gently at first, then ever more urgently. It had been quite a while since I had heard the flat-12 engine, and I was struck by the deep and muscular sound, utterly different from the slightly hysterical engine note of today’s V8s, all of which sound remarkably similar. Borsari sat there in the
cockpit, a look of calm pride on his face. Just for a day he was back in his own world again. When he shut the engine down finally, everyone clapped. After a short address by the Mayor of Castel d’Ario, who spoke of the town’s pride in Nuvolari and its affection for Villeneuve, Arnoux, now in overalls and carrying his familiar all-white helmet, made his entrance, signing umpteen autographs, then opening a giant bottle of prosecco, and dashing into the crowd with it, spraying one and all. Then he went to the car, and climbed aboard. Again the engine barked into life, and, behind a police
car, Rene set off along the road to Erbe, followed by the Nuvolari Alfa, the Villeneuve 308, and then countless other Ferraris, their owners using as many revs as the confined space allowed.
It was Italian theatre at its very best, and all in the shadow of Tazio, whose monument — complete with cigarette in hand — sits there in the piazza, close by the large villa in which he was born in 1892. The moment was intensely moving. Some minutes after the procession we made our way to Erbe, where the T4 was now in the park, under an awning, surrounded by a new crowd. More revving, more applause. “Ah, musica!” exclaimed a man nearby. There followed a blessing from the venerable Don Sergio Mantovani, known for generations as ‘the racers’ chaplain’, and a man who knew Fangio and Moss and Behra — who was there indeed at Modena on the afternoon of Castellotti’s accident, and gave him the
Then the band struck up, and first the National Anthem — soundtrack of a thousand podiums — was played. As it rang out, I wandered over to a corner of the park, where there is a sculpture of Gilles, alongside — remarkably — an F104 Starfighter, nose pointing to the heavens.
In November 1981, at the airfield in nearby Istrana, was staged a ‘challenge’ event which became part of Villeneuve folklore. On a foggy day, at the wheel of a Ferrari 126CK shorn of wings, Gilles competed against a Starfighter in a couple of 3000ft drag races, winning each time by a little over a second. The Starfighter, it will be remembered, had a terrible safety record, and when I spoke to Villeneuve about it later, he concluded that Lt Daniele Martinelli was a braver man than he. “When we got to the end of the run, all I had to do was back off and spin-turn it, but he… he had to take
off! Mind you, without wings, the front of the Ferrari was kind of light…”
Now here we were in a small town, where abides a memorial to a Canadian racing driver revered in Italy like none since Nuvolari. The inscription is simple: ‘Ciao Gilles’.