Sommer in the city

It must be long gone, but in Turin’s Valentino Park there was a bench upon which once sat a desolate young Enzo Anselmo Ferrari. It was 1918, the year the Great War finished. Hard times across Europe – made harder for Ferrari by the recent death of his father from pneumonia and of his brother from an illness picked up in the military. He had just been for an interview with Fiat at the company’s headquarters – and been rejected. It was freezing cold, snow was on the ground, and 20-year-old Ferrari wept at the bleakness of his future.

It is beautiful in Valentino Park today. It’s an early morning in late March but we are in T-shirts as the place begins to fill with runners, families and children on bicycles. We have with us a laminated orange card which is our permission to drive a Ferrari 612 Scaglietti into the park. There was a time when the Prancing Horse badge alone could waive speeding tickets, parking fines and any other official matters, but Italy has changed a lot in recent times. 

Several years ago I was in Pebble Beach, California, standing in a pine wood clutching an old circuit diagram wondering firstly how anyone could have had the idea of running a race through the trees, and secondly exactly where they ran it. Valentino Park is also the site of an old race track, but unlike Pebble Beach it provides a perfect natural circuit which at the time must have been considered quite safe. I have a diagram with me today, too, and to follow it does not require such head-scratching and Holmesian deduction. Because it was and still is a park there has been no building or diverting of roads. 

The first Turin GP at Valentino Park was held in 1935 – Tazio Nuvolari won in an Alfa Romeo P3 at an average of 71.61mph – but let’s rejoin Enzo Ferrari in 1947. This time his tears were of joy. Raymond Sommer had just won the Turin Grand Prix driving a Ferrari Tipo 125. Ferrari had taken what many thought to be a massive punt for his first car by designing from scratch a supercharged 1.5-litre V12. They were right, it was – but it paid off.  

The start line of the 2.9-mile circuit of 1947 – the park’s road network provided a variety of layouts over the years; it was only 1.8 miles long in 1937 – is easy to find. First you must walk from Corso Massimo D’Azeglio, a part of the circuit we’ll coming back to, into the park. You’re looking for a large building that houses the architecture school of Turin university. Outside, right next to the gates, there is a small car park. If you’re lucky and no one has parked on top of it you will see sunk into the asphalt a white marble C-shaped grid slot with the name Alberto Ascari written beneath it. In 1955 Ascari won the last ever race run on the circuit, driving a Lancia D50. Months later, after taking a dip into the harbour in Monaco in the same car, Ascari was dead; killed testing a Ferrari sports car at Monza.

From the start area you follow the road, ignoring the roundabout ahead and then continue down the tree-lined avenue to a quick right-hand bend. It’s a downhill sweep that brings you to another roundabout. Here the circuit turns back on itself so that you now have the river Po on your left, but instead of following the river along the road that runs parallel to it you instead take a higher road that sweeps left uphill. Eventually you will see the distinctive tower of Valentino Castle. Just before it you crest a rise and come back down to the river and a chicane followed by a hairpin. Just after the castle is a row of bollards closing off the road, so having miraculously jumped them and taken the hairpin we then drive up hill to meet the Corso Massimo D’Azeglio. 

Perhaps one day 80 or so years ago a racing enthusiast was strolling through the Parco Valentino on a sunny day, and suddenly in a flash of inspiration realised that the park’s roads would make a fantastic circuit. It’s exactly what I thought when I saw it for the first time this morning. Several parts of the road are almost as wide as a modern grand prix circuit. Of course by modern standards the circuit would be considered lethal, but compared to the old Spa, for example, it must have felt relatively mild. Well placed straw bales would have stopped small offs turning into disasters.

The roll call of winners at the circuit is impressive – Achille Varzi was a victor as well as Nuvolari and Ascari. The Torino GP wasn’t held in 1936 but the next year it was run for voiturettes, the pre-war equivalent of Formula 2, designed to be a class for those who could not compete with the might of the Reich-funded Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz teams in the premier racing class. The 1946 race was also for voiturettes and was won by Varzi, Nuvolari’s highly talented opponent. Then came Raymond Sommer’s victory in the Ferrari. That win might have brought tears of joy to Ferrari’s eye, but the 1948 race in Turin was a more important marker in the history of Ferrari. The race in 1947 was a sports car race (the Tipo 125 Ferrari was built in closed and open-wheel forms) but a year later Ferrari for the first time was competing against pukka factory grand prix cars from Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Talbot. Again Sommer was driving. Sommer was a brilliant driver who would no doubt have gone on to even greater achievements had the war not hobbled his career. He was later to die in a Cooper 500 in a minor race at the end of 1950

Sommer drove one of three Ferrari Tipo 159s in the race. The 159 was essentially the same as the previous season’s single-seat 125, but with its Colombo-designed engine bored out. Ferrari had already adopted the system of giving his cars a type number that related to the cubic capacity of a single cylinder, which makes the Tipo 159’s engine 1908cc (following this our Scaglietti would of course be a 500 Scaglietti).

As can be seen from the photographs of the race, the weather on September 5 1948 was foul. The three Ferraris lined up on the teeming wet grid with Sommer, Prince Bira and F1’s first world champion Giuseppe Farina at their wheels. Bira had to retire after clipping a straw bale on the course and Farina also failed to finish, though why is not recorded. That left just Sommer to fight Ferrari’s corner. Jean-Pierre Wimille went away with the race to finish first in his Alfa Romeo 158 ahead of Luigi Villoresi’s Maserati. Third was Sommer in the 159. For Enzo it was confirmation that he was now a genuine grand prix contender.

By leaving the park it is possible to get to the other side of the bollards that cut the road off just after the castle. The flat-out climb from the hairpin is one-way in the wrong direction today so instead we walk uphill and through a sweeping left hander to arrive at the junction of the park entrance and the Corso Massimo D’Azeglio. The view across the Po is stunning. Across the river the opposite bank is dotted with expensive houses.

The Corso Massimo D’Azeglio is a wide, dead straight, classic Italian city avenue. Our circuit diagram, which is actually a page copied from the race notes kept in the Ferrari archive (at last the factory archive is properly organised and cared for) also has the technical and set-up data for Sommer’s Tipo 125 in the 1947 race. We can tell you for example that the car was running on 5.50/15 tyres with 1.8 bar at the front and 2.0 bar at the rear and the gearbox contained a high fifth gear.

From the plan we can see that the cars raced down the left-hand side of the Corso almost to its end, before making a tight U-turn and screaming back down the other way. The avenue is split into two carriageways by a central reservation that includes a couple of petrol stations. Today there’s also a divider that separates the right-hand carriageway from a tram lane. This dead straight section, which must be at least a mile there and back, must have been partly responsible for 1955’s impressive 87.88mph lap speed. The pre-war races that were over a shortened version of the Valentino circuit used a much shorter length of the Corso. The noise bouncing off the walls of the university buildings that line the avenue on one side must have been incredible as the cars held full-throttle along the drag strip of Corso D’Azeglio.

It’s peaceful in the Parco Valentino as I sit on a bench under the warm spring sun, reading through Ferrari’s autobiographical Pilote Che Gente. The fury and commotion of a pack of grand prix cars is missing, but to drive here in a 12-cylinder Ferrari and to sit near where Enzo sat 89 years ago is incredibly moving.