Giancarlo Baghetti: The debut king

No one is ever likely to match Giancarlo Baghetti’s record as the man who won his first world championship grand prix – and his first three F1 races, too. Nigel Roebuck recalls meeting this humble Italian at Monza in the 1980s

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On May 13, 1950 Giuseppe Farina took the chequered flag at Silverstone, and thus by definition won a world championship race at his first attempt, for this was the first such to be run. If you want to be similarly pedantic, you can say that 17 days later Johnnie Parsons did the same – unfathomably, for the first 10 years of the world championship, the Indianapolis 500 was a point-scoring round.

Contrary to what some appear to believe, though, motor racing did not begin in 1950. By the time he arrived at Silverstone, Farina had already driven many a grand prix – indeed had won at Monaco – and Parsons’ victory was his third shot at the 500.

Had his engine stayed healthy for six more laps of Melbourne in 1996, Jacques Villeneuve would have triumphed in his first grand prix; as it is, only one man has ever done it, and although his feat will likely remain unique, he is a mere footnote in racing history.

I only met Giancarlo Baghetti once, on the opening day of practice at Monza in 1985, and it was Phil Hill who introduced us: “Do you know my old team-mate?” We started to chat, but soon the afternoon session intruded, and I was sorry to cut things short.

Baghetti said that he was only here for the day, but if I wished, we could continue our conversation over a meal that evening. It was agreed that we would meet at a pizzeria near the circuit, and I took with me a local journalist friend to bridge the gap between Giancarlo’s halting English and my lamentable Italian.

What a charming fellow he was, Baghetti, an Italian gent with a raffish edge and a nice line in self-deprecation: “I had some talent, yes, but I was never going to be Ascari…”

Giancarlo Baghetti wearing goggles

Eyes on the prize: Baghetti’s was a career in reverse

Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Born into a wealthy Milanese household on Christmas Day 1934, Giancarlo grew up with a keen interest in racing, and started dabbling with it in the late 1950s, usually with Alfa Romeos. In 1960 he bought a Formula Junior Dagrada, and did well enough to be considered for a dream opportunity the following season.

Although Eugenio Castellotti and Luigi Musso had their great days, following the death of Alberto Ascari in 1955 Italy had lacked a driver of first cut. Back then Enzo Ferrari’s abiding philosophy was to sign more than he needed, so that competition between them was constant and fierce.

Related article

Giancarlo Baghetti’s miracle at Reims
F1

Giancarlo Baghetti’s miracle at Reims

Born on Christmas Day 1934, Giancarlo Baghetti pulled off a miraculous debut Grand Prix victory at Reims in 1961 to set his legacy firmly in stone… The pressure in Syracuse –…

By Paul Fearnley

Castellotti and Musso, both abnormally brave, were killed in Enzo’s cars, and thereafter he was predisposed to look outside Italy. “He was getting criticised to hell in the press,” said Phil Hill, “and of course the Vatican pitched in, saying racing should be banned, Ferrari was a killer of young men, and all that stuff…”

That being so, the Old Man decided against more homegrown drivers, but at the same time – as often with this unpredictable man – that put him into conflict with himself, for in his heart what he wanted most to see was Italians winning for Ferrari.

There followed a classic Maranello fudge. For 1961 the factory F1 drivers were Hill, Wolfgang von Trips and Richie Ginther, but Eugenio Dragoni (later a controversial Ferrari team manager, but then operating the small Scuderia Sant-Ambroeus) reached agreement to enter a fourth car occasionally for a promising Italian.

“It was my first big race. Was I nervous? Of course! Stirling Moss was in it”

Lorenzo Bandini, another star of Formula Junior, seemed the logical choice, but eventually Baghetti got the nod. Predictably, the Italian press tried to stir a rivalry between them, but to no avail. “I was surprised to be chosen because he was better than me,” said Giancarlo, “but we always got along well – no one could ever be an enemy of Lorenzo.”

In April 1961 both went to the grid at Syracuse, Sicily’s wonderful open-road circuit, Bandini in an elderly Cooper-Maserati, Baghetti making his F1 debut in the ‘private’ Ferrari. As Maranello’s only representative, he qualified second, a tenth away from Dan Gurney’s Porsche, and if few outside Italy had heard of him, after the race his name meant rather more: he won it.

Giancarlo Baghetti racing to victory at Syracuse

Debut victory at Syracuse, beating Gurney’s Porsche

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

“It was my first big race,” said Giancarlo, “and was I nervous? Yes, of course – Stirling Moss was in it! I knew in practice that I had more power, but it was all new to me, and Gurney was never far away. I just tried not to make mistakes –I remember one big slide, when I nearly hit the wall, but that was all. They carried me up on their shoulders afterwards… it was hard to believe I had won.”

Baghetti’s car was actually the first rear-engined Ferrari, which had made its debut at Monaco the year before, driven by Ginther. In 2.5-litre form, it never raced again, and by midseason had metamorphosed into a svelte F2 car, which took von Trips to a conclusive victory at Solitude.

From the archive

Although at this stage lacking the signature ‘shark nose’, it was clearly the basis of the F1 car for 1961, when engines would be cut to 1.5 litres. If Ferrari was well ready for it, and Porsche reasonably so, the British teams – Lotus, Cooper, BRM – were not, and they left Sicily in some dismay: if this unknown lad could trounce them, what awaited when the factory team turned up?

The answer wasn’t long coming. On horsepower, the Italian V6 was way superior to the venerable 4-cylinder Climax, and if the genius of Moss got the better of the Ferraris at Monaco, thereafter – until the Nürburgring, where Stirling did it again – nothing could get near them.

Given that effectively F2 had become F1, there was no shortage of cars, and with Monaco restricted to 16 starters, most of the smaller teams opted for the Naples Grand Prix, run the same day. At this, Baghetti’s second F1 race, admittedly against lesser opposition, he won easily.

When, though, would he get to drive in a Grande Epreuve? “We didn’t have the money to do many races,” he remembered. Zandvoort was missed, and Spa, but then Dragoni informed Giancarlo that he would be driving in the French Grand Prix. His Ferrari, still running the old 65-degree V6, would not be competitive with the factory cars, with their 120-degree engines, but still Reims was a horsepower circuit, and he should be there or thereabouts.

1961 Reims Grand Prix

Straight to the point: Baghetti (50) at Reims in 1961 beside Innes Ireland (6) and ahead of Jim Clark (8) and Graham Hill (22). Victory seemed “like a dream”

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

“In the race I was in a big slipstreaming group, with people like Clark and Gurney and McLaren. It was incredibly hot, and a lot of cars broke – including two of the Ferraris. Late in the race I was fighting with the Porsches, and when Phil Hill spun, suddenly it was for the lead! Oh, Mamma…”

Two laps from the end Jo Bonnier’s engine went sour, leaving Baghetti and Gurney to reprise their Syracuse battle: horsepower versus experience. On the final lap Gurney went by under braking for Thillois, the last corner, then put the Porsche squarely in the middle of the road for the long run down to the flag. Feinting left, Giancarlo saw Dan glance in his mirror, and jinked right, timing the move to perfection.

“I could have blocked him,” Gurney said, “and I’ll admit it crossed my mind! In those days, though, you didn’t do things like that – and, anyway, Baghetti got it just right, and deserved the win.”

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Baghetti (50) on the penultimate lap of the 1961 French GP.

Three F1 races, three victories. No other driver in history ever began like that, and nor will he. “At the time it seemed like a dream,” Baghetti smiled, “but of course you wake up! My next race was Aintree – and I crashed…”

The British Grand Prix was run on a torrential day, when only Moss offered any challenge to the Ferraris. After he retired, they swept on to finish 1-2-3, but Giancarlo’s car finished up against a bank, appropriately enough at Waterways.

“The commentator couldn’t resist. ‘Baghetti beaten at last!’”

Although it had been running only 10th at the time, the commentator couldn’t resist. “Baghetti,” he hollered, “is beaten at last!”

This was the last race for the Scuderia Sant-Ambroeus Ferrari, for the Nürburgring was skipped, and when Baghetti next appeared, at Monza, for the first time he was in a factory car, one of five entered for the home race, where there were no fewer than 32 starters. In the end 20 didn’t make the finish, including Giancarlo’s Ferrari, which blew up after setting the fastest lap.

This was the traumatic day when von Trips and Clark touched wheels as they approached Parabolica on the second lap, when the Ferrari was launched into the air before shooting up the bank. As the driver lost his life, so also did 14 spectators.

From the archive

“It was horrible,” Baghetti remembered. “As Wolfgang’s car took off, I went under it, and later, when I took off my helmet, there was a scrape on the top –I was the only lucky one that day…”

Once again Enzo Ferrari was ripped apart by the Italian press, and – with the world championship won – declined to enter for the last grand prix, at Watkins Glen. A few days later there was a non-championship race at Vallelunga, but the original Baghetti Ferrari was no longer available, so Dragoni rented a Porsche, and Giancarlo won as he liked. Four victories in a maiden F1 season was quite a record – but that was the end of it: Baghetti never won again.

At the end of 1961 came Maranello’s famous night of the long knives, when most of the leading engineers – unwilling to put up any longer with increasing interference from Laura, the Commendatore’s wife – departed. They were much missed the following year, and, as well as that, the V6 was now outgunned by new V8s from Climax and BRM. Baghetti’s best finishes in ’62 were a fourth at Zandvoort, a fifth at Monza. After a race-long scrap, he finished second to team-mate Bandini at non-championship Enna, and in the Targa Florio the pair shared the second-place car.

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From left: Baghetti, Jim Hall, Lorenzo Bandini, Phil Hill, Mike Hailwood, Jo Siffert and Richie Ginther before the start of the 1963 British Grand Prix

At season’s end Baghetti – and Hill – left for ATS, a new team with which Carlo Chiti and other former Ferrari engineers were involved. The project, though, proved to be an unmitigated disaster, the cars neither swift nor reliable, and the year went to waste.

While Phil left for Cooper, Giancarlo spent 1964 in the ageing BRM of Scuderia Centro- Sud, and then essentially retired from F1, although he continued to make token appearances at Monza, in successive years driving a Brabham, a Ferrari – and a Lotus 49, no less. “I was only racing occasionally by now,” he said. “I had become involved in other things, particularly photography.”

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Back at Monza in a Reg Parnell Ferrari, 1966.

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Driving for Lotus at Monza in ’67

There was, Baghetti added, something else. In May 1967 he was at Monaco, spectating at the chicane when Bandini crashed.

“It is my worst memory. I saw a Ferrari hit the straw bales, then tumble upside down. There was fire, but we couldn’t see Lorenzo, and because it was on the harbourside we thought he might have been thrown into the sea. But he was in the car, trapped underneath. There was no proper rescue equipment, and no one seemed to know what to do –I jumped over the barrier to help, but it was hopeless.

“I was lucky – there was a mark on my helmet. That was enough”

“You can’t imagine how terrible it was, and of course there were cars going past all the time – it was when I saw Chris Amon’s Ferrari that I knew for sure it was Lorenzo in the fire. Races were never stopped – there was just a man at the chicane waving a yellow flag. In 1967 everything was still primitive – my friend burned to death in front of me…”

In June 1968 Baghetti was one of four Ferrari drivers in the F2 Lotteria at Monza. On lap 22 he was caught up in a multiple shunt at the exit of Parabolica, and as in the von Trips calamity, a car – Jean-Pierre Jaussaud’s Tecno – flew over his cockpit. “Again I was lucky – again there was a mark on my helmet. That was enough. The weekend before should have been Le Mans, where I was to drive for Alfa Romeo, but it was put off to September, and that was my last race.

“I nearly stopped when we lost Lorenzo, and then in ’68 Jim Clark – for me the best ever – was killed, and just before the race at Monza another friend, Ludovico Scarfiotti, died in a hillclimb. It was such a bad time.”

Baghetti’s was a career such as will never be seen again –a career in reverse, with all its success at the beginning. Perhaps, given his money, his taste for the sweet life, he never had the desire of the great ones; perhaps – as he disarmingly said – he never had the ability.

Whatever, it seemed that it didn’t greatly bother him. He savoured the good things, and while motor racing – like classical music, like whisky – was among them, it was never a matter of, ‘I race, therefore I am’. When I asked how he looked back on his career, he laughed: “I should have retired at the end of 1961…”

Baghetti died of cancer in 1995, age 60.

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A winner with style: perhaps Baghetti enjoyed life too much to become an F1 A-lister