"Seaman was like a son to me"

He was a mentor to Britain’s greatest racer of the 1930s, but Giulio Ramponi also knew and worked with Ascari, Nuvolari and Caracciola. In 1982 he related some of his special memories

Giulio Ramponi. Few could claim a central role in the story of pre-war motor racing quite like this man, who was so much more than just a mechanic. He knew and worked with just about every major figure of the 1920s and ’30s – and fortunately for us, he was happy to share his memories and anecdotes. Here was a willing first-hand witness to a dim and distant golden era. What an opportunity.

After joining Alfa Romeo in Milan as a 17-year-old motor engineering apprentice in 1918, Ramponi went on to become riding mechanic to Giuseppe Campari and Antonio Ascari. After Ascari’s fatal crash in 1925, Vittorio Jano and Luigi Bazzi promoted him to chief test driver of the dominant Alfa Romeo P2 Grand Prix team. Progressing to team driver in sports cars, he twice won the Mille Miglia with Campari in 1928 and ’29 as well as the Brooklands Six Hours. By invitation he also raced as part of the Bentley Boys’ team at Brooklands and co-drove a Blower Bentley with Benjafield in the 1930 Le Mans.

As Alfa Romeo chief mechanic again in 1932-33 he oversaw the great 8C2600B team with its star drivers Nuvolari, Caracciola, Chiron and Fagioli. More than a mechanic, Ramponi was a talented development mechanic-engineer, a solver of practical design problems. With a strong affinity for England he settled in London and set up a garage and Alfa Romeo agency in Lancaster Mews with ex-W O Bentley race engineer Bill Rockell. Ramponi and Rockell became an institution for the English racing fraternity. Giulio had been Dick Seaman’s mentor; he re-designed and built the famous 1927-based Delage with which Seaman dominated Voiturette racing in 1936. Through working with the Bosch people and Rudolf Uhlenhaut he facilitated Seaman’s drive with Mercedes-Benz and even drove a 1938 W154 himself… Ramponi’s racing credentials were awe-inspiring.

In fulfilment of his 1934 pledge while managing Whitney Straight’s team at the First South African GP in East London, Ramponi and his English wife Irene retired to South Africa in 1968. They bought a house in the scenic, mountainous, sub-tropical bushveld near the Kruger National Park.

Engaged in research for my analytical book on Grand Prix racing and documenting circuit racing in southern Africa, I was determined to meet Ramponi and get his invaluable input. After a brief telephone call and an arrangement to meet the next weekend, my wife and I drove the 400kms from Johannesburg in 1982. Chatting to Giulio and Irene on their verandah overlooking
the Crocodile River Valley, one would never have guessed at his illustrious history. Modest, easy to talk to and still a passionate motoring enthusiast, he avidly followed Grand Prix racing on television. The slim, active octogenarian’s manner was mild, but his opinions were clearly stated. “My memory is too good; I know too much and remember accurately what happened between many famous people, the conflicts and bad things, which you must not publish.”

Our first visit was just after Didier Pironi’s infamous overtaking of Ferrari team-mate Gilles Villeneuve to win at Imola. Passionate about integrity, Ramponi said: “I would have fired Pironi. He showed a lack of respect for Villeneuve and the team. But I blame Enzo Ferrari for not setting team orders to prevent this driver warfare. Villeneuve is fast and very good, but takes too many chances…”

Here, then, we present a selection of Giulio Ramponi’s precious memories.

The beginning

In 1918 a Ramponi family friend, Giuseppe Campari, got the teenager employment at Alfa Romeo as a motor engineering apprentice. He took ‘Giulietto’ under his wing, providing the first taste of racing as riding mechanic in the big Alfa 40-60 for a hillclimb. Giulio proudly related: “I met Felice Nazzaro then! He shook my hand and congratulated me for finishing third. Campari was kind-hearted and very strong; to save time he sometimes lifted the car for wheel changes during pitstops! He was not a refined driver like Ascari or Masetti, being quite rough on the machinery. The top three drivers of the ’20s were Antonio Ascari, [Pietro] Bordino and Giulio Masetti. They were the fastest and light on their cars. For me Ascari was ‘the first Nuvolari’: he was such a gentle driver, his cars showed no wear and tear after races. Ascari and Bordino were well-matched and had a good battle at Lyons in 1924.”

Death of Ascari
“Ascari was like a father to me, a fantastic person who would talk to anyone. He said ‘when you go fast, you do not use the lower gears’. His death at Montlhéry during the 1925 French Grand Prix was not due to rain at all. That was nonsense. Antonio was just trying to prove a point.

“There had always been some friction between himself and his older team-mate [Giuseppe] Campari. In practice Campari surprised us all by setting the fastest time. Ascari said to me ‘How can he be faster?’. I showed him one long corner where Giuseppe made up time. Grid positions were by ballot then, and teams always put their best drivers at the front. For us it was always Ascari. But one of the Alfa Romeo marketing directors, who knew nothing of racing, insisted Campari take the first place. Ascari was furious. After his first pitstop, which he completed very quickly with cold determination, he went out on new tyres and a full tank and continued increasing his lead – unnecessary, he was so far ahead. He did not listen to my pit signals to slow down. On exactly that same long corner Ascari was going faster and faster to show Campari and the team up. He just misjudged it… He died in my arms; I was so upset that I fainted and did not come round for 24 hours.”

Busting myths
“The story about Jano organising a sit-down meal in the pitlane for the Alfas at Spa in 1925 is absolute rubbish. There was never enough time in Grand Prix racing, and anyway, Jano was too much of a gentleman. He had too much respect for Delage and their engineer Lory. We at Alfa were sorry that they had supercharger problems that day, which took away the race.”

Class of the 1920s
“The Frenchmen Goux and Wagner were both gentlemen, very nice. They were over 40 and not as fast as the younger drivers. But both were excellent test and development drivers, very soft on the cars and helpful to the teams. So was Minoia, our chief tester, no longer fast but very steady and conservative. Benoist was very good, and Costantini. Segrave was not as fast as Ascari and Bordino, but also very delicate with his machinery; very good. Guinness too was good, but not fast; a very nice person. Ugo Sivocci was a good driver, although not in the class of Ascari; he was about the same speed as Campari. Brilli-Peri was very good, but heavy-handed. Divo was physically strong and tough, a very good driver. The Maserati brothers were not very good drivers, but Alfieri was better than Ernesto.

“Emilio Materassi was hard on the car and had such a temper. I respected him as a driver, but when he crashed his Talbot-Platé into the crowd at Monza in 1928, when 28 died, he took a big chance. He tried to overtake two cars on the outside of the Parabolica, coming onto the main straight! I blame him for causing Ascari to lose the Targa Florio, refusing to let him overtake.

“Ascari was very good at car development and helped a lot with the P2. After Ascari died, Jano and Bazzi promoted me to chief test driver. In the evenings after five, when there were no disturbances, Marinoni taught me so much about racing cars and engines. These three were my teachers, all fantastic people.”

Best of the 1930s
On the drivers of the ’30s Giulio was just as forthright, dismissing the often-perpetuated English Boys’ Own-type stories that Nuvolari was a temperamental Italian who was hard on his machinery.

“Nuvolari, with Antonio Ascari, was the best driver of all. He also was very soft on his brakes and tyres. At the 1932 Targa Florio in the 8C2300 Monzas, his team-mate Borzzachini, who was much slower, used four sets of brakes in practice and kept complaining about them. Nuvolari practised and raced on the same set, made fastest lap and won the race. Strangely, he asked me to lock up his car overnight before the race and not to touch it.

“Varzi was not quite as fast and daring as Nuvolari, and was very nervous before the start of a race. But during the race he was very cool! I put him in the same class as Louis Chiron: both were excellent, very careful and accurate. Caracciola was faster than these two and, like Nuvolari, very soft on the machinery; a very sensitive driver. Fagioli was very nice, a gentleman; an excellent driver, very fast.”

Tragedy at Monza
“During 1932 Alfa Romeo put me in charge of upgrading the 2.3 Monza to 2.6 litres for Scuderia Ferrari for the 1933 season. I did a lot of work with the Alfa Romeo engineers in the engine room. Before that tragic 1933 Monza Grand Prix, when Campari, Borzzachini and Czaikowski died, Borzzachini asked me to remove the front brakes of his Maserati to save weight. I refused, for Borzzachini was not a top-rate driver. I told him: ‘On such a fast, dangerous circuit only Nuvolari and Varzi could get away with this, no one else.’ But he persuaded me to do the job…”

The ambition of Seaman
“While working with Bosch on racing spark plugs I got to know [Rudolf] Uhlenhaut. We became friends and had mutual respect. This was how I got Dick Seaman his test drive with Mercedes, through the Bosch people. During 1938 Dick arranged for me to drive the W154, a fantastic car. Of the drivers then, von Brauchitsch was good, but not refined. I rate Lang very high; he took chances, but was fast and very good. Dick Seaman was going to be very good, very talented, but he was too ambitious. Before his fatal 1939 Belgian GP, he told me he was faster than Lang and von Brauchitsch, but respected Caracciola. He was going all out to win and asked me to be his unofficial timekeeper, away from the pits, like Nuvolari and Varzi used to do to escape team orders! I refused and told him to follow Neubauer’s instructions and get more experience, like Lang had… Dick was like a son to me; I was heartbroken when he died.”

Post-war years
“After the war Wimille was very good, too fast for Varzi and Trossi. Luigi Villoresi never got over his brother Emilio’s fatal pre-war crash driving an Alfa Romeo 158. He never married and lived with his sister.

“During 1949 Peter Berthon telephoned while I was away in Italy and told Irene they wanted to employ me as a consultant to help develop the new V16 BRM. Before my return he telephoned again and said the committee decided not to consult me, because people would say ‘BRM needed an Italian to help them’. I had great respect for Berthon and Raymond Mays.

“For the 1950 British GP at Silverstone Irene and I made all the arrangements for the Alfa Romeo team. Irene drove to Dover and guided their lorries to Silverstone. She also entertained their wives in London. Fagioli told Irene: ‘I retired from racing in 1937 for my wife’s sake and to educate our children. When I returned in 1948, it was for myself.’”

The Ascari family
“I was always very fond of Antonio Ascari’s son Alberto, having looked after him when he was a six- and seven-year-old in the pits, while his father was racing. I remained close to the family after Antonio’s death. Alberto’s fatal crash [at Monza while trying out Castelotti’s new Ferrari sports-racer in 1955] was because he was wearing everyday shoes. Years later Alberto’s son visited me at Lancaster Mews and begged me to get him a team drive. I refused, knowing Alberto would not approve.”

Ramponi did not hesitate to list his favourite circuits and drivers: “From my time, the best circuits were Spa and the Nürburgring. The best drivers were Antonio Ascari and Nuvolari, then Caracciola, followed by Bordino, Masetti, Varzi and Chiron about equal.” For such a structured, meticulous, neat and initially formal person, who did not appreciate impromptu meetings or lack of punctuality, Giulio Ramponi was the nicest person to chat to informally. Although serious, especially when relating history, he had a lovely, gentle sense of humour. “At the finish of my first race, the hillclimb in 1918, I was stiff and exhausted from lying along the bonnet, holding it down after the catches had broken. As we crossed the line, Campari slammed on the brakes suddenly for spectators who crowded onto the road, and I landed on my face in front of everyone!” One of motor racing history’s great men, Giulio Ramponi passed away in December 1986 at the age of 84.