Continental Notes, May 1955

At the time of writing the Mille Miglia is still three weeks away, but by the time these words are read it will actually be taking place, starting as it does during the evening of Saturday April 30th for the small touring cars, and the early hours of Sunday morning May 1st, for the faster sports cars. There seem to be three methods of attacking this most difficult of all races, the first being to rely on one’s natural knowledge of Italian terrain together with reflexes conditioned to Italian road-building, the second is to spend weeks on end circulating round the course learning every part methodically, and the third is to make no attempt to learn anything, on the principle that a little knowledge is dangerous, but to take a quick look at a map and rely on luck and good judgement. The first method is the province of the Italians; they spend most of their life driving on Italian roads, and some, like Taruffi and Musso who live in Rome have to traverse some 300 miles of the course every time they go to Milan or over the Alps to race in other countries. Consequently, drivers in this class need not do a great deal of practice; also they are frequently driving in the smaller “open-road” ‘ races and can thus leave a great deal to conditioned reflexes. The second category is exemplified by the Germans, Mercedes-Benz in particular, who start training some five months beforehand and the drivers can cover as much as 10,000 miles during practice for the event. The English Aston Martin team also apply this method, though to a less severe degree. The third method is essentially for the private owners who can barely afford the time or money for the race itself, let alone any training, though this has applied to some English factory teams before now, as well as many French runners, but this method has never produced a winner needless to say.

Passing through Modena recently a quick visit was made to the Maserati factory where mechanics were putting the finishing touches to the first of the new 1 1/2-litre sports Maseratis. There was only one car assembled, but a row of chassis frames was completed and engines and gearboxes were being assembled, as it was hoped that a number of these cars would run in the Mile Miglia. The four-cylinder engine is built on similar lines to the bigger six-cylinder models, with twin o.h.c., two double-choke Weber carburetters, two plugs per cylinder and dry sump lubrication. The main chassis frame is of large diameter tube construction with the body frame, of smaller tubing, welded in as part of the main frame. Front suspension is by the well tried double-wishbones and coil springs, but in place of the long king-post and short kingpin, as used on the Grand Prix cars, the hub is carried on a long forging, the top and bottom of which form pivot points where they meet the wishbones, there being two short kingpins to each front suspension. Brakes are hydraulic very similar in pattern to those used on the racing cars, while at the rear de Dion suspension is used, in conjunction with a transverse leaf-spring, and the de Dion tube is located at its centre by an enormous A-bracket, the feet of the A being very wide apart and pivoted at full chassis width. The four-speed gearbox is integral with the clutch housing and bolted to the rear of the engine, so that a straightforward crown-wheel and pinion housing is used, mounted on the rear of the chassis. The two-seater bodywork closely follows the lines of the well-known 2-litre sports cars, but with right-hand steering, while the tail contains fuel and oil tanks in the extremity, with a spare wheel over the rear suspension. The engine has shown great promise and great hopes are held at Modena that it will show the way to the remarkable Oscas and the 550 Porches.

Maserati’s other hope for the Mille Miglia is the 3-litre model, which might well produce an outright winner, in the hands of Vittorio Marzotto and Luigi Musso, for it will be remembered that they were second and third, respectively, last year, driving 2-litre cars. This larger Maserati uses a chassis frame that is identical in construction to the Grand Prix chassis, the suspension and brakes being the same. The six-cylinder engine is outwardly the same to look at as the Grand Prix engine, as is the gearbox/differential assembly mounted at the rear. Again, the 3-litre has right-hand steering, with central gear-change, and the bodywork follows what is now almost classical Maserati lines. This rapid 3-litre sports car is quite literally a Grand Prix car enlarged by half a litre, with the frame widened to permit the carrying of a passenger. There is nothing “thinly-disguised” about its Formula I parenthood, in just the same way as Mercedes-Benz have done with their Type W196 Formula I car to make the new sports 300SLR. The Stuttgart cars for the race are fitted with the latest downswept air entries with the bonnet top intake, as used in the Argentine on the Grand Prix cars. The racing car of today is certainly the sports car of tomorrow.

Porsche do not intend to run any factory-entered 550 models this year, as having sold a dozen or more to European competitors they maintain it is unfair for the clients to have to compete against factory cars. Also, they must be pretty confident that the standard 550 “Spyder” model will give a good account of itself in non-professional hands. A recent example of the model’s possibilities was shown when the one owned by the Swiss driver Ringgenberg, with von Frankenberg as co-driver, set up records in the 1 1/2-litre class at Montlhery. The car ran in standard trim, complete with all road equipment, and afterwards was driven down to le Puy, where it started in the Rallye Soleil-Cannes. It was a hot favourite for this event, but unfortunately went off the road during the difficult night section, but it would certainly seem to be a practical and usable sports car.

Calling in at the Monza Autodromo recently gave an opportunity of not only seeing Ascari circulating in a Grand Prix Lancia, for that firm do a great deal of testing on the Italian track, but also to see the work in progress on the new high-speed circuit. This new construction is an oval “piste de vitesse,” using for one side the existing straight past the pits. Going the same way as the existing track the new road being built curves off to the right just before the Grande Curva of the Grand Prix circuit, and then curves on a very big radius, crossing the old track by the existing bridge after the Lesmos turns, then runs parallel with the back leg of the course, but much farther outside the existing Autodromo and another large-radius curve, beyond the pave corners, brings it back to join the straight past the pits. At the moment mechanical shovels and lorries are working away levelling the ground, but already the path for the new road has been cut through the woods, so that it is possible to get a good idea of the general layout, and it looks very likely that an existing Grand Prix car will be able to take the two curves on full throttle, so that, allowing for loss of speed due to tyre scrub on the curves it should be possible to lap in the region of 150-160 m.p.h. This new venture should be finished before the end of the season and it will be possible to use it either as a full throttle test-track, or to incorporate it with the existing Monis track to lengthen the Grand Prix circuit.

Modifications and improvements to other circuits continue apace and one that will be very popular with competitors is the building of a tunnel under the track at Le Mans. This will connect with the paddock, which is on the inside of the circuit, and will mean that anyone who breaks down during the 24-hour race will be able to drive home before the end of the race, if they so desire. Until now, once behind the pits at Le Mans you are imprisoned there until the race is over, unless you care to walk home. While on the subject of Le Mans it is worth remembering that 1956 sees the 50th anniversary of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest and one of the things planned for the 1956 24-hour race is a procession of genuine Le Mans cars of the past.—D. S. J.