Giuseppe Farina: Nigel Roebuck's Legends

Cold. hard and utterly ruthless. Dr Giuseppe Farina was the first man to win a world Championship GP. He took pole and set the fastest lap too. Top that. Nico...

Giuseppe Farina surrounded by crowds after winning the 1950 International Trophy Race at Silverstone

Giuseppe Farina: victorious in the 1950 International Trophy meeting at Silverstone

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When Nico Rosberg took the fastest lap in his first grand prix, in Bahrain, it was pointed out to him that he was only the fourth driver in history to achieve this feat. Keke’s boy doesn’t miss much: yes, he was pleased to be one of only four, but smilingly suggested that really it was three, the fourth being merely the driver who set fastest lap at the first World Championship grand prix…

The race in question was, of course, the Grand Prix d’Europe, at Silverstone in May 1950, and the man who set the fastest lap also took pole position and won the race — and doing it all, what’s more, with a patched-up collarbone. He then went on to become the first World Champion.

Giuseppe Farina. A mellifluous name for a racing driver. And it was Dottore Giuseppe Farina, no less, his doctorate being in law.

Farina, nephew of the celebrated `Pinin’, was born in 1906 and won several major races, with Maseratis and Alfa Romeos, in the 1930s. As with Hermann Lang, it was his tragedy that the Second World War took away what would surely have been his greatest years.

The family had been wealthy. By the time he was 17 ‘Nino’ had resolved to race, and to that end began speculating on the stock market. After some initial success he lost the lot, and more, and his father was required to bail him out.

Farina Snr must have been an understanding fellow. “I told him why I had been trying to raise money— to buy a racing car — and he bought a couple of Alfa Romeo sportscars, which we both raced…” By 1936 Giuseppe had been invited to join Scuderia Ferrari and, when Tazio Nuvolari left for Auto Union two years later, he became Enzo’s number one driver.

Jean Pierre Wimille leads Giuseppe Farina in the Grand Prix des Nations Geneva

Jean Pierre Wimille leads Giuseppe Farina in the Grand Prix des Nations, Geneva, 1946

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Already Farina had the reputation of a man to be approached with care. A patrician figure out of the car, he was an utterly ruthless one within it. In the one-off Deauville Grand Prix of 1936 he impatiently shoved Marcel Lehoux off the road, and in those days this was not the almost trifling matter it has become today, when the cars are strong, the run-off areas huge. Lehoux was killed, and the same fate befell Lazio Hartmann, another who tangled with Farina, at Tripoli.

Years later a young Stirling Moss would encounter Farina: “He was a great driver, and I loved his style at the wheel — that relaxed, arms outstretched way he had. I thought it looked so good that I copied it!

“On the track, though, Farina was a bastard, completely ruthless — dangerous. And the worst of it was that he’d behave exactly the same way with an inexperienced guy. If he was lapping you, boy, you’d better make sure you didn’t get in his way — he’d just push you off the road. In those days there genuinely was a different attitude to what we used to call dirty driving, and you really didn’t come across it very often. But he was something else.”

From the archive

When racing resumed after the war Farina was a member of the Alfa Romeo factory squad, his team mates Achille Varzi, Felice Trossi and Jean-Pierre Wimille. In 1946 he won the Grand Prix des Nations at Geneva, but left Alfa towards the end of the year and didn’t race at all in ’47. The following season he was back, now with a privately-entered Maserati, in which he won the first post-war Monaco Grand Prix. By the end of the decade the world had changed for Alfa Romeo. Varzi had been killed at Berne in 1948, and Wimille (in a Simca-Gordini) at Buenos Aires in early ’49; a few months later Trossi died of cancer. For the 1950 season it was to be the three Fs: Fagioli, Farina — and Fangio.

The incomparable Juan Manuel was the best driver in the team, but in 1950 there really wasn’t that much to choose between him and Farina. If Fangio won at Spa, Reims and Monaco, so his rival triumphed at Silverstone, Berne and Monza, and when the points were totted up Farina was World Champion.

The following year, though, he won only once, at Spa, and by now Fangio’s main opposition was coming from Ferrari’s Alberto Ascari. Farina could no longer be considered Italy’s top driver, and it did not sit well with him.

At the end of 1951 Alfa Romeo withdrew, whereupon Farina joined Ascari at Ferrari. It was a thankless task, ultimately, for coming were the years of Alberto in his pomp. From June ’52 to June ’53 he did not lose a single World Championship grand prix, and his team-mates were left to pick up the scraps. Farina won at the Nürburgring in ’53 only because Ascari’s car, for once, failed him.

There were, though, plenty of non-championship victories, and it was by any standards a fine season for a man of 47 — who had not a thought of retirement in his head.

Giuseppe Farina leads Juan Manuel Fangio at the 1950 Berne GP

Giuseppe Farina leads Juan Manuel Fangio at the 1950 Berne GP

ATP/RDB/ullstein bild via Getty Images

In fact, it would have been a good moment to call it a day. By 1954 Ascari had left for Lancia, leaving Farina as de facto number one at Ferrari, but he had a bad accident while leading the Mille Miglia and then, almost immediately, a much worse one in practice for the Supercortemaggiore sportscar race at Monza, when his car’s fuel tank was punctured by a broken driveshaft and the cockpit was enveloped in flames.

By the time he had got the car stopped Farina had been severely burned. “For the rest of that summer, and the winter as well,” he remarked, “I had to regard myself as an irritating invalid…” Convalescence was by no means complete by the beginning of 1955, but still he flew off to Argentina for the first grand prix of the year.

It was not a great time to be a Ferrari driver, for the ill-handling `Squalo’ was by then not competitive with the Mercedes W196, and Farina was increasingly dispirited.

At Spa, though, there was an opportunity for him to display all his warrior qualities, good and bad. While Fangio and Moss rushed away, Farina had a ferocious scrap for third place with the Lancia of Eugenio Castellotti.

At 25 the debonair Castellotti, a protégé of Ascari, was very much the darling of Italian motor racing, and therefore guaranteed to raise Farina’s hackles. Every trick in the book he pulled that day, on one lap edging the Lancia dangerously close to the pits on the run down to Eau Rouge. No pit wall in those days, of course: the mechanics had to scatter.

Ultimately Castellotti’s car failed, and everyone felt relief when the young man pulled in, safe. Farina went on to finish third, but he was a minute and a half behind the Mercedes, and angry.

“I went to see Ferrari and asked him not to make me drive any more, as I felt it was a waste of time battling against the Germans, and I didn’t come back to racing until Monza. By then Ferrari had acquired the Lancia D50s. I was scheduled to race one and I set the fifth-best time in practice, but we had bad tyre problems and the cars had to be withdrawn.” Essentially that was the end of Farina’s career, although he made a couple of unsuccessful attempts to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1956 and ’57. Thirty-odd years on I bought a 500 programme, signed by every ’56 competitor, including Farina. “That’s amazing,” said an expert friend. “Farina’s autograph is much rarer than Ascari’s, or even Nuvolari’s. He never liked signing autographs…”

No more he did, and it was the same with interviews, and even relationships with other drivers. I once asked Fangio what he had thought of Farina, and he rolled his eyes. “He was… strange. When a driver was hurt he never went to visit him in hospital, and once, when I did that for him, he asked me why I had. ‘Because I felt sorry for you,’ I said, ‘and wanted to wish you well.’ You should feel happy,’ he said. ‘One less to beat next weekend…’

“Farina was not in the category of Ascari or Moss, but he was still a great driver. Very fast on the track, although I didn’t like to go too close. But on the road — a madman! Completely loco! I hated to drive with him in traffic!”

In 1966 Farina was involved in the making of Grand Prix, and at the end of June set off to drive to Reims for the French Grand Prix. Near Chambery he encountered freak weather, and died instantly when his Lotus-Cortina crashed on an icy road.