From the archive with Doug Nye

Chaos in Sicily

Formula 1 might have been charming during the ’60s, but it could also be a shambles

At a time in Formula 1 history when the category appears to be staring down the barrel of a loaded gun – perhaps with its own insiders’ corporate, barely comprehending finger upon the trigger – it’s quite comforting to consider the shambles that motor sport at its top level used to be, before Mr E whipped it into commercial shape. 

Fifty years ago – on May Day 1966 – we saw the first European Formula 1 race to be run to the FIA’s then brand-new set of 3-litre regulations. It was the Syracuse Grand Prix, run in the Sicilian port-city, and in effect the curtain raiser for the new era, replacing the 1½-litre Formula 1 that ran from 1961-65. The non-championship Rand GP at Kyalami had been run to the new rules the previous December, followed by a similarly non-championship South African GP at East London on New Year’s Day. Jack Brabham won the Rand GP in Aldo Scribante’s 2.7-litre Brabham-Climax 4-cylinder, while at East London Mike Spence triumphed in Team Lotus’s 2-litre Lotus-Climax 33 V8… after Jack retired his latest 3-litre Repco V8-engined Brabham BT19.

After four further months testing and development, Ferrari waded into the 3-litre fray at Syracuse, with John Surtees giving its latest tailor-made V12 F1 car, the 312, its racing debut. His team-mate Lorenzo Bandini would do his best with what should have been Il Grande John’s Tasman Championship contender, the 2.4-litre Dino V6-engined Ferrari 246T that combined a 1965 F1 chassis with the successful old quad-cam engine. 

John had only just recovered from near-fatal injuries sustained the previous September, when his Group 7 Lola-Chevrolet T70 suffered suspension failure and somersaulted at Mosport Park in Canada. The 1964 world champion bounced back quickly, but Mr Ferrari was seldom supportive of works drivers who hurt themselves, much less of works drivers who hurt themselves in a car built by somebody else…

John was also regarded with intense suspicion by Ferrari racing director Eugenio Dragoni, who would miss no opportunity to advance Bandini’s interests – as Italy’s numero uno – at Surtees’s expense. The famously competitive Brit had risen to these challenging circumstances, and upon his return to racing the weekend before Syracuse he put in a dominating drive to win the Monza 1000Kms for Ferrari in conditions so wet that his co-driver Michael Parkes effectively stood aside and left Surtees to get on with it. Oh, and without a windscreen wiper too… 

But the Syracuse race displayed almost every characteristic of contemporary F1 that begged for some dictator to grab its commercial possibilities by the scruff of the neck, and knock it into shape. Reporter Alan Phillips wrote: “It will be remembered as the race where the spectators beat the Italian police; an unprecedentedly large crowd simply overran the circuit and reproduced the almost forgotten sights of Mille Miglia crowds lining the straights, sitting on straw bales and leaving barely enough room for drivers to see their line…”

Sunday morning dawned with Surtees and Bandini first and second on the grid, flanked by Jo Siffert in Rob Walker’s new Cooper-Maserati V12. Jack Brabham and Denny Hulme arrived at the circuit at 9.30am, direct from the previous day’s RAC TT at Oulton Park (which Denny won in Sid Taylor’s Lola T70). Vic Wilson had also flown in to join in the fun with his private BRM P261 V8. All three went out for late practice and started from the back of the grid.

Alan’s report continued: “By 2.45pm, after the national anthems and a flag procession, the cars had been pushed onto the dummy grid. Then commenced an argument between the organisers and Baghetti and his entrant, Bonnier. It all centred on whether or not Baghetti could start in the rebuilt Lotus [which he’d crashed in practice], the organisers saying it was not fit to race and Bonnier and Baghetti saying the scrutineers had accepted it and that they would start. 

“This discussion raged back and forth for a quarter of an hour, during which the appointed start time had come and gone. Eventually the organisers seemed to win their point and it was agreed that Baghetti would not participate, but would pull off the track after the start. 

“By this time the course car had to go out again to make sure that the circuit was clear and it was just as well that it did, for all round the back of the circuit an impatient and larger than anticipated crowd had overflowed the barriers and were literally invading the track, the course car having to pause in its journey for pedestrians to get out of the way.

“For the next half hour there was pandemonium with the police trying to get the crowds behind the barriers and crowds swarming in through the orange groves elsewhere. Three-quarters of an hour after the scheduled start, parts of the circuit resembled a Mille Miglia control with people standing all over the road and not at all inclined to disperse. The organisers, evidently thinking that Sicilians can well look after themselves in motor racing conditions, decided to start the race willy-nilly, so having been on the dummy grid for an hour the cars [only 12] were started. They were away at 3.46, Bandini making a good start…”

In Motor Sport Jenks commented: “Unlike a British circuit where the commentator keeps up a continuous chatter, the Syracuse commentator said nothing, so that people had no idea of the reason for the long delay. When the start was given neither Surtees nor Siffert had got their 12-cylinder engines running cleanly, and it was Bandini who leapt into the lead and stayed there for three laps, until Surtees got the 3-litre Ferrari really working. He then stormed into the lead and was never challenged again…”.

Siffert’s Maserati V12 never did clear its throat. He stopped three times for plug changes and “when it did fire on all 24 plugs he did three laps and then a driveshaft broke”. The Brabham team was in dire trouble, Jack rushing up to third before his Repco went all rough and died on him. Hulme’s Climax engine had piston trouble and after 10 laps only eight cars were left – and “only seven were running, for Ligier was still having his new Cooper-Maserati sorted out”.

Surtees duly won from Bandini, with the huge and wildly enthusiastic crowd greeting another Ferrari 1-2. Jenks: “The tail-enders had a job getting back to the pits, but the sun had shone brilliantly, it had been a national holiday and Ferrari had won the first European GP for the new formula, so everyone was happy.”

And maybe that was the key – the way F1 racing could be – many of the participants (inevitably) deeply unhappy with their own performances, but the audience thrilled to bits. Even for the pinnacle formula there’s a razor-thin dividing line between sheer incompetence, and mesmerising charm. Perhaps the 1966 Syracuse GP exemplified both.

Ferrari quattro

Reflections on the 1956 Syracuse Grand Prix, when Ferrari brought four cars and monopolised the podium

Ten years before that 1966 Syracuse 1-2, Ferrari had gone one better on the island by dominating the race with its Lancia V8 front-engined cars, finishing 1-2-3. Fangio won from team-mates Luigi Musso and Peter Collins – and the Sicilian fans were pretty much as tumultuous then as they would be for Surtees and Bandini a decade later. 

Of course F1 really was different then; no two-car team limitations. Instead, Scuderia Ferrari had ferried four Lancia D50-based works cars to Syracuse. Fangio’s was the latest variant of the 1954-55 Lancia design, which had been ceded to Ferrari (with Fiat funding) after the Torinese company’s financial collapse in June ’55. 

Fangio’s car featured Ferrari-styled bodywork with the pontoon sections between the wheels on each side cowled integrally with the fuselage, looking like a centre-drive sports car but with exposed wheels. The original Lancia design’s pannier fuel tankage – all carefully packaged within the wheelbase to minimise handling change between full and empty – had been deleted. Now a main tank was located in the tail, together with the oil reservoir, while smaller tanks resided each side of the cockpit, attached to the chassis frame. 

Each of the V8 engine’s cylinders fed an individual exhaust pipe terminating in a short megaphone, all bunched, four-by-four, just ahead of the rear wheels. 

Sister cars for Luigi Musso and Eugenio Castellotti matched Fangio’s mechanically but retained Lancia-style pontoons, reduced in capacity, plus new tail tanks. These cars’ exhausts also ended in megaphones, but the pipes ran vertically one above the other, exiting through a slot in each pontoon. 

From the rear of the cockpit back, the three cars’ chassis had been modified. A new tubular frame extended over the rear axle assembly, supporting a transverse leafspring with its ends coupled to the Lancia de Dion tube below by short jointed links. Lancia’s preferred telescopic dampers had been replaced by Ferrari’s favoured Houdaille vane-type – a move dictated perhaps by favourable bonus payments for using them… While both the quad-cam V8 engine and five-speed transaxle gearbox were to original Lancia design, Ferrari’s finest clearly didn’t have much faith in Lancia’s use of the engine as a semi-stressed chassis member – two additional chassis tubes now extended through the engine bay between scuttle-frame and the top-front suspension abutments. 

Jenks told Motor Sport readers how: “With their megaphone exhaust systems the three modified cars were not very good on pick-up, but sounded fantastic on full throttle, the blast of noise emanating from the side of the car as it went by being quite shattering…”.

As today’s revived Lancia and Lancia-Ferrari V8s still sound – abiding favourites, indeed. But of course the days of four-car teams in Formula 1 are as long gone as the Syracuse circuit itself – though for 2016 Ferrari seems to have high hopes of a return to its bygone, Sicilian-style form.