In the mid-1950s, Romolo Tavoni was faced with a choice: he could work alongside a tyrannical Enzo Ferrari…or get the sack. Fifty years on, he tells Chris Nixon he made the right decision.
In January 1950 a young employee was called in to see the manager of the Credito Italiano bank in Modena. The bank had a new client and, keen to help out in any way, had offered the man’s services to the firm for the first two months of the relationship. The client’s name was Enzo Ferrari and the manager had just given him a loan to build a new factory in a small town in northern Italy: Maranello. During the drive to Ferrari’s existing factory at Via Trento Trieste in Modena, the bank’s employee thought nervously about the job ahead. “I did not want to work for him,” he admits nearly 50 years on. “I’d heard that he had a new secretary every two or three months and worked from eight in the morning until ten at night. We went into his office and he asked where I worked before joining the bank.
“I told him I had worked as a bookkeeper for Maserati, hoping that he would say, ‘Go away!’, because in Modena if you worked for Maserati you never worked for Ferrari. But he said, ‘Fine, I think you are the secretary for me, but why only two months — why not 10 years?’ That was my introduction to Mr Ferrari.”
We are sitting in Romolo Tavoni’s office at the Monza Autodromo, where he has worked since 1972. A big man, well over six feet tall, he has a deep, basso profundo voice and a laugh that is seldom more than a sentence away.
“A week after our meeting I joined him as his secretary, first at Auto Avio Costruzione, because he was then building machine tools, and then at Scuderia Ferrari. The first day I was at the Modena office he gave me some letters to type and asked, ‘When do you take your lunch?’
‘Twelve o’clock, Mr Ferrari.’
‘No, no, half-past one! I work until one o’clock and then I go to Maranello and sometimes you will come with me and sometimes you will work here.’
“At five o’clock most people left for the day, but Mr Ferrari told me he would phone me before I could leave: At seven he phoned to say he would be in Modena at eight and I was to wait. When he arrived he asked me to type and post some letters. When I got home, my father, mother and sister were waiting up for me and said, ‘Why are you home at 11 o’clock?’ I told them I was working for Mr Ferrari, but they didn’t believe me!
“At Maranello Ferrari talked with everyone – not just the department heads, with whom he was very tough. But I soon learned that he was not dangerous when he was talking tough, it was just his way of expressing himself. When he sat round the table with them he talked very softly, and it was in these moments that I realised he made his decisions.
“When he posed a question he wanted a reply very quickly and he started with the little man, not the big chief of department, and that was a problem. Although Ferrari regarded them highly he always told them, ‘If the people in your department don’t work properly it is your fault.’ He always took the side of the workers and so they worked for him with a grande passione. When he stopped making machine tools to concentrate on cars the factory was deeply in debt to the banks, but his workers were paid every month without fail. Perhaps not the suppliers, but the workers always…”
Generous to a fault with his blue-collar staff, Ferrari, it seems was less charitable when it came to the young Tavoni’s own job prospects. “My two months went very fast and at the end he asked, ‘Have you received your money?’ I said, `Yes…’ and was about to thank him when he said, ‘Stop! I am speaking, you listen. I have spoken with the bank manager and told him you are right for me and I have asked him not to take you back.” Bravely, Tavoni told Ferrari that he was keen to return to his old job. “He was astounded. ‘Why? Ferrari is not as good as the bank?’ I told him that I was tired of staying until ten at night. At the bank I started at nine, at eleven took a cappucino, at twelve had lunch and at six it was time to go home. ‘Are you stupid?’, said Mr Ferrari.”
Tavoni roars with laughter at the memory of his boss’s incredulity. ‘Maybe you get a job in a bar or a restaurant? At Ferrari this is work. If you’d like to stay you can, otherwise I will see to it that there is no place for you at the bank.’ He paid me the same money as I was getting at the bank, but I stayed and I am glad, because it was fantastic.”
Tavoni recalls how, as the racing side of the empire grew, Mike Hawthorn soon came to Ferrari’s attention. “In 1952 he wrote to Tony Vandervell, asking him to sell some of his sportscars in England. Mr Vandervell told him, ‘I race the Thinwall Special Ferrari, I don’t sell cars. But I have a driver for you who is very fast, young and intelligent.”
Hawthorn was to become Tavoni’s favourite driver of all. “He was a great driver, very intelligent and a gentleman. Also very direct. Mr Ferrari once said to him, ‘Why you have difficulty in this race?’ Mike said, ‘The gearbox is bad, it was impossible for me to change gear properly.’
“Ferrari was furious. ‘You say my gearbox is no good? My gearbox is the best and if you say it is no good a second time you can leave!’
“‘Goodbye!’ said Mike, and he left Ferrari quickly called him back. He liked a driver who spoke for himself. If a driver just complained about his car he got nowhere with Ferrari, but after a race Mike would say, Romolo, the brakes were no good,’ and when we were back at Maranello he would tell Ferrari, ‘The car was fantastic, but we had some difficulties with the brakes. Maybe we should do some testing.’ Ferrari liked this and he would stay night and day in the Competitions Department to try and put things right. He always built the best car possible and the drivers admired him because first he was a driver himself, then a manager and then the owner. He was a fantastic man.”
By the mid-1950s financial troubles forced Gianni Lancia to sell his company and abandon racing. In a remarkable deal all the Grand Prix cars, the spares and designer Vittorio Jano were handed over to Scuderia Ferrari, which had been having a terrible season with Aurelio Lampredi’s Super Squalos.
Lampredi’s days at the Scuderia were already numbered, for his promised two-cylinder GP engine was showing no promise at all. Now, with the Lancias and their designer under his roof, Ferrari had no further need of Lampredi, so he fired him. He did need Juan Manuel Fangio, however. At the end of 1955 Mercedes-Benz withdrew from racing, leaving their double World Champion without a drive. He joined Ferrari for 1956 and although he was to retain his championship with the Lancia-Ferraris it was not a happy association.
As far as Juan Manuel was concerned, the reason was that Ferrari refused to nominate him as his number one driver, despite the fact that he was now three-times World Champion. From Enzo Ferrari’s point of view, however, the problem with Fangio was one of money.
“Usually, Mr Ferrari split the prize money 50-50 with his drivers. At Mercedes Fangio had been given 50 per cent and a big salary and he demanded the same at Ferrari. Mr Ferrari liked Fangio the driver, but not Fangio the man, saying, ‘I provide the cars, you provide the driving skills, so I think 50-50 is correct.’ When Fangio insisted on a salary also, Ferrari felt that he was breaking with tradition.
“He won the title for Ferrari and then moved to Maserati for ’57 where Mr Orsi was happy to pay his demands. He won again, but Ferrari retorted, ‘Fine, Orsi has won the Championship, but I have money in my pocket.”
All this time Nello Ugolini had been the Scuderia’s team manager but, at the end of 1956 he caused a sensation in Modena by leaving Ferrari… for Maserati. This was to bring about a great change in Romolo Tavoni’s life.
Ugolini was replaced by Eraldo Sculati, but very soon a failure to inform Ferrari – who hadn’t attended a race since 1934 – of the result of the 1957 Argentinian GP was to cost him his job.
“On the Sunday we waited in his office till 11pm for the phone call from Mr Sculati, but it never came. We went to the Real Fini restaurant in Modena and quietly Ferrari murmured, ‘I have to change.’
“When Sculati came back, Mr Ferrari was very nice to him but didn’t ask about the race. He simply took him to a restaurant for lunch and told him he was fired! A few weeks later Ferrari called me: `Mr Amarotti, my friend and race technician, needs you as team manager. You have all the contact with the race organisers and drivers and I know you will do your best for me.”
Tavoni had a brutal introduction to his new job. Before he had even been to a race Eugenio Castellotti died while testing at Modena Autodromo and then Fon de Portago and several spectators were killed in the Mille Miglia. Badly shaken by these tragedies, Romolo asked if he could return to his old job in the factory, but Ferrari insisted that he stay on. All went well until the French GP at Reims in 1958, where Hawthorn won but Luigi Musso was killed.
“The magazine Civilita Catholica criticised publications which wrote about the Ferrari victory,” recalls Tavoni, “saying that the factory was nothing because it was built on dead men. That was terrible for Mr Ferrari and he didn’t know whether to continue racing. He talked with a priest, who told him, ‘God gives each of us a way – sometimes it is difficult, sometimes it is easy. You have chosen the difficult way – you must have the courage to follow it.’
“A few weeks later we lost Peter Collins at the Nurburgring. Mr Ferrari was very fond of Peter because in 1956 he was a good friend to his dying son, Dino. After Peter was killed Ferrari said, ‘We must stop Grand Prix racing now. We will continue with GT and think about the future.’
“But Mike Hawthorn told Mr Ferrari, ‘I am responsible for myself and I know the risks. If I don’t have a Ferrari I will race another car, but I want to race a Ferrari for the rest of the season.’
So the team carried on, Hawthorn finishing second in Portugal, at Monza and in Casablanca and in doing so taking the championship. Ferrari won the drivers’ title again in 1961, with the beautiful sharknose 156 cars. As usual Ferrari refused to nominate a number one driver and so team-mates Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips fought for the title until the Italian GP, where tragedy struck once again. On the second lap von Trips tangled with the Lotus of Jim Clark and both cars crashed out of the race, but it was the Ferrari that careered into some spectators lining the track. Eleven died, as did von Trips. Phil Hill won the championship, but in the most appalling circumstances.
Tavoni liked von Trips enormously and was understandably upset when Ferrari ordered him not to attend the German’s funeral. “He insisted that I stay in Modena, and he .sent his wife, Laura, and Franco Gozzi. I was very unhappy about this and uncertain about my position as team manager.”
The decision was made for him a month later when, in an extraordinary turn of events, it was announced that eight Ferrari executives – including Tavoni – had walked out. No reason was given then or since, but there were rumours that it was all due to interference in company affairs by Ferrari’s wife . For the first time Tavoni now confirms this. Laura Ferrari had long been a major shareholder in Ferrari Automobili. In 1960, she began going to races with the Scuderia and, it seems, interfering with the work of Ferrari’s executives.
“She was criticising us to Mr Ferrari,” says Tavoni. “and in October we had big difficulty after her return from the funeral in Germany. We had a big discussion and we were all so unhappy that we wrote a letter to Mr Ferrari asking that Mrs Ferrari should stay out of the factory. He was very offended and at our weekly meeting he said; `If this is how you feel, there is the door, here is your money – OUT!’ It was typical Ferrari, who found it impossible to admit that we were right.”
Tavoni and Chiti were quickly snapped up by a consortium of Italian businessmen who formed the ATS F1 team. This was a disaster and fell apart in September, 1963. The next year Tavoni was asked to set up a 1000Km sportscar race at Monza and return international endurance racing to Italy following the demise of the Mille Miglia.
In the next few years Enzo Ferrari twice asked Romolo to return to Maranello as team manager, but he declined. Despite their unhappy parting in 1961 the two remained good friends and would have lunch whenever Tavoni was in Modena, until Ferrari’s death in 1988. Since then, many harsh words have been written about Enzo Ferrari, but Tavoni holds him in the highest regard.
“For me, Ferrari was the owner, the boss and a fantastic man in the sport and around the factory. He was also a teacher and a very strong father figure. When my first daughter was born he gave me three times my monthly salary for her. At other times he could be infuriating because he was so changeable.
“When he asked me to ‘rejoin the family’ it was tempting, but I had a very good job at Monza. In 1982 I took charge of all activity at the track the Italian GP, everything. It was a very important job and very satisfying for me.” Romolo Tavoni is now 71 and in robust health and humour. He retired in 1992 and is happy to spend time with his grandchildren. “I have three daughters and three granddaughters. With my mother, my sister and her daughter I am surrounded by nine women – is terrible!” He roars with laughter again. But he cannot resist the lure of Monza and since 1993 he has been assistant manager of the Autodromo, working two days a week there. The Manager is one Enrico Ferrari and so, by a nice twist of fate, Tavoni’s career has come full circle, ending as it began, working for Mr Ferrari.
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