Reckon Nurburgring’s Nordschleife was the longest track to host a World Championship Grand Prix? Wrong, as David Malsher explains
Shielding my eyes against the sun, I gaze back along the straight Stretching to the horizon is a silver-black band of Tarmac spray-gunned with can and shrouded by converging lines of lamp-posts. I do an about-turn and, with the buildings much closer to the road in this direction, I can make out, but only just, the first turn. By some margin, this four-mile haul is the longest straight piece of road I have ever seen.
All round me is traffic bedlam, but it is of a kind one doesn’t encounter in a British city, for it is free-flowing. Pescara is inhabited by people who go for gaps. The welcome result? No traffic jams. Drop into their mode of driving and you’ll find forward progress inhibited only by traffic-fights. Drive like a Briton and you can guarantee you’ll be in someone’s way.
Ignoring the differences in architecture, the atmosphere reminds me of scenes from Roman Holiday. Sure, in 36-degree heat, I haven’t a hope in hell of being as cool as Gregory Peck, and photographer Dawson is no substitute for Audrey Hepburn, but the rasping scooters, the beautiful language, the air of happiness express, exude, a vitality I have found only in Italy. People of non-identifiable walks of life are busy just being.
The Italian passion for things automotive has bewitched motorsport writers and photographers over the last century, and I am delighted to report it remains intact. On the autostrada blast from Rome, at 170km/h, I glance in my mirror to see a dark-blue Ferrari 355 gaining rapidly on our Alfa as we enter a tunnel. We lower our windows just in time to hear a slick downchange, followed by a blast of Maranello V8 fury as he guns past us in fourth, clearly savouring the thrill of reverberation-as are we.
At our hotel on the outskirts of Ripatransone, the maitre d’, upon learning the purpose of his two British guests, demands to know my opinion of Jarno Trulli, the region’s very own hero. I tell him I regard Jarno to be a very fast driver who deserves his chance in a better car than are him. Our host smiles are and nods contentedly. He’d known all along. He just wanted confirmation.
Back in Pescara itself; we meet a bank manager who is at once captivated by our old photos of his town’s glorious motor-racing vintage. With a gasp of Ah, Stirling Moss!’, he grabs an image of the No26 Vanwall and shows it to his colleagues. He is also able to confirm what our own eyes had told us: his bank was once the Agip garage pictured opposite the pit exit.
Luca works at the Lancia dealership beside what was once the starting grid. Though way too young to have seen even Lorenzo Bandini and Giorgio Scarlatti win the final race at Pescara, in 1961, he proves as enthusiastic as the bank manager about our quest He beckons us into his showroom and proudly points to a framed black-and-white picture of the same establishment with Stanguellinis on the grid outside. Standing on the balcony above the garage is a young couple, Tino di Domenico and Emma Biganzofi, who would later become Luca’s grandparents.
Tino and Emma chose their vantage point wisely, for those opposite them, those at the very front of the grandstand, must surely have been overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of the spectacle, especially pre-1934, pre-chicane. In the furnace, surrounded by the excited hubbub of fellow spectators, seeing the cars flying down the straight before passing at around 180mph in a blast of hot an fumes and yowl, is the sort of memory that would last forever.
Another advantage of that grandstand is that it provided a superb view of the pits, where the mechanics tended to engines that had suffered from the eight miles of flat-in-top thrash that constituted half of the circuit Split only by the 100-degree right-hander at Montesilvano, these F straights demanded masses of top-end grunt, and virtually no driving talent; just hang on, keep it away from the spectators who lined the road, and pray a tyre doesn’t let go.
This ritual punishment was too much for Giuseppe Campari’s Alfa Romeo P2, in the model’s second race, in 1924. Its 2-litre unit expired as its pilot fought to stave off the challenge provided by Giulio Masetti’s Mercedes. For Campari, there would be both short-and long-term consolations: Masetti, too, was forced to retire, while, over the next seven years, Giuseppe would win here three times.
Follow the course to the right at the end of the pit straight, under a railway bridge, and you will find yourself briefly on the Via Enzo Ferrari — in recognition of the winner of that inaugural race in ’24— before turning onto the even less imaginatively named Via del Circuito.
I have to confess that, at this stage, a visit to Pescara 40 years after its final race feels a little anti-climactic. The lovely V6 installed in our Alfa 156 Sportwagon is wasted in this 30mph trickle; the air-con seems unable to deal with the heat of an Adriatic summertime; I need a coffee, I need a smoke.
But I find something better. Up ahead, as the road rises gently, there is a signpost bearing a magic word: Spoltore. Having cautiously proceeded through the junction, I find myself with a clear, derestricted, road ahead. Suddenly, this assignment makes sense once more, and we are gunning up the road, noise reflecting off the walls of the last remaining town houses to throw shadows across the blacktop.
We burst into sunlight at the point where Moss made his decisive move on Luigi Musso in 1957, the only year in which the Pescara race was accorded world championship status.This passing manoeuvre was not the work of a moment for the Briton, for Musso was on a hot streak. Just a month earlier, in a year-old Lancia-Ferrari D50, he had won the non-championship Reims GP, against a full field of championship contenders. Now, with that year’s 801 at his disposal, the only Ferrari in the race, and fired up by performing in front of his compatriots, Musso had qualified third alongside Juan Manuel Fangio’s Maserati 250F and Moss’ Vanwall.
And he left everyone for dead at the start. But however much inspiration and perspiration went into Musso’s driving that day, it was never going to be enough to hold off the acknowledged masters of grand prix racing even had his oil tank not begun to come adrift at the start of the second lap. Stirling swept past and went on to score one of his finest, perhaps his most underrated, grand prix victories, by over three minutes from Fangio. Poor Musso retired soon after when the engine seized.
“Pescara was an absolute classic, really,” says Moss, “but I don’t remember it like I remember the Nurburgring, because I think I only raced there twice. I remember those straights, though. You had so long to contemplate what could go wrong. In practice, I got 172mph, at 7200rpm. But not in my car, in Stuart Lewis-Evans’. Mine was wandering on the straights.
“For the first lap, I was second behind Musso, and no, I wasn’t confident I had him handled. Luigi was pretty bloody good; I would perhaps compare him to David Coulthard. The Vanwall had better brakes than the Ferrari, and it was as good, if not better, in terms of aerodynamics. So I would have slipstreamed him up the hill away from the town. It was braking and slipstreaming that allowed me to gain on him, certainly not acceleration or cornering. But once past, I set a lap record which I thought was quite good because it equalled Fangio’s pole time.
“Pescara was a challenging circuit, though not the equal of the ‘Ring or Spa; I know that win meant a lot to me at the time.”
At Villa Raspa, the original circuit is lost, very briefly, now undercut by the A 14 autostrada, but once past the flyover, we get back on track, and espy the faded, flaking black-and-white chevrons on the red brick walls, pointing the way up to Spoltore. At road speeds, we can see, too, the original kerbing and, in one instance, the original marker post. These days it proves a challenge to carry much speed through the sequence of S-bends while remaining on the correct side of the road, for the Tarmac here is worn to an almost glass-like finish. And I’m a humdrum driver having a bit of fun.
Putting it into perspective later, I wonder how the brilliant Algerian, Guy Moll, might have approached these turns for the first time in qualifying at the 1934 grand prix. Eager to add the Coppa Acerbo to his Monaco win, desperate to prove he had the talent to one day join Tazio Nuvolari and Achille Varzi in the ranks of the great, he no doubt had his Alfa Tipo B dancing over a poorer surface than I am encountering. And yet all the while he would have wondered whether that little extra squeeze of throttle in one comer might put him wrong for the next four. Pescara was one of those circuits.
There are driver/comer combinations from motor racing history I would love to have seen: Ronnie Peterson at Woodcote; lin’ Clark through Eau Rouge; and Fangio at Flugplatz. I can add another to that list: Alberto Ascari slithering his Maserati A6GCS sportscar through the 90-degree uphill right that marks the end of a flying visit to Spoltore. He’d have turned in late, undaunted that the corner of a building was his apex. He would know instinctively that unless he got the outside front wheel nailed down, his car would want to understeer across the continuing incline rather than climb it. And so he would have applied enough power to set the tail drifting and, as he hit the crest to begin the run to Villa St Maria, the car would go light, his rear wheels would spin, enough to leave a whiff of burnt rubber mingling with exhaust fumes.
Or so I imagine. But imagination is a quality I’d have been better advised to leave behind. Believe me, the residents of Spoltore were perilously close to the action. Close enough to see into the cockpit of their heroes. Too close to utter more than a single-syllable oath should two open-wheeled racers knock each other onto unknown trajectories. Still, those brave enough to watch that sportscar race in 1948 were privileged to witness the arrival of a special Italian talent in an Italian car. It helped eradicate memories of the pre WWII races that had seen German machines win the Coppa Acerbo five years on the trot. (In 1948, fascist ruler Captain Tito Acerbo was no longer commemorated, and the race was simply known as the Pescara GP.)
There is a brief, steep plunge from Spoltore before the track climbs once more and snakes through Villa St Maria where the circuit reached peak altitude. The next mile or so is a gradual descent where the predominant factor is not car control, but bravery. Sunlight through the trees projects a chequerboard of shadows, heightening one’s sense of speed. How confident are you in your brakes? Best decide soon, because the road is falling away at a rate now, and soon after a gentle left, you can suddenly find yourself carrying far too much speed into a hairpin, whose camber varies between sulkily unhelpful on entry to severely warped on exit It’s the sort of corner where Moss — a man who used brakes as much as throttle to alter his line into slow and medium-speed corners — would have excelled, could make up time, even on Fangio.
The entrance into Cappelle is tight, with its houses butted up to the road, offering another spectacular view for the spectators, but little choice in terms of racing line. To have your points of reference that dose on either side could have been exhilarating for drivers, had they had time to register it Instead, they were focused on the 90-degree left-hander ahead which, if taken wrongly, could waste heaps of time at the downhill hairpin that immediately followed.
As we set up the photograph of this hairpin (the opening shot in this feature), we catch the attention of the quiet, retired residents of quiet, retired Cappelle, who sit outside the little cafes, playing cards. But after I have driven past them 10 times or so, the novelty wears off and they return to their games.
This hairpin was the final challenge of the circuit, for the aces at least, who could now go flat out down the hill and onto the back straight Of the old ‘Flying Kilometre’, there is no demarcation. That is no surprise, for it was not an officially-named part of the course. But it was here that Moll perished when, put off line at 175mph by Mercedes newcomer Ernst Henne, he lost control of his Scuderia Ferrari-run Tipo B Alfa. And it was here, 16 years later, that Fangio was clocked at 192mph as his Alfa Romeo 158 headed for victory. Quite how he had enough brakes or, indeed, braking distance, to get the car safely round the corner and onto the pit straight is baffling, even to one who acknowledges him as one of the top six GP drivers of the postwar era.
But then again, if Fangio had been a mere mortal, he would have thought twice about tackling Pescara. For it offered a unique challenge: half of its length demanded every last bhp from the straining engines, the other half extracted every last ounce of talent from the driver: it’s half Reims sequence, half dream sequence.
At just under 16 miles, Pescara will remain the longest circuit ever to host a world championship grand prix. That it enjoyed this privilege just once does not matter in the slightest Just as a driver should not be judged by statistics alone, so a circuit should not be judged solely by its status. A course that boasts a winner’s roster of Campari, Varzi, Nuvolari, Luigi Fagioli, Bernd Rosemeyer, Fangio and Moss has, in my eyes at least, little to prove.