Legends: Lancia D50

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Nigel Roebuck

Seeing it lined up, in the Goodwood paddock at the Revival Meeting, with such as the Dino 246, the 250F and the Mercedes-Benz W196, it struck me again how small is the Lancia D50, how astonishing its impact on grand prix racing must have been in 1954.

I had seen the car before, of course, notably over the 1981 Italian Grand Prix weekend, when Juan Manuel Fangio ran some demonstration laps in an original car, and did it with some gusto, I recall.

At Goodwood, though, the sight of the car took me back, not to Monza a couple of decades ago, but to the first time I saw it, at Oulton Park in 1955. September 24, 1955, to be precise. The date is one of those etched in my mind, like August 7, 1954.

Why? Because although I was taken to race meetings from the age of five on, my first really clear memories are of the Oulton Park Gold Cup of 1954, by which time I was a veteran of eight. My childhood hero was Jean Behra, and I was stunned when his Gordini, which had qualified second, went out after only two laps, magneto shot.

For all that, I remember a day of wonderful weather, a day when I got to see some of my gods. “Give me Goodwood on a summer’s day,” Roy Salvadori famously said, “and you can keep the rest of the world.” As a northerner, I felt the same about Oulton. We used also to go often to Aintree, but I never had much affection for it: where Oulton swooped through parkland, the Liverpool track was flat and soulless, its spectator areas too far from the action.

But it was at Aintree that I next saw Behra, in the British Grand Prix the following summer, and he didn’t last long in that race, either. However, he qualified third, splitting the Mercedes quartet, and in the race — until his Maserati broke an oil pipe — offered the only opposition to Neubauer’s men.

No matter. I was sustained by the thought that Jean would be back in a couple of months, back at Oulton, again in a 250F. It was not to be, however, for the week before, in a tragic Tourist Trophy at Dundrod in which three drivers were killed, he crashed his Maserati 300S in the late laps and suffered serious injuries, including the loss of an ear.

That first Gold Cup had been won my other idol, Stirling Moss, in a factory 250F, but in 1955, of course, he was a member of the Mercedes team, which did not enter at Oulton Park. It had seemed, therefore, that the British public would not get to see its favourite son. But in those days a more gentlemanly approach was taken to contracts and Neubauer raised no objection when Maserati asked if Moss could replace the injured Behra.

Bearing in mind that this was a non-championship race, the entry for the 1955 Gold Cup was sensational. Among the 19 starters were Luigi Musso, partnering Moss at Maserati, a new BRM for Peter Collins, two Vanwalls for Harry Schell and F1 new boy Desmond Titterington, Alfonso de Portago in his own Ferrari — and a pair of Lancia D50s, entered by Scuderia Ferrari for Mike Hawthorn and Eugenio Castellotti.

Following the death of team leader Alberto Ascari, Lancia’s Formula One programme had foundered. The company was already in some financial difficulties, and although Hawthorn, fed up at Vanwall, agreed to join the team in Ascari’s stead, the will to continue was essentially gone. Lancia allowed Castellotti to run at Spa, where he heroically beat the Mercedes to pole, but thereafter the team disappeared, and Eugenio and Mike transferred seamlessly to Ferrari.

Ferrari was in terrible shape in 1955. Although Maurice Trintignant’s 625 had won at Monaco on reliability alone, the cars were rarely able to keep pace with the Maseratis, let alone the Mercedes. It was a godsend, then, that on July 26 Lancia’s entire F1 project — six cars, plus spares, transporters, and so on — was handed over to Enzo. Simultaneously, Fiat announced a five-year ‘support programme’ for Ferrari, to the tune of £30,000 a year.

In the aftermath of the Le Mans tragedy in June, the German and Swiss grands prix (scheduled for August) were cancelled, and so the first opportunity for Ferrari to run the D50s came at Monza, where he entered three, for Castellotti, Giuseppe Farina and Luigi Villoresi, alongside three of his own recalcitrant ‘Super Squalo’ 555s.

Now there was a new problem. Enzo had had a falling out with Pirelli, and switched his team to Englebert tyres, which at Monza proved especially lethal on the Lancias — perhaps because they were going so much faster than the Ferraris! Castellotti and Farina had qualified fourth and fifth, behind three Mercedes, but on the banking treads were being thrown with regularity, and there was no alternative but to withdraw the cars.

This being Monza in the good old days, it was the work of a moment for Ferrari to persuade the race organisers to allow Castellotti to switch to the spare ‘Super Squalo’ for the race, and he duly finished a superb third, but it was not until Oulton Park, three weeks later, that he could go to the grid again in a D50 — indeed this would be the only time anywhere that Ferrari actually raced the cars.

So there we were, for practice day, and I watched in rapture as Moss and Hawthorn fought over pole position in these glorious red cars, the Maserati scarlet, the Lancia darker. In the end, Mike took it, by a couple of tenths, but Stirling’s diary entry for the day suggests he was little concemed: ‘Only used 7200rpm — Mike 9000!’

Afterwards, as I drooled over the D50, Hawthorn asked if I would like to sit in it, and thus my father took a photograph of me in the cockpit, with Mike on one side, and Castellotti and Vittorio Jano (the car’s designer) on the other! I would kill to have that picture now — as I would also for another taken the following day.

When Musso, running second to Moss, retired with a broken gearbox in the closing laps, he parked by the trackside, then came over to the fence in search of a cigarette. My mother tremblingly held out her packet of Player’s, whereupon the debonair Luigi took one, accepted a light, then kissed her on both cheeks, almost causing her to faint. Again, the photo has gone the way of all flesh, but I can see the moment as if it were yesterday.

Moss, to no-one’s real surprise, dominated the race, as he seemed always to do at Oulton. Lap times were 4sec quicker than the year before, and that day I became aware, for the first time, of the delicious spectacle of a racing car in a drift. Stirling seemed to do a minimum of his steering with the wheel. Musso, too, although without Moss’s certainty of touch.

What of the Lancias? After trying the Engleberts in practice, Hawthorn and Castellotti switched to Dunlops, found their cars’ behaviour transformed, and qualified first and fourth, respectively. For the race, though, the unyielding Belgian company insisted Mike and Eugenio revert to their unyielding Belgian tyres, and thus they were in no shape to challenge the Maseratis. Following Musso’s retirement, Hawthorn, feeling unwell, eventually finished second, more than a minute behind Moss, while Castellotti, after several pitstops, was seventh.

The D50s, in unadulterated form, were never to race again, for although — remarkably — two had been entered for the Avon Trophy, at Castle Combe the next weekend, the transporter headed home to Italy immediately after the Gold Cup.

The real sensation at Oulton, though, had been the pace — while it lasted, which wasn’t long — of Collins in the BRM. Cranky as only a product of Bourne could be, it had given endless trouble in practice, and qualified 13th. Come the race, though, Collins had the car flying. He was fifth at the end of the first lap, followed Musso past both Lancias, and looked set to get by the Maserati, too.

By lap nine, however, the oil pressure had disappeared, and with it Peter’s patience. As Hawthorn, impressed by what he had seen of the car, foolishly opted to sign for BRM for the following year, Collins went in the opposite direction, to Ferrari, and would win at both Spa and Reims in what had now become known as a ‘Lancia-Ferrari’.

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