Twin memories of 30 years ago: making Enzo Ferrari laugh before being dismissed, and enjoying Michele Alboreto’s good humour
Blink and you’d miss it. All of us among what’s now the greybeard generation probably share the same experience of looking at an arbitrary date, which in our minds seems almost like yesterday, and then suddenly – hey – that’s 30 long years ago…
For this month’s disconnected ramblings I thought I’d take a look at October 1987, and what do I find? It was then that I filmed an interview with several greats of our motor racing world for a BBC TV series which had been proposed by a Pebble Mill, Birmingham, producer named Phil Franklin. We were teed up to do an entire series on the history of motor racing, but this turned out to be one of the last series commissioned by the then Director of Programming, Michael Grade, before he abandoned Auntie to become Director of Channel 4. His replacement at the BBC was Alan Yentob – the celebrated arty-farty executive who immediately, it seems, shut down anything that Grade had commissioned. What would have been our history of motor racing – I think entitled ‘The Chequered Flag’ – was replaced by an outside production who appropriated the title of William Court’s great book The Power & The Glory. I won’t explore from whom William appropriated the title, because – unlike the outside production’s leading light – I quite liked him…
But there’s another aspect to this recollection which still makes the back of my neck go hot. This phenomenon happens surprisingly infrequently, but when it does I know I am about to detonate. I had done quite a lot of preparatory work for that Pebble Mill motor racing series, and BBC Enterprises had arranged a book deal to accompany the documentary. When the entire thing was coal-boxed by Yentob, I assumed that was it… something else to stick in the box marked experience, and to forget. Well, far from it. I guess I shouldn’t really complain, but the next thing I knew was contact from BBC Enterprises telling me to expect imminent payment of the full fee as compensation.
As a jobbing journo and author I should have been thrilled at the news. Here was money for old rope. But in fact I was disgusted. As a BBC licence payer I was absolutely outraged by such profligacy with public money and I said as much. “But we have to settle with you,” they said. At which – I will confess – cupidity took command, I swallowed my social-conscience outrage – and cashed the cheque.
Looking back now I think I was more upset by the loss of a body of work – and some of the 35mm colour film interviews that we shot on that October trip that I have never even got to see– with Fangio, GiovannBattista Guidotti and Consalvo Sanesi of Alfa Romeo, with ‘Lofty’ England at his then home up a mountain in Austria, with Rudi Uhlenhaut at Mercedes-Benz, Stuttgart, and finally with Mr Ferrari in his office at Fiorano, adjacent to Maranello of course, in Italy.
But part of that trip was the Ferrari 40th celebration meeting – 1947-1987 – at the Imola Autodrome, where we also interviewed veteran Ferrari and Maserati works mechanic Giulio Borsari, standing right there in the pit lane. I had been a great fan of smiling, genial, stylish Borsari for many years. In contrast to Borsari’s humble yet straightforward and illuminating responses, Mr Ferrari had been typically – well – the most apt word is ‘evasive’ but in fact at his great age he began by simply going through his well-practised this-is-another-ball-breaking-foreign-TV-interview routine and trotting out all the very well-rehearsed responses that he had honed over decades through simple repetition.
“What has been your greatest race?”
“The next one.”
“What has been your greatest car?”
“Our next one.” Et cetera.
Yes, you are right, some of the questions asked were as hackneyed as the answers, but when in the presence of such an awe-inspiring legendary personality – with maybe just 20 minutes on offer – you have to start somewhere…
But then I managed to make him laugh – probably at my lousy Italian which I’d tried to interject helpfully while The Old Man’s long-faithful secretary Franco Gozzi was generally translating for us. The Old Man had two gold teeth in his lower jaw which flashed in the camera lights, and for another 10 minutes or so we got on famously – until I asked a question too far.
I was interested to hear first-hand how he could have been such a prominent sporting personality of the Fascist Mussolini era through the 1920s and ’30s, and still manage to emerge safely postwar – especially in Communist partisan-dominated Modena – as such a prominent sporting personality of the democratic new Italian Republic.
Well, poor old Gozzi’s eyes went big as dinner plates at the question, and he said to me in English – “Doug – I can’t ask him that.” But I thought “In for a penny…” – and urged him to try. Well, although I think too slowly to indulge in much conversational Italian, I do in fact understand quite a lot of the language, and can read it pretty well. And what Franco asked The Old Man then was “Mr Nye seems to think that your company was nationalised postwar and he wants you to tell him more about that?”
To which The Old Man’s response was “Pah – I’ve had enough. Basta! That’s it – get rid of them…”.
And BBC TV’s finest – travelling in true 1980s Beeb style with yours truly as reporter/interviewer, then producers, producers’ secretaries, cameraman, assistant cameraman, electrician/lighting man, sound recordist – I think a crew of nine in all – bade him farewell as he left the office, and we set about tidying up the myriad kit boxes. And to my astonishment the lead producer, without a hint of irony, declared “Well done, Doug – I think that went really well and we’ll have some great footage…” Thirty years ago. And I still haven’t seen it. Blimey!
BACK THEN in 1987, Michele Alboreto was one of Ferrari’s works drivers. I always remember him as a friendly, beaming, warm and gracious Italian star driver, very much from a similar mould to smiling Daniel Ricciardo today.
At the Goodwood Festival of Speed one year he drove an Auto Union and was sitting submerged in the great car’s cockpit in the top paddock giggling about how he had to look through the steering wheel, not over the highest point of its rim. “Eh!” he cried pointing through the wheel “I sitting here driving like my gran-muzzer, looooking through da steering wheel…” He thought it was a wonderful machine, and said he would love the chance to push the car really hard on a proper circuit to explore just how it really felt at speed, near the limit. “That…” – he beamed – “…would be wunnerful!”
Michele Alboreto was indeed good fun to be with and was a great raconteur, who seemed to have a particularly deep fund of Brambilla brothers stories from his early days in Italian Formula 3. The elder brother Ernesto – Tino – was once running a Tecno with brother Vittorio as his mechanic. They were testing alone one day at Monza when Vittorio heard the engine cut dead, out on the back of the road circuit. He suspected that Tino had simply run out of fuel so he despatched their young gopher boy Pino to take some fuel, probably to the Lesmo curve where Vittorio believed his brother to be stranded.
Sure enough, young Pino with his can of fuel found Tino waiting beside the parked car, at Lesmo – they poured the fuel into the car’s tank, Tino hit the button, the engine fired and Tino said “Get on the back, and I’ll take you back to the pits.”
Making all the appropriate sound-effects Michele would then tell how Tino set off from Lesmo, down towards the Ascari Curve, then the back straight – towards the Parabolica. First, second, third gear – then (forgetting Pino on the back) fourth, then fifth. He swept into the pit lane where he was met by Vittorio, declaring “You were right, out of fuel, thanks for sending Pino out to me.”
To which Vittorio – not unreasonably – responded “No problem… but where is Pino?” Michele would describe how Tino then clapped his hand to his forehead and exclaimed “Dio mio! He was on the back!”
It reputedly took the Brambilla brothers the best part of an hour to find their poor young helper, face down in the run-off flanking the Parabolica. Michele would tell how the poor kid survived the experience, though at that time – in 1987 – maybe some possibility remained of minor brain damage, since the boy was still working for the Milanese brothers…
Doug Nye is the UK’s most eminent motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s