A Monza Moment

During the lunch break at Monza, on the day of the Italian Grand Prix a Tipo 159 Alfa Romeo from 1951 was wheeled out onto the starting area, together with a 1954 Lancia D50. The "Alfetta" is known and loved by everyone, but the Lancia is not so well known, though it was a tour-de-force of design trends when it was executed by Vittorio Jano in 1952/53 in preparation for the new Formula One that was due to start in 1954. The Lancia firm had gone from GT racing with the Aurelia V6 coupes to out-and-out sports car racing with the 3.3-litre V6-engined sports cars. They won the 1954 Mille Miglia among other classic events with these cars and that year they branched out into Grand Prix racing with the entirely new D50. This was a 21/2-litre front-engined, 4 ohc V8 in which the engine was used to take the place of the upper tubes between the cockpit structure and the front suspension in the space-frame tubular chassis. In other words the engine was stressed to form part of the chassis there being only two small tubes under the engine to form lower rails with the space-frame. This was similar to the principle used by Lotus when they built the first Cosworth powered car, and before that by BRM with the H16-engined car, though these two had the engine behind instead of in front, but the design principles were the same

The Lancia engine was at an angle to the centre-line of the car so that the propeller shaft ran diagonally across the floor of the cockpit and the driving seat was very low. Front suspension was by double wishbones and a very thin transverse leaf spring and rear suspension was of the de Dion layout, also with a transverse leaf spring. Janos aimed to get a low polar-rnoment of inertia, to make the car change direction quickly and to impart neutral-steer to the chassis. To this end the gearbox was transverse in unit with the final drive and mounted to the right. The fuel was carried in large pannier tanks, hung one on each side of the car and filling the space between the front and rear wheels, while a small supplementary tank was mounted in the tail above the rear axle assembly.

By the standards of the day every detail was very light and beautifuly designed with an eye to weight saving and with its 7 ft. 6 in. wheelbase it was a very small car, with all the weight concentrated within the wheelbase. It proved to be a tricky car to drive, only in as much that its handling characteristics were new to a world of violent oversteer and the two works drivers, Alberto Ascari and Luigi Villoresi, spent a lot of time testing at Monza.

Although the car had been seen on test early in 1954 it was not until the last race of the season that the Lancia factory made an entry, when Ascari and Villoresi were entered for the Spanish Grand Prix on the Pedrables circuit in Barcelona. The opposition came from Mercedes-Benz, Maserati and Ferrari, all with well-proven cars, and Ascari caused a stir by claiming pole-position on the grid ahead of Fangio with the W196 Mercedes-Benz. In the race Villoresi only lasted two laps but Ascari took the lead on lap 3 and romped away from everyone until lap 9 when he made a pit-stop, did one more lap and retired with clutch trouble.

In 1955 Eugeno Castellotti joined the team and it looked as though the Lancia team was going places, but after Ascari was killed in a sports Ferrari while practising at Monza, the team collapsed. Lancia withdrew from racing, admitted they were in financial difficulties and sold out to Fiat. At the time the Scuderia Ferrari were in a doldrum so Fiat/Lancia gave them all the Lancia cars and equipment as a gesture to keep Italy in the forefront of Grand Prix racing. In 1956/57 Ferrari modified the cars out of all recognition, except for the engine, to that they became Lancia-Ferrari cars and when their racing life ran out Ferrari broke them up and destroyed them, but one original Lancia D50 had been retained in the Turin museum, and it was this one that appeared at Monza, in absolutely original 1954 condition, even to the original Lancia badge on the nose, for the first thing Ferrari had done when given the cars was to replace the Lancia badge with a Ferrari one.

After Fangio had driven the Tipo 159 Alfa Romeo round the Monza track for a couple of laps he then set off in the Lancia D50, wearing his old brown crash-hat and yellow short-sleeved shirt as he always did in those far off days. When he returned he was surrounded by well-wishers, hangers-on, friends and some of his contemporaries like Baron de Graffenried and Luigi Villoresi, as well as Giorgio Scarlatti. Paulo Marzotto and Battista Guidotti, the Alfa team-manager of the fifties. Villoresi could not resist it, and after a while insisted on having a go in the Lancia D50, so he borrowed Fangio's crash-hat and goggles and climbed into the cockpit to relive the glorious moment in 1954 when he and Ascari had first shown the D50 to the racing world. He did one lap of the Monza track and returned wreathed in smiles and almost overcome with joy. Fangio is 70 and Villoresi is 72 years old. Two of the real "good old boys".  DSJ.