End of an era

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Alfa Romeo’s Giovanni Guidotti, who died recently, rated in the Thirties with legends such as Nuvolari and Varzi. Two years ago David Baylis of Beaulieu cars interviewed him in Milan. . .

In May 1992 it was my great pleasure to be invited along with Sue Scott to Commendatore Giovanni Battista Guidotti’s home in Milan. When I first visited the Alfa Romeo factory back in 1963 and met Guidotti for the first time, he was still Alfa’s “tester and racing driver” (to quote him), a position he had held since 1923 and continued to hold until his retirement in 1975. It was particularly pleasing therefore to be welcomed to his residence nearly 30 years later and to find him in his 91st year as enthusiastic and lucid as ever. With his charming wife Esmerelda by his side he kept us enthralled for two hours, with periodic announcements that for the next five minutes he would speak English before reverting to his native tongue. Luckily a translator was on hand!

Guidotti was born in Bellagio on Lake Como in 1902. His father owned a large garage business in Milan: a splendid period photograph in his flat, taken outside the premises, testified to that. Following his engineering studies he joined Alfa Romeo in 1923 in the position of “tester and racing driver”, though over the years the latter position became more that of co-driver in predominantly sportscar events. In 1923 the Merosi-designed 3.1-litre RL won the Targa Florio driven by Ugo Sivocci. Campan, Antonio Ascari, Masetti and Enzo Ferrari were Alfa’s works drivers. A year later bano’s P2 had taken over and Alfa was declared GP World Champion. In 1925 bank intervention virtually ended Nicola Romeo’s control of the company he had formed with ALFA in 1915. Guidotti’s career with it stretched from this formative period, from which he is almost the only survivor, to 1975 when the Tipo 33 dominated European car sports racing and the Alfasud was born.

From 1946 to 1957 he was head of, and reserve driver to, the official works F1 team that won 28 Grands Prix and two World Championships with the 158/159. In the 1947 European Grand Prix at Spa he shared third place with Count Trossi, behind such great stars as Jean-Pierre Wimille and Achille Varzi. It was a spur of the moment drive: Trossi had come in covered in blood after being hit in the face by a stone, and Guidotti leapt into the car for four laps while the Count recovered. He started in nine Mille Miglias. The first time, in 1928 with Attilo Marinoni in an unsupercharged 6C 1500, he finished fourth! In 1929, partnered by Francesco Pirola in the ‘Grand Prix’-bodied 6C 1500, he came 13th but won the 1500cc class. In 1930 he and Tazio Nuvolari were victorious, the race average exceeding 100 kph for the first time. In 1931, again with Nuvolari, tyre troubles with the new eight-cylinder 2.3 Alfas pushed them down to ninth place after they had led comfortably at Rome. In 1932 the same combination in the ‘sorted’ 8C went straight into the lead, but at 200 miles a distraction caused Nuvolari to crash, throwing Guidotti out and landing him in hospital. He proudly told us that was the only time in 9000 miles of racing with the Mantuan that they had crashed. In 1937, partnered by Boratto (Mussolini’s chauffeur!) in a 6C 2300, they led for most of the race but finished fourth.

Guidotti drove at Le Mans twice. He finished second in 1932 with Franco Cortese, behind Raymond Sommer and the late Luigi Chinetti, but retired the 8C 2.9 he shared with Sommer in 1937. He finished third on the Circuit of Sicily in 1930.

Perhaps more significantly here was a man who had test driven almost every Alfa from the Merosi RL, the Tipos A & B, the 1750s, 8C, the 158/9, the Tipo 33 and finally, the Alfasud.

Conscious of his age and his ever watchful wife I was aware my time would be limited, so I restricted my questions specifically to the 6C 1750, Mille Miglia and Nuvolari. He considered that having raced over 9000 miles with the Flying Mantuan he was in a unique position to judge his qualities. He said Nuvolari was the fastest simply because he was fastest through the corners, his technique being to go through in a series of back-end breakaways with little use of the brakes. Allied to this he was the first driver really to consider physical fitness and diet. He worked at building up his small frame during the non-racing months, and engaged the help of dietitians to advise on the best eating regime before and during races. They apparently advised a daily intake of steak until two days before the event. Giuseppe Campari refused to abide by this and instead ate up to eight eggs before events!

During races such as the Mille Miglia, which could last up to 17 hours, Nuvolari would take only four cups of coffee, one at each fuel stop. He started wearing a body belt in the early Thirties — a practice frowned upon by Campari who apparently considered them too feminine. However, he later relented and we were told that he eventually wore it all the time, even in bed! On the Mille Miglia they took no tools at all, relying on reaching the first of the four fuel stops for adjustments. They started the event in the clothes they turned up in – there was no thought of special attire or additional clothing. During the 1930 Mille which Miglia, which they won, Guidotti drove 150 miles of the 1000 and proudly told us he kept up with Campari. During the event Nuvolari took over completely, minding the rev counter, oil pressure etc, and not expecting any input from the co-driver. The purpose of the pillar-mounted spotlights I had always understood to be for picking out the night controls, but Guidotti confirmed they were in fact used for lighting dangerous bends in the mountains, the codriver swivelling them to left or right whilst the car’s headlights were still pointing forward. Hence they were often only used on the passenger side.

Some 1750s and most racing 1500s and 1750s have an auxiliary seven-litre oil tank on the passenger side of the cockpit. This is directly connected by copper pipe to the engine sump, and the flow is controlled by a long-handled tap at the base. It has generally been assumed that this was simply a way of discharging oil into the sump if and when it was needed. Guidotti told me this was installed specifically for the 1929 Mille Miglia. That year the engines had been especially assembled without oil rings on the pistons. This had increased oil consumption to 300 km per litre — thus the need for the auxiliary tank and easily read float-level, enabling oil to be discharged at intervals during the race and whilst on the move.

For the 1929 event the factory experimented with red dome covers over the three headlights, and Guidotti told us these added 5 kph to the top speed. They were adopted during the daytime and removed at night at the relevant fuel stop.

I had to ask him about the muchpublicised incident in the 1930 Mille Miglia when Nuvolari caught the solo Varzi 10 minutes from the finish, supposedly by turning his headlights off. Nuvolari’s codriver confirmed it was not quite like that. They certainly had their lights on all the time and caught Varzi with them on. In the dark Varzi couldn’t see who they were as they approached. Then, when just behind Varzi’s car, Nuvolari switched his lights off. He stayed behind Varzi until a convenient straight, then pulled out, put his lights on and sped by in the remaining two miles to win convincingly. Giovanni Guidotti really was a motoring legend. He was the only man to have test-driven the Alfa P2, Tipo A, Tipo B, the 1750, 8C 2.3, 8C 2.9, the pre-war 8C and 12C G P cars, the 158/9, Disco Volante, GTA, Brabham Alfas, and the Tipo 33s. In many cases, he also raced them. After our meeting I realised there was so much more I would have liked to ask him, but after two hours of intense discussion, Esmerelda insisted that we give him a rest. I had hoped, had I done this year’s Mille Miglia, that I would take the opportunity of looking up this grand old man again and perhaps discussing Alfa’s post-war racing. Sadly, that was not to be. D.B.

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