Former Maserati and Ferrari Grand Prix star Luigi Villoresi died on August 24, aged 88. Born in Milan of a wealthy family, he took up racing in 1931 together with his elder brother Emilio. Although showing much promise by the late 1930s, he was one of the generation of drivers like Lang, Sommer and Farina whose best years were denied them by the war, in which he was captured and imprisoned. Nonetheless, he was pre-eminent in the immediate post-war years before a younger generation, that of Fangio, Ascari and Gonzalez, emerged. Indeed, he adopted Ascari as his protégé.
By the time Villoresi had made a reputation in lesser status events in Italy his first result of note was third place in the 1935 Coppa Ciano race in a modified Fiat Grand Prix racing was being dominated by Auto Union and Mercedes teams. Consequently, non-German newcomers had precious few chances of graduating to the top through competitive drives. Drivers like Villoresi and his brother Emilio (known as `Gigi’ and ‘Mimi’ respectively) thus had to establish themselves in 1.5-litre voiturette racing, in which Maserati and Alfa Romeo were placing ever-more emphasis.
Villoresi the younger was picked up by the Maserati equipe, his brother by the rival Alfa squad (then being run by Enzo Ferrari’s team). Gigi’s first big victory came in the 1937 Masaryk race at Brno in a Maserati 6CM. At the following year’s Coppa Ciano, Maserati entered him in a lightened 6CM in an effort to fend off the expected challenge of the new Alfetta 158 which was making its debut, with Mimi one of its drivers. Like a fairy tale, the race developed into a battle between the brothers, with Gigi leading initially but under increasing pressure. The Maserati broke under the strain and Emilio thus gave the Alfetta an historic debut victory.
But their happy times together as racing rivals was tragically brief. In September 1939 Enzo Ferrari had Emilio test a modified Alfetta at Monza. For reasons unknown, he crashed at high speed and was killed. It was the beginning of a sour relationship between Gigi and Ferrari.
Nonetheless it was to Villoresi that Ferrari turned in 1949 when he needed an established ace to drive his first eponymous Grand Prix car. Despite the uneasy relationship, Villoresi was the obvious choice. First, he was one of the most successful drivers of 1947-48 (winning the Italian championship both years and the first post-war British Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1948). Second, he was Maserati’s top driver and therefore knew the workings of the car perceived to be the new Ferrari’s toughest opponent. And third, he had taken the immensely promising Alberto Ascari under his wing and Ferrari reasoned, correctly, that if he were to hire Villoresi, Ascari would probably follow.
The two stayed at Ferrari from 1949 to 1953, bringing Ascari and the Prancing Horse two successive world titles. Villoresi, by this time, was cast in the role of a steady number two, while away from Grands Prix he won the 1951 Mille Miglia.
When Ascari was lured away from Ferrari in 1954 by the new Lancia team, Villoresi went with him, staying until it pulled out of GP racing following Ascari’s death at Monza. This came as a crushing blow to Villoresi. He participated halfheartedly in a Maserati before retiring in 1957.
In later years he was a familiar figure at historic events, particularly the Mille Miglia. But poor business decisions meant that until quite recently he lived in near-poverty. When this was discovered a fund was set up with the help of Ferrari, Michael Schumacher and several prominent Grand Prix personalities which paid for his final years in a comfortable retirement hospice near Maranello. Maybe the debt he felt owed by Ferrari the man was finally paid for by the company that bore his name.