Garda

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The region around Brescia lies at the heart of Italy’s passion for road racing. The Mille Miglia is a legend, but instead Tim Scott pays a visit to its obscure cousin down the road
Photography by Ian Dawson

The most beautiful racing circuit in the world — that was the standard boast. Subjective in the extreme, for sure, but standing atop the valley slopes that tumble to the shores of Lake Garda, which glints cool blue below, we can see that the Brescian sporting authorities had a case. From the cobbled streets of the picture-postcard villages to the scented lemon and olive groves set off cypress-lined country roads, the scene is a visual aria for Italy: the Garda of Eden.

Its picturesque qualities were always the selling point but now, 37 years on from the last time racing blurred the Benaco countryside with colour, other claims to fame can be extracted that defy Garda’s relatively obscure position in the rich annals of Italian motorsport. Let it not be forgotten that this was where Tazio Nuvolari made his debut in a motor race. It was also the circuit on which the Ferrari marque scored its first-ever victory with a grand prix car, and where Stirling Moss made his maiden international appearance.

The eight-mile Circuito del Garda is as true an example as you can get of the pure road-racing thrill that seemed to course through Italian veins for much of the last century. But the circuit’s history is stilted and jerky, which meant its race never gathered the momentum and thus the tradition that spawns reverence today. As an event, therefore, it pales in comparison to the magnitude of the truly great road races — dwarfed by the Mille Miglia, outclassed by the Targa Florio.

Yet most drivers who competed at Garda loved the circuit for the diversity of the challenges it threw up. There were narrow streets, along with tight uphill and downhill sections to test the technical abilities of any driver and car, adjoined by sweeping esses and flatout, blind turns, all bordered by sheer drops or solid stone walls, to squeeze out the last ounce of courage.

Nestling at the southern foot of the Alps, Lake Garda is situated 100 miles north-east of Milan, on the direct route between Brescia and Verona. The largest of the great lakes of northern Italy, in the 19th century its stunning scenery and alpine-fresh climate were deemed to possess healing qualities, and luxury health resorts sprang up attracting high society to summer by its shores. But after The Great War tore at the fabric of Europe’s class structure, the rich failed to return, and desperate hoteliers and physicians decided a prestige event was required to spark a revival of interest in their idyll: a motor race was their chosen vehicle.

The town of Garda itself lies on the eastern side of the lake, but it was the smaller settlement of Salo, on the opposite margin, which was agreed to have the most suitable roads for the inaugural event in 1921. With help from the Automobile Club of Brescia, the specially formed Salo Committee chose an essentially triangular route that ran through its streets, twisting up the steep hairpins of the Zette hill to reach the village of Cunettone. It then veered right to run through the hamlet of Villa before arriving at Tormini. Sharp right again, and then the hazardous run down the hill, known as the ‘Tormini Drop’, back to Salo. Nearly eight miles long, considered short at that time, that first race consisted of 16 laps, with cars flagged away at two-minute intervals in front of a 1000-strong grandstand at the foot of the Tormini-Salo hill. Eugenio Silvani’s 1.5-litre Bugatti took the spoils, and the event was hailed a tremendous success that would surely thrive for years to come as the motor racing bug took hold.

The optimism was misplaced. In all, 15 car races were staged on the closed-off roads of Garda but, despite being popular with local crowds of up to 70,000 on each occasion, the event’s history was fragmented into three distinct periods. The first phase ended after 1927. The flame was reignited briefly after WWII with races for grand prix and then Formula Two cars in 1948-50, before the circuit came to life once more with Formula Junior/Formula Three races between 1961-66.

Other than a switch to running in an anti-clockwise direction from 1948 onwards, the basis of the track remained the same throughout its lifetime. As did everyone’s enjoyment of just spending a weekend in such a scenic setting: Nuvolari, the winner of the 1927 race, made a point of returning to spectate at the 1948-49 events. Pre-war Auto Union pilot Hans Stuck brought his Veritas to the ’50 race, and after his first taste of running at 120mph inches from the walls, was heard to comment: “The fact is, you have to be careful not to get distracted admiring the view.”

I, too, am aboard a silver German machine as I crane my neck down into the valley, before dropping down into Salo to sample a lap — in post-war anti-clockwise form — of the circuit which remains essentially complete. The town is bustling with tourist traffic, and our Porsche Carrera 4S certainly does not stand out against the hordes of large German cars that have propelled their occupants over the Alps for their annual lakeside jaunt.

Arrival at the main Fossa square, where traditionally the cars were prepared, signals the beginning of the lap. The traffic is now herded up the right side of the tree-lined avenue, whereas at racing speeds then — on a cobbled surface — the cars swept in from the left past the clock tower and onto Garibaldi Street where the start-finish line was located. The key characteristic that grabs your attention is just how quick, and yet so narrow, this initial street section was. From the startline the F3 cars of the 1960s were flat in fifth gear between rows of houses, but only the foolhardy would venture beyond single file as they flicked down to fourth for a sweeping left by the lake and past the drivers’ usual lodging, the Hotel Laurin. Back up to fifth, and the first mile of the lap was over in a flash before the anchors were jammed on for the first-gear left-hand hairpin at the Brolo fork.

From here the course headed straight up the hill to Tormini. Within 300 metres lie the first esses — a staccato right, left, right, left, right sequence of blind, fast corners that required total commitment The drivers then tackled a brace of half-mile, flat-out stretches, linked by a long left-hander. A second sequence of esses, the Gardesana curves, followed before another half-mile uphill straight over a bridge and into Tormini.

This section was the fastest part of the course, and must have been the ultimate white-knuckle ride in a shrill 1-litre F3 car or a screaming Ferrari 166. Indeed, it was considered so perilous by the drivers in the 1920s (they were coming down the hill, remember) that a no-overtaking rule was insisted upon. But with the introduction of massed starts in the later events, drivers had to take their lives in their hands to pass here — there is not a lot of room. It was on this section in 1949 that renowned risk-taker Felice Bonetto, Il Pirata, got tangled passing a backmarker, flew off the road, careered straight through a bar and came to rest in its bowling alley!

A sharp left was negotiated at Tormini before the cars blasted back out into the countryside for the most scenic part of the track, complete with a vista of the valley below. There was then a further sequence of quick bends, partly obscured today by the emergence of a bypass. But we soon pick up the trail again to rejoin a quarter-mile straight before a tree-lined double-right that must have presented the biggest challenge of the whole course. In the final blast down to Villa — a section of road crisscrossed by potentially lethal tramlines — the F3 cars were then flat in fifth, touching 140mph as the road widens before they braked hard once more to negotiate the tight left-hander in Cunettone.

The road immediately descends before a tight but quick left-hander leads to the famed Zette turns. There are six downhill hairpins in total, each separated by a quarter-mile blast and all featuring their own unique camber and tightness. In the early days the road was just loose gravel as the cars drove up, promoting a rally-style sliding technique mastered in particular by Nuvolari, who made a name for himself in his Chiribiri in 1923 as he consistently kissed the outer retaining wall on exit. Going downhill was an even greater challenge and put a premium on the reliability of the brakes — losing your stopping power here does not bear thinking about.

At the bottom of the hill the cars picked up speed past the gasworks as they re-entered Salo and wound along the waterfront before bursting into Fossa square once more. It’s a simply breathtaking lap, and not one for the faint-hearted. Carlo Facetti’s record lap from 1966 was at an average of just under 87mph.

Even in the pre-war days, when closed-road circuits were two-a-penny, Garda was considered one of the more challenging, worthy of the motoring tradition enjoyed by industrial Brescia.

Through the 1920s the race grew steadily in stature, enjoying patronage from growing manufacturers such as Chiribiri, Ansaldo, Bugatti, Alfa Romeo and the local OM. Guido Meregalli took his Diatto to a hat trick of wins in 1922-24, before ceding the crown to a figure key to the race’s chequered history.

Brescian aristocrat Count Aymo Maggi won at Garda in his Bugatti in 1925-26, and was headed for victory in ’27 before mechanical failure handed the win to the similarlymounted Nuvolari. Maggi, along with Renzo Castagneto, was a prime mover in the Brescia AC that helped run the Garda event. Inspired by this, the duo moved onto a bigger project, and in March 1927 staged the first running of a 1000-mile road race based in Brescia. It was called the Mille Miglia.

For that October’s Garda race, the Brescia AC assumed full control and moved the startline and grandstand up to Cunettone. The ensuing furore and split with the enraged Sala committee meant the Garda race fizzled out before 1928. It’s a Machiavellian theory, but could it be that Maggi & Co disrupted Garda so that all regional attention was focused on the nascent Mille Miglia?

However, Maggi and Castagneto, enthusiasts to the core, were also key to the rebirth of the Garda race in 1948. It was run in a two-heats-and-a-final format for single-seaters (avoiding a clash with the Mille Miglia’s sportscar formula), and over the next three years Ferrari and Maserati acknowledged Garda ‘s significance by sending works teams. The dominant Alfa Romeos of the day, however, did not come.

Nevertheless, the packed crowds were treated each year to seeing Italy’s best drivers: Giuseppe Farina (Ferrari’s first win), Luigi Villoresi and Alberto Ascari the respective victors, while a young 20-year-old called Moss caused a stir in 1949, humbling bigger cars to take third in his Cooper-JAP. Funds were not overflowing though, and as international racing took off, the prize money required went beyond the means of little Salo, and the race once again disappeared.

From the outset of the final incarnation of the event, the writing was on the wall: the government frowned upon road racing, the Mille Miglia now long gone. Castagneto was again central to persuading Rome to allow the roads to be closed, and the five Junior and F3 races were successful. Jo Siffert, Jo Schlesser, Silvio Moser and Jonathan Williams were among the visitors who conquered the track against the local F3 aces. But it was running on borrowed time. In 1963, the Rome authorities tried an unsuccessful last-minute intervention to stop it, and then in ’67 it all came crashing down. Three weeks before the scheduled running of the event, Lorenzo Bandini suffered his fiery fatal accident at Monaco. Italy was appalled, and the country’s motorsport authority insisted that 1600 metres of crash barriers be constructed in Sala. All knew it was an impossible task — the Garda circuit disappeared forever.

Our Porsche is parked in a lay-by halfway up the Zette hill as we stand on the wall surveying the scene, when a distinctive wail emanates from below. Sure enough, around the corner emerges a Mercedes SSK. The retro version of the Mille Miglia is taking a day out to visit Garda. Watching the stream of vintage and historic cars drive by, it seems appropriate that a celebration of the greatest road race of them all should tip its hat to little Garda, which contributed to the beginnings of the Mille Miglia and then remained in its shadow forever after.