Reviews, October 2014

Lancia and De Virgilio, At the Center
Geoffrey Goldberg

When I drove a Lancia Aurelia I was astonished at how sophisticated it was. Much of the credit belongs to Francesco De Virgilio, a brilliant Lancia engineer whose career spanned wartime scout vehicles up to the LC2 GpC prototype. Engineers aren’t much in the spotlight, so it takes a book like this to illuminate the hidden genius of a man like De Virgilio, who solved the problems of the V6 engine, devised anti-roll suspension, built race engines, worked on a 4WD system for the D50 Grand Prix car, and planned the early Stratos.

Using much personal material including notebooks, sketches and many drawings this is heavily focused on the technical, carefully explaining the balance problems De Virgilio defeated for the Aurelia engine, and if your physics isn’t strong you’ll struggle. But generous photographs, especially in the section on his personal life, well illustrate the life of a man who worked with Jano and Villoresi, whom Ferrari tried repeatedly to poach, and who put as much effort into truck engines as racing units. Production quality is up to Bull’s usual high standard. GC

Published by David Bull, ISBN 978 1 935007 25-8, £65.00

Tracks: Racing the Sun
Sandro Martini

“The only fact that can be comfortably assigned to this novel is that it is, ultimately, a work of fiction,” writes the author in his afterword. Thus released from the confines of fact, this is instead a colourful re-imagining of real events and heroes during the halcyon motor racing days of the 1920s and ’30s.

It’s 1968 and American writer Joe Deutsch has travelled to Italy to record interviews with Johnny Finestrini, a retired journalist who was Gazetta dello Sport’s motor racing correspondent during the pre-war years. Loosely based on the real-life Gazetta writer Giovanni Canestrini, the fictional Finestrini worked and socialised within the inner circle of the motor racing scene, and benefited from a particularly close relationship with the two main protagonists in this story, Italian maestros, rivals and friends Tazio Nuvolari and Achille Varzi.

Deutsch, who is in the middle of writing a novel on the era, records Finestrini and his first-hand accounts of the most famous races, including the infamously fixed Tripoli GP and the journalist’s role in the scandal. Fascist politics, complicated love lives, heroic victories and inevitable tragedy follow Finestrini as he witnesses the swing in motor sporting power from Italy to the German superteams of Auto Union and Mercedes. Enzo Ferrari, Louis Chiron, René Dreyfus, Rudi Caracciola, Hans Stuck and many more play key roles, as do the women in their lives. The depiction of brilliant young Bernd Rosemeyer and his equally famous aviator wife Elly Beinhorn is a particular focus.

The story weaves between Finistrini’s memories and Deutsch’s half-finished manuscript, building towards revelations about Varzi’s crippling addiction to morphine and Finistrini’s part in the great man’s downfall. It’s racy stuff in more ways than one.

The author was inspired by an article our own Nigel Roebuck wrote on Achille Varzi for Motor Sport. The subsequent decade of research has resulted in a dramatic and lively novel, set in an era that has always been ripe for this type of fictional treatment. It would make a good movie. DS

Published by Aurora Metro Books, ISBN 978-1-906582-43-2, £9.99

Motor Racing Heroes,
The Stories of 100 Greats
Robert Newman

Given the scope, and the book’s regular dimensions, this was never going to be definitive – or even vaguely close. In parts, though, it is a useful reference source for anybody whose interest in history has just been stirred.

There are countless books chronicling every racing millimetre covered by Fangio, Stewart, Senna, Prost, Mansell and Moss – all of whom naturally feature – but it’s refreshing to see them juxtaposed with such as Felice Nazzaro, David Bruce-Brown, Wilbur Shaw, Hellé Nice, Pietro Bordino and Jules Goux.

Its mission is to relay offbeat tales about the sport’s great and good, but in the case of some more recent racers it often struggles to break away from a plodding narrative: “A fifth at the ’Ring and a third in Malaysia put Mika right back in contention.”

Not that offbeat, then.

The book covers the first 100 years of Grand Prix racing (essentially France 1906 to Brazil 2006), so Lewis Hamilton doesn’t qualify, but then there’s no guarantee he’d have made it because this is very much a personal interpretation of heroism – a better option than adhering to familiar clichés. However you dress it up, though, it isn’t possible to summarise Alex Zanardi in three short pages. It just isn’t.

Had there been something like this on the shelves of Hale village library when I was a kid, I’d probably have taken it on almost permanent loan. Trouble is, I’m no longer a kid and this doesn’t contain enough fresh material to sustain interest. SA

Published by Veloce, ISBN 978-1-845847-48-7, £19.99

Haynes Desk Diary 2015

Our review copy arrived in August, which seems frivolously early for a desk diary, but this isn’t so much a personal agenda as a gathering of fine art with room to keep notes of dental appointments, Castle Combe race dates etc.

Haynes no longer produces titles about the sport, but its bread-and-butter workshop manuals continue. For the ninth year, it has collated detailed technical cutaways of some beloved bygones – the 2015 cast includes Ford Zodiac Mk3, Austin A40, Jaguar E-type, VW Golf Mk1, Sunbeam Rapier Fastback and Vauxhall Victor FE – and used them to brighten a compact, practical aide-mémoire.

Of course relatively few people bother with ballpoint and paper nowadays, preferring instead to press a few buttons on their Samsung. This diary doesn’t necessarily prove that the old ways were better, but underlines that they are certainly worth revisiting. SA

Published by Haynes, ISBN 978-0-857333-8-34, £9.99

Mike Hawthorn, Golden Boy – 2014 edition
Tony Bailey and Paul Skilleter

Whatever his merits as a racing driver, Mike Hawthorn’s life is defined by two accidents: the 1955 Le Mans tragedy and the one that ended it. The causes of both form the basis of much of the additional material in this new edition and it makes for fascinating reading. Since his death, Hawthorn has been castigated for his involvement at Le Mans, his sometimes coarse personality and inability to defend himself making such a view easier to take. We will never know definitively what happened in either incident but, as the rest of the book shows, there was much more to Britain’s first F1 champion.

Largely formed of submissions to their tribute website, the aim of this scrapbook-like volume was never to condemn Hawthorn, but Bailey and Skilleter don’t look to blame anyone else either, simply exonerate their hero. That they fail to do so says more about the lack of evidence than about their research. There are no firm answers here, but perhaps that’s what makes the story so interesting. In an era suffering from a dearth of true characters in racing, inconclusive or not, Golden Boy is worth a look. ACH

Published by PJ, ISBN 978-908658-06-7, £39.95