Fiat quits motor racing

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If the above heading had appeared in 1926 it would have been topical. For that was when the great Turin company gave up motor racing. It was a shock to those who knew of Fiat’s early victories and how they had won all three important races in 1907 and sent to Brooklands a car which vanquished S F Edge’s Napier in the Match Race he had promoted. Much more recently, they had won the 1922 French GP and been first and second in the 1922 and 1923 Italian GPs.

With engineers like Vittorio Jano, Aurelio Lampredi and Tarquini Zerbi, and such capable drivers as Felice Nazzaro, Alessandro Cagno, Pietro Bordino and Carlo Salamano, Fiat had achieved these significant successes. Then it was all over.

The blame fell on Benito Mussolini, leader of the Italian Fascist Party, who, like Hitler, had recognised the propaganda value of motor racing, but now, unlike Hider, was seeking prestige from the Schneider Trophy seaplane races, dating back to 1913, and by 1927 contested by the fastest float planes in the world.

So Zerbi, instead of working on Fiat’s next GP contenders, had to busy himself getting more power from their 680hp V12 aero-engine. In 1921, at Venice, the Italian Macchis had finished 1-2-3 and in 1926, at Hampton Roads, Major de Bamardi’s 800hp Macchi M39 won. But after this it boded badly for Il Duce. In 1927, at Venice again, all three Macchis retired, Flt Lts Webster and Worsley, dominating the race in Napier Lionpowered Supermarine S5s.

At Calshott in 1929, the event now being held biannually, Flt Officer Waghom in the Supermarine S6 with R-type Rolls-Royce power, beat Wt Officer Dal Molin’s Macchi, now with 1000hp Fiat AS-3 engine, by 44.43mph. Finally, in 1931, only Britain had an entry. In 1924, when only America was ready, the USA sportingly stood down. But now Fl Lt Boothman flew alone the seven laps in an S6B at 340.08mph, its 2350hp R-R engine the forerunner of the Merlin; and so we won the Schneider Trophy outright, and subsequently the Battle of Britain.

But Zerbi had another trick to play. He designed a quite fabulous engine for Italy to try for the Air Speed Record, by placing two AS-5s back to back to create the lift-long supercharged 50-litre 24-cylinder 3000hp AS-6, each running independently and driving contra-rotating propellers.

It enabled Italy to take the ASR to 440.681mph in 1934. Britain’s Rod Banks had been called in by Zerbi to help with fuel and test problems. That I recognised this engine in Fiat’s Turin Museum in 1969 delighted its curator and I was shown a film, with sound effects, of the M72 in action.

In spite of all this, Zerbi found time to fit in two more racing car projects. For the 1926-27 1A-litre formula he had prepared a two-stroke sixcylinder engine, with geared crankshafts and opposed pistons, Roots blown. Extensively bench-tested, it consumed pistons but was said to give 152bhp. As far as I know no two-stroke has ever won an important car race, and for the Fiat 806 Zerbi changed to a four-stroke supercharged 12-cylinder engine, also with geared crankshafts, getting 187bhp on test and 175bhp in the car.

Bordino was testing at Monza by the summer of 1927 but aero work intruded on development. The 806 ran only in the Milan Grand Prix in September, a minor 31-mile race on the day of the 311-mile Italian GP which was won by Benoist’s Delage. However, Bordino drove the lone Fiat well, in pouring rain, to win his heat and the final of the supporting race, at 94.58 mph, from Campari’s aged 2-litre Alfa Romeo. A full team of 806s was entered for the RAC GP at Brooldands, with Nazzaro, Bordino and Salamano as drivers, but they did not appear, Schneider Trophy work being the pretext.

The two-stroke engine never went into a car, so Bordino’s win was the swansong of Fiat’s great racing career.

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