The last road race
Sixty years ago an Italian town hosted one of the most evocative of all Grands Prix. Won by an Englishman, it still resonates throughout the motor racing world
If you wanted to amuse and astound Max Verstappen or Lance Stroll, you might tell them the story of how Jack Brabham finished the 1957 Pescara Grand Prix. Nothing could illustrate with greater clarity the difference between the world of 60 years ago, when Formula 1 drivers still breathed the same air as ordinary mortals, and that of today, when the stars of Grand Prix racing are cocooned by celebrity and cushioned against the slightest inconvenience.
Brabham was then 31 years old: no spring chicken, but beginning to be recognised as a formidable competitor. He had arrived in England from Australia two years earlier and quickly talked himself into a job as an auxiliary mechanic with the little Cooper team on the outskirts of London. In another two years he would win the first of his three world championships. But in 1957 he was the team’s number two to Roy Salvadori, and happy to share the driving of the team’s transporter from Surbiton to Pescara with a mechanic – a distance of around 1200 miles, in the days before motorways.
The Coopers were Formula 2 cars with 1.5-litre Coventry Climax engines. They were the only rear-engined cars in the race, giving away a full litre to the other 14 starters, all pukka 2.5-litre F1 machines from Ferrari, Maserati and Vanwall. As expected, they had qualified at the tail of the field, both cars more than a minute and a half slower than the Maserati 250F of Juan Manuel Fangio, who had been crowned world champion for the fifth time a couple of weeks earlier at the Nürburgring. To help them cover the 286 miles of the race – 18 laps of a 15.9 mile circuit – without a pit stop, they had been fitted with long-range petrol tanks. For the first couple of laps the two team-mates duelled with each other at the tail of the field, and it was while glancing in his mirrors to check on the whereabouts of Brabham that Salvadori momentarily lost concentration, slid wide and hit a stone kilometre marker with his left rear wheel so heavily that, on returning to the pits, he was forced to retire with suspension damage.
The next time Brabham came past the pits at the end of the fourth lap, he saw his team-mate waving a piece of cardboard at him. On it Salvadori had written: “GONE SWIMMING”. There was nothing for the Australian to do but keep circulating in the hope that others would fall by the wayside.
Attrition had promoted him to seventh place by the time he started the last circuit, the only car to have been lapped twice by the leader. He had hustled through the villages of Spoltore and Cappelle sul Tavo for the last time, and turned on to the seafront after making the long flat-out descent from the hills, past the spot where Guy Moll was killed in 1935. But then, as he turned right at Montesilvano, on to the six-kilometre finishing straight, his engine started to stutter. Quickly the stutter turned to a cough, and within moments the engine had cut altogether. Despite the extra tankage, he was out of petrol.
Cruising in neutral, he looked for a safe place to stop. To one side of the road he saw a filling station – closed, like everything else on the circuit, for the duration of the race. But as he glided to a halt on the seemingly deserted forecourt, suddenly a figure emerged from the kiosk. Quickly they established an understanding. Brabham showed the man where the filler was, the man unlocked a pump and three or four litres of petrol were soon sloshing in to enable the Cooper to set off towards the chequered flag. I kick myself today for neglecting to ask Brabham, when he had finished telling me that story over the phone from his home in Australia, whether or not he had gone back to pay the bill.
It was one of many stories, gathered from participants and observers alike, that evoked a lost era. Michael Tee, who was in Pescara to take photographs for this magazine, remembered how, in the last hour of the race, there were so few cars still running that out in the countryside the local children resumed playing on the road. That was safe enough when the approaching car was a rorty V8 Ferrari or a screaming six-cylinder Maserati, announcing its arrival well in advance. The genteel purr of a four-cylinder Vanwall, however, tended to take them by surprise.
This, remember, was a full-blown world championship Formula 1 race, albeit one thrust into the calendar at the last minute thanks to the Suez crisis of the previous year, which had forced the cancellation of the Belgian Grand Prix. When someone remembered Pescara, and found a ready acceptance of the idea from the local motor club, the gap was filled and the Grand Prix circus was heading towards a one-off appointment with a circuit that remains the longest ever to feature in the championship.
Pescara is the principal coastal town of Abruzzo, the province named after the mountain range that sits, as the southernmost point of the Apennines, astride the saddle of Italy. Its most famous sons are Gabriele D’Annunzio, the poet, playwright, politician, soldier, aviator and Fascist sympathiser, and the writer Ennio Flaiano, who collaborated with the film director Federico Fellini on the scripts of La Strada and La Dolce Vita. The first race to be held on the Pescara circuit was in July 1924, two months after Benito Mussolini had won a general election and taken power. Giacomo Acerbo, a university professor from a local family who had become one of Mussolini’s closest associates, organised the race and called it the Coppa Acerbo – not after himself but after his brother Tito, an infantry captain who had died in a battle in the Dolomites in 1918 while fighting against the Austro-Hungarian army.
The inaugural Coppa Acerbo was won by none other than Enzo Ferrari, at the wheel of a 3.6-litre Alfa Romeo RL entered by the factory. It was his third win in consecutive races, the best run of his short career as a driver. A year later the race moved to what would become its regular slot in the calendar, on Ferragosto, Italy’s traditional mid-August festival weekend. The races of 1925 and 1926 were won by the Bugattis of Guido Ginaldi and Luigi Spinozzi. Giuseppe Campari took the wins in 1927 and 1931, each time in an Alfa, with Achille Varzi’s Maserati victorious in 1930. The works-supported Alfas of the new Scuderia Ferrari triumphed in 1932 and 1933, with Tazio Nuvolari and Luigi Fagioli at the wheel. And then began the German invasion: Fagioli in a Mercedes (1934), the Auto Unions of Varzi (1935) and Bernd Rosemeyer (1936 and 1937), and the Mercedes of Rudolf Caracciola (1938).
Meanwhile the meeting had been turned into a full-scale festival of motor racing, with an event for voiturettes, titled the Coppa Ciano (and won by Richard Seaman in an ERA in 1935 and a Delage in 1936), and a sports car race of 24, eight or six hours called the Targa Abruzzo. Enzo Ferrari had noted the meticulous care with which Giacomo Acerbo organised the event: “He had an absolute mania for the maximum permitted number of cars on the start line – 24 for the Grand Prix and 60 for the 12-hour race,” he wrote in his memoirs.
“On one occasion he rang me up only a week before the race to tell me he needed 11 cars to make up the quota. I was dumbfounded. Wherever was I going to get 11 Alfa Romeos from? And yet I had to find them somehow. Acerbo was like that.”
There was just time to hold one final Coppa Acerbo, won by Clemente Biondetti in an Alfa 158, before events intervened. When the war was over, the use of the Acerbo name was no longer acceptable and the race resumed the title of the Circuit of Pescara.
Non-championship Formula 1 races were held in 1950, 1951 and 1954, won by Fangio in an Alfa 158, José Froilán González in a
Ferrari 375 and Luigi Musso in a Maserati 250F. Mike Hawthorn, partnered by Umberto Maglioli, won the second 12 Hours of Pescara in 1953. Robert Manzon won a sports car
race in a Gordini in 1956, but it was a shock when the world championship pitched up
there a year later.
Fangio had already secured the title, but there was much to play for. Moss and Tony Brooks had achieved a historic win for Vanwall at Aintree earlier in the summer, and the British team – with Stuart Lewis-Evans in the third car – was avid for more success. Ferrari, besieged by those wanting him to be face criminal charges for the recent deaths of nine spectators, including five children, in Alfonso de Portago’s crash in the Mille Miglia, announced that he would not be entering a car at all. Only when Musso, who was in with a chance of finishing second in the title race, went back again and again to plead with him did he partially relent, sending a single 801 with a skeleton crew of mechanics to face the Vanwalls, 10 assorted Maserati 250Fs (including the works cars of Fangio, Jean Behra and Harry Schell), and the two little Coopers.
Moss made his way to Pescara in a rented Fiat 1100. Salvadori gave Brooks a lift from London in a Hillman Minx coupé he was road-testing for the magazine Autocar. Lewis-Evans drove down in the funny red Nash Metropolitan in which he and his friend and mentor Bernie Ecclestone would escape shots from Belgian police at Spa the following year. They stayed in the same hotels, ate together
and swam together in the warm sea. Of the British drivers, only Moss had previously raced there, in a Maserati three years earlier. Bruce Halford, unwilling to take the risk of breaking parts on his ex-Prince Bira 250F that he could not afford to replace, learnt the circuit by lapping it in his transporter, a converted Leyland Royal Blue coach.
The race began at half past nine in the morning in order to avoid the worst of the day’s heat, although the temperature was already climbing and would approach 100 degrees by noon. Fuelled by Italian pride, Musso scorched away into the lead while a mechanic, still tinkering near the back the grid when the flag fell, was flipped into the air and landed on the bonnet of Horace Gould’s Maserati, luckily without injury. The Ferrari led past the pits at the end of the first lap, but on the second Moss gathered himself to overtake first Fangio then Behra, and by the end of the third lap he had accounted for Musso with a lap of 9min 46.4sec, eight seconds faster than his best in practice. The Italian attempted a counterattack, but Moss gradually pulled away into a lead he would never relinquish. Musso’s engine eventually lost its oil and seized solid. Brooks’s car broke a piston the first lap – a sadness for him because, like Moss (and unlike Salvadori or Brabham), he loved the challenge of a real road circuit. Lewis-Evans suffered from tyres throwing treads in the heat and finished fifth, the two Vanwalls sandwiching the Maseratis of Fangio, Schell and Masten Gregory, with a fourth surviving Maserati, that of Giorgio Scarlatti, in sixth, ahead of Brabham.
Winners and losers alike, they all stayed on for the victory banquet and the Ferragosto firework displays before making their way home. Whether they realised it or not, they had taken part in the last genuine world championship road race, the last Formula 1 grand prix to replicate the conditions and challenges of the earliest motor races. Certainly the last in which, as witnessed by Michael Tee, a goatherd would accompany his flock across the track during a practice session, with no interruption to the proceedings.